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Moses de León

(1240 - 1305)


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Moses ben Shem Tov de León was a Spanish rabbi and Kabbalist who is believe to be the author of the Zohar.

de León lived in Muslim Spain and little to nothing is known of his upbringing, his teachers or his early studies. Apart from religious study, de León was apparently attracted to philosophy - Maimonides' Guide for the Perplexed was copied for him in 1264.

Moses subsequently turned to Kabbalah, and, while wandering among the communities of Castile, he became friendly with the kabbalists there. He immersed himself in Kabbalistic lore.

Moses de Leon
Statue of de Leon in Spain

Moved by an unusual enthusiasm, combined with the urge to counteract the influence of certain rationalistic trends, Moses composed various writings toward the close of the 1270s. He credited ancient scholars and sages as the authors of these works, probably to give them more authority. They were designed to propagate the doctrine of Kabbalism in the pattern in which it had crystallized in his own mind.

Completed before 1286 they form the Midrash ha-Ne'elam, or "Mystical Midrash," and are the main substance of the Zohar. (The later stratum in this composite work was written by another kabbalist.)

The major part of these writings is in Aramaic, but Moses also composed Hebrew pseudepigraphica on ethics and the eschatology of the soul.

The "Testament of R. Eliezer the Great," also called Orhot Chayyim, is evidence of the author's hesitations in choosing between the tannaim Eliezer b. Hyrcanus and Shimon b. Yochai as the hero of his most famous book, the Zohar. He also intended to compose a new Book of Enoch, parts of which he embodies in his Mishkan ha- Edut.

For a number of years, during the composition of the Zohar, and at least until 1291, he resided in Guadalajara, circulating from his home the first parts of the Zohar, which included a different version of the Midrash ha-Ne'elam.

The Hebrew writings which bear his name are based on the same sources as those utilized in the Zohar and they frequently make veiled allusions to it without specifying it by name. These writings and the portions of the Zohar composed by Moses frequently serve to clarify one another; the former can be regarded as the authentic exegesis of the doctrine enshrined in the Zohar.

In its literary form the Zohar is a collection of several books or sections which include short midrashic statements, longer homilies, and discussions on many topics. Moses De León credited Shimon bar Yochai as the author, but there are also long anonymous sections.

It is not one book in the accepted sense of the term, but a complete body of literature which has been united under an inclusive title.

In the printed editions the Zohar is composed of five volumes. According to the division in most editions, three of them appear under the name Sefer ha-Zohar al ha-Torah; one volume bears the title Tikkunei ha-Zohar; the fifth, entitled Zohar Chadash, is a collection of sayings and texts found in the manuscripts of the Tzfat kabbalists after the printing of the Zohar.

The main part of the Zohar is arranged according to the weekly portions of the Torah, up to and including the portion Pinchas, Numbers 29. From Deuteronomy only parts of three Torah portions are included

Basically it is a Kabbalistic Midrash on the Torah, mixed with short statements, long expositions, and narratives concerning Shimon b. Yochai and his companions.

Some of it consists also of common legends.

The number of verses interpreted in each portion is relatively small. Often the exposition digresses to other subjects quite divorced from the actual text of the portion, and some of the interpretations are quite skillfully constructed.

Many stories act as a framework for the homilies of the companions: conversations while they are on a journey or when they rest for the night.

The Zohar became a best-seller, the basic groundwork text for all subsequent Kabbalists.


Sources: Gates to Jewish Heritage. Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons author Sonsaz

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