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.
Despite those linguistic peculiarities, at first glance the Zohar appears to be yet another collection of midrashim on the weekly Torah readings, organized around the notion of a traveling party of scholars, led by Simeon bar Yokhai, making their way around Palestine, stopping periodically to discuss passages from holy texts. And that is, in fact, what the book consists of. But these midrashim are unlike any others written before. They are steeped in the vocabulary of kabbalah, and interpret Torah in ways that are completely unlike, say, Midrash Rabbah [a major work of rabbinic commentary and exegesis].
The purpose of these interpretive speculations is quite different, too. As Fishbane says, “Recovering theosophical truths in the teachings of Torah, the mystics ascend exegetically into God.” The Zohar reads Torah in a way that turns that sacred text into a complex set of codes and keys to a higher reality. Torah is seen not merely as sacred text, as law, myth, and narrative, as a statement of love of Adonai (God); for Simeon and his companions—and the readers who travel with them in the book’s pages—Torah is part of the very essence of God, and to read Torah in their manner is to touch the wisdom and energy of the Eternal. Thus, Torah study becomes a form of elevated spirituality in itself, an intensification of the traditional importance of study of sacred text in Jewish practice.
Sefer ha-Zohar is the first work to fully enunciate an idea developing in mystical circles in Spain earlier that century, the Gnostic notion promoted by the Kohen brothers that there are a “left side” and a “right side” within the cosmos that are in constant struggle, with the former representing the satanic elements present within the Divine itself. The doctrine of the Ten Sefirot receives its most refined and fullest explication here as well.
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