The most influential work of Jewish mysticism was, for centuries, shrouded in mystery.
That Moses de Leon authored the Zohar was academic dogma for many decades. Recently however, scholars—particularly Yehuda Liebes—have proposed that the Zohar is actually a compilation, written by a group of mystics that included de Leon. The author of the following article makes passing reference to this academic development, but its significance is worth emphasizing. The following is reprinted with permission from Essential Judaism, published by Pocket Books.
How important is Sefer ha-Zohar (The Book of Splendor)? Rabbi Pinkhas of Koretz, a major figure in the first generation of the Hasidic movement (not to be confused with the medieval Hasidei Ashkenaz), wrote, “I thank God every day that I was not born before the Zohar was revealed, for it was the Zohar that sustained me in my faith as a Jew.” Many other Orthodox Jews would agree with Pinkhas, even today. Michael Fishbane, a contemporary scholar, has written that the Zohar “pulses with the desire for God on every page,” pinpointing part of its appeal. The Zohar has become one of the indispensable texts of traditional Judaism, alongside and nearly equal in stature to Mishnah and Gemara (the Talmud).
That Moses de Leon did not receive credit for authoring the Zohar was in large part the result of his own design. When he began showing pieces of the manuscript to fellow kabbalists in the 1290s, he passed them off as ancient texts authored by the second century talmudic sage Simeon bar Yokhai. Rabbi Simeon is best remembered for the thirteen years that he and his son spent living in a cave in Palestine, under threat of death from its Roman rulers. During that period of internal exile, the two men supposedly studied Torah and lived on next to nothing. But Simeon was rumored to have marvelous powers as well as a lightning intellect, and if you were going to pick a sage to claim as the author of a mysterious manuscript, he was a good choice.
Why did de Leon pass off his own writing (or that of a circle of kabbalists with him at the center, as some recent scholars claim) as the work of a second-century sage? Undoubtedly, the simplest answer is the correct one: having a distinguished provenance for the book would give it an authority that de Leon himself lacked. It also gave him an imaginative freedom that he might not otherwise have had, and the book soars with that sense of liberation.
Sefer ha-Zohar is written in Aramaic, a ploy that de Leon used to establish its ostensible authenticity as an ancient text. But the Aramaic he uses is full of anachronisms and awkward constructions that betray its medieval (and Latinate) origins. Moreover, as scholar Gershom Scholem points out, many of its analyses of Torah are simply too lengthy to be midrashim (exegetical rabbinic texts) from the classical period, and owe their underlying structure to medieval Jewish philosophy.