Saturday, August 27, 2011

Zohar - Book of Splendor - Its Importance to the Jewish Kabbalah - Pt. 2

Now that we have established the background for the Zohar, examining the vast array of Hebrew religious literature and some of the individuals who were responsible for writing it (like Simeon ben Yochai), we can now proceed to examine the various books of the Zohar. What we will see is that the author of this massive set of writings sought to emulate and copy the methodology of the Tannaim and Amoraim scholars of the past epoch to create a decidedly esoteric and occult interpretation of specific passages, mostly from the Torah and a few other strategic works. So the very first task that the author sought to achieve was to produce a qabbalistic midrash. Because only certain passages and books of the Tenakh were actually important or useful, the qabbalistic midrash was neither comprehensive nor complete. Other books followed, but the actual sequence of all of the books, which was preserved in the original collective manuscripts, was lost when the books were printed in the late 16th century. One thing that we need to keep in mind is that the Zohar is not a single book, but is actually a collection or body of qabbalistic literature. In printed editions, the Zohar is composed of five volumes: volumes 1 through 3 are called the “Sepher ha-Zohar al ha-Torah,” volume 4 is called “Tikkunei ha-Zohar,” and the fifth volume is called the “Zohar Chadash.” The Zohar Chadash is a collection of quotations and other discourses found in the manuscripts of the Sefed kabbalists, which were made and later collected after the main body of the Zohar had already been printed.

I have consulted Gershom Scholem’s book, “Kabbalah” to assemble the information of the contents of the Zohar and a basic synopsis of each book. As I have already indicated, the Zohar was a collection of books, mostly assembled and written by a single author, with some additions possibly made by either another author or the same one at the end of his writing career. You can find the actual source of the information that I used about the Zohar in Scholem’s book, starting at page 213 and continuing through page 243. I found Scholem’s brief commentary on the history and contents of the Zohar to be invaluable. Still, for those who desire to study the contents of the Zohar, the book “Kabbalah Revealed” is still available, and three nearly complete authoritative English translations are available from three sources: the first by Maurice Simon and published by Soncino Press, second, the Pritzker edition edited by Daniel Matt, and the Kabbalah Center version. Of these three, I would recommend the Soncino version or the Pritzker edition.

Books of the Zohar

1. Selective Midrash - The first and main part of the Zohar consists of a selective midrash, and is constructed in such a fashion as to resemble an authoritative midrash on the Torah. Each section begins with a Psalm or verse from the books of the Prophets and then breaks into the actual verse of the Torah in question, accompanied with various declarations from the main teacher, who is Rabbi Simeon ben Yochai, and an accompanied discourse from his companions (harrayya). Another teacher who is quoted in the various sections is Rabbi Eleazar ben Hyrcanus, who doesn’t appear in the other books of the Zohar. In these sections, sometimes the conversations occur while they are traveling, sometimes over meals or during a rest period, and sometimes at night before retiring. Often, the discourse jumps to topics completely unrelated to the actual verse from the Torah. While this qabbalistic midrash undoubtably was formulated to eventually cover all of the more important verses of the Torah, it is decidedly sparse and incomplete. The style of the conversations are immersed in a kind of travel narrative including all of the trivial occurrence that such a journey would entail, which is apparently contrived to disguise what is really discourses and the elucidations of qabbalistic ideas. A second part consists of a partial midrash on the biblical book, Song of Songs, which was traditionally an important book for qabbalists.

2. Sifra de-Zeni’uta (Book of Concealment) - This book focuses exclusively on the first sentence of Genesis, the Bereshit (In the beginning) and expounds on the qabbalistic ideas about creation. It is formulated “in short obscure sentences like an anonymous Mishnah,” according to Scholem.

3. Idra Rabba (Greater Assembly) - This book consists of a discussion of the mysteries of Adam Kadmon, the primordial and first created man. The dissertation is conducted by Simeon, with comments and questions inserted by his companions. According to Scholem, this book is of a superior quality and is the most structured and detailed discourse in the entire Zohar.

4. Idra Zuta (Lesser Assembly) - This book tells of the death of Simeon ben Yochai and expounds on the closing words to his followers. Scholem has compared this book with a qabbalistic version of the death of Moses. This book was often considered the final book of the Zohar, since it deals with the death of its main protagonist.

5. Idra de-Vei MashKena - This book describes a study session conducted by Simeon with his students concerning the nature and components of the tabernacle of the temple. It also expounds on the mysteries of prayer.

6. Heikhalot (Palaces) - This book expounds on the detailed descriptions of the Seven Palaces in the celestial Garden of Eden. These palaces can be accessed through meditation and prayer, and is the final resting place for the religiously pious after their death. It includes special prayers and the angelology associated with the seven palaces. There is also a brief exposition of the seven palaces of uncleanliness, which would represent the domains of Hell.

7. Raza de-Razim (Secret of Secrets) - This book is derived from an anonymous source based on the occult sciences of physiognomy and chiromancy - divination based on the outer human anatomy and palmistry.

8. Sava de-Mishpatim (Discourses of the Old Man) - Simeon and his companions encounter an old man on their travels who is actually Rabbi Yeiva, disguised as donkey driver. Much to everyone’s wonder, he delivers a discourse on the doctrine of the human soul based on a mystical interpretation of the laws of servitude in the Torah.

9. Yanuka (Child) - Simeon and his companions encounter a child prodigy, who is the son of Rav Hamnuna. The child teaches the companions about the great mysteries found within the humble sayings of grace after meals, and other matters.

10. Rav Metivta (Head of the Academy) - This book contains a narrative about a visionary journey lead by Simeon ben Yohai and his students, where he takes them to the Garden of Eden and therein they receive the teachings of one of the celestial heads of the academy about the world to come and the mysteries of the human soul.

11. Kav ha-Middah (Standard of Measure) - Simeon gives a discourse on the details of emanation as found in the prayer, the Shema, to his son. The Shema is the prayer that is recited twice daily: “Hear now, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.”  

12. Sitrei Ottiyyot (Secrets of the Letters) - This books contains a discourse by Simeon on the letters of the divine name and how it is associated with the mystery of emanation.

13. This book has no official title, but contains an interpretation of the vision of the Chariot as found in Ezekiel, chapter 1.

14. Matnittin and Tosefta - These are a number of short sections that act as a mishnah of the Talmud and of the Zohar itself. Most of these sections begin with a heavenly voice heard by the companions followed by a short narrative discourse. The topics consists of summaries of the ideas of emanation and other key concepts found in the Zohar, These small sections are typically scattered throughout the Zohar to lend a greater authority to specific points made in the various books.

15. Sitrei Torah (Secrets of the Torah) - This book contains an analysis of specific verses in Genesis.

16. Midrash ha-Ne’lam (Esoteric Midrash) - The Esoteric Midrash functions as a subset of the main midrash (book 1), and consists of a mixture of short Hebrew and Aramaic expositions on strategic verses in the Tenakh. The topics are quintessentially qabbalistic, centered around themes that are the foundation of qabbalistic doctrines. It includes mostly sections from Genesis, compares the lives of the Prophets to the general fate of mankind, and includes the books of Ruth and the Song of Songs. This book was written mostly in Medieval Hebrew and parts of it may have been written before any of the other books.

17. Ta Chazei (Come and See) - This book consists of a number of expositions on the Bereshit, each beginning with the words, “Come and see!”

18. Ra’aya Meheima (Faithful Shepherd) - Faithful shepherd is a reference to Moses, which is used as a theme in this book. This book is considered a later edition to the corpus of the Zohar, and contains a qabbalistic interpretation of the Ten Commandments. Simeon and his companions, through the artifice of prayer, achieve a visionary encounter with Moses, and the various tannaim and amoraim who attend him. These various celestial spirits of the honored dead speak with the companions and teach them the mysteries of the commandments.

19. Tikkunei Zohar - (Chapters of Spendor) - This book contains many sections or chapters (tikkun) each of which expounds in a unique manner on the Bereshit of Genesis. It was designed to have 70 different sections, which would emulate the 70 aspects of the Torah, but in fact, there were many more. Even though the subject of each section is supposed to be about the Bereshit, the actual expositions digress and vary from the topic considerably, discussing items that do not appear in the main body of the Zohar. The Tikkunei is also considered a later edition to the Zohar, and is completely independent of it.

20. Numerous untitled fragments and short sections, some of which were not included in the printed editions of the Zohar, but do appear in the manuscript versions.

As you can see, the comprehensive Zohar is a massive work, but also one that is very consistent and tightly organized. Often there are pointers or references in one book that allude to a further discussion of a topic in another book, showing that the author wrote the Zohar using a disciplined layout of books and their contents. All of the books use the same method of composition and are constructed in an analogous manner. The style of writing is also consistent throughout, with the only exception being the Ra’aya Meheima and the Tikkunei Zohar, which are obviously written later by a different person. We will discuss that particular issue later in this article.

Sources, Historical References and Language Styles

Zohar text cites numerous literary sources, most of which are fictitious, and this has had the effect of burying the actual sources that the author used. Some of the actual sources are the Babylonian Talmud, the Midrash Rabbah and Tanchuma (three collections of Pentateuch haggadot), Midrash on the Psalms, the Targum Onkelos and several other authoritative books, some of which are no longer in existence. These sources are not captured word for word but are distilled or summarized into the peculiar literary style of the Zohar.

The sources of Jewish Kabbalah were, of course, the Sepher Yetzirah, Sepher ha-Bahir, Ma’yah ha-Chokmah, writings of Eleazer of Worms, Rabbi Ezra’s Commentary on the Song of Songs, the commentaries of Azriel of Gerona. Other influences were represented by a synthesis and distillation of the various ideas, doctrines, terminology and practices of the gnostic Jewish kabbalists of Castile. The ideas presented in the Zohar represents a distillation of the ideas of the Qabbalah from the Sepher ha-Bahir up to the writings of Joseph Gikatilla (Ginnat Egoz - 1274). It would seem that from the qabbalistic sources employed in the Zohar, that it was contemporaneous with qabbalistic thought of the late 13th century.

Additionally, there were numerous references to actual historical events and occurrences found sprinkled throughout the Zohar, such as the crusades and Arab rule in Jerusalem. Certain Jewish laws and customs cited are found only in late medieval Spain. This is also true pertaining to comments about medicine and pharmacological based remedies. Enough circumstantial information is imbedded in the text to fairly identify the cultural background of the Zohar as that of a nominally dominant Christian culture with various Muslim influences, which would fit the locale of Castile as the place where the Zohar was written.

From a linguistic perspective, the two languages used in the Zohar, which is Hebrew and Aramaic, have distinctive characteristics. The Hebrew, used mostly in the Midrash ha-Ne’lam, was particular to a type of unremarkable medieval Hebrew used in documents written in the late middle ages. This was due to the kind of special philosophical terminology that was employed in the text, which didn’t appear in the Hebrew language until long after the Geonic period.

However, the Aramaic is a peculiar synthetic form or imitation of that language, which appears to have been pieced together using idioms, phrases and words distilled from the Babylonian Talmud and various targumim (such as the Onkelos). It was obviously written by someone who was not at all fluent in Aramaic, but was very knowledgeable of Hebrew, and used that knowledge to synthesize an Aramaic language. While Aramaic and Hebrew are closely related, there are also a number of differences, such as the verb constructions, nouns and adjectives used; yet these differences proved to be stumbling blocks for the writer of the Zohar. New words were invented, syntax was confused, correct words were used incorrectly, and even errors and corruptions found in the copies that the author used were unwittingly passed on to the text of the Zohar.

So the language that the author used to compose the Zohar was highly synthetic and full of errors, which could hardly elevate it to the same literally level as the Sepher Yetzirah or the Sepher ha-Bahir - that would take a couple of hundred years to rectify. There was also the unsubtle phenomenon of borrowing Spanish and Arabic words to fashion Aramaic words, when no such Aramaic word was readily at hand. This peculiar version of Aramaic was, however, consistently used throughout the entire length and breadth of the work, strongly indicating that it was written by a single author. The two later books in the series (Ra’aya Meheima and the Tikkunei Zohar) are even more poorly written than the main body, both in regards to vocabulary and syntax. Thus, it would seem that the author of these two books attempted to emulate the peculiar style of the Zohar, and only partially succeeded.


There are many myths and arguments about who was the true author of the Zohar, since such a declaration was omitted from any of the books. Some Jewish kabbalists believe that the author is either unknown or that it is, in fact, Simeon ben Yochai. However, it’s doubtful that the Zohar has an ancient source because it is was written in a contrived and synthetic form of Aramaic. Certainly, someone from the Geonic period or even earlier would have been completely fluent in Aramaic as well as Hebrew. Gershom Scholem, in his book “Kabbalah” provides, what I believe to be the definitive proof that the author of the Zohar was known to the Jewish kabbalists of late 13th century Spain.

According to the testimony written by Isaac ben Samuel of Acre, the Zohar was disseminated as individual manuscript books at various times to various people, and the writer was a man he personally knew named Moses ben Shem Tov de Leon, who died in 1305 CE. Isaac of Acre met Moses de Leon only a few years before his death, but he was a known author of many books in the Hebrew language, from 1286 until after 1293. He was friends with many contemporary kabbalists, and he supposedly exchanged manuscripts and other papers with them.

One interesting bit of evidence that was remarked upon by Isaac of Acre about the authorship of the Zohar was that the widowed wife of Moses de Leon, who resided in Avila, was asked to give as a present the ancient source document (used to write the Zohar) in exchange for her daughters’ hand in marriage to a man who was seeking a wife for his son. Moses de Leon’s widow had to sadly tell the man that no such source document existed, and that the entire Zohar was written by her husband independently of any original source (other than the ones we have sited above).

Another curious occurrence was that the parceled out manuscript copies of the Zohar were used by Moses de Leon’s contemporaries to build up their own work, and at the time, they didn’t consider it to be of an ancient provenance, which would have required some restraint or respect. It wasn’t until the 16th century that the Zohar was considered to be an important work to qabbalists. Additionally, a comparison of the Hebrew writing style and idiom used in Moses de Leon’s known manuscripts was identical to the Hebrew used in the Zohar, which could also identify him as the unknown author.

Taken together, the evidence seems to be quite definitive that Moses de Leon was the author of the Zohar. Various copies of this work were spread amongst many of his contemporaries, but it wasn’t until much later that anyone had all of the books of the Zohar assembled into a single work. The assembling of this work into a collective body was done nearly a hundred years later by Jewish kabbalists, but some of the collected manuscripts had sections that were either missing or omitted from others. In addition, it appears that a few sections may have been altogether lost and never recovered. The sequence of books that the final circulated manuscript collections maintained was unfortunately altered when the Zohar was finally printed in the 1570's. However, the Zohar was avidly studied and lionized by the Jewish and Christian qabbalists of the 16th and 17th centuries, even despite the fact that the Aramaic language it employed was obviously highly flawed. Perhaps some saw this anomaly as a sign that it was truly antique, while others likely saw it as an obstacle to fully comprehending its secrets, whether deliberate or incidental.

The Zohar was the first successful attempts at producing a qabbalistic Midrash; prior to that great achievement, no one would have dared to have undertaken such an ambitious endeavor. It is apparent that Moses ben Shem Tov de Leon wrote this monumental work during the period between 1280 and 1286 as an attempt to distill at least two different philosophical schools (Gerona and Castile) into a single unified one, producing a work that merged rational philosophy with gnostic and occult insights and tenets.

As Gershom Scholem, in his book “Kabbalah” has so astutely declared: “The Zohar is the most important evidence for the stirring of the mythical spirit in medieval Judaism.”  (pg. 57)

And also:

The mingling of these two currents - the Kabbalah of Gerona and the Kabbalah of the ‘Gnostics’ of Castile - became in the mind of Moses de Leon a creative encounter which determined the basic character of the Zohar. Instead of the brief allusions and interpretations of his predecessors he presents a broad canvas of interpretations and homiletics covering the whole world of Judaism.” (also pg. 57)

This work consisted of a vast multi volume set of homiletics on the Torah, the books of Song of Songs, Ruth and Lamentations. These were not comprehensive commentaries, but instead focused on strategic passages. The Zohar had the effect of producing a kind of uniquely Jewish mystical based theology, even though it was also wedded to tenets that were particularly uncanonical.

Yet despite its irregularities and peculiar writing style, the Zohar helped overall to bring the Qabbalah into the mainstream of Jewish thought. This did not happen immediately, since the Zohar was fragmented for over a hundred years into the various books and sections elucidated above, until it was re-assembled and made available to qabbalists a few generations after Moses de Leon’s generation had passed away. The Zohar was an important foundation for the work that was to come later, in the Palestinian town of Sefed, where the brilliant diaspora of Spanish Jewish intellectuals came together to formulate the qabbalah that we would know and recognize today. Those great savants who built the Qabbalah of Cordovera and Luria owed a great debt to the obscure but daring writings of Moses de Leon and his Sepher Zohar, the Book of Splendor.

Whether or not we acknowledge the Tenakh and other Jewish literature as an important contribution to the sacred literature of the West, in order to understand the culture that we live in today, Jewish literature as well as Christian, represent an important keystone to an esoteric apprehension of the modern world. Even more important are the products of Jewish and Christian occultism, which underlie even the most ardent of modern pagan perspectives. To engage in ritual magick or even pagan mysticism, the tenets of Christian and Jewish occultism are as much a part of the melange of ideas and insights as any antique pagan philosophy, in fact, they are probably more important due to their relative proximity in time. Thus I can only assume that a modern pagan practice of ritual magick and witchcraft has within it occult elements of its predecessor religions, which are Christianity and Judaism, and they in turn, are built on the foundation of the pagan mysteries of antiquity.

Frater Barrabbas

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