The most influential work of Jewish mysticism was, for centuries, shrouded in mystery.
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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