The Zohar (Hebrew Zohar "Splendor, radiance") is widely considered the most important work of Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism. It is a mystical commentary on the Torah (five books of Moses), written in medieval Aramaic and medieval Hebrew. It contains a mystical discussion of the nature of God, the origin and structure of the universe, the nature of souls, sin, redemption, good and evil, and related topics.
The Zohar is not one book, but a group of books. These books include scriptural interpretations as well as material on theosophic theology, mythical cosmogony, mystical psychology, and what some would call anthropology.
According to Gershom Scholem, most of the Zohar was written in an exalted style of Aramaic that was spoken in Palestine during the second century of the modern era. The Zohar first appeared in Spain in the thirteenth century, and was published by a Jewish writer named Moses ben Shem-Tov de Leon. He ascribed this work to a rabbi of the second century, Simeon ben Yohai. Jewish historiography holds that during a time of Roman persecution, Rabbi Simeon hid in a cave for 13 years, studying the Torah (five books of Moses) with his son Eliezar. During this time he is said to have been inspired by God to write the Zohar.
The fact that the Zohar was found by one lone individual, Moses de Leon, taken together with the circumstance that it refers to historical events of the post-Talmudical period, caused the authenticity of the work to be questioned from the outset. There is a story told about how after the death of Moses de Leon, a rich man of Avila, named Joseph, offered the widow, who had been left without means, a large sum of money for the original from which her husband had made the copy; and she then confessed that her husband himself was the author of the work. She had asked him several times, she said, why he had chosen to credit his own teachings to another, and he had always answered that doctrines put into the mouth of the miracle-working Simeon ben Yohai would be a rich source of profit. Incredible as this story seems, it at least proves that shortly after its appearance the work was believed by some to have been written entirely by Moses de Leon.
Over time, however, the general view in the Jewish community came to be one of acceptance of Moses ben Shem-Tov's claims; the Zohar was held to be an authentic book of mysticism passed down from the second century.
The Zohar spread among the Jews with remarkable celerity. Scarcely fifty years had passed since its appearance in Spain before it was quoted by many cabalists, among whom was the Italian mystical writer Menahem Recanati. Its authority was so well established in Spain in the fifteenth century that Joseph ibn Shem-Tov drew from it arguments in his attacks against Maimonides. It exercised so great a charm upon the cabalists that they could not believe for an instant that such a book could have been written by any mortal unless he had been inspired from above; and this being the case, it was to be placed on the same level with the Bible.
Even representatives of non-mysticism oriented Judaism began to regard it as a sacred book and to invoke its authority in the decision of some ritual questions. They were attracted by its glorification of man, its doctrine of immortality, and its ethical principles, which are more in keeping with the spirit of Talmudical Judaism than are those taught by the philosophers. While Maimonides and his followers regarded man as a fragment of the universe whose immortality is dependent upon the degree of development of his active intellect, the Zohar declared him to be the lord of the Creation, whose immortality is solely dependent upon his morality. According to the Zohar, the moral perfection of man influences the ideal world of the Sefirot; for although the Sefirot expect everything from the Ein Sof (Heb.infinity), the Ein Sof itself is dependent upon man: he alone can bring about the divine effusion. The dew that vivifies the universe flows from the just. By the practice of virtue and by moral perfection man may increase the outpouring of heavenly grace. Even physical life is subservient to virtue. This, says the Zohar, is indicated in the words "for the Lord God had not caused it to rain" (Gen. ii. 5), which mean that there had not yet been beneficent action in heaven because man had not yet given the impulsion.
The Zohar was quoted by Todros Abulafia, by Menahem Recanati, and even by Isaac of Acco, in whose name the story of the confession of Moses de Leon's widow is related. Isaac evidently ignored the woman's alleged confession in favor of the testimony of Joseph ben Todros and of Jacob, a pupil of Moses de Leon, both of whom assured him on oath that the work was not written by Moses. The only objection worthy of consideration by the believers in the authenticity of the Zohar was the lack of references to the work in Jewish literature; and to this they answered that Simeon ben Yohai did not commit his teachings to writing, but transmitted them orally to his disciples, who in turn confided them to their disciples, and these to their successors, until finally the doctrines were embodied in the Zohar. As to the references in the book to historical events of the post-Talmudic period, it was not deemed surprising that Simeon ben Yohai should have foretold future happenings.
The first attack upon the accepted authorship of the Zohar was made by Elijah Delmedigo. Without expressing any opinion as to the real author of the work, he endeavored to show, in his "Bechinat ha-Dat" that it could not be attributed to Simeon ben Yohai. The objections were that:
if the Zohar was the work of Simeon ben Yohai, it would have been mentioned by the Talmud, as has been the case with other works of the Talmudic period; the Zohar contains names of rabbis who lived at a later period than that of Simeon;
were Simeon ben Yohai the father of the Kabbalah, knowing by divine revelation the hidden meaning of the precepts, his decisions on Jewish law would have been adopted by the Talmud; but this has not been done;
were the Kabbalah a revealed doctrine, there would have been no divergence of opinion among the Kabbalists concerning the mystic interpretation of the precepts ("Bechinat ha-Dat" ed. Vienna, 1833, p. 43).
These arguments and others of the same kind were used by Leon of Modena in his “Ari Nohem.” A work devoted to the criticism of the Zohar was written, "Mishpat Sefarim," by Jacob Emden, who, waging war against the remaining adherents of the Sabbatai Zevi movement, endeavored to show that the book on which Zevi based his doctrines was a forgery. Emden demonstrates that the Zohar misquotes passages of Scripture; misunderstands the Talmud; contains some ritual observances which were ordained by later rabbinical authorities; mentions the crusades against the Muslims (who did not exist in the second century); uses the expression "esnoga", which is a Portuguese corruption of "synagogue," and gives a mystical explanation of the Hebrew vowel-points, which were not introduced until long after the Talmudic period.
In the mid 20th century, the Jewish historian Gershom Scholem contended that de Leon himself was the most likely author of the Zohar. Among other things, Scholem noticed the Zohar's frequent errors in Aramaic grammar, its suspicious traces of Spanish words and sentence patterns, and its lack of knowledge of the land of Israel. This finding is still disputed by many Orthodox Jews. Other Jewish scholars have also suggested the possibility that the Zohar was written by a group of people, including de Leon. This theory generally presents de Leon as having been the leader of a mystical school, whose collective effort resulted in the Zohar.
Even if de Leon wrote the text, the entire contents of the book may not be fraudulent. Parts of it may be based on older works, and it was a common practice to ascribe the authorship of a document to an ancient rabbi in order to give the document more weight. It is possible that Moshe de Leon considered himself inspired to write this text.
"Woe unto the man," says Simeon ben Yohai, "who asserts that this Torah intends to relate only commonplace things and secular narratives; for if this were so, then in the present times likewise a Torah might be written with more attractive narratives. In truth, however, the matter is thus: The upper world and the lower are established upon one and the same principle; in the lower world is Israel, in the upper world are the angels. When the angels wish to descend to the lower world, they have to don earthly garments. If this be true of the angels, how much more so of the Torah, for whose sake, indeed, the world and the angels were alike created and exist. The world could simply not have endured to look upon it. Now the narratives of the Torah are its garments. He who thinks that these garments are the Torah itself deserves to perish and have no share in the world to come. Woe unto the fools who look no further when they see an elegant robe! More valuable than the garment is the body which carries it, and more valuable even than that is the soul which animates the body. Fools see only the garment of the Torah, the more intelligent see the body, the wise see the soul, its proper being; and in the Messianic time the 'upper soul' of the Torah will stand revealed."
The Zohar assumes four kinds of Biblical exegesis: "Peshat" (literal meaning), "Remez" (allusion), "Derash" (anagogical), and "Sod" (mystic). The initial letters of the words "Peshat", "Remez", "Derash", and "Sod" form together the word "PaRDeS" (Paradise), which became the designation for the fourfold meaning of which the mystical sense is the highest part.
The mystic allegorism is based by the Zohar on the principle that all visible things, the phenomena of nature included, have besides their exoteric reality an esoteric reality also, destined to instruct man in that which is invisible. This principle is the necessary corollary of the fundamental doctrine of the Zohar. The universe being, according to that doctrine, a gradation of emanations, it follows that the human mind may recognize in each effect the supreme mark, and thus ascend to the cause of all causes.
This ascension, however, can only be made gradually, after the mind has attained four various stages of knowledge; namely: (1) the knowledge of the exterior aspect of things, or, as the Zohar calls it (ii. 36b), "the vision through the mirror that projects an indirect light"; (2) the knowledge of the essence of things, or "the vision through the mirror that projects a direct light"; (3) the knowledge through intuitive representation; and (4) the knowledge through love, since the Law reveals its secrets to those only who love it (ii. 99b).
After the knowledge through love comes the ecstatic state which is applied to the most holy visions. To enter the state of ecstasy one had to remain motionless, with the hand between the knees, absorbed in contemplation and murmuring prayers and hymns. There were seven ecstatic stages, each of which was marked by a vision of a different color. At each new stage the contemplative entered a heavenly hall ("hekal") of a different hue, until he reached the seventh, which was colorless, and the appearance of which marked both the end of his contemplation and his lapse into unconsciousness. The Zohar gives the following illustration of an ecstatic state:
"Once," says R. Simeon ben Yohai, "I was plunged in a contemplative ecstasy, and I beheld a sublime ray of a brilliant light which illumined 325 circles, and amid which something dark was bathing. Then the dark point, becoming bright, began to float toward the deep and sublime sea, where all the splendors were gathering. I then asked the meaning of this vision, and I was answered that it represented the forgiveness of sins."
The Zohar was lauded by many rabbis because it opposed religious formalism, stimulated one's imagination and emotions, and for many people helped reinvigorate the experience of prayer. In many places prayer had become a mere external religious exercise, while prayer was supposed to be a means of transcending earthly affairs and placing oneself in union with God.
The Zohar was censured by many rabbis because it propagated many superstitious beliefs, and produced a host of mystical dreamers, whose over-heated imaginations peopled the world with spirits, demons, and all kinds of good and bad influences. Many classical rabbis, especially Maimonides, viewed all such beliefs as a violation of Judaism's principles of faith.
Its mystic mode of explaining some commandments was applied by its commentators to all religious observances, and produced a strong tendency to substitute a mystic Judaism in the place of traditional rabbinic Judaism.
Elements of the Zohar crept into the liturgy of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and the religious poets not only used in their compositions the allegorism and symbolism of the Zohar, but even adopted its style, e.g. the use of erotic terminology to illustrate the relations between man and God. Thus, in the language of some Jewish poets the beloved one's curls indicate the mysteries of the Deity; sensuous pleasures, and especially intoxication, typify the highest degree of divine love as ecstatic contemplation; while the wine-room represents merely the state through which the human qualities merge or are exalted into those of God.
The enthusiasm felt for the Zohar was shared by many Christian scholars, such as Pico de Mirandola, Reuchlin, Ægidius of Viterbo, etc., all of whom believed that the book contained proofs of the truth of Christianity. They were led to this belief by the analogies existing between some of the teachings of the Zohar and certain Christian dogmas, such as the fall and redemption of man, and the dogma of the Trinity, which seems to be expressed in the Zohar in the following terms: "The Ancient of Days has three heads. He reveals himself in three archetypes, all three forming but one. He is thus symbolized by the number Three. They are revealed in one another. [These are:] first, secret, hidden 'Wisdom'; above that the Holy Ancient One; and above Him the Unknowable One. None knows what He contains; He is above all conception. He is therefore called for man 'Non-Existing' ["'Ayin"]" (Zohar, iii. 288b).
This and other similar doctrines found in the Zohar are now known to be much older than Christianity; but the Christian scholars who were led by the similarity of these teachings to certain Christian dogmas deemed it their duty to propagate the Zohar. Shortly after the publication of the work (Mantua and Cremona, 1558) Joseph de Voisin translated extracts from it which deal with the soul. He was followed by many others.
The disastrous effects of the Sabbatai Zevi messianic movement on the Jewish community damped the enthusiasm that had been felt for the book in the Jewish community. However, the Zohar is still held in great reverence by many Orthodox Jews, especially the Hasidim (Hasidic Jews).
The Zohar is not considered complete without the addition of certain appendixes, which are often attributed either to the same author, or to some of his immediate disciples. These supplementary portions are almost always printed as part of the text with separate titles, or in separate columns. They are as follows:
"Sifra di-?eni'uta", consisting of five chapters, in which are chiefly discussed the questions involved in the Creation, such as the transition from the infinite to the finite, that from absolute unity to multifariousness, that from pure intelligence to matter, etc.
"Idra Rabbah", in which the teachings of the preceding portion are enlarged upon and developed; and "Idra Zuta", giving a résumé of the two preceding sections.
To the larger appendixes are added the following fragments:
"Raze de Razin", dealing with the connection of the soul with the body.
"Sefer Hekalot", describing the seven heavenly halls, paradise, and hell.
"Raya Mehemna", giving a conversation between Moses, the prophet Elijah, and Simeon ben Yohai on the allegorical import of the Mosaic commandments and prohibitions, as well as of the rabbinical injunctions.
"Sitre Torah", on various topics.
"Midrash ha-Ne'elam", explaining passages of Scripture mystically by way of hints and gematria (mystical numerology).
"Saba", containing a conversation between the prophet Elijah and Simeon ben Yohai about the doctrine of metempsychosis.
"Yanu?a", on the importance of washing the hands before meals and on similar subjects, written in the name of a child of Hamnuna Saba, whence the title "Yanu?a" (child).
"Tosefta" and "Matnitin," in which are sketched the doctrines of the Sefirot, the emanation of the primordial light, etc.