The Zohar, or "Splendour," is widely regarded as the preeminent work in the Kabbalah.
The Zohar offers a mystical interpretation of the Torah (the five books of Moses or Pentateuch), written in both medieval Aramaic and Hebrew. The text delves into multifaceted aspects such as the essence of God, the universe’s structure and origin, the nature of the soul, and other related topics. It is not a book per se but an amalgamation of various texts that incorporate scriptural exegesis, theology, and mysticism.
The origins of the Zohar
Gershom Scholem  posits that most of the Zohar was composed in a pseudo-epigraphic style of Aramaic, spoken in Israel during the early centuries of the Roman period. Its initial emergence can be traced back to the 13th centu+ry in Spain when it was published by the Jewish author Moses De Leon. However, some scholars contend that certain segments of the Zohar date back to the Talmudic era. De Leon attributes his work to Shimon bar Yoḥai, a rabbi from the 2nd century. According to legend, Rabbi Shimon took refuge in a cave for thirteen years during the Roman persecution. During this time, he studied Torah with his son Elazar and claimed he was inspired to write the Zohar by the prophet Elijah.
Authorship of the Zohar
Over time, the Jewish community came to accept the claims of Moses de Leon regarding the authenticity of the Zohar as an ancient mysticism text from the second century. However, specific Italian communities and small groups have not recognised its validity. One objection raised by those who doubted the authenticity of the Zohar was the absence of references to the work in Jewish literature. Proponents of the text countered this by noting that Shimon b. Yoḥai did not document his teachings in written form but instead transmitted them orally to his disciples, who in turn passed them on to their followers until the doctrines were eventually compiled in the Zohar.
The Zohar in modern Jewish thought
Currently, a significant number of Orthodox Jews and ultra-Orthodox, also known as Haredim, hold the belief that the teachings of Kabbalah have been passed down from teacher to student in an unbroken chain that dates back to the biblical era and culminates in the writing of Shimon bar Yoḥai. They embrace the notion that these teachings are, in essence, God’s revelation to the likes of the patriarch Abraham, Moses, and other ancient figures. The claim is that these teachings were never printed and made public until the time of the medieval redaction of the Zohar. Some proponents of this tradition support the claim that Rabbi Shimon wrote that the Zohar’s cover-up would end precisely 1200 years after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple was destroyed in AD 70, and before revealing the Zohar in 1270, Moses de Leon discovered the manuscripts in a cave in Israel.
Within modern Orthodox Judaism, the aforementioned assertion is deemed to be unsophisticated. While some Orthodox Jews acknowledge that the Zohar was composed in the Middle Ages by Moses de Leon, its reliance on earlier materials implies that it may be deemed authentic but not necessarily authoritative or free of inaccuracies, as others within the Orthodox community may posit.
In non-Orthodox Judaism, there is a general consensus regarding the findings of historical and scholarly studies on the Zohar and other kabbalistic texts. However, the prevailing view about the Zohar remains scepticism, as it is widely regarded as a pseudo-epigraphic and apocryphal work. Nevertheless, certain aspects of the text are considered significant in contemporary Judaism. In recent years, the Orthodox community has shown an increasing interest in non-Orthodox perspectives on the matter.
Topics for later dating
The discovery of the Zohar by Moses de Leon, a single individual, and its references to events of the post-Talmudic era, have sparked inquiries into its authorship. One anecdote recounts that following de Leon’s passing, a wealthy resident of Ávila named Joseph made a generous offer to de Leon’s widow, who was left without financial support, for the original manuscripts. She then admitted that her husband was the author and that she had asked him several times why he had attributed the work to another, to which he replied that ascribing similar doctrines to a man of miracles like Shimon b. Yoḥai would have been a lucrative source of income.
Specific objections have been identified regarding attributing the Zohar to Shimon b. Yoḥai. These objections are presented here for examination:
- If Shimon b. Yoḥai had authored the Zohar, it would likely have been referenced within the Talmud, as was the case with other literary works from the Talmudic period.
- The Zohar references the names of rabbis who lived after Shimon.
- If Shimon b. Yoḥai, possessing divine insight into the meanings of the precepts, was considered the progenitor of the Kabbalah, it would be expected that his rulings on Jewish law would have been incorporated into the Talmud. However, this did not come to pass.
- If the Kabbalah were considered a revealed doctrine, it would follow that there would be no discrepancies in interpretation among Kabbalists regarding the mystical explanation of the precepts.
There exist other multiple arguments against the authenticity of the Zohar. Firstly, it has been observed that the text misquotes specific scripture passages. Secondly, there are misunderstandings of the Talmud present within the text. Additionally, ritual ordinances that were issued by rabbinic authorities at a later date are included in the Zohar. Further, the text mentions the crusades against Muslims, which did not exist in the 2nd century. The author also uses the Portuguese term “esnoga” for “synagogue”, which is deemed peculiar. Finally, the Zohar provides a mystical explanation of the vowel points of the Hebrew language that were introduced well after the Talmudic period.
Scholem’s argument regarding the authorship of the Zohar posits that de Leon is the likely author. Scholem cites numerous errors in Aramaic grammar, suspicious traces of Spanish stylistic patterns, and the author’s apparent lack of knowledge of the land of Israel to support this claim. Other scholars have also suggested that de Leon and others may have contributed to the Zohar’s creation as part of a mystical school. Under this theory, the Zohar was born out of the collective efforts of this school rather than solely de Leon’s work. Another perspective on the Zohar’s authorship suggests that it was transmitted orally, much like the Talmud, before being transcribed and adapted to suit changing historical conditions. In this view, Shimon bar Yoḥai did not write the Zohar, but it was a work inspired by his principles.
Arguments for an earlier dating
Some authors reject Scholem’s theses and present counterarguments:
- Several statements in Rishonim  texts refer to unknown Midrashim . Some have suggested that these are allusions to the Zohar.
- It is deemed implausible that Moses de Leon could have authored a work as extensive as the Zohar, comprising 1700 pages, within a mere six-year timeframe, as contended by Scholem.
- Notable stylistic differences become apparent upon comparing Zohar with de Leon’s other works. Despite utilising his manuscript of the Zohar, a number of concepts in his other works directly contradict those discussed therein.
- The final redaction of numerous Midrash texts is believed to have occurred during the Gaonim period. Specific terminologies used in the Zohar that were anachronistic could be traced back to that period.
- Upon examining the Zohar, Scholem identified a limited number of anomalies, including two anachronistic terms and nine instances of ungrammatical word usage. These findings suggest that the majority of the text was composed accurately and that only a tiny portion was added in a later period (namely, during the Gaonim period).
- Specific terms that may be difficult to comprehend can be attributed to acronyms or codes. This practice can be observed in a variety of ancient manuscripts.
- The borrowing of medieval commentaries can be easily explained. In many cases, a marginal note in a text is later incorporated into the central portion of the text in subsequent copies. The Talmud itself contains additions from the Gaonim period due to this practice.
- There exists an ancient manuscript that refers to a book titled Sod Gadol (The Great Secret). It appears that this book may, in fact, be the Zohar itself.
With regards to the absence of any mention of the land of Israel within the Zohar, Scholem suggests that this is due to the text’s numerous references to the city of Kaputkia, which is situated in Turkey rather than Israel. However, Reuvein Margolies , a Jewish scholar, puts forth an alternative viewpoint in one of his publications, asserting that an ancient Israeli burial site does actually mention a village by the name of Kaputkia. Furthermore, the Zohar notes explicitly that this village is located a day’s walk away from the city of Lod, which is a factual assertion. This indicates that the author of the Zohar knew about Israel’s geography. Margolies also points out numerous instances in which the views expressed within the text align with those found within the Tannaim  literature (such as the Midrashim or the two Talmuds) and quotes several statements made by Maimonides that could only have been derived from a text similar to the Zohar.
Paradise and biblical exegesis
The Zohar postulates the existence of four distinct types of biblical exegesis, namely Peshat (literal sense), Remez (figurative), Derash (explanatory/anagogic), and Sod (esoteric). The initial letters of these terms form the word “Pardes,” which subsequently became synonymous with the fourfold meaning of which the esoteric interpretation is considered the highest.
The mystical allegory of the Zohar is grounded in the fundamental principle that all observable phenomena, including natural occurrences, possess both an exoteric and esoteric reality. This principle is a logical consequence of the Zohar doctrine, which posits that the human intellect can perceive the ultimate significance in every event and thereby ascend to the underlying cause of all causes.
The apparent gap between the mystical-interpretative freedom with which the kabbalistic movement approaches texts considered prophetic and the stability of the written tradition, which in the expression of Jewish orthodoxy refers to divine dictate, is widely debated. However, for the purposes of this discussion, we will limit ourselves to a few key points, and the following consideration effectively eliminates the gap between the two representations: The prophet is not merely a bearer of the message but rather an interpreter. The prophet translates an incomprehensible language, which pre-exists human realisation, into a more generally understandable form. This allows the listener to derive multiple layers of meaning based on their receptive abilities, which is precisely the goal of the speculative mysticism of Kabbalah.
The influence on Christian mysticism
Numerous Christian scholars exhibited a deep interest in the Zohar, including notable figures such as Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola , Johann Reuchlin , and Egidio da Viterbo . They viewed the book as evidence of the veracity of Christianity, citing certain teachings in the Zohar that bore a resemblance to Christian dogma. Specifically, the fall and redemption of man and the doctrine of the Trinity were expressed in the Zohar as follows:
Even though these and similar doctrines existed in the Zohar long before Christianity, Christian scholars were keen to identify similarities and promote the Zohar as evidence of the truth of their faith. In the wake of the publication of the Mantuan code in 1558 and the Cremona’s code in 1590, appendices on the nature of the soul were also translated. Additionally, Knorr von Rosenroth’s  translation of the most significant fragments of the Zohar into Latin remains a substantial contribution to this body of work.
The text of the Zohar
The Zohar’s text is a compilation of books that explore various subjects, primarily commentaries on the Torah and writings that delve into the descent of the Absolute into manifestation. Most texts contain the musings of Shimon bar Yoḥai and his disciples, along with some anonymous sections. Rather than being a traditional book, it is a collection of works that share a single title. The original printing consisted of five volumes, which included the following sections:
Zohar (central part)
The Zohar’s central portion comprises chapters organised by the weekly order of the Torah. This section essentially presents a kabbalistic interpretation of the Torah, taking the form of a Midrash.
Sifra di-Ẓeni’uta (The Book of Concealment)
The Sifra di-Ẓeni’uta presents a somewhat enigmatic exposition of Negative Existence (Ain), which serves as the threshold between the infinite and the finite, unity and multiplicity, and so forth.
Idra Rabba (Greater Assembly)
The Idra Rabba contains a divinity disclosure embodied in the form of Adam Kadmon , also known as the Primordial Man.
Idra Zuta (Lesser Assembly)
The Idra Zuta recounts the passing of Shimon bar Yoḥai and his final words to his disciples.
Heikhalot (The Palaces)
The Heikhalot text describes the seven palaces of the Garden of Eden, which are believed to be the final destination of pure souls after their physical passing. Additionally, this text includes a detailed discourse on angelology and an exposé on the various abodes of hell. Its extended version provides an in-depth exploration of these topics.
Raza de-Razin (The Secret of Secrets)
Raza de-Razin is an anonymous treatise on physiognomy and palmistry.
Sava de-Mishpatim (Discourse of the Old man)
In Sava de-Mishpatim, a kabbalist who is both elderly and wise disguises himself as a humbled donkey handler and shares his knowledge on the theory of the soul through well-crafted dissertations.
Yanuka (The Child)
A child prodigy imparts profound insights on the significance of meals and hand washing, among other topics, to his peers while at his mother’s home.
Rav Metivta (The head of the Academy)
Rav Metivta chronicles the visionary expedition of Shimon bar Yoḥai and his disciples to the Garden of Eden. There, they gain profound insights into the mysteries of the coming world from the erudite head of the celestial academy.
Kav ha-Middah (The Standard of measure)
Shimon bar Yoḥai’s detailed explanation to his son about divine emanation.
Sitrei Otiyyot (The Secrets of the Letters)
A discourse by Shimon bar Yoḥai concerning the letters comprising the divine Name and the enigmas surrounding the emanations.
Matnitin – Tosefta (Teachings – Additions)
The Matnitin and Tosefta are brief and often ambiguous works that serve to encapsulate the concept of the emanation of the primordial light as well as other teachings found within the Zohar.
Sitrei Torah (The Secrets of the Torah)
Sitrei Torah provides an allegorical elucidation of Torah verses, delving into the mysteries of the soul and exploring the theory of emanation.
Midrash ha-Ne’lam (The Hidden Midrash)
Midrash ha-Ne’lam constitutes a recent supplementation to the corpus of the Zohar, featuring discussions about the topics of creation, soul, world to come, and emanations.
Ta Ḥazei (Come and See)
Ta Ḥazei is an interpretation of Genesis in short commentaries.
Ra’aya Meheimna (The Faithful Shepherd)
During a visionary journey, Shimon bar Yoḥai and his followers encounter Moses, the “faithful shepherd,” who instructs them on the mysteries of the Ten Commandments.
Tikkunei Zohar (Observations on the Zohar)
Tikkunei Zohar is a self-contained text that comprises no less than 70 interpretations of the opening word of Genesis (Bereshit, at the beginning) and includes sections devoted to the mysteries of vowel points and other related topics.