The Zohar (Hebrew: זהר meaning "Splendor" or "Radiance") is a mystical commentary on the Torah (the five books of Moses), written primarily in medieval Aramaic and considered to be the most important work of Kabbalah. It contains an esoteric discussion of the nature of God, the origin and structure of the universe, the nature of souls, sin, redemption, good and evil, and other multifarious metaphysical topics (especially cosmology).
The Zohar is considered to be the greatest work of Jewish mysticism. However, reaction to it among Jews has been mixed. The text has been lauded by many rabbis for opposing religious formalism, and for reinvigorating the experience of prayer. On the other hand, the Zohar has been condemned for propagating superstitious beliefs, especially centered on a host of spirits and demons. Many classical rabbis, especially Maimonides, viewed all such beliefs as a violation of Judaic principles of faith. Christians have noted that the Zohar contains many religious teachings that are compatible with Christian doctrine.
Today, the Zohar stands out as one of the most beautiful works of Jewish mysticism that has survived the passage of time.
The question of authorship of the Zohar is highly debated among scholars. The Zohar itself claims to be written in the second century by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. The text states that during a time of Roman persecution, Shimon bar Yochai apparently hid in a cave for thirteen years, studying the Torah, when he was inspired by Prophet Elijah to write the Zohar. Others, however, have argued that the Zohar was probably composed by its unveiler, Moses de Leon, who allegedly discovered the text during his visit to Jerusalem. Those who favor the authorship of Moses de Leon cite as evidence the story of the rich man from Avila named Joseph who offered Moses' widow (who had been left without any means of supporting herself) a large sum of money for the original text of the Zohar from which her husband had made the copy. It is said that she confessed to him that her husband himself was the author of the work.
Moreover, Elijah Delmedigo, in his Bechinat ha-Dat endeavored to show that it could not be attributed to Shimon bar Yochai because:
These arguments and others of the same kind were used by Leon of Modena in his Ari Nohem. A work devoted to the criticism of the Zohar was written, Miṭpaḥat Sefarim, by Jacob Emden, who, waging war against the remaining adherents of the Sabbatai Zevi movement, endeavored to show that the book on which Zevi based his doctrines was a forgery. Emden demonstrates that the Zohar misquotes passages of Scripture; misunderstands the Talmud; contains some ritual observances that were ordained by later rabbinical authorities; mentions the crusades against the Muslims (who did not exist in the second century); uses the expression esnoga, which is a Portuguese term for "synagogue,"; and gives a mystical explanation of the Hebrew vowel-points, which were not introduced until long after the Talmudic period.
There is a small group among the Orthodox, known as Dor Daim (דרדעים), who refuse to accept the Zohar. They are mainly from the Jewish community in Yemen, and claim that the Zohar cannot be true because its ideas clash with the ideas of the Rambam (Maimonides), the great medieval rabbi and rationalist, Rabbi Saadiah Gaon, and other early representatives of the Jewish faith.
In the mid-twentieth century, the Jewish historian Gershom Scholem contended that de Leon himself was the most likely author of the Zohar. Among other things, Scholem noticed the Zohar's frequent errors in Aramaic grammar, its suspicious traces of Spanish words and sentence patterns, and its lack of knowledge of the land of Israel. This finding is still disputed by many within Orthodox Judaism, although not because of any scholarly proofs, but rather because of tradition.
However, even if de Leon wrote the text, the entire contents of the book may not be fraudulent. Parts of it may be based on older works, and it was a common practice to ascribe the authorship of a document to an ancient rabbi in order to give the document more weight. It is possible that Moses de Leon considered himself inspired to write this text.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Kasher attempts to refute many of Scholem's points. He writes:
Concerning the Zohars' lack of knowledge of the land of Israel, Scholem bases this on the many references to a city Kaputkia (Cappadocia) which he states was situated in Turkey not in Israel. However, Rabbi Reuvein Margolies (Peninim U' Margolies) states that in an ancient Israeli tombstone there is mentioned a village Kaputkia. In addition, the Zohar states that this village was sitiuated within a day's walk, which would imply that the author of the Zohar had precise knowledge of the geography of Israel.
As to the references in the book to historical events of the post-Talmudic period, it was not deemed surprising that Shimon ben Yochai should have foretold future happenings.
According to legend, the alleged author of the Zohar, Rabbi Shimon, predicted that the work would remain hidden for exactly 1200 years from the Temple in Jerusalem's destruction in 70 C.E. until it was rediscovered. Just as predicted, Moses De Leon claimed to have discovered the manuscripts in a cave in 1270 C.E., and then duplicated it in his own handwriting shortly thereafter. Thus, the first extant copy of the Zohar appeared in Spain in the thirteenth century. It spread among the Jews with remarkable swiftness. Scarcely 50 years had passed before it was quoted by many Kabbalists, including the Italian mystical writer Menahem Recanati. Its authority was so well established in Spain in the fifteenth century that Joseph ibn Shem-Tov drew from it arguments in his attacks against Maimonides. Even representatives of non-mysticism oriented Judaism began to regard it as a revered book and to invoke its authority in the decision of some ritual questions.
The Zohar was quoted by Todros Abulafia, by Menahem Recanati, and even by Isaac of Acco, in whose name the story of the confession of Moses de Leon's widow is related.
Isaac evidently ignored the woman's alleged confession in favor of the testimony of Joseph ben Todros and of Jacob, a pupil of Moses de Leon, both of whom assured him on oath that the work was not written by Moses.
Much of Orthodox Judaism holds that the teachings of Kabbalah were transmitted from teacher to teacher, in a long and continuous chain, from the Biblical era until its redaction by Shimon ben Yochai. Many accept fully the claims that the Kabbalah's teachings are in essence a revelation from God to the Biblical patriarch Abraham, Moses and other ancient figures, but were never printed and made publicly available until the time of the Zohar's medieval publication. The greatest acceptance of this sequence of events is held within Haredi Judaism. It is worth noting that most of the major Halachic authorities accept the Zohar as authentic and/or have written works on the Kabala. This includes R' Yosef Karo, R' Moses Isserles, R' Solomon Luria, R' Yechiel Michel Epstein, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (The Alter Rebbe), The Vilna Gaon and R' Yisrael Meir Kagan.
Some in Modern Orthodox Judaism reject the above view as naive and accept the earlier rabbinic position that the Zohar was a work written in the medieval period by Moses de Leon, but argue that since it is obviously based on earlier materials, it can still be held to be authentic, but not as authoritative or without error as others might hold.
Jews in non-Orthodox Jewish denominations accept the conclusions of historical academic studies on the Zohar and other kabbalistic texts. As such, most non-Orthodox Jews have long viewed the Zohar as pseudepigraphy and apocrypha. Nonetheless, many accepted that some of its contents had meaning for modern Judaism. Siddurim edited by non-Orthodox Jews often have excerpts from the Zohar and other kabbalistic works (e.g., Siddur Sim Shalom edited by Jules Harlow, even though the editors are not kabbalists).
In recent years, there has been a growing willingness of non-Orthodox Jews to study the Zohar, and a growing minority have a position that is similar to the Modern Orthodox position described above. This seems pronounced among Jews who follow the path of Jewish Renewal.
The Zohar assumes four kinds of Biblical exegesis known as Pardes to derive its mystical interpretation of the Torah. These four types of exegesis are: Peshat ("simple/literal meaning"), Remez ("hint/allusion"), Derash ("interpretative/anagogical), and Sod ("secret/mystic"). The initial letters of the words (P, R, D, S) form together the word PaRDeS ("paradise/orchard"), which became the designation for the fourfold meaning of which the mystical sense is the highest part. (Note also the similarity to the word and concept of "paradise.")
The mystic allegory in the Zohar is based on the principle that all visible things, including natural phenomena, have both an exoteric reality and an esoteric reality, the latter of which instructs humanity in that which is invisible. This distinction also shapes the Zonhar's view on the universe is a gradation of emanations, it follows that the human mind may recognize in each effect the supreme mark, and thus ascend to the cause of all causes.
This ascension, however, can only be made gradually, after the mind has attained four various stages of knowledge; namely: (1) the knowledge of the exterior aspect of things, or, as the Zohar calls it (ii. 36b), "the vision through the mirror that projects an indirect light"; (2) the knowledge of the essence of things, or "the vision through the mirror that projects a direct light"; (3) the knowledge through intuitive representation; and (4) the knowledge through love, since the Law reveals its secrets only to those who love it (ii. 99b). After the knowledge through love comes the ecstatic state which is applied to the most holy visions. To enter the state of ecstasy one had to remain motionless, with the head between the knees, absorbed in contemplation and murmuring prayers and hymns. There were seven ecstatic stages, each of which was marked by a vision of a different color. At each new stage the contemplative entered a heavenly hall (hekal) of a different hue, until he reached the seventh, which was colorless, and the appearance of which marked both the end of his contemplation and his lapse into unconsciousness.
Other teachings of the Zohar include its glorification of man, its doctrine of immortality, and its ethical principles, which are more in keeping with the spirit of Talmudic Judaism than are those taught by the philosophers. While Maimonides and his followers regarded man as a fragment of the universe whose immortality is dependent upon the degree of development of his active intellect, the Zohar declared him to be the lord of the Creation, whose immortality is solely dependent upon his morality. According to the Zohar, the moral perfection of man influences the ideal world of the Sefirot; for although the Sefirot expect everything from the Ein Sof (Heb. אין סוף, infinity), the Ein Sof itself is dependent upon man: he alone can bring about the divine effusion. The dew that vivifies the universe flows from the just. By the practice of virtue and by moral perfection, man may increase the outpouring of heavenly grace. Even physical life is subservient to virtue. This, says the Zohar, is indicated in the words "for the Lord God had not caused it to rain" (Gen. 2:5), which means that there had not yet been beneficent action in heaven, because man had not yet been created to pray for it.
Professor Moshe Idel argues that the fundamental distinction between the rational-philosophic strain of Judaism and its mystical strain in the Zohar, is the belief that the Godhead is complex, rather than simple, and that divinity is dynamic and incorporates gender, having both male and female dimensions. These polarities must be conjoined (have yihud, "union") to maintain the harmony of the cosmos. Idel characterizes this metaphysical point of view as "ditheism," holding that there are two aspects to God, and the process of union as "theoeroticism." This ditheism, the dynamics it entails, and its reverberations within creation are arguably the central interest of the Zohar, making up a huge proportion of its discourse.
Professor Elliot Wolfson states that the oneness of God is perceived in androgynous terms as the pairing of male and female, the former characterized as the capacity to overflow and the latter as the potential to receive. Where Wolfson breaks with Idel and other scholars of the kabbalah is in his insistence that the consequence of that heteroerotic union is the resotration of the female to the male. Just as in the case of the original Adam, woman was constructed from man, and their carnal cleaving together in portrayed as becoming one flesh, so the ideal for kabbalists is the reconstitution of what Wolfson calls the male androgyne. Much closer in spirit to some ancient Gnostic dicta, Wolfson understands the eschatological ideal in traditional kabbalah to have been the female becoming male. If his reading is accepted, then Idel's ditheism may not be the most felicitous term to characterize kabbalistic theology.
In Studies in the Zohar, Professor Yehuda Liebes discusses the Zohar's secret teaching of God as a trinity. He says:
Scholem states that the need to posit this hidden trinity is because rabbis wanted to reconcile the existence of ten sefirot ("emanation") with a rabbinic teaching that there are thirteen attributes of God. He concludes the matter by cautioning "It is hardly surprising that Christians later found an allusion to their own doctrine of the trinity in this theory, although it contains none of the personal hypostases characteristic of the Christian trinity." (Ibid.)
Alan Unterman, Minister of the Yeshurun Synagogue and part-time Lecturer in Comparative Religion at the University of Manchester (UK), writes:
The Zohar evoked different reactions from the Jewish community. On the one hand, the Zohar was lauded by many rabbis because it opposed religious formalism, stimulated one's imagination and emotions, and for many people helped reinvigorate the experience of prayer. On the other hand, the Zohar was censured by many rabbis because it propagated many superstitious beliefs, and produced a host of mystical dreamers, whose overexcited imaginations peopled the world with spirits, demons, and all kinds of good and bad influences. Many classical rabbis, especially Maimonides, viewed all such beliefs as a violation of Judaic principles of faith.
Elements of the Zohar crept into the liturgy of the 16th and 17th centuries, and the religious poets not only used the allegorism and symbolism of the Zohar in their compositions, but even adopted its style, e.g., the use of erotic terminology to illustrate the relations between man and God. Thus, in the language of some Jewish poets, the beloved one's curls indicate the mysteries of the Deity; sensuous pleasures, and especially intoxication, typify the highest degree of divine love as ecstatic contemplation; while the wine-room represents merely the state through which the human qualities merge or are exalted into those of God.
Originally, many held that only Jewish men who were at least 40 years old could study Kabbalah, and by extension read the Zohar, because they were believed to be too powerful for those less emotionally mature and experienced.
The enthusiasm felt for the Zohar was shared by many Christian scholars, such as Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Johann Reuchlin, Aegidius of Viterbo, etc., all of whom believed that the book contained proofs of the truth of Christianity. They were led to this belief by the analogies existing between some of the teachings of the Zohar and certain Christian dogmas, such as the fall and redemption of man, and the dogma of the Trinity, which seems to be expressed in the Zohar in the following terms: "The Ancient of Days has three heads. He reveals himself in three archetypes, all three forming but one. He is thus symbolized by the number Three. They are revealed in one another.[These are: first, secret, hidden 'Wisdom'; above that the Holy Ancient One; and above Him the Unknowable One.  None knows what He contains; He is above all conception. He is therefore called for man 'Non-Existing' [Ayin]. 
This and other similar doctrines found in the Zohar are now known to be much older than Christianity; but the Christian scholars who were led by the similarity of these teachings to certain Christian dogmas deemed it their duty to propagate the Zohar. Shortly after the publication of the work (Mantua and Cremona, 1558) Joseph de Voisin translated extracts from it which deal with the soul. He was followed by many others.
The disastrous effects of the Sabbatai Zevi messianic movement on the Jewish community dampened the enthusiasm that had been felt for the book in the Jewish community. However, the Zohar is still held in great reverence by many Orthodox Jews, especially the Hasidim (Hasidic Jews).
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