The Zohar, or “Splendour”, is considered the most important treatise of the Kabbalah. It is a mystical commentary on the Torah (the five books of Moses or Pentateuch), written in medieval Aramaic and Hebrew. It deals with God’s nature, the origin and structure of the universe, souls’ nature, and other related topics. The Zohar is not a book but a group of texts integrating scriptural interpretations, theology and mysticism.
The origins of the Zohar
According to Gershom Scholem , most of the Zohar was written in a pseudo-epigraphic style of Aramaic, the language spoken in Israel during the first centuries AD of the Roman Period. It first appeared in Spain in the 13th century and was published by the Jewish writer Moses De Leon. However, some scholars believe that some parts of the Zohar date back to the Talmudic period. De Leon himself ascribes his work to a second-century rabbi, Shimon bar Yoḥai. Legend has it that Rabbi Shimon hid in a cave for thirteen years during Roman persecution, studying the Torah with his son Elazar. Throughout this time, he said he was inspired to write the Zohar by the prophet Elijah.
Authorship of the Zohar
Over time, the Jewish community accepted Moses de Leon’s claims; they believed the Zohar to be an authentic text of mysticism from the second century, although some small groups and specific Italian communities did not consider it valid. One objection brought to the attention of those who believed in the Zohar’s authenticity was the lack of references to the work in Jewish literature, to which they replied that Shimon b. Yoḥai did not hand over his teachings to written texts but passed them orally to his disciples, who in turn passed them on to their disciples and these to their successors until finally the doctrines were collected in the Zohar.
The Zohar in modern Jewish thought
Today many, if not most of the Orthodox Jews and the so-called ultra-Orthodox (Haredim), think that the teachings of the Kabbalah have been transmitted from master to disciple in a long and unbroken chain from the biblical era to the writing of Shimon b. Yoḥai. And they fully accept the claim that such teachings are, in essence, God’s revelation to the patriarch Abraham, to Moses and other ancient figures, never printed and made public until the time of the medieval editing of the Zohar. Some uphold the tradition that Rabbi Shimon wrote that the cover-up of the Zohar would end precisely 1200 years after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. It was destroyed in AD 70, and so before revealing the Zohar in 1270, Moses de Leon discovered the manuscripts in a cave in Israel.
In modern Orthodox Judaism, however, this latter statement is considered to be naïve. Some Orthodox Jews accept that the Zohar was written in the Middle Ages by Moses de Leon. However, since it is based on earlier materials, it can still be considered authentic but not authoritative or error-free as other Orthodox might believe.
Non-Orthodox Jews agree with the conclusions of historical and academic studies on the Zohar and other Kabbalistic texts. Still, most of them see the Zohar as a pseudo-epigraphic and apocryphal work. However, many consider that some of its contents have significance in the context of modern Judaism. Indeed, there has been a growing interest in non-Orthodox positions in the Orthodox in recent years.
Arguments for a later dating
The fact that the Zohar was discovered by a person, Moses de Leon, and that it referred to historical events of the post-Talmudic period raised doubts about the work’s authorship. A story tells that after Moses de Leon’s death, a wealthy character from Ávila named Joseph offered Moses’ widow – who had been left without financial means of support – a large sum of money for the manuscript originals. She confessed that her husband was the author and that she had asked him several times why he had chosen to credit his work to another, receiving as an answer that to ascribe similar doctrines to a man of miracles – Shimon b. Yoḥai – would have been a rich source of profit.
Some objections to the attribution of the Zohar to Simeon ben Yochai are summarised here:
- If Shimon b. Yoḥai had written the Zohar, it would have been mentioned in the Talmud, as was the case with other works of the Talmudic period.
- The Zohar mentions the names of rabbis who lived after Shimon.
- If Shimon b. Yoḥai were the father of the Kabbalah, knowing by divine revelation the meanings of the precepts, his decisions on Jewish law would be adopted by the Talmud, but this did not happen.
- If the Kabbalah were a revealed doctrine, there would have been no differences of opinion among Kabbalists on the mystical interpretation of the precepts.
Other arguments are that: the Zohar incorrectly quotes specific passages from the Scriptures; misunderstands the Talmud; contains ritual ordinances that the rabbinic authorities issued at a later time; mentions the crusades against the Muslims (which did not exist in the second century); uses the expression esnoga, Portuguese term for “synagogue”; gives a mystical explanation of the vowel points of the Hebrew language, introduced long after the Talmudic period. Scholem argues that de Leon is probably the author of the Zohar. Among other things, he points out the frequent errors in Aramaic grammar, suspicious traces of Spanish words and stylistic models and the author’s lack of knowledge of the land of Israel. Other scholars have also suggested that a group of people wrote the Zohar, including de Leon. This theory presents de Leon as the head of a mystical school, from whose collective efforts the Zohar is born. Another approach for the Zohar’s authorship says that it was passed on as the Talmud before it was transcribed as an oral tradition reapplied to the changed historical conditions and then filed on a document. According to this understanding, Shimon bar Yoḥai did not write the Zohar but was inspired by his principles.
Arguments for an earlier dating
Some authors reject Scholem’s theses putting forward such arguments:
- Many statements in the texts of the Rishonim  refer to unknown Midrashim  Some, therefore, think that these are references to the Zohar.
- It is impossible to accept that Moses de Leon could create a work of the vastness of the Zohar (1700 pages) in six years, as Scholem claims.
- A comparison between Zohar and de Leon’s other works shows significant stylistic differences. Although he made use of his manuscript of the Zohar, many ideas in his works contradict those mentioned therein.
- Many Midrash texts reach their final redaction in the Gaonim period. Specific anachronistic terminologies of the Zohar can date back to that period.
- Out of the thousands of words used in the Zohar, Scholem finds two anachronistic terms and nine cases of ungrammatical use of words. That proves that most of the Zohar were written in the appropriate time frame, and only a small part was added later (in the Gaonim period, as mentioned).
- We can attribute some terms that are difficult to understand to acronyms or codes. We find analogies to this practice in other ancient manuscripts.
- We can explain the “borrowings” of medieval commentaries very simply. It is not uncommon that a note written in the margin of the text could be in a subsequent copy added to the central part of the text. The Talmud itself has additions from the Gaonim period adduced by this circumstance.
- An ancient manuscript refers to the book Sod Gadol (The Great Secret), which appears to be the Zohar itself.
Regarding Zohar’s failure to mention the land of Israel, Scholem bases the circumstance on the many references to the city of Kaputkia (Cappadocia), located in Turkey and not in Israel. A Jewish scholar, Reuvein Margolies , instead, states in a book of his that a village named Kaputkia is mentioned at an ancient Israeli burial site. In addition, the Zohar says that this village is a day’s walk from Lod’s town, which is also true. That implies that the author of the Zohar had precise knowledge of the geography of Israel. In the same book, Margolies cites many statements of Maimonides that can only come from a text very similar to the Zohar. In his notes on the Zohar, he highlights similarities between the views in the text and the literature of the Tannaim  (Midrashim, the two Talmud, etc.).
Paradise and biblical exegesis
The Zohar assumes four types of biblical exegesis: Peshat (literal sense), Remez (figurative), Derash (explanatory/anagogical) and Sod (esoteric). The initial letters of the words (P, R, D, S) form the word Pardes (paradise), which became the designation for the fourfold meaning of which the esoteric is the highest.
The mystical allegory of the Zohar is based on the principle that all visible things, including natural phenomena, have both exoteric and esoteric reality. This principle is the necessary result in the doctrine of the Zohar: the human mind can recognise in every event the highest sign and thus ascend to the cause of all causes. The apparent gap between the mystical-interpretative freedom with which the kabbalah movement approaches the texts considered prophetic – emanating from God himself – and the stability of the written tradition – which in the expression of Jewish orthodoxy refers to the divine dictation – is a widely debated topic, of such magnitude that we cannot confine to a few lines. It is enough for us to know, for our purposes, that the following consideration cancels the gap that separates the two representations: the prophet is not the simple bearer of the message but rather the interpreter. He is the one who translates an unintelligible language pre-existing to the human achievement in a generally understandable form. That leaves the listener the task of deriving multiple layers of meaning based on personal receptive capacities, which is precisely the aim that the speculative mysticism of the Kabbalah proposes.
The influence on Christian mysticism
Many Christian scholars shared the enthusiasm for the Zohar, such as Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola , Johann Reuchlin , Egidio da Viterbo , etc., which all considered the book as proof of the truth of Christianity. They were led to believe it based on the analogies existing between some teachings of the Zohar and Christian dogmas, particularly the fall and redemption of man and the doctrine of the Trinity, expressed in the Zohar in the following terms: “The Ancient of Days has three heads. He reveals himself through three archetypes, the Three which are One. He is therefore symbolised by the number three. They manifest themselves from each other: first, Wisdom, secret and hidden; above the Ancient; and above him the Unknowable. Nobody knows what He contains. It is beyond concepts. Man calls it “Non-Being ( Ain )” . These and other similar doctrines found in the Zohar far precede Christianity, but Christian scholars who were prone to see similarities in it used all their energy to propagate the Zohar. Following the publication, in 1558 of the Mantovano code and, in 1590, of the Cremonese code, further appendices on soul’s nature were translated. Also significant remains, as already mentioned, the effort of Knorr von Rosenroth  with his translation into Latin of the most important fragments of the Zohar.
The text of the Zohar
The text of the Zohar is a collection of books on various subjects, the main parts of which are commentaries on the Torah and writings exploring the descent of the Absolute into manifestation. Most of the texts contain the thoughts of Shimon bar Yoḥai and his disciples, along with some anonymous sections. It is not a book in the ordinary sense of the term but a collection that bears a single title. Initially printed in five volumes, it contains the following sections:
Zohar (central part)
It divides into chapters that follow the weekly order of the Torah. It is basically a kabbalistic interpretation of the Torah in the form of a Midrash.
Sifra di-Ẓeni’uta (The Book of Concealment)
It contains a somewhat cryptic exposition of Negative Existence (Ain), the transition between infinite and finite, unity and multiplicity, etc.
Idra Rabba (Greater Assembly)
It contains the revelation of divinity in the form of Adam Kadmon (the Primordial Man).
Idra Zuta (Lesser Assembly)
It describes the death of Shimon b. Yoḥai and his last words to the disciples.
Heikhalot (The Palaces)
A description of the seven palaces of the garden of Eden to which pure souls ascend after the passing. The extended version contains a treatise on angelology and an exposition on the abodes of hell.
Raza de-Razin (The Secret of Secrets)
It is an anonymous treatise on physiognomy and palmistry.
Sava de-Mishpatim (Discourse of the Old man)
An elderly and wise kabbalist disguises himself as a poor donkey handler by dispensing competent dissertations on the theory of the soul.
Yanuka (The Child)
A wonder child teaches his companions profound interpretations of the importance of meals, hand washing, and other subjects while in his mother’s house.
Rav Metivta (The head of the Academy)
Report of a visionary journey by Shimon b. Yoḥai and his disciples at the Garden of Eden, where they learn the world’s to come mysteries from the head of the celestial academy.
Kav ha-Middah (The Standard of measure)
A Shimon bar Yoḥai’s detailed explanation to his son on divine emanation.
Sitrei Otiyyot (The Secrets of the Letters)
A speech by Shimon b. Yoḥai on the letters of the divine Name and the mysteries of the emanations.
Matnitin – Tosefta (Teachings – Additions)
Short, often obscure writings, many of which contain a summary of the idea of the emanation of the primordial light and other teachings of the Zohar.
Sitrei Torah (The Secrets of the Torah)
It is an allegorical explanation of the verses of the Torah about the mysteries of the soul and the theory of emanation.
Midrash ha-Ne’lam (The Hidden Midrash)
It is a late addition to the body of the Zohar, which contains discussions of creation, soul, world to come, and emanations.
Ta Ḥazei (Come and See)
It is an interpretation of Genesis in short comments.
Ra’aya Meheimna (The Faithful Shepherd)
Shimon bar Yoḥai and his disciples meet Moses, the “faithful shepherd”, on a visionary journey and are instructed on the mysteries of the Ten Commandments.
Tikkunei Zohar (Observations on the Zohar)
It is an independent text containing 70 or more interpretations of the opening word of Genesis (Bereshit, in the beginning) and sections on the mysteries of the vowel points and more.