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The Zohar and Kabbalah

By Gershom and Melila Hellner-Eshed

The Zohar (Heb. זֹהַר; "[The Book of] Splendor") is the central work in the literature of the Kabbalah.


In some parts of the book, the name “Zohar” is mentioned as the title of the work. It is also cited by the Spanish kabbalists under other names, such as the Mekhilta de-R. Simeon b. Yoḥai, in imitation of the title of one of the halakhic Midrashim, in Sefer ha-Gevul of David b. Judah he-Ḥasid; the Midrash de-R. Simeon b. Yoḥai, in several books dating from the period of the pupils of Solomon b. Abraham Adret, in the Livnat ha-Sappir of Joseph Angelino, the homilies of Joshua Ibn Shu’ayb, and the books of Meir ibn Gabbai; Midrash ha-Zohar, according to Isaac b. Joseph ibn Munir (see He-Ḥalutz, 4 (1859), 85); Midrash Yehi Or in the Menorat ha-Ma’or of Israel al-Nakawa, apparently because he had a manuscript of the Zohar which began with a commentary on the verse “Let there be light” (Gen. 1:3). Several statements from the Zohar were quoted in the first generation after its appearance, under the general title of Yerushalmi, in the writings of, for example, Isaac b. Sahula, Moses de Leon, and David b. Judah he-Ḥasid, and in the (fictitious) responsa of Rav Hai in the collection Sha’arei Teshuvah.

This article is arranged according to the following outline:

The Literary Form of the Zohar
The Unity of the Work
The Author
Manuscripts and Editions
Later Research

The Literary Form of 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. The greater part of them purport to be the utterances of the tanna Simeon b. Yoḥai and his close companions (ḥavrayya), 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, titled Zohar Ḥadash, is a collection of sayings and texts found in the manuscripts of the Safed kabbalists after the printing of the Zohar and assembled by Abraham b. Eliezer ha-Levi Berukhim. Page references in the most common editions of the Zohar and the editions of the Tikkunim are generally uniform.

References here to the Zohar Ḥadash (ZḤ) are to the Jerusalem edition of 1953. Some of the sections of the book exist separately in manuscript. The sections which make up the Zohar in its wider sense are essentially the following:

(1) The main part of the Zohar, arranged according to the weekly portions of the Torah, up to and including the portion Pinḥas. From Deuteronomy there are only Va-Etḥannan, a little on Va-Yelekh, and Ha’azinu. Basically it is a kabbalistic Midrash on the Torah, mixed with short statements, long expositions, and narratives concerning Simeon b. Yoḥai 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. The expositions are preceded by petiḥot ("introductions") which are usually based on verses from the Prophets and the Hagiographa, especially Psalms, and which end with a transition to the subject matter of the portion. Many stories act as a framework for the homilies of the companions, e.g., conversations while they are on a journey or when they rest for the night. The language is Aramaic, as it is for most of the other sections of the work (unless otherwise stated). Before the portion Bereshit there is a hakdamah ("preface"), which would appear to be a typical collection of writings and not a preface as such, unless perhaps it was intended to introduce the reader to the spiritual climate of the book. Many expositions are found in various manuscripts in different places and sometimes there is some doubt as to which particular portion they really belong. There are also discourses which recur in different contexts in two or three places. Aaron Zelig b. Moses in Ammudei Sheva (Cracow, 1635) listed about 40 such passages which are found in parallel editions of the Zohar. A few expositions in the printed editions break off in the middle, and their continuation is printed solely in the Zohar Ḥadash. In the later editions, beginning with that of Amsterdam, 1715, these completions are printed as hashmatot ("omissions") at the end of each volume.

(2) Zohar to the Song of Songs (printed in ZḤ, fols. 1d–75b); it extends only to the greater part of the first chapter and, like (1), consists of kabbalistic expositions.

(3) Sifra di-Ẓeni’uta ("Book of Concealment"), a kind of fragmented commentary on the portion Bereshit, in short obscure sentences, like an anonymous Mishnah, in five chapters, printed at the end of portion Terumah (2:176b–179a). In several manuscripts and in the Cremona edition (1558–60) it is found in the portion Bereshit.

(4) Idra Rabba ("The Greater Assembly"), a description of the gathering of Simeon b. Yoḥai and his companions, in which the most profound mysteries are expounded concerning the revelation of the Divine in the form of Adam Kadmon ("Primordial Man"). It is of a superior literary construction and the most systematic discourse found in the Zohar. Each of the companions says his piece and Simeon b. Yoḥai completes their pronouncements. At the end of this solemn assembly three of the ten participants meet with an ecstatic death. Among the early kabbalists it was called Idra de-Naso and it is printed in the portion Naso (3:127b–145a). It is, in a way, a kind of Talmud to the Mishnah of the Sifra di-Ẓeni’uta.

(5) Idra Zuta ("The Lesser Assembly"), a description of the death of Simeon b. Yoḥai and his closing words to his followers before his death, a kind of kabbalistic parallel to the death of Moses. It contains a companion discourse to that in the Idra Rabba, with many additions. Among the early kabbalists it was called Idra de-Ha’azinu. This portion concludes the Zohar (3:287b–96b).

(6) Idra de-Vei Mashkena, a study session conducted by Simeon b. Yoḥai with some of his students concerning the exposition of certain verses in the section dealing with the tabernacle. Most of it deals with the mysteries of the prayers. It is found at the beginning of Terumah (2:127a–146b). The note in later editions that the section 2:122b–3b is the Idra de-Vei Mashkena is a mistake. This part is mentioned at the beginning of the Idra Rabba.

(7) Heikhalot, two descriptions of the seven palaces in the celestial garden of Eden in which the souls take their delight when prayer ascends and also after their departure from the world. One version is short and is inserted in the portion Bereshit (1:38a–48b). The other version is extremely long, because it expands on the mysteries of prayer and angelology. It is found at the end of the portion Pekudei (2:244b–62b). At the end of the longer version there is an additional section on the "seven palaces of uncleanness," which is a description of the abodes of hell (2:262b–8b). In kabbalistic literature it is called the Heikhalot de-R. Simeon b. Yoḥai.

(8) Raza de-Razin ("The Secret of Secrets"), an anonymous piece on physiognomy and chiromancy, based on Exodus 18:21, in the portion Yitro (2:70a–75a). Its continuation is to be found in the hashmatot and in Zohar Ḥadash (56c–60a). A second section on the same subject, cast in a different form, was inserted in a parallel column in the back of the Zohar (2:70a–78a).

(9) Sava de-Mishpatim ("Discourse of the Old Man"), an account of the companions’ encounter with R. Yeiva, an old man and a great kabbalist, who disguises himself in the beggarly appearance of a donkey driver, and who delivers himself of an extensive and beautifully constructed discourse on the theory of the soul, based on a mystical interpretation of the laws of slavery in the Torah. It is inserted as part of the body of the Zohar on the portion Mishpatim (2:94b–114a).

(10) Yanuka ("The Child"), the story of a wonder child, the son of the old man, Rav Hamnuna, who teaches the companions profound interpretations of the Grace after Meals and other matters, when they happen to be lodging in his mother’s house. Stories concerning other children like this are found in other parts of the Zohar. In some manuscripts this story constitutes the section of the Zohar on the portion Devarim. In the printed edition it is found in the portion Balak (3:186a–92a).

(11) Rav Metivta ("Head of the Academy"), an account of a visionary journey undertaken by Simeon b. Yoḥai and his pupils to the garden of Eden, and a long exposition by one of the heads of the celestial academy on the world to come and the mysteries of the soul. It is printed as part of the portion Shelaḥ Lekha (3:161b–174a). The beginning is missing, as are certain parts from the middle and the end.

(12) Kav ha-Middah ("The Standard of Measure"), an explanation of the details of the mysteries of emanation in an interpretation of the Shema, in the form of a discourse by Simeon b. Yoḥai to his son, printed in Zohar Ḥadash (56d–58d).

(13) Sitrei Otiyyot ("Secrets of the Letters"), a discourse by Simeon b. Yoḥai on the letters of the Divine Names and the mysteries of emanation, printed in Zohar Ḥadash (1b–10d).

(14) An interpretation of the vision of the chariot in Ezekiel, chapter 1, printed without a title in Zohar Ḥadash (37c–41b).

(15) Matnitin and Tosefta, numerous short pieces, written in a high-flown and obscure style, serving as a kind of Mishnah to the Talmud of the Zohar itself. The connection between these pieces and the expositions in the portions of the Zohar is clear at times trod and at others tenuous. Most of the pieces appear as utterances of a heavenly voice which is heard by the companions, and which urges them to open their hearts to an understanding of the mysteries. Many of them contain a summary of the idea of emanation and other major principles of Zohar teaching, couched in an enigmatic style. These pieces are scattered all over the Zohar. According to Abraham Galante in his Zohorei Ḥammah (Venice, 1650), 33b, "when the editor of the Zohar saw an exposition which belonged to an argument in a particular exposition from the mishnayot and tosafot he put it between those pieces in order to give the exposition added force from the Tosefta and the Mishnah."

(16) Sitrei Torah ("Secrets of the Torah"), certain pieces on verses from the Book of Genesis, which were printed in separate columns, parallel to the main text of the Zohar, in the portions No’aḥ, Lekh Lekha, Va-Yera, and Va-Yeẓe, and in Zohar Ḥadash in the portions Toledot and Va-Yeshev. There are several pieces titled Sitrei Torah in the printed editions – e.g., Sitrei Torah to the portion Aḥarei Mot in Zohar Ḥadash – but it is doubtful whether they really do belong to the Sitrei Torah. Similarly, there are manuscripts which designate the systematic interpretation of creation in 1:15a–22a as the Sitrei Torah to this section. However, its character is different from the other examples of Sitrei Torah, which contain mainly allegorical explanations of verses on the mysteries of the soul, whereas this piece explains the theory of emanation (in an anonymous discourse) in the style of the main part of the Zohar and the Matnitin.

(17) Midrash ha-Ne’lam ("Concealed Midrash") on the Torah. This exists for the sections Bereshit, No’aḥ, Lekh Lekha in Zohar Ḥadash; for Va-Yera, Ḥayyei Sarah, and Toledot in the main body of the Zohar, in parallel columns; and for Va-Yeẓe in Zohar Ḥadash. The beginning of the section Va-Yeḥi in the printed editions, 1:211–6, is marked in some sources as the Midrash ha-Ne’lam to this portion, but there is some reason to believe, with several kabbalists, that these pages are a later addition. From their literary character and the evidence of several manuscripts, the pages 2:4a–5b, and particularly 14a–22a, belong to the Midrash ha-Ne’lam to the portion Shemot, and 2:35b–40b to the Midrash ha-Ne’lam to the portion Bo. From this point onward only a few separate short pieces occur in Zohar Ḥadash, on the portions Be-Shallah and Ki Teẓe. Several pieces, very close in spirit to the Midrash ha-Ne’lam, are found here and there in the main part of the Zohar, e.g., in the exposition of Rav Huna before the rabbis, in the portion Terumah, 2:174b–175a. It is also possible that the pages in the portion Bo are of this kind. The language of this part is a mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic. Many rabbis are mentioned in it, and in contrast to the long expositions of the earlier parts we find here mostly short pieces similar to the original aggadic Midrashim. Here and there we can recognize the transition to a more lengthy expository method, but there are no artistically constructed and extensive expositions. As to content, the material is centered mainly around discussions on creation, the soul, and the world to come, with a few discussions on the nature of God and emanation. Most of the sections, after the portion Bereshit, expound biblical narratives, notably the deeds of the patriarchs, as allegories of the fate of the soul.

(18) Midrash ha-Ne’lam to the Book of Ruth, similar in style and content to the preceding. It is printed in Zohar Ḥadash, and was originally printed as a separate work called Tappuḥei Zahav or Yesod Shirim in Thiengen in 1559. It exists in many manuscripts as an independent book.

(19) The beginning of the Midrash ha-Ne’lam to the Song of Songs. It is printed in Zohar Ḥadash and is merely a prefatory exposition to the book, without any continuation.

(20) Ta Ḥazei ("Come and See"), another interpretation of the portion Bereshit in short anonymous comments, most of them beginning with the words ta ḥazel, and written in an obviously kabbalistic vein. The first part is found in Zohar Ḥadash, 7a, after the Sitrei Otiyyot, and the rest was first printed in the Cremona edition, 55–75, continuing in the hashmatot of the Zohar, at the end of volume 1. In some manuscripts (like Vatican 206, fols. 274–86), the two sections are found together, but in most they are missing altogether.

(21) Ra’aya Meheimna ("The Faithful Shepherd") – the reference is to Moses – a separate book on the kabbalistic significance of the commandments. It is found in some manuscripts as an independent work, and in the printed editions it is scattered piecemeal among the sections in which the particular commandments are mentioned and printed in separate columns. The greater part occurs in portions from Numbers and Deuteronomy, and particularly in Pinḥas, Ekev, and Ki Teẓe. The setting of the book is different from that of the main part of the Zohar. In it Simeon b. Yoḥai and his companions, apparently through a visionary revelation, meet Moses, "the faithful shepherd," along with tannaim and amoraim and other figures from the celestial world, who appear to them and talk with them about the mysteries of the commandments, as if the academy on high had descended to the earth below. This work is quite clearly dependent on the Zohar itself, since it is quoted several times under the name of "the former [or first] book," particularly in the portion Pinḥas. The enumeration of the commandments, which is extant in several places and which points to an original order, has become confused (see also below, The Unity of the Work, Order of Composition).

(22) Tikkunei Zohar, also an independent book whose setting is similar to that of the Ra’aya Meheimna. It comprises a commentary to the portion Bereshit, each section (tikkun) beginning with a new interpretation of the word bereshit ("in the beginning"). The book was designed to contain 70 tikkunim, confirming to "the 70 aspects of the Torah," but in actual fact there are more, and some of them are printed as additions at the end of the book. Two completely different arrangements are found in the manuscripts, and these are reflected in the different editions of Mantua (1558), and of Orta Koj (1719). The later editions follow Orta Koj. The expositions in the book digress widely from the subject matter of the portion and deal with quite different topics which are not discussed in the main body of the Zohar, like the mysteries of the vowel points and accents, mysteries concerning halakhic matters, prayer, and so on. The pages in the Zohar, 1:22a–29a, belong to this book and occur in manuscripts as tikkun no. 70. Here and there, there is a change in the narrative framework, when it imitates that of the main body of the Zohar and, sometimes apparently continuing the discussion, appears as if it were being held in the celestial academy. The book also has a preface (hakdamah) on the model of the preface in the Zohar. Long additional expositions, parallel with the book’s opening sections and mixed with other interpretations on the same pattern, are printed at the end of Zohar Ḥadash (93–123), and they are usually introduced as tikkunim of Zohar Ḥadash.

(23) An untitled work on the portion Yitro, a redaction, in the spirit of the tikkunim, of the physiognomy found in the Raza de-Razin, printed in Zohar Ḥadash (31a–35b).

(24) A few works printed in Zohar Ḥadash, like the "Zohar to the portion Tissa" (43d–46b), and the anonymous piece printed as the portion Ḥukkat in Zohar Ḥadash (50a–53b). These pieces must be regarded as imitations of the Zohar, but they were written without doubt very soon after the appearance of the book, and the first is already quoted in the Livnat ha-Sappir, which was written in 1328 (Jerusalem, 1914, 86d).

In addition to these sections there were others known to various kabbalists which were not included in the printed editions, and some of them are completely lost. A continuation of the Sefer ha-Tikkunim on other portions known to the author of Livnat ha-Sappir (95b–100a) was a long piece on the calculation of the time of redemption. The pieces, which were printed in the Tikkunei Zohar Ḥadash (117b–121b), and interpret various verses concerning Abraham and Jacob, seem to belong to this continuation. The "sayings of Ze’ira" ("the little one"), which are mentioned in Shem ha-Gedolim as being "quasi-midrashic homilies," are extant in Paris Ms. 782 and were included by Chaim Vital in an anthology which he compiled of pieces from the early kabbalah, and which still exists. The Zohar to the portion Ve-Zot ha-Berakhah is preserved in the same Paris manuscript (fols. 239–42), and is a mixture of fragments from the Midrash on Ruth in unknown pieces. It would appear that Moses Cordovero saw a Midrash Megillat Esther from the Zohar, according to Or Ne’erav (Venice, 1587, 21b). His pupil Abraham Galante, in his commentary to Sava de-Mishpatim, quotes a text called Pesikta, from a manuscript Zohar, but its content is not known. There is no direct connection between the literature of the Zohar and the later literary imitations of it that are not included in the manuscripts, such as the Zohar on Ruth, which was printed under the title Har Adonai (Amsterdam, 1712).

The opinion of the kabbalists themselves concerning the composition and editing of the Zohar was formed after the circulation of the book. At first the view was widely held that this was the book written by Simeon b. Yoḥai while he was in hiding in the cave, or at least during his lifetime, or at the latest in the generation that followed. Among the kabbalists of Safed, who generally believed in the antiquity of the whole of the Zohar, Abraham Galante, in his commentary to the portion Va-Yishlaḥ in the Zohar, thought that the whole work was put together in geonic times from the writings of R. Abba, who was Simeon b. Yoḥai’s scribe, and that the book did not receive its present form until that time. This view, which tries to explain a number of obvious difficulties in the chronology of the rabbis who are mentioned in the Zohar, also occurs in Netiv Mitzvotekha by Isaac Eisik Safrin of Komarno. In the 16th century the legend grew up that the present Zohar, which contains about 2,000 closely printed pages, was only a tiny remnant of the original work, which was some 40 camel loads in weight (in Ketem Paz, 102a). These ideas are not substantiated by a critical examination of the Zohar.

The Unity of the Work

The literature contained in the Zohar can be divided basically into three strata, which must be distinguished from one another:

(a) the main body of the Zohar, comprising items (1)–(15) in the list above;

(b) the stratum of the Midrash ha-Ne’lam and Sitrei Torah, i.e., items (16)–(19); and

(c) the stratum of the Ra’aya Meheimna and the Tikkunim, i.e., (21)–(23).

Items (20) and (24) are doubtful as regards their literary relationship, and perhaps they belong to material that was added after the appearance of the Zohar. There are, to be sure, definite links between the different strata which establish a chronological order, but a detailed investigation shows quite clearly that each stratum has a definite unity of its own. The question of the unity of the main body of the Zohar is particularly important. The apparent differences are merely external and literary, e.g., the choice of a laconic and enigmatic style at times, and at others, the use of a more expansive and occasionally verbose style.


This unity is evident in three areas; those of literary style, language, and ideas. Ever since the historical critique of the Zohar first began, there have been views that regard the Zohar as a combination of ancient and later texts, which were put together only at the time of the Zohar’s appearance. At the very least it contains a homiletic prototype, a creation by many generations which cannot be attributed essentially to one single author. This view has been held, for example, by Eliakim Milsahagi, Hillel Zeitlin, Ernst Mueller, and Paul Vulliaud, but they have contented themselves with a general conclusion, or with a claim that the Sifra di-Ẓeni’uta, the Matnitin, or the Idrot, are ancient sources of this type. The only scholar who attempted to investigate the early strata in the expositions of the other parts of the Zohar was I. Stern. A detailed examination of his arguments, and also of the general arguments, shows that they are extremely weak. In particular there is no evidence that the Sifra di-Ẓeni’uta differs from the other parts of the body of the Zohar except in the allusive style in which it was intentionally written. In actual fact, the literary connections between the different parts of the Zohar are extremely close. Many of the sections are constructed with great literary skill and the different parts are related to one another. There is no real distinction, either in language or thought, between the short pieces in the true midrashic style and the longer expositions which follow the methods of the medieval preachers, who used to weave together different ideas into a single fabric, which begins with a particular verse, ranges far and wide, and then finally returns to its starting point. Practically all the sections are built on an identical method of composition, stemming from variations of different literary forms. From the point of view of construction there is no difference also between the various narrative frameworks, such as the transmission of expositions which originated during the companions’ journeys between one city and another in Palestine, especially in Galilee, or the type of dramatic composition that is to be found in the Idrot, the Sava, and the Yanuka. The breaking-up of the material into a conversation among the companions, or into an expository monologue, does not basically alter the subject matter of the exposition itself. Even in the monologues several opinions concerning a particular verse are mentioned side by side while in other parts the different opinions are divided up and assigned to different speakers. Quotations of, or references to, expositions in other parts of the Zohar occur throughout the main body of the book. Some matters, which are discussed extremely briefly in one place, are treated more fully in another exposition. The Zohar, unlike the Midrash, loves to allude either to a previous discussion or to a subject which is to be dealt with later, and this is typical of medieval homilists. An examination of these cross-references, whether of exact verbal citations or of subject matter without precise quotation, shows that the main part of the Zohar is a literary construction all of one piece, despite superficial variations. Statements or ideas which are not reflected in more than one place do exist but they are very few and far between. Even those sections which have a particularly characteristic subject matter, like that dealing with physiognomy in the portion Yitro, are connected in many ways with other sections of the Zohar, which deal more fully with topics only briefly mentioned in the former. On the relationship of the Midrash ha-Ne’lam to the main body of the Zohar, see below.

One element in the constructional unity of the Zohar is that of the scene and the dramatis personae. The Zohar presupposes the existence of an organized group of "companions" (ḥavrayya), who, without doubt, were originally meant to be ten in number, but most of them are no more than shadowy figures. These companions are Simeon b. Yoḥai, his son Eleazar, Abba, Judah, Yose, Isaac, Hezekiah, Ḥiyya, Yeiva, and Aḥa. Several of them are amoraim who have been transferred by the author to the age of the tannaim, like Abba, Hezekiah, Ḥiyya, and Aḥa. What is narrated of them here and there shows that the author utilized stories in talmudic sources which concerned amoraim with these names, and these are not therefore unknown historical figures. These basic characters are joined by certain other rabbis, who usually appear indirectly, or as figures from the generation that preceded Simeon b. Yoḥai. In this connection, one particular error of the Zohar is very important. In several stories it consistently turns Phinehas b. Jair, Simeon b. Yoḥai’s son-in-law (according to Shab. 33b), into his father-in-law. Similarly, the father-in-law of Eleazar, Simeon’s son, is called Yose b. Simeon b. Lekonya, instead of Simeon b. Yose b. Lekonya. In addition to the regular companions there occasionally appear other characters whom the designation sava ("old man") places in the preceding generation, e.g., Nehorai Sava, Yeiva Sava, Hamnuna Sava, and Judah Sava. There is a recognizable tendency to create a fictional framework in which the problems of anachronism and chronological confusion do not arise. On the other hand, neither Akiva nor Ishmael b. Elisha is mentioned as a master of mystical tradition, whereas both appear in the heikhalot and the Merkabah literature. Akiva is introduced only in stories and quotations which come from the Talmud.

The Palestinian setting of the book is also fictional, and, in the main, has no basis in fact. The Zohar relies on geographical and topographical ideas about Palestine taken from older literature. Sometimes the author did not understand his sources, and created places which never existed, e.g., Kapotkeya, as the name of a village near Sepphoris, on the basis of a statement in the Jerusalem Talmud (Shev. 9:5), which he combined with another statement in the Tosefta, Yevamot 4. He produces a village in Galilee by the name of Kefar Tarshi, which he identifies with Mata Meḥasya, and tells in this connection of the rite of circumcision which is based on material quoted in geonic literature with regard to Mata Meḥasya in Babylonia. Occasionally a place-name is based on a corrupt text in a medieval manuscript of the Talmud, e.g., Migdal Ẓor at the beginning of Sava de-Mishpatim. In the matter of scene and characters there are very close links between the main body of the Zohar and the stratum of the Midrash ha-Ne’lam, which follows the same path of mentioning places which do not actually exist. In this section Simeon b. Yoḥai and his companions already constitute a most important community of mystics, but other groups are mentioned as well, and particularly later amoraim or scholars with fictitious names who do not reappear in the Zohar. In recent times, several attempts have been made to explain the geographical difficulties, and to give a non-literal interpretation of statements in the Talmud and the Midrashim in order to make them fit the Zohar, but they have not been convincing. Several times the Zohar uses the expression selik le-hatam ("he went up thither"), a Babylonian idiom for those who went up from Babylonia to Palestine, thereby changing the scene from Palestine to the Diaspora – "thither" is an impossible expression if the book was actually written in Palestine.


As to the question of the sources of the Zohar, we must distinguish between those that are mentioned explicitly and the true sources that are alluded to in only a general way ("they have established it," "the companions have discussed it"), or are not mentioned at all. The sources of the first type are fictitious works which are mentioned throughout the Zohar and the Midrash ha-Ne’lam, e.g., the Sifra de-Adam, the Sifra de-Ḥanokh, the Sifra di-Shelomo Malka, the Sifra de-Rav Hamnuna Sava, the Sifra de-Rav Yeiva Sava, and in a more enigmatic form, Sifrei Kadma’ei ("ancient books"), the Sifra de-Aggadeta, the Raza de-Razin, Matnita di-Lan (i.e., the mystical Mishnah in contradistinction to the usual Mishnah). With regard to the mystery of the letters of the alphabet, the Atvan Gelifin ("Engraved Letters") is quoted, or the "Engraved Letters of R. Eleazar." Works of magic are also quoted, e.g., the Sifra de-Ashmedi, the Zeinei Ḥarshin de-Kasdi’el Kadma’ah ("Various Kinds of Sorcery of the Ancient Kasdiel"), the Sifra de-Ḥokhmeta di-Venei Kedem ("Book of Wisdom of the Sons of Kedem"). Some names are based on earlier sources, like the Sifra de-Adam, and the Sifra de-Ḥanokh, but matters are referred to by these names which really belong entirely to the Zohar and to its world of ideas. In contrast to this fictitious library, which is clearly emphasized, the real literary sources of the Zohar are concealed. These sources comprise a great many books, from the Talmud and Midrashim to the kabbalistic works which were composed in the 13th century. A single approach in the use of these sources can be detected, both in the sections of the Zohar itself and in the Midrash ha-Ne’lam. The writer had expert knowledge of the early material and he often used it as a foundation for his expositions, putting into it variations of his own. His main sources were the Babylonian Talmud, the complete Midrash Rabbah, the Midrash Tanhuma, and the two Pesiktot (Pesikta De-Rav Kahana or Pesikta Rabbati), the Midrash on Psalms, the Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, and the Targum Onkelos. Generally speaking they are not quoted exactly, but translated into the peculiar style of the Zohar and summarized. If a particular subject exists in a number of parallel versions in the earlier literature, it is not often possible to establish the precise source. But, on the other hand, there are many statements which are quoted in a form which exists in only one of the different sources. Less use is made of the halakhic Midrashim, the Jerusalem Talmud, and the other Targums, nor of the Midrashim like the Aggadat Shir ha-Shirim, the Midrash on Proverbs, and the Alfabet de-R. Akiva. It is not clear whether the author used the Yalkut Shimoni, or whether he knew the sources of its aggadah separately. Of the smaller Midrashim he used the Heikhalot Rabbati, the Alfabet de-Ben Sira, the Sefer Zerubabel, the Baraita de-Ma’aseh Bereshit, the chapter Shirah in the Aggadot Gan Eden, and the tractate Ḥibbut ha-Kever, and also, occasionally, the Sefer ha-Yashar. Sometimes the author makes use of aggadot which no longer remain, or which are extant only in the Midrash ha-Gadol; this is not to be wondered at because aggadic Midrashim like this were known to many medieval writers, e.g., in the homilies of Joshua ibn Shu’ayb, who wrote in the generation following the appearance of the Zohar. The Zohar continues the thought patterns of the aggadah and transfers them to the world of the Kabbalah. The references to parallels in rabbinic literature which Reuben Margulies quotes in his Niẓoẓei Zohar in the Jerusalem edition of the Zohar (1940–48) often reveal the sources of the expositions.

From medieval literature the author makes use, as W. Bacher has shown, of Bible commentators like Rashi, Abraham Ibn Ezra,  David Kimchi, and the Lekaḥ Tov of Tobiah b. Eliezer. Apparently, he also knew the commentaries of the tosafists. He was noticeably influenced by the allegorical commentators of the Maimonides’ school, particularly in the Midrash ha-Ne’lam, but also in some of the expositions in the main body of the Zohar. The last commentator whom he used as a source was Nahmanides in his commentaries both to the Torah and to Job. Certain verbal usages in the Zohar can be explained only by reference to the definitions in the Sefer he-Arukh, and in the Sefer ha-Shorashim of David Kimḥi. An important exposition in the section Balak is based on a combination of three pieces from the Kuzari of Judah Halevi. In connection with certain customs he bases himself on the Sefer ha-Manhig of Abraham b. Nathan ha-Yarḥi. Rashi’s commentary to the Talmud serves as the foundation of several statements in the Zohar, and not only in connection with the Talmud. Of the works of Maimonides, he makes slight use of the commentary to the Mishnah and the Guide of the Perplexed, and uses the Mishneh Torah more extensively. Several attempts to prove that Maimonides knew the Zohar and made use of it in several of his halakhot (more recently that of R. Margulies, Ha-Rambam ve-ha-Zohar, 1954) only serve to show the dependence of the Zohar on Maimonides.

The sources of the Zohar among the kabbalistic works which preceded it are also unclear. The Sefer Yeẓirah is clearly mentioned only in the later stratum. The Sefer ha-Bahir, Ma’yan ha-Ḥokhmah attributed to Moses, the writings of the Ḥasidei Ashkenaz and particularly of Eleazar of Worms, R. Ezra’s commentary to the Song of Songs, and the commentary to the liturgy by Azriel of Gerona, were all known to the author of the Zohar, and he develops tendencies which appeared first in the writings of the circle of the Gnostics in Castile in the middle of the 13th century (see Kabbalah). Similarly, the kabbalistic terminology of the Zohar reflects the development of the Kabbalah from the Sefer ha-Bahir up to Joseph Gikatilla, and the term nekuddah ḥada ("one point") in the sense of "center" is taken from Gikatilla’s Ginnat Egoz, which was written in 1274. Terms scattered in several places, like Ein-Sof, avir kadmon, ayin (in the mystical sense), mekora de-ḥayyei, re’uta de-maḥshavah, alma de-peiruda, have their source in the development of the Kabbalah after 1200. The term ḥaluk or ḥaluka de-rabbanan, for the soul’s garment in Eden, and ideas relating to the formation of this garment, are taken from the Ḥibbur Yafeh min ha-Yeshu’ah of Jacob b. Nissim (1050). Often the author of the Zohar draws on the Midrashim indirectly by means of the commentaries on them written by the kabbalists who preceded him.

The medieval environment can be recognized in many details of the Zohar apart from those already mentioned. Historical references to the Crusades and to Arab rule in Palestine after the wars are put together with material based on the laws and customs found in the Spanish environment of the author. In the same way his ethical diatribe directed against certain particular immoralities in the life of the community belongs to a specific period of time, as Yiẓḥak Baer has shown. The common customs are characteristic of Christian lands in medieval times. The author’s ideas on medicine fit this particular period, which was dominated by the views of Galen. The Zohar does not have any clear ideas concerning the nature of idolatry, and it is dependent on the views of Maimonides which, for their part, were based on the fictitious "literature" of the sect of the Sabeans in Haran. The cultural and religious background to which most of the book, including its polemical parts, is related, is Christian and monogamous. But occasionally we come across allusions to Islam and to contacts with Muslims, and this fits the identification of Castile as the place where the book was written.

Where the ideas of the Zohar concerning Satan and the ranks of the powers of uncleanness, devils, and evil spirits, and also necromancy and sorcerers, are not taken from talmudic sources, they bear the clear impress of the Middle Ages, e.g., the compact between the sorcerer and Satan, and the worship of Satan by the sorcerers. References to these matters are scattered throughout the Zohar, but they are of one and the same type. The liturgy, which is expounded at length in the sections Terumah and Va-Yakhel, is not the original liturgy of Palestine, but the Spanish and French version in use in the Middle Ages. The literary form of words supposed to have been used in the tannaitic period is only superficial. The author of the third stratum, in the Ra’aya Meheimna and the Tikkunim, reveals his environment through some additional material, and it is almost as if he did not wish to conceal it at all. This is particularly noticeable in his lengthy treatment of the social and religious situation of the Jewish communities of his time, a favorite subject which receives a different treatment from that of the main body of the Zohar. The social conditions described here are in no way those of the earlier communities of Babylonia and Palestine but fit, in every detail, what we know of the conditions in Spain in the 13th century. His writing has a distinctly harsh polemical note directed against various groups in Jewish society, a note which is absent from other parts of the Zohar. Typical of this part is the use of the phrase erev rav ("mixed multitude") to designate that social stratum in the Jewish communities in which were combined all the blemishes which he noted in his own contemporaries. The author was also aware of the lively controversy between the kabbalists, described in these parts only as marei kabbalah ("masters of kabbalah"), and their opponents, who denied both their claim that mysteries existed in the Torah and their knowledge of them.


If all hopes of discovering primitive layers in the Zohar through an historical and literary analysis of its various parts are vain, they will be equally frustrated when we turn to a linguistic critique. The language of the Zohar may be divided into three types:

(1) the Hebrew of the Midrash ha-Ne’lam;

(2) the Aramaic there and in the main body of the Zohar;

(3) the imitation of (2) in the Ra’aya Meheimna and the Tikkunim.

The Hebrew is, in fact, an imitation of the aggadic style, but whenever it diverges from its literary sources it is seen to be a medieval Hebrew belonging to a time when philosophical terminology was widely used. The writer uses later philosophical terms quite openly, particularly in the earlier sections and in the Midrash on Ruth. At the same time the transition from this Hebrew to the Aramaic of the Midrash ha-Ne’lam itself and of the main part of the Zohar, which linguistically speaking are one and the same, can be clearly distinguished. The natural Hebrew of the author is here translated into an artificial Aramaic. While his Hebrew has counterparts in medieval literature, the Aramaic of the Zohar has no linguistic parallel, since it is compounded of all the Aramaic idioms that the author knew and which he used as the foundation for his artificial construction. The very use of the word targum (I, 89a) for the Aramaic language, instead of leshon Arami, which was used in the Talmud and Midrash, was a medieval practice. The Aramaic idioms are in the main the language of the Babylonian Talmud and the Targum Onkelos, together with the Galilean Aramaic of the other Targums, but they include only very little from the Jerusalem Talmud. Types of different idioms are used side by side indiscriminately, even in the same passage. Similar differences may be seen in the pronouns, both subjective and possessive, demonstrative and interrogative, and also in the conjugation of the verb. The Zohar uses these interchangeably, quite freely. Sometimes the Zohar adopts the Babylonian usage of a particular form, e.g., those forms of the perfect tense preceded by ka (ka amar) or the form of conjugation of the third person imperfect (leima). At other times the corresponding targumic forms are preferred. With the noun there is no longer any distinction between those forms which have the definitive alef suffix, and those which do not have it, and there is complete confusion. Even a form like tikla ḥada ("a wheel") is possible here. The constructive case is almost nonexistent and is mostly replaced by the use of di. In addition to the usual vocabulary new words are coined by analogy with formations that already exist in other words. So words like nehiru, neẓiẓu, ketatu come into being (for new words in the vocabulary, see below). As for adverbs, it uses indiscriminately words from both biblical and Babylonian Aramaic, and translations of medieval terms, like lefum sha’ata or kedein, in imitation of the use of az to join different parts of a sentence as in medieval Hebrew. With all the confusion of these forms there is, nevertheless, some sort of system and consistency. A kind of unified language is created which is common throughout all the parts mentioned above. In addition to the basic forms drawn from the Aramaic idiom there are many characteristics which are peculiar to the language of the Zohar. The Zohar mixes up the conjunctions of the verb, using the pe’al instead of the pa’el and the af’el (lemizkei for lezakka’ah, lemei’al for le’a’ala’ah, lemeḥdei for leḥadda’ah) and also the af’el instead of the pe’al, e.g., olifana for yalfinan (among the most common words in the Zohar). It uses incorrect forms of the itpa’al or etpe’el (the two forms of the verb are indistinguishable), e.g., itsaddar or itsedar, itẓayyar or itẓeyar, itzakkei or itzekei, itẓerif, etc. In several instances, although only with certain verbs, it uses the itpa’al (or the etpe’el) as a transitive verb, e.g., it’arna milei, le-istammara or le-istemara orḥoi, leitdabbaka or le-itdebaka in the sense of "to attain." It gives new meanings to words, following their medieval usage: e.g., istallak with regard to the death of the righteous; itar, through the influence of hitorer, which in the Middle Ages was used in the sense of "to discuss a certain matter"; adbakuta in the sense of "intellectual perception"; ashgaḥuta in the sense of "providence"; shorsha in the sense of "basic principle." The conjunctive phrase im kol da used throughout in the sense of "nevertheless" (be-khol zot) is influenced by the translators from Arabic, as is the use of the word remez as a term for allegory.

A large number of errors and of borrowed translations constantly recur in the Zohar. The word pelatarin is considered a plural form, and galgallei yamma a plural form from gallei ha-yam ("waves of the sea"). The author writes baranan instead of barminan and gives the artificial translation "limb" for shaifa through a mistaken guess in the interpretation of a passage in Makkot 11b. From the verb gamar, meaning "to learn," he coins the same meaning for the verb ḥatam (le-meḥtam oraita), and there are many examples of this kind. There are several words, whose meaning in the original sources the author of the Zohar did not know, and they are given new and incorrect meanings: e.g., the verb ta’an is given the meaning of "to guide a donkey from behind" (an Arabism taken from the Sefer ha-Shorashim of David Kimḥi) or taya’a, "the Jew who guides the donkey." Tukfa in the sense of "lap" is based on a misunderstanding of a passage in Targum Onkelos (Num. 11:12); boẓina de-kardinuta as "a very powerful light" is based on a misunderstanding of a passage in Pesaḥim 7a. There are a number of words, especially nouns, which have no known source and whose meaning is often unclear. It is possible that they derive from corrupt readings in manuscripts of rabbinic literature, or the author’s new coinage in imitation of foreign words which occur in that literature. Most of them begin with the letter kof (ק), and the letters zayin (ז), samekh (ס), pe (פ), and resh (ר) are predominant: e.g., sosfita, kaftira, kosfita, kirta, kozpira. Arabic influence appears in only a very few words, but Spanish influence is noticeable in the vocabulary, idioms, and use of particular prepositions. The word gardinim in the sense of "guardians," derived from the Spanish guardianes, occurs in every part of the Zohar; the verb besam in the sense of "to soften" is a literal translation of the Spanish verb endulzar; hence also the common expression hamtakat ha-din, which comes from the Zohar. The borrowed translations of ḥakal in the sense of "battlefield," and of kos in the sense of the "cup of a flower," show the influence of Romance usage. Idioms like likeḥin derekh aḥeret, kayyama bi-she’elta, istekem al yedoi (instead of askem) osim simḥah, yateva bereikanya (in the sense of "being empty") are all translations borrowed from Spanish. In the Tikkunei Zohar there is, in addition, the use of esh nogah for "synagogue" (Sp. Esnoga = sinagoga). The phrase egoz ha-keshet as a military term has its source in the medieval Romance languages (nuez de ballesta). There are many examples of the use of the preposition min ("from") instead of shel ("of"); be ("in") for im ("with); legabbei ("in reference to") for el ("to") – all resulting from the influence of Spanish constructions.

The linguistic unity of the Zohar is apparent also in particular stylistic peculiarities which are not found at all in rabbinic literature, or which have a completely different meaning there. They occur in all parts of the Zohar, particularly in the Midrash ha-Ne’lam, and in the main body of the Zohar. Examples of this are the use of forms on the pattern of "active and not active" – not in the rabbinic sense of "half-active," but with the significance of spiritual activity whose profundity cannot be fathomed; the combination of words with the termination de-kholla, e.g., amika de-kholla, nishmeta de-kholla, mafteḥa de-kholla; hyperbolic forms of the type raza de-razin, temira de-temirin, ḥedvah de-khol ḥedvan, tushbaḥta de-khol tushbeḥin; the description of an action, whose details are not to be revealed, through the use of the form "he did what he did"; the division of a particular matter into certain categories by the use of it… ve-it, e.g., it yayin ve-it yayin, it kayiẓ ve-it kayiẓ; the use of hendiadys (two terms for the same object), e.g., ḥotama de-gushpanka ("seal of a seal"), boẓina di-sheraga ("light of a light"). As for syntax, we notice the use of the infinitive at the beginning of a clause, even when the subject of the clause is different from that of the main sentence, e.g., ẓaddikim re’uyyim le-hityashev ha-olam mehem, ihu heikhala di-reḥimu le-iddebaka dakhora be-nukba. This is particularly so in the case of relative and final clauses. Another syntactical characteristic is the use of az or kedein at the beginning of subclauses. All these characteristics are typical of medieval usage, and particularly of the Hebrew of Spanish Jewry, under the influence of the philosophical style, and the author of the Zohar uses them without any concern about their being a late development. The dialectical language in the arguments of the rabbis is taken almost exclusively from the Babylonian Talmud, with the addition of a few terms from the medieval homiletical style, e.g., it le-istakkala, it le-hitara. Within the context of this linguistic unity, the Zohar uses different stylistic media with great freedom. Sometimes it deals with an exposition or follows an argument at great length; and at others it is laconic and enigmatic, or adopts a solemn, almost rhythmical, style.

In contrast to the language used in other parts of the Zohar, the language of the Ra’aya Meheimna and the Tikkunim is poor from the point of view of both vocabulary and syntax. The writer is already imitating the Zohar itself, but he does not have the literary skill of its author. The number of Hebrew words transmuted into Aramaic is much greater here than in the Zohar. The literary goal of the author of the main part of the Zohar is quite different from that of this author, who writes an almost undisguised medieval Hebrew: it is quite clear that he never intended his work to be thought of as a tannaitic creation. The terms Kabbalah and Sefirot, which are not used at all in the main body of the Zohar or in the Midrash ha-Ne’lam, and which indeed are circumvented by the use of all kinds of paraphrastic idioms, are here mentioned unrestrainedly.


An examination of the Zohar following the criteria above shows the order of composition of the main strata. The oldest parts, relatively speaking, are sections of the Midrash ha-Ne’lam, from Bereshit to Lekh Lekha, and the Midrash ha-Ne’lam to Ruth. They had already been written according to a different literary pattern, which did not yet assign everything to the circle of Simeon b. Yoḥai alone but which established Eliezer b. Hyrcanus also, following the heikhalot and the Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, as one of the main heroes of mystical thought. This section contains the basis of many passages in the main body of the Zohar, which quotes statements to be found only there, and develops its themes, stories, and ideas more expansively. The reverse cannot be maintained. In these early sections, there are no matters whose comprehension depends on a reference to the Zohar itself, whereas every part of the body of the Zohar, including the Idra Rabba and the Idra Zuta, is full of quotations from, and allusions to, matters found only in the Midrash ha-Ne’lam. The contradictions that occur here and there between the two strata on certain points, particularly on matters concerning the soul, may be explained, in the light of the unity that exists between them, as indications of a development in the ideas of the author whose written work emerged from a deep spiritual stirring. Some gleanings into the creative imagination of the author and its development are made possible by the discovery of a new section on the verse "Let there be lights in the firmament of heaven," which parallels the one in the printed editions and in most of the manuscripts, but which differs from it in the extraordinary imaginative conception of the author, and appears to be the first draft of the printed version. This new section is extant only in the oldest manuscript of the Zohar so far known (see G. Scholem, in: Jubilee Volume… L. Ginsberg (1946), 425–46), but it provides the first quotation from Zoharic writings to be found in Hebrew literature. In the last two sections of the Midrash ha-Ne’lam there are two references to matters which are to be found only in the main body of the Zohar, the writing of which seems therefore to have been started at that time. In the composition of the main body of the Zohar changes occur in literary technique, and in the transition to the exclusive use of Aramaic, and particularly in the decision to treat more expansively the writer’s kabbalistic ideas, and those of his circle. The order of composition of the various sections which make up the second basic stratum cannot be precisely determined. There are so many cross-references, and we do not know whether these references were inserted in the final redaction or whether they were there from the very beginning, either referring to something already written or to what the author intended to write later on. In any event, most of the material was written as the result of a profound creative enthusiasm and over a relatively short period of time, so that the question of the order of composition of this section is not vitally important. Even after the author had stopped working on the Midrash ha-Ne’lam, which was never completed, he occasionally continued to write passages in the same vein and fitted them into the structure of the main part of the Zohar. This interlocking of one layer with another, despite the obvious differences between them, occurs also between the main body of the Zohar and the later stratum, whose composition begins with the Ra’aya Meheimna. The differences here are so great that it is impossible to suppose that the same author wrote both the two earlier strata and the later one. But there is a link between them. The author of the main part of the Zohar began, apparently, to compose a literary work which was anonymous and not associated with any particular literary or narrative framework and which was meant to be a personal interpretation of the reasons for the commandments. He did not finish this work, and the remnants of it are not extant in any one particular manuscript copy. However, the author of the Ra’aya Meheimna, who was probably a pupil of the former writer, knew it and used it as the starting point of his comments on several of the commandments, adding his own individual insights, and the new scenery. The differences in outlook and style between these fragments – which, when they do occur, are always at the beginning of the discussion on the commandments – and the main parts of the Ra’aya Meheimna are very great. It is almost always possible to determine precisely the point of transition between the fragments of the original text, which may be assigned to the Zohar itself, and the Ra’aya Meheimna, which was added to it.

The kabbalists themselves seem to have recognized this distinction. For example, the printers of the Cremona edition of the Zohar made a division on the title page between two sections, called Pekuda and Ra’aya Meheimna. The pages of the Pekuda belong from every point of view to the main body of the Zohar. The author of the later stratum had very different ideas from those of the author of the first. He does not express his ideas at length like the homilists, but links things together by association, without explaining his basic principle. He progresses by means of associations, especially in the Sefer ha-Tikkunim.

The author of the Midrash ha-Ne’lam and the main body of the Zohar intended from the very beginning to create a varied literature in the guise of early rabbinic material. He did not content himself with putting together the various sections which now form part of the Zohar, but he extended his canvas. He edited a version of a collection of geonic responsa, particularly those of Hai Gaon, and he added kabbalistic material in the style of the Zohar, using particular idioms of zoharic Aramaic, and also in the style of the Midrash ha-Ne’lam, all of which he titled Yerushalmi or the "Yerushalmi version." This edited version appeared at about the same time as the Zohar itself, in order to serve as a kind of indication that the new work was in fact known to the earlier rabbis. It was subsequently printed with the title of the Sha’arei Teshuvah responsa, and it misled not only kabbalists of the 15th and 16th centuries, but also scholars of the 19th century, who used it as a proof of the antiquity of the Zohar. One of the first of these was David Luria in his Ma’amar Kadmut Sefer ha-Zohar.

Similarly, the author of the Midrash ha-Ne’lam wrote a small book titled Orḥot Ḥayyim or Ẓavva’at R. Eliezer ha-Gadol, which is connected throughout very closely to the Zohar. It is written in Hebrew but it has all the linguistic ingredients and stylistic peculiarities of the Zohar. In this work Eliezer b. Hyrcanus before his death, which is described at length following the late Midrash Pirkei de-R. Eliezer, reveals the paths of virtue and good conduct in an epigrammatic style, and in the second part, adds a description of the delights of the soul in the garden of Eden after death. These descriptions are very close indeed to particular parts of the Midrash on Ruth, and of the portions Va-Yakhel, Shelaḥ Lekha, Balak, and other parts of the Zohar. The book was known at first only in kabbalistic circles. It was printed in Constantinople in 1521, and usually each of the two parts was printed separately – the description of the death and the ethical prescriptions in one part, and the description of the garden of Eden in the other. The second part is included in Adolf Jellinek’s Beit ha-Midrash (3 (1938), 131–40). The first part was interpreted at length in the editions of Orḥot Ḥayyim by two Polish rabbis, Abraham Mordecai Vernikovsky (Perush Dammesek Eliezer, Warsaw, 1888), and Gershon Enoch Leiner, who tried to prove the antiquity of the book because it was based entirely on the Zohar, and in fact they did prove that the two works were composed by the same author. There are also some grounds for thinking that the author of the Zohar intended to write a Sefer Ḥanokh on the garden of Eden and other kabbalistic topics, and a long description from it is quoted in the Mishkan ha-Edut of Moses de Leon.


Calculations of the time of redemption, which are to be found in several sections of the Zohar, confirm the conclusions concerning the time of its composition. These calculations give an assurance, in various forms, and by means of different interpretations and conjectures, that the redemption will commence in the year 1300, and they expound the different stages of redemption leading to the resurrection. There are variations in the details of the precise dates, depending on the type of theme expounded. According to the Zohar 1,200 years had passed since the destruction of the Temple – a century for each of the tribes of Israel. Israel now stood at the period of transition which preceded the beginning of redemption. According to these dates (1:116–9, 139b; 2:9b; see A.H. Silver, A History of Messianic Speculation in Israel (1927), 90–92) it must be assumed that the main part of the Zohar and the Midrash ha-Ne’lam were written between 1270 and 1300. Similar calculations are to be found in the Ra’aya Meheimna and the Tikkunim. The basic date is always 1268. After this the "pangs of the Messiah" will begin, and Moses will appear and will reveal the Zohar as the end of time approaches. This period of transition will come to a halt in the year 1312, and then the various stages of the redemption itself will begin. Moses, in his final appearance, is not the Messiah but the harbinger of the Messiahs – the son of Joseph, and the son of David. He will be a poor man, but rich in kabbalistic Torah. The period of transition is a period of trouble and torment for the sacred group of the people of Israel, represented by the kabbalists, who will join in fierce conflict with their opponents and their detractors. The Zohar itself is a symbol of Noah’s ark, through which they were saved from the destruction of the flood. God revealed Himself to the original Moses through the fire of prophecy; but to the later Moses of the final generation He will be revealed in the flames of the Torah, that is to say, through the revelation of the mysteries of Kabbalah. Something of Moses shines upon every sage or righteous man who occupies himself in whatever generation with the Torah, but at the end of time he will appear in concrete form as the revealer of the Zohar. Allusions of this type exist in every section of the latest stratum.

The Author

According to the clear testimony of Isaac b. Samuel of Acre, who assembled the contradictory information concerning the appearance and nature of the Zohar in the early years of the 14th century, the book was published, part by part, not all at once, by the Spanish kabbalist Moses b. Shem Tov de Leon, who died in 1305, after he had met Isaac of Acre. This kabbalist wrote many books in Hebrew bearing his name, from 1286 till after 1293. He was connected with several kabbalists of his time, including Todros Abulafia and his son Joseph in Toledo, one of the leaders of Castilian Jewry, who supported Moses de Leon. From all that has already been said, the Zohar with its various strata was without doubt composed in the years that immediately preceded its publication, since it is impossible to uncover any section that was written before 1270. In actual fact, Moses de Leon was considered by some of Isaac of Acre’s colleagues to have been the actual author of the Zohar. When he made some investigations in Avila, the last city in which Moses de Leon lived, Isaac was told that a wealthy man had proposed to marry his son to the daughter of Moses’ widow provided that she would give him the original ancient manuscript from which, according to him, her deceased husband had copied the texts which he had published. However, both mother and daughter maintained that there was no such ancient manuscript, and that Moses de Leon had written the whole work on his own initiative. Opinions have been divided ever since as to the worth of this important evidence, and even the attitude of Isaac of Acre himself, whose story, preserved in Abraham Zacuto’s Sefer ha-Yuḥasin, which is interrupted in the midst of it, is not altogether clear, for he quotes from the Zohar in a few places in his books without relying on it at length or in main points. An analysis of the Zohar gives no support to the view that Moses de Leon edited texts and fragments of ancient works that came to him from the East. The question, therefore, is whether Moses de Leon himself was editor, author, and publisher, or whether a Spanish kabbalist, associated with him, wrote the book and gave it to him to edit. A decision can be made only on the basis of a comparison of the parts of the Zohar with the Hebrew writings of Moses de Leon, and on the basis of such information as the earliest extant quotations from the Zohar. Research into these questions leads to definite conclusions. In the extant works of Moses de Leon, and also in the earliest citations from the Zohar by Spanish kabbalists between 1280 and 1310, there are no quotations from the Ra’aya Meheimna and the Tikkunim. It may be supposed therefore that these latter were neither composed nor published by Moses de Leon. Of particular weight in this connection is the fact that Moses de Leon wrote a long work on the reasons for the commandments, but there is no similarity whatsoever between his Sefer ha-Rimmon and the Ra’aya Meheimna. In complete contrast to this, all his writings are extraordinarily replete with expositions, ideas, linguistic usages, and other matters to be found in the Zohar, from the stratum of the Midrash ha-Ne’lam and the main body of the Zohar, including those particular fragments designated above, which constitute the Pekuda at the beginning of the sections of the Ra’aya Meheimna. Often long sections like these, written here in Hebrew, contain no mention of the fact that they are derived from one source, and the author often prides himself on being the originator of things, which all exist nevertheless in the Zohar. Short pieces in the middle of a longer section are introduced in various ways which show that his real reference is to the Zohar: "it is expounded in the inner Midrashim"; "they say in the secrets of the Torah"; "the pillars of the world have discussed the secrets of their words"; "I have seen a profound matter in the writings of the ancients"; "I saw in the Yerushalmi"; "I have seen in the secrets of the depth of wisdom"; and so on. Quotations like these abound in his writings, and some of them are already present in the Aramaic version of the Zohar. There are also a few passages which do not occur in the existing Zohar, either because these particular texts did not survive or because they were not finally published. I. Tishby’s opinion is that several of them were introduced only as pointers to what the author intended to write, but he did not in fact manage to write out these matters at length. But it is more likely that the greater part of the Zohar was available to him when he wrote his Hebrew books.

Moses de Leon’s Hebrew style reveals in many particulars those idiosyncrasies of the Aramaic of the Zohar indicated above, and we find especially those mistakes and errors of usage which are characteristic of the Zohar and are not found in the works of any other writer. He writes in this style even when his writing does not reflect the actual expositions of the Zohar, but expresses his own personal ideas or adds a new dimension to ideas in the Zohar. He has a completely unfettered control of the material in the Zohar and uses it like a man using his own property. He ties together expositions from different parts of the Zohar, adding to them combinations of themes and new expositions, which are in perfect accord with the zoharic spirit and show that his thinking is identical with that of the Zohar. In many cases his writings constitute an interpretation of difficult passages of the Zohar which later kabbalists did not interpret literally. Whenever in his writings he diverges freely from the subjects treated in the Zohar, his variations do not constitute any proof that he did not understand his "source." Sometimes he openly mentions the true literary sources which are concealed in the Zohar. The long passage from the Book of Enoch which is quoted in his Mishkan ha-Edut is written entirely in his own particular Hebrew style. Features which are peculiar to the Zohar, and which distinguish it from other contemporary kabbalistic works, recur in the works of Moses de Leon. These are in particular the exaggerated use of mythical imagery, the sexual symbolism developed with regard to the relationships between the Sefirot, and the striking interest shown in demonology and sorcery. Consequently, there is no reason to assume that an unknown author wrote the Zohar in the lifetime of Moses de Leon, and then passed it on to him. The authorship of Moses de Leon solves the problems raised by an analysis of the Zohar together with his Hebrew works. These books were largely written in order to prepare the ground for the publication of the texts of the Zohar which went hand in hand with this work. In particular, the Mishkan ha-Edut (1293) is full of recommendations and praise for the secret sources upon which it is based.

The solution of the fundamental question of the identity of the Zohar’s author leaves questions which are still open on several counts; e.g., the order of composition of the sections of the main stratum of the Zohar; and the final editing of the Zohar before its texts were publicly disseminated, if indeed there was an editing at all, for there is evidence here for both possibilities. The main question still needing clarification is the relationship between Moses de Leon and Joseph Gikatilla, which apparently was very close and reciprocal. Similarly we still have to solve the problem of the author of the Ra’aya Meheimna, who, unlike Moses de Leon, left no other books which can identify him. Whether other kabbalists knew of Moses de Leon’s plan and helped him in some way to achieve his aim is not clear. What is clear is that many kabbalists, after the appearance of the book, considered themselves free to write works in the style of the Zohar and to imitate it – a liberty which they would not have taken with Midrashim whose genuineness and antiquity were beyond question. This fact shows that they did not take seriously the claim of the Zohar to be accepted as an ancient source, even though they saw in it a fine expression of their own spiritual world.

Manuscripts and Editions

The circumstances surrounding the appearance of the Zohar are not known in detail. The first texts which circulated among a few kabbalists were of the Midrash ha-Ne’lam, and the earliest quotations are to be found in two books by Isaac b. Solomon Abi Sahula, the Meshal ha-Kadmoni (Venice, c. 1546–50) and his commentary to Song of Songs, which were written in 1281 and 1283 in Guadalajara, where Moses de Leon lived at that time. He is the only author who knew and quoted the Midrash ha-Ne’lam before Moses de Leon himself began to write his Hebrew works. Todros Abulafia also possessed such texts and quoted from them in his books. Parts of the main body of the Zohar circulated from the late 1280s. An examination of the quotations from the Zohar found in contemporary writing shows that

(1) they possessed only isolated parts, depending on what each of them could obtain;

(2) they knew a few expositions or parts which do not appear in the Zohar we have;

(3) they made use of it without regarding it as a supreme authority in Kabbalah.

In about 1290 some portions of the Zohar on the Torah were known to Baḥya b. Asher, who translated several passages word for word in his commentary to the Torah without mentioning his source, and generally used the Zohar widely. Twice, however, he refers to very short passages in the name of the Midrash R. Simeon b. Yoḥai. Other sections, including the Idrot, were in the possession of Gikatilla when he wrote Sha’arei Orah, before 1293. From the anonymous Ta’amei ha-Mitzvot, which was probably written in the 1290s, it appears that some passages were known to the author. From 1300 onward there is an increase in the number of quotations actually cited under the specific name Zohar or Midrash ha-Ne’lam, which sometimes served as the title for the whole Zohar. Solomon b. Abraham Adret’s pupils, who wrote many kabbalistic works, quoted the Zohar only rarely, and they clearly exercised some restraint in the use of it. Menahem Recanati of Italy also possessed some isolated parts in this time, and he used them widely, mentioning his source in his commentary to the Torah and in his Ta’amei ha-Mitzvot. In the latter book he makes a distinction between the Zohar Gadol, which consisted mainly of the Idra Rabba, and the Zohar Mufla. The origin of this distinction is not clear. Recanati possessed only about one-tenth of the Zohar now extant, but he had access to an exposition of the mystery of sacrifices which no longer remains. Among the authors at this time (1310–30) who used the Zohar extensively were Joseph Angelino, the author of Livnat ha-Sappir, and David b. Judah he-Ḥasid, who wrote Marot ha-Ẓove’ot, Sefer ha-Gevul, and Or Zaru’a.

The position with regard to the earliest quotations is matched by our knowledge of the earliest Zohar manuscripts. Complete, well-ordered manuscripts did not circulate, and it is doubtful whether they ever existed. Mystics who took an interest in the Zohar made up anthologies for themselves from the texts they were able to procure; hence the great differences in the contents of the early manuscripts. An example of an anthology like this is the Cambridge Ms. Add. 1023, the oldest anthology yet known. It contains material which serves to complete another anthology which is now lost, and includes those parts of the Zohar which the compiler was able to obtain. This manuscript is from the last third of the 14th century, and contains a complete portion, otherwise unknown, of the Midrash ha-Ne’lam, which Isaac ibn Sahulah also knew. The Vatican Ms. 202, which is a little earlier, contains only isolated fragments from the Zohar. In the 15th century, manuscripts containing most of the portions of the Zohar were already compiled, but sometimes they still omit whole sections, e.g., the Idrot, the Sava, etc. (On these manuscripts see I. Tishby, Mishnat ha-Zohar, 1 (19572), 110–2.)

The differences between manuscripts of the Zohar and the printed editions are mainly in the field of spelling (words are mostly written plene in the manuscripts and in early quotations), and in the relatively large number of romanisms, which were later confused; in the wider use of the preposition bedil for begin; and in the alteration of the grammatical forms of the Targum and the Babylonian Talmud. There are many differences in the basic text but they are relatively unimportant, and usually different readings of this kind are given in brackets in the later printed editions. There are manuscripts from the 15th century of the Sefer Tikkunim as well, such as Paris Ms. 778. The Ra’aya Meheimna also exists in separate manuscripts. From 1400 onward the sanctity of the Zohar became more widely acknowledged in kabbalistic circles, and the criticisms of it which were heard here and there in the 14th century (e.g., in Joseph Ibn Waqar who wrote: "the Zohar contains many errors of which one must be wary, to avoid being misled by them") died down. At this time the spread and influence of the Zohar were confined mainly to Spain and Italy, and it was very slow to reach the Ashkenazi lands and the East. The great elevation of the Zohar to a position of sanctity and supreme authority came during and after the period of the expulsion from Spain, and it reached its peak in the 16th and 17th centuries.

The Zohar was printed amid a fierce controversy between those who opposed its publication, among whom were some important kabbalists, and its supporters (see S. Assaf, Mekorot u-Meḥkarim be-Toledot Yisrael (1946), 246–328). The first two editions of the Zohar were published by competing printers in the neighboring cities of Mantua (1558–60) and Cremona (1559–60). The Tikkunei ha-Zohar was also published separately in Mantua (1558). The editors of these two editions used different manuscripts – hence the differences in the order and in detailed readings. Immanuel of Benevento who established the Mantua text used ten manuscripts, from which he arranged his edition, and chose the text which he considered to be the best. Among the correctors at Cremona was the apostate grandson of the grammarian Elijah Levita (Baḥur), Vittorio Eliano. They used six manuscripts. The Mantua Zohar was printed in three volumes in Rashi script, while the Cremona Zohar was in one large volume in square script. Both of them contain a large number of printing errors. Both include the Ra’aya Meheimna, but they differ as to the placing of the different mitzvot. According to size, the kabbalists called these two editions Zohar Gadol ("Large Zohar") and Zohar Katan ("Small Zohar"). The Zohar Gadol was printed on two more occasions in this form, in Lublin in 1623, and in Sulzbach in 1684. The Polish and German kabbalists up to about 1715 generally used the Zohar Gadol. All other editions follow the Mantua format. Altogether the Zohar has been printed more than 65 times and the Tikkunei Zohar nearly 80 times. Most of the editions come from Poland and Russia, but there are also printings from Constantinople, Salonika, Smyrna, Leghorn, Jerusalem, and Djerba. In later editions they added the variant readings of the Cremona text and corrected many printing errors. They also added variants and readings from the manuscript of the Safed kabbalists, indications of biblical sources, and introductions. The Zohar was printed twice in Leghorn with an (incorrectly) vocalized text. Those sections in the Safed manuscripts which were not found in the Mantua edition were, except from the Midrash ha-Ne’lam to Ruth, printed together in a separate volume in Salonika in 1597, which was called Zohar Ḥadash in the later editions. The best of these are Venice, 1658, and Munkacs, 1911. All the sections of the Zohar were included in the complete edition of Yehudah Ashlag, Jerusalem, 1945–58, in 22 volumes, with a Hebrew translation and textual variants from the earlier editions. The Tikkunei ha-Zohar began to appear in 1960, and by 1970 was not completed. A critical edition based on early manuscripts does not yet exist.


The crucial importance of the Zohar in the development of Kabbalah and in the life of the Jewish community can be seen in the vast exegetical literature and the large number of manuals that were composed for it. Most of these commentaries have not been printed, notably the commentary of Moses Cordovero Or ha-Yakar, of which five volumes have appeared (Jerusalem, 1962–70) – a complete version of this exists in the library at Modena in 19 large volumes; and the commentary of Elijah Loans of Worms, Adderet Eliyahu, and Ẓafenat Pa’ne’aḥ, which exists at Oxford in four large volumes in the author’s own hand. The early commentaries to the Zohar have not survived. Although Menahem Recanati mentions his own commentary in his Ta’amei ha-Mitzvot, most commentaries are based on Lurianic Kabbalah and do not add much to our understanding of the Zohar itself, e.g., Zohar Ḥai of Isaac Eizik Safrin of Komarno, which was printed in 1875–81 in five volumes, and Dammesek Eliezer by his son Jacob Moses Safrin, which was printed in seven volumes in 1902–28. The most important commentary for a literal understanding of the Zohar is Ketem Paz by Simeon Labi of Tripoli (written about 1570), of which only the Genesis section has been printed (Leghorn, 1795), but this also diverges quite often from the literal meaning and offers fanciful interpretations. Second in importance is the Or ha-Ḥammah, a compilation by Abraham b. Mordecai Azulai, which includes an abridgment of Cordovero’s commentary, the commentary of Ḥayyim Vital which was written in the main before he studied with Luria, and the Yare’aḥ Yakar, a commentary by Abraham Galante, one of Cordovero’s pupils. Azulai arranged these commentaries together corresponding to each page of the text of the original Zohar. The whole work was printed with the title Or ha-Ḥammah in four volumes in Przemysl in 1896–98. It reflects the Cordovero school of Zohar exposition. A very widely known commentary, half literal and half Lurianic, is the Mikdash Melekh of Shalom Buzaglo, a Moroccan rabbi of the 18th century, which was printed in Amsterdam in five volumes in 1750, and several times subsequently. It was printed together with the Zohar itself in Leghorn in 1858. The commentary, Ha-Sullam, in Yehudah Ashlag’s edition of the Zohar, is part translation and part exposition. These commentaries do not consider the comparison of the Zohar with earlier material in rabbinic literature or in other kabbalistic works. The commentaries of the Gaon Elijah of Vilna are important, namely Yahel Or, and his commentary to the Sifra di-Ẓeni’uta, which is characterized by his comparative approach. Both of them were printed together in Vilna in 1882. Among the many commentaries to the Tikkunei Zohar, the Kisse Melekh of Shalom Buzaglo must be singled out, and also the Be’er la-Ḥai Ro’i of Ẓevi Shapira (printed in Munkacs, 1903–21), three of whose volumes cover only about half the book.

Of the aids to the study of the Zohar the most useful are Yesh Sakhar, a collection of the laws in the Zohar, by Issachar Baer of Kremnitz (Prague, 1609); Sha’arei Zohar, a clarification of zoharic statements through their relationship to Talmud and Midrash, set out in the order of tractates and Midrashim, by Reuben Margulies (Jerusalem, 1956); a collection of zoharic statements on the Psalms by Moses Gelernter (Warsaw, 1926); and Midreshei ha-Zohar Leket Shemu’el by S. Kipnis, three volumes (Jerusalem, 1957–60), a collection of zoharic statements on the Bible with explanation. Keys to the subject matter of the Zohar are to be found in Mafteḥot ha-Zohar, arranged by Israel Berekhiah Fontanella (Venice, 1744), and in Yalkut ha-Zohar by Isaiah Menahem Mendel (Piotrikov, 1912).


The question of translating the Zohar into Hebrew had already arisen among the kabbalists of the 14th century. David b. Judah he-Ḥasid translated into Hebrew most of the quotations from the Zohar which he cited in his books. According to Abraham Azulai, Isaac Luria had "a book of the Zohar translated into the holy tongue by Israel al-Nakawa," the author of Menorat ha-Ma’or in which all the quotations from the Zohar, under the name of Midrash Yehi Or, are in Hebrew. In the Vatican manuscripts of the Zohar (nos. 62 and 186), several sections have been translated into Hebrew in the 14th or 15th century. According to Joseph Sambari, Judah Mas’ud translated the Zohar into Hebrew in the 16th century. A translation of the Zohar from the Cremona edition, dating from the year 1602, is extant in Oxford Ms. 1561, but the more esoteric passages are omitted; the translator was Barkiel Cafman Ashkenazi. The Genesis part of this work was printed by Obadiah Hadaya (Jerusalem, 1946). In the 17th century Samuel Romner of Lublin translated a large part of the Zohar under the title Devarim Attikim (Dembitzer, Kelilat Yofi, 2 (1960), 25a); this is extant in Oxford Ms. 1563, with rabbinic authorizations dated 1747, showing that they had intended to have it printed. According to Eliakim Milsahagi of Brody, about 1830, in his Zohorei Ravyah (Jerusalem Ms.), he translated the whole of the Zohar into Hebrew, and to judge from his excellent style this must have been the finest translation made, but it is now lost together with most of his separate studies on the Zohar. In the 20th century large sections were translated by Judah Rosenberg in Zohar Torah in five volumes; and similarly, commentaries on the Zohar to Psalms and the Megillot in two volumes (New York, 1924–25; Bilgoraj, 1929–30). This translation is devoid of any literary qualities. The Hebrew writer Hillel Zeitlin began to translate the Zohar, but he did not continue. The preface to the Zohar in his translation was printed in Metsudah (London, 1 (1943), 36–82). A complete and extremely literal translation (but not without many textual misunderstandings) is contained in the edition of the Zohar by Yehudah Ashlag. Many selected pieces were translated in a meticulous and fine style by F. Lachower and I. Tishby, Mishnat ha-Zohar (2 vols., 1957–612).

Even before the Zohar was printed, the French mystic Guillaume Postel had prepared a Latin translation of Genesis and of the Midrash on Ruth, which is extant in manuscript in the British Museum and in Munich. The preface to it was published by F. Secret. The Christian mystic Chr. Knorr von Rosenroth also made a Latin translation of important parts, particularly the Idrot and the Sifra de-Ẓeniuta, in his large work Kabbala Denudate (Sulzbach, 1677; Frankfurt, 1684), and most of the quotations from the Zohar or translations of those pieces which appeared in other European languages were taken from here, together with all the mistakes of the original translator, e.g., the works of S.L. Mathers, The Kabbalah Unveiled (1887); Paul Vulliaud, Traduction intégrale du Siphra de-Tzeniutha (1930). A French translation of the three volumes of the standard editions of the Zohar was prepared by Jean de Pauly (the later name of a baptized Jew from Galicia) but it is full of distortions and adulterations and accompanied by a great many false textual references, often to books which do not contain them at all or to books which have never existed. The translation was corrected by a Jewish scholar who knew Talmud and Midrash but did not correct the mistakes in the field of Kabbalah, which he did not understand. This translation, Sepher ha-Zohar (Le Livre de la Splendeur) Doctrine ésotérique des Israélites traduit… par Jean de Pauly, was magnificently printed in six volumes in Paris (1906–11). An English translation of the main part of the Zohar, with the omission of those sections which seemed to the translators to be separate works or additions, was The Zohar by Harry Sperling and Maurice Simon, published in five volumes in London (1931–34). The translation is in good style but suffers from incomplete or erroneous understanding of many parts of the kabbalistic exposition. A German anthology of many characteristic quotations from the Zohar was made by Ernst Mueller, who was obviously influenced by the teaching of Rudolf Steiner (Der Sohar, das heilige Buch der Kabbala, 1932).


Scholarly research into the Zohar did not begin with the kabbalists, however deeply interested they were in its teaching: they accepted uncritically the literary romantic background of the book as historical fact. The Jewish opponents of the Kabbalah expressed doubts about the veracity of this background from the end of the 15th century onward, but they did not delve deeply into a scholarly investigation of the Zohar. Christian interest in the Zohar was not at first scholarly but theological. Many thought they would find support for Christian ideas and developed a "Christian Kabbalah," and most of the writings up to the middle of the 18th century reflect this spirit. No scholarly value can be attached to these efforts. The first critical work was the Ari Nohem of Leon Modena (1639) who questioned the authenticity and antiquity of the Zohar, from the point of view of language and other matters, but he did not undertake a detailed study. The book was printed as late as 1840 (Leipzig), but its circulation in manuscript aroused the wrath of the kabbalists who saw every attempt at critique as an assault upon the sacred, and they replied to it, and to later books which were written in the same vein, with a considerable number of works defending the Zohar, but these are of little historical worth. Leone Modena’s critique was also stimulated by a polemic against certain claims of Christian Kabbalah, while that of Jacob Emden was connected with the struggle against the Shabbateans, who went to extreme lengths of heresy in their interpretations of the Zohar. In Mitpaḥat Sefarim (Altona, 1768), Emden concluded on the basis of a large number of specific errors in the Zohar that many sections, and particularly the Midrash ha-Ne’lam, were late, although he still assumed that there was an ancient foundation for the main body of the book. The maskilim followed him, especially Samuel David Luzzatto in his Vikku’aḥ al Ḥokhmat ha-Kabbalah ve-al Kadmut Sefer ha-Zohar ("An Argument Concerning the Wisdom of the Kabbalah and the Antiquity of the Zohar" (1827), printed in Gorizia, 1852). These two books, Emden’s and Luzzatto’s, elicited several replies seeking to answer the questions they raised, particularly Ben Yoḥai by Moses Kunitz (Vienna, 1815), and Ta’am le-Shad by Elia Benamozegh (Leghorn, 1863). The profound inquiries by Eliakim Milsahagi in several books devoted to the Zohar would have much furthered historical inquiry had they been printed and not simply remained in manuscript. He towered head and shoulders above many of the writers who succeeded him. There remain only a few pages of his in the Sefer Ravyah (Ofen, 1837) and his introduction Zohorei Ravyah (Ms. in National Library, Jerusalem). The great 19th-century scholars of Judaism, Zunz, Steinschneider, and Graetz, went further than Jacob Emden and saw the Zohar as a product of the 13th century. Meyer Landauer tried to prove that the Zohar was produced by Abraham Abulafia, and A. Jellinek directed attention once more to Moses de Leon, A. Frank and D.H. Joel argued as to whether the teaching of the Zohar was of Jewish or foreign origin, and an echo of this kind of controversy reverberated throughout most of the literature of the maskilim, whose very general conclusions were not based on a close attention to detail and are marred by many weak arguments. Because of the lack of precise critical inquiry, scholars chose to solve the problem of the Zohar in accordance with their own subjective views, and the very widespread belief was that the Zohar was the creation of many generations and was only edited in the 13th century. There were also those who admitted that Moses de Leon had a greater or lesser share in the editing. The results of the many studies by G. Scholem and I. Tishby, which were based on detailed research, do not support these theories and lead to the view summarized above. There is no doubt that scholarly research into the Zohar has only just begun and will develop in detail in connection with research into the history of 13th-century Kabbalah in general. In the bibliography works are listed which reflect various points of view.

[Gershom Scholem]

Later Research

Gershom Scholem, the founder of the modern academic study of Jewish mysticism, was particularly interested in the authorship, historical context, and the mythical doctrines of the Zohar. He devoted two chapters in Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism to the author of the Zohar and the worldview expressed in its theosophic orientation. Scholem understood the Zohar as a pseudoepigraphic composition – a work deliberately attributed by its authors to someone else – namely a medieval work attributed to Rabbi Shimon bar Yoḥai. He argued that its composition should be dated to the period between the mid-1270s and late 1280s, and concluded that the Zohar was the fruit of a single spiritual-literary genius, Rabbi Moses de León. Scholem suggested that the different literary units within the Book of the Zohar ought to be understood as compositions arising from different periods of the intellectual development of Moses de León. Scholem saw in the Zohar a mythical, innovative composition, created in the heart of medieval rabbinic Judaism, and emphasized its originality and daring more than its relationship to earlier literary traditions. Since Scholem’s work, the Zohar has become an integral part of Kabbalah research and found its place in the canon of literary and spiritual works of the Middle Ages.

Isaiah Tishby’s research into the Zohar relied on the key assumptions of Scholem’s research. His monumental work, The Wisdom of the Zohar, now available in English, is the product of academic research which further seeks to bring the treasures of the Zohar to the modern reader who may not be well versed in the text or its language. Tishby’s great contribution lies in his classification of the central topics discussed in the Zohar and in his scholarly, detailed, and systematic introductions to these topics. Alongside these studies he translated into Hebrew (together with Fischel Lachower) many select texts from the Zohar.

Yehuda Liebes contributed many ground breaking studies to Zohar scholarship. In his seminal article, "The Messiah of the Zohar," Liebes explored the messianic character of the hero of the Zohar, Rabbi Shimon bar Yoḥai, and the messianism of the entire composition. In this article, he explored many other aspects of the Zohar including zoharic myth and composition, the place of eros and sexuality in the Zohar’s unique language, the world of the companions, analysis of the Idra Rabba and Idra Zuta, different conceptions of tikkun (rectification), and the influence of the Zohar on later Jewish mystics. Liebes argues that the zoharic narratives and homilies are necessarily intertwined and must therefore be analyzed with the zoharic story as an essential component of the text, constituting a key to the text’s uniqueness and not merely as the insignificant frame for the homilies expounded therein.

In his article, "How the Zohar was Written," Liebes reopened the question of the authorship and composition of the Zohar. He points to a range of content, conceptual, and stylistic factors, which challenged Scholem’s view of a single author creating the Zohar. Liebes refocused attention from the question of who wrote the Zohar to how the Zohar was written. This study concludes that the Zohar is the product of a circle of mystics and not the work of a single author. In his article Zohar and Eros, Liebes focused on the place of eros and sexuality as the vital force in the Zohar and that which bestows upon the composition its unique place in the annals of Jewish literature.

Elliot Wolfson has written many important studies on the Zohar and emphasizes the centrality of mystical and ecstatic experience in kabbalistic and zoharic creativity while presenting a critical analysis of earlier approaches to the relationship between theosophy and experiential mysticism in the Zohar. His major claim is that an understanding of the world of the Zohar necessitates an appreciation of the fact that the Zohar is not merely a speculative or theoretical work, but rather presents practical means for attaining ecstatic states of union with or participation in the divine. Wolfson has written extensively on issues of gender and sexuality in the Kabbalah as a whole and especially in the Zohar. He argued for the centrality of male sexuality in both mystical experience and exegetical process in the Zohar as opposed to the secondary and dependant status of the feminine.

In Kabbalah: New Perspectives, Moshe Idel explored the spiritual and intellectual characteristics of the kabbalistic climate in which the Zohar was produced. He claimed that the circle of mystics responsible for the Zohar came into being out of the creative processes of a secondary elite of spiritual leadership. Idel distinguishes between a primary elite, comprising those scholars and rabbis who assumed central leadership roles in the community, and a secondary elite, the members of which constituted a second order of leadership characterized by the freedom to choose a creative and innovative path without seeking the approval of the legal and spiritual authorities of the time. In his book Absorbing Perfections he focused and extended his detailed and extensive research in the field of kabbalistic hermeneutics in which he explored the nature of the kabbalistic and zoharic symbol and the uniqueness of the symbolic-dynamic interpretation of the Zohar.

In the early 21st century Daniel Matt was working on the monumental enterprise of producing an annotated English translation of the Zohar, based on a critical Aramaic text that he is reconstructing from numerous Zohar manuscripts. As of 2006, three volumes had appeared, covering the Zohar’s commentary on Genesis. The complete translation, titled The Zohar: Pritzker Edition, is projected to comprise 11–12 volumes.

In his research he has also highlighted the tension between innovation and traditionalism in the zoharic consciousness and has explored the way in which the Zohar as a whole understands itself as representing an alternative Jewish culture to that of classical rabbinic culture.

Arthur Green recently published a popular introductory volume for the Pritzker edition of the Zohar, translated by Daniel Matt.

Charles Mopsik translated into French select parts of the zoharic corpus as well as the writings of Rabbi Moses de León, introduced with detailed commentary which explored the ideological and literary context of this corpus. Mopsik further took issue with Liebes’ claim about the circle of the Zohar, arguing again for the solitary literary production of the work by R. Moses de León.

Ronit Meroz heads a project which seeks to publish a critical edition of the Zohar. Her research of the Zohar suggests that through the use of philological-historical tools accompanied with literary ones it is possible to identify different chronological layers in the zoharic text. Meroz seeks to delineate discrete literary units in the composition and to test the hypothesis that different units were composed by different authors who were part of a literary movement. Meroz seeks to locate the beginning of what would later become the Zohar in texts composed as early as the 11th century somewhere in the Middle East. The earliest zoharic literary strata that she has defined is written in Hebrew, while the most refined, rich, and complex one, which Meroz calls the "Epic unit," was composed at the end of the 13th century and has at its center the spiritual biography of R. Simeon b. Yoḥai.

Israel Ta-Shma researched the halakhic world of the Zohar. He showed that the composition of the Zohar portrays Spanish halakhah even as it shows its dependence and intimate knowledge of French Jewish customs and liturgical rites.

Melila Hellner-Eshed’s book "A River Issues from Eden" provides a detailed phenomenological analysis of mystical experience in the Zohar. The book provides the reader with a lexicon for zoharic mystical experience, reviews the paths and practices through which the Companions of the Zohar attain their mystical experiences as well as the special language and modes of expression which are used in order to describe the mystical experience itself, and its unique characteristics. Hellner-Eshed sees the zoharic literature as having the performative aim of awakening the mystical consciousness of its readers. In her book there is also an exploration of dimensions of self consciousness and reflexivity in the Zohar.

Boaz Huss has explored the question of the appearance, acceptance, canonization, and sanctification of the Zohar. Huss has explored the zoharic comparison between the figures of Moses and R. Simeon Bar Yoḥai, the hero of the Zohar, and the Zohar’s preference for Bar Yoḥai over Moses. He claimed that the zoharic portrayal of Rabbi Simeon Bar Yoḥai reflects the self understanding of the Zohar’s authors, while the figure of Moses points to the authoritative and kabbalistically conservative character of Naḥmanides. The zoharic portrayal of Rabbi Simeon as superior to Moses, Huss argues, expresses the attempt of the Zohar’s authors to circumvent the authority of Naḥmanides and his school and to create a sanctified and canonized kabbalistic literature.

Daniel Abrams in various studies has stressed the necessity of distinguishing between the literary production of zoharic texts and the later historical reception of the disparate texts as a book. His central claim is that kabbalists and scholars alike have projected their expectations and assumptions of the "Book of the Zohar" back on to the earlier history of its composition in late 13th-century Spain. He claimed that there is no evidence as yet to show that the Zohar was written as a book, but rather the book was invented many centuries later as a separate editing effort. Abrams claims as well that the Zohar does not have an "author," as understood in modern conceptions of literature and of the individual.

In her book, Vision and Speech: Models of Revelatory Experience in Jewish Mysticism, Haviva Pedaya has written extensively on the religious experience of the Zohar and on strategies for identifying those parts of the Zoharic corpus written in revelatory states.

Oded Israeli wrote a book on the zoharic literary unit known as "Saba de-Mishpatim." In his research, he explored the key issues associated with this unit: the date of its composition, its place in the zoharic corpus, and its conceptual and literary characteristics.

The late strata of the Zohar, Ra’aya Meheimna and Tikkunei ha-Zohar, composed by an anonymous kabbalist in the beginning of the 14th century, have also enjoyed new investigation and scholarly studies. Pinchas Giller dedicated his book, The Enlightened Will Shine, to a study of these two later compositions. His later book, Reading the Zohar, detailed the various interpretative strategies among later commentators of the Zohar.

Amos Goldreich wrote on the self-image of the author of Ra’aya Meheimna and Tikkunei ha-Zohar. His edition of an unknown commentary to Ezekiel by this author is due shortly.

From this cursory overview of Zohar research, the great wealth of complex and complicated questions and issues explored by the Zohar’s many researchers and interpreters begins to emerge.


G. Scholem, Bibliographia Kabbalistica (1933), 66–210; M. Kunitz, Ben Yoḥai (1815); S.J. Rapoport, Naḥalat Yehudah (1873); S.Z. Anushinski, Maẓẓav ha-Yashar (1881–87); D. Luria, Kadmut Sefer ha-Zohar (1887); H. Zeitlin, Be-Fardes ha-Ḥasidut ve-ha-Kabbalah (1960), 55–279; D. Neumark, Toledot ha-Filosofyah be-Yisrael, 1 (1921), 204–45, 326–54; H.S. Neuhausen, Zohorei Zohar (1929); idem, in: Oẓar ha-Ḥayyim, 13 (1937), 51–59; J.A.Z. Margaliot, Middot Rashbi (1937); idem, Kokho de-Rashbi (1948); J.L. Zlotnik, Midrash ha Meliẓah ha-Ivrit (1938); Y. Baer, in: Zion, 5 (1940), 1–44; I. Tishby, Mishnat ha-Zohar (1957–61); idem, in: Perakim (1967–68), 131–82; Scholem, Mysticism, 156–243, 385–407; idem, in: Zion (Me’assef), 1 (1926), 40–56; idem, in: MGWJ, 75 (1931), 347–62, 444–48; idem, in: Tarbiz, 19 (1948), 160–75; 24 (1955), 290–306; idem, in: Sefer Assaf (1953), 459–95; idem, in: Le-Agnon Shai (1959), 289–305; idem, On the Kabbalah and its Symbolism (1965), 32–86; E. Gottlieb, Ha-Kabbalah be-Khitvei Rabbenu Baḥya ben Asher (1970), 167–93; R. Margulies, Malakhei Elyon (19642); idem, Sha’arei Zohar (1956); S.A. Horodezky, Ha-Mistorin be-Yisrael, 2 (1952), 266–339; P. Sandler, in: Sefer Urbach (1955), 222–35; M.Z. Kadari, Dikduk ha-Lashon ha-Aramit shel ha-Zohar (1970); idem, in: Tarbiz, 27 (1958), 265–77; M. Kasher, in: Sinai Jubilee Volume (1958), 40–56; S. Belkin, in: Sura, 3 (1958), 25–92; A. Franck, The Kabbalah: The Religious Philosophy of the Hebrews (19672); E. Waite, The Secret Doctrine in Israel (1913); A. Bension, The Zohar in Moslem and Christian Spain (1932); R.J.Z. Werblowsky, in: JJS, 10 (1959), 25–44, 113–35; D.H. Joel, Midrash haZohar: Die Religionsphilosophie des Sohar und ihr Verhaeltnis zur allgemeinen juedischen Theologie (19233); A. Jellinek, Moses b. Schem-Tob de Leon und sein Verhaeltnis zum Sohar (1851); Graetz, Gesch, 7, 430–48; I. Stern, in: Ben Chananja, 1–4 (1858–62); W. Bacher, in: REJ, 22 (1891), 33–46, 219–9; S. Karppe, Etude sur les origines et la nature du Zohar (1901); E. Mueller, Der Sohar und seine Lehre (19593); M. Preis, in: MGWJ, 72 (1928), 167–84; Etudes et Correspondance de Jean de Pauly relatives au Sepher ha-Zohar (1933); H. Sérouya, La Kabbale (19572), 198–395; F. Secret, in: Etudes Juives, 10 (1964); M. Benayahu, Ha-Defus ha-Ivri be-Cremona (1971), 206–9. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: The Zohar: Pritzker Edition, tr. and commentary by D.C. Matt, vols. 1–3 (2004–6); D. Abrams, "When the ’Introduction’ to the Zohar was Written, and Changes Within Differing Copies of the Mantua Printing," in: Asufot, 8 (1994), 211–26 (Heb.); idem, "The Zohar as a Book: On the Assumptions and Expectations of the Kabbalists and Modern Scholarship," in: Kabbalah: Journal for the Study of Jewish Mystical Texts, 12 (2004), 201–32; M. Hellner-Eshed, "Ve-Nahar Yoẓe me-Eden": Al Sefat ha-Havayah ha-Mistit ba-Zohar (Heb., 2005); B. Huss, "Sefer ha-Zohar as a Canonical, Sacred and Holy Text," in: Journal of Jewish Studies, 7 (1998), 275–307; idem, "The Anthological Interpretation: The Emergence of Anthologies of Zohar Commentaries in the Seventeenth Century," in: Prooftexts, 19 (1999); idem, "Ḥakham adif mi-Navi: Rabbi Shim’on Bar Yohai u-Moshe Rabbeinu ba-Zohar," in: Kabbalah: Journal for the Study of Jewish Mystical Texts, 4 (1998), 103–39; idem, "Hofaato shel Sefer ha-Zohar," in: Tarbiz, 70 (2001), 507–42 (Heb.); P. Giller, The Enlightened Will Shine, Symbolization and Theurgy in the Later Strata of the Zohar (1993); idem, Reading the Zohar: The Sacred Text of the Kabbalah (2000); A. Goldreich, "Beirurim bi-Re’iato ha-Aẓmit shel Ba’al Tikkunei Zohar," in: M. Oron and A. Goldreich, Masuot (1994), 459–96; A. Green, A Guide to the Zohar (2004); M. Idel, Kabbalah: New Perspectives (1998); idem, Absorbing Perfections (2002); Y. Liebes, Studies in the Zohar, tr. by A. Schwartz, S. Nakache, and P. Peli (1993); idem, Perakim be-Millon Sefer ha-Zohar (Heb., 1983); idem, "Zohar ve-Eros," in: Alpayim, 9 (1994), 67–119 (Heb.); idem, "Ha-Zohar ke-Renesans," in: Da’at, 46 (2001), 5–11 (Heb.); idem, Torat ha-Yeẓirah shel Sefer Yeẓirah (2000); D.C. Matt, "’New-Ancient Words’: The Aura of Secrecy in the Zohar," in: P. Schäfer and J. Dan (eds.), Gershom Scholem’s "Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism": 50 Years After (1994), 181–207; R. Meroz, "Zoharic Narratives and Their Adaptations," in: Hispania Judaica, 3 (2001), 3–63; idem, Yuvalei Zohar: Li-She’elat Mekorotav shel ha-Zohar ve-Ofen Ḥibburo (Heb., 2006); idem, "Va-Ani lo Hayiti Sham?" in: Tarbiz, 71 (2002), 163–94 (Heb.); I.M. Ta-Shma, Ha-Nigleh she-ba-Nistar (Heb., 20012); I. Tishby (Heb. trans. and ed.), The Wisdom of the Zohar: An Anthology of Texts, tr. David Goldstein (1989); C. Mopsik, Le Zohar, vol. 1 (1981); vol. 2 (1984); vol. 3 (1991); vol. 4 (1996); Le Zohar: Le Livre de Ruth (1987); Lamentations, traduction annotation et introduction (2000); idem, "The Body of Engenderment in the Hebrew Bible, the Rabbinic tradition and the Kabbalah," in: Fragments for a History of the Human Body (1989), 48–73; H. Pedaya, Ha-Mareh ve-ha-Dibbur, Sources and Studies in the Literature of Jewish Mysticism, 8 (Heb., 2002); E. Wolfson, Through a Speculum That ShinesVision and Imagination in Medieval Jewish Mysticism (1994); idem, The Book of the Pomegranate, Moses De Leon’s Sefer ha-Rimmon (1988); idem, "Beautiful Maiden Without Eyes – Peshat and Sod in Zoharic Hermeneutics," in: M. Fishbane (ed.), The Midrashic Imagination: Jewish Exegesis, Thought and History (1993), 155–203; idem, "Hai Gaon’s Letter and Commentary on Aleynu: Further Evidence of Moses de Leon’s Pseudepigraphic Activity," in: JQR, 81 (1991), 365–410; idem, "Left Contained in Right: A Study in Zoharic Hermeneutics," in: AJS Review, 11 (1986), 27–52; idem, "Letter Symbolism and Merkavah Imagery in the Zohar," in: M. Hallamish (ed.), Alei Shefer: Studies in the Literature of Jewish Thought Presented to Rabbi Dr. Alexandre Safran (1990), 195–236 (English section); idem, "Forms of Visionary Ascent as Ecstatic Experience in the Zoharic Literature," in: P. Schäfer and J. Dan (eds.), Gershom Scholem’s "Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism", 50 Years After (1993), 209–35; O. Israeli, Parshanut ha-Sod ve-Sod ha-Parshanut: Megamot Midrashiyyot ve-Hermanoitiyot be-’Saba de-Mishpatim’ she-ba-Zohar, Sources and Studies in the Literature of Jewish Mysticism, 17 (Heb., 2005).

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