Wednesday, August 10th | 13 Av 5782

December 20, 2020 4:39 am

Examining the Zohar

avatar by Jeremy Rosen


A Torah scroll. Photo:

The festival of Hanukkah (however you spell it in English), in addition to its historical origins, is also a celebration of the long mystical tradition in Judaism. Nothing symbolizes mysticism in Judaism today more than the book called the Zohar (Bright Light). It has become the most significant text, in terms of its influence on Jewish life, since the Talmud. Yet its origins are obscure. Some of its ideas are often absurd. And its authorship is still in dispute.

How did such a book come to be so important? Why do some people actually claim it has magical powers? That is not even said of the Torah!

The Zohar was neither discovered nor heard of until the 14th century in northern Spain. It purports to be the work of the great Talmudic figure Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai of the late first and second century. A scholar and mystic, he was a pupil of Rabbi Akiva and shared many of his views. He was persecuted by the Romans for criticizing them and refused to stop teaching the Torah when it was banned. He and his son spent 13 years hiding in a cave to escape persecution.

The Zohar was brought to light during a period of mystical explosion. Jews, Christians, and Muslims were all exploring alternatives to the formal, intellectual rationalism of theology, still rooted in Greek philosophy. The book is a compilation of different volumes, commentaries, and dissertations.

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It was Moses Shem Tov de Leon of Guadalajara (1240-1305) the author of a mystical book Sefer HaRimon, who claimed to have discovered and who disseminated the Zohar. There is no trace nor record of it before then, despite the claim that it dates back to the second century. The sophisticated Aramaic of the text places it much later than the second century. Did Moses de Leon write it, discover it, or simply compile a series of different documents into one?

After the death of de Leon, apparently, someone offered his widow, who had been left without means, a large sum of money for the original and she then confessed that her husband himself was the author of the work. It spread among the Jews with remarkable celerity. Scarcely 50 years had passed since its appearance, before it was quoted by many Kabbalists. Such a book, they said, could surely not have been written by any mortal unless he had been inspired from above. This being the case, it came to be placed on almost the same level as the Bible.

Mystics were attracted by its glorification of man, its doctrine of immortality, and the transmigration of souls. According to the Zohar, the moral perfection of man influenced the ideal world through the Sefirot. The idea originated in the earlier Sefer Yetzirah, written in Hebrew, which itself was attributed (despite evidence to the contrary) to Abraham.

The accepted authorship of the Zohar was challenged by such authorities as Elijah Delmedigo (1458-1492/3), Leon de Modena (1571-1648), and Yaakov Emden (1697-1776). Otherwise, they said, it would have been mentioned by the Talmud. The Zohar contains the names of rabbis who lived at a later period than that of Shimon Bar Yochai. R. Yaakov Emden pointed out that the Zohar misquotes scripture, misunderstands the Talmud, and contains some ritual observances which came from later rabbinical authorities. It mentions the crusades against the Muslims (who did not exist in the second century) and uses the expression “esnoga” — which is a Portuguese and Ladino corruption of “synagogue,” and gives a mystical explanation of the Hebrew vowel-points, which were not introduced until long after the Talmudic period.

The Zohar influenced the liturgy of the 16th and 17th centuries, and the religious poets not only used many of its ideas in their compositions, but also adopted its style. It uses erotic terminology to illustrate the relations between man and God. Sensuous pleasures, and especially intoxication, typify the highest degree of divine love, and alcohol can create a state in which the human qualities merge or are exalted into those of God. It was adopted by many Christian scholars, such as Pico de Mirandola and Reuchlin. They believed that the book contained proofs of the truth of Christianity by referring to God as having three heads and thus being a Trinity.

On the other hand, the Zohar was censured by many rabbis because it propagated medieval superstitious beliefs, and produced a host of mystical dreamers, whose over-heated imaginations peopled the world with spirits, demons, and all kinds of good and bad influences. In Yemen, Rav Yihya Qafih (1850-1931) founded a movement called the Dordaim, which was strongly opposed to the Zohar. He too argued it was not what it claimed to be, and had a negative influence on Jewish life.

I believe the Zohar’s influence today is largely circumstantial.

Safed in the 16th century was the very center of the Jewish world, and attracted Jews from all over. Under the influence of Rabbis Cordovero, Luria, and Vital, it moved Kabbalah and the Zohar from the esoteric margins of mysticism into the very center of popular Jewish life. Kabbalistic innovations in the liturgy, such as Kabbalat Shabbat, became mainstream.

More crucially, Hasidism, which emerged at the end of the 17th century as a massively popular movement in Eastern Europe, adopted the Lurianic concepts and customs. Although opponents of Hasidism like the Vilna Gaon also studied the Zohar and mysticism, it was for them esoteric. Hasidism popularized it. In the Sephardi world too, it became influential as the preserve of the rabbis who used it therapeutically, inspirationally, and as a tool of control.

In the aftermath of the Holocaust, no rational argument could explain its horrors. Only a mystical world of contradictions provided comfort and hope. This is what people found and find attractive in non-rationality.

I regard the Zohar as one of the most impressive pieces of Jewish literature and thought. But it clearly reflects the times in which it was born. Today, it has been used in ways that defy logic.

The Zohar represents what is finest in Kabbalah if it is studied seriously. Similarly, the exercises of practical Kabbalah are as useful and inspirational as yoga and meditation. The downside is that I am certain that both Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and Moshe de Leon would be unhappy about how the Zohar has come to be misused.

Jeremy Rosen is a rabbi and commentator living in New York.

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