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The Zohar

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The Zohar - The Zohar (Hebrew: זוהַר‎, meaning Radiance, and figuratively, Splendor) is a group of books that elaborate the theology and philosophy of the Kabbalah, a mystical theology. "Zohar" is also a modern Hebrew name, and the name of a small community near Kiriat Gat.

The Zohar is written in Aramaic, the language of Jewish scholarship. However, the Aramaic of the Zohar is relatively poor and is stylistically different from Talmudic Aramaic.

The Zohar is written as a commentary, exegesis or glossary on the Torah. It contains legends and allegories and discusses their symbolism, explaining the Bible on the basis of a mystical system.

Though some of the ideas of the Zohar were contained in earlier works, the Sefer Hayizira (book of the creation) and Sefer Habehira (the book of the clarity), the Zohar changes and develops and systematizes these ideas. 

According to the Zohar, God is manifest through ten attributes, the Sefirot. The Zohar and later Kabbalistic works show influences of gnostic dualism, and other concepts that are alien to traditional Jewish thought.


Traditional view of the origins of the Zohar

The "sefer Zohar" or "book of the Zohar" seems to have first appeared in 13th century Spain. Moses de Leon, who published the book, and Jewish tradition, attribute it to Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, a hero of the Jewish Revolt and a scholar of the Mishnah. The Zohar is written in  Aramaic and Hebrew. It is in the form of an exegesis of the five books of the Torah, which is used as the basis for expounding the mystical tradition of the kabbal. Its honored place in Jewish mysticism does not derive only from its antiquity or its authorship. Other works of the Kabbalah such as Sefer Yetzirah and Sefer HaBahir are supposedly of earlier origin. However, the Zohar was the most comprehensive work.

Acceptance of the Zohar spread rapidly among the Jews. About half a century after its appearance in Spain,  it was quoted by many Kabbalists. In the 15th century, Joseph ibn Shem-Tov drew from it arguments in his attacks against Maimonides. Non-Kabbalists came to accept the Zohar as a sacred book and invoked it in disputes of the Halachah. The Zohar was attractive to a general Jewish audience because of its glorification of man, its doctrine of immortality, and its ethical principles, as well as its de-emphasis of learning in favor of piousness and intent, which attracted Hassidic Jews.

Whereas 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 man to be the lord of the creation, whose immortality is solely dependent upon his morality.  According to the Zohar, the dew that gives life to the universe flows from the just. By practicing virtue and moral perfection, man may increase the outpouring of heavenly grace. Even physical life is subservient to virtue. This, according to 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.

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.

Most of the major Halachic authorities accepted the Zohar as authentic, and many of them were themselves Kabbalists, including Rabbi Moses Isserles, Rabbi Solomon Luria, Rabbi Yosef Karo,  Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (The Baal HaTanya), The Vilna Gaon and Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan. Rabbi Solomon Luria writes that except where the Zohar is contradicted by the Babylonian Talmud, the Halacha (Law) follows the Zohar.

Modern view of the origins of the Zohar

According to numerous scholars of more modern times, the Zohar was the work of De Leon himself, or a compilation by De Leon of earlier writings. The Aramaic is not Talmudic, but medieval. The text refers to events and people that did not exist in the time of Shimon Bar Yochai.

In 1833, Elijah Delmedigo first questioned the authorship of the Zohar in his book, Be'hinat Ha-Dat. He asserted  that:  (1) If the Zohar had been written by Shimon bar Yohai, it would have been mentioned by the Talmud, as was true for the Sifre and other works of the Talmudic period; (2) the Zohar mentions names of Talmudists who lived at a later period than that of Shimon bar Yohai; (3) were Simeon bar Yohai the father of the Cabala, knowing by divine revelation the hidden meaning of the precepts, his halakhic decisions would have been adopted by the Talmud; but this has not been done; (4) if the Kabbalah were a revealed doctrine, there would have been no divergence of opinion among the Kabbalists concerning the mystic interpretation of the precepts. Delmedigo, however, did not believe that the Zohar had been written by De Leon, but was composed some 300 years earlier in Spain. 

Delmedigo's skepticism was echoed in modern times chiefly by Professor Gershom Scholem, who showed numerous instances of borrowings of late works, grammatical errors and references to events in Medieval Europe in the Zohar.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Kasher disputed Gershom Scholem's position. He claimed that the "borrowings" were accidental incorporations of glosses in the margins of the manuscript.  He notes that many statements in the works of the Rishonim (medieval commentators who preceded De Leon) refer to exegeses that are not known to us.  He writes that these are in fact references to the Zohar. This point was also raised by R' David Luria in his work "Kadmus Sefer Ha'Zohar." Kasher also claims that De Leon could not have created the book of 1700 pages on his own in the space of six years. However it is possible that De Leon had started on the work earlier, or that he had, as noted, incorporated earlier works in his own.

Ami Isseroff

March 9, 2010

Synonyms and alternate spellings:

Further Information: 

Hebrew/Arabic pronunciation and transliteration conventions:

'H - ('het ) . In Arabic there are several letters that have similar sounds. Examples: 'hanukah, 'hamas, 'haredi. Formerly, this sound was often represented by ch, especially in German transliterations of Hebrew. Thus, 'hanukah is often rendered as Chanuka for example.

chh - (chaf) a sound like "ch" in loch or the Russian Kh as in Khruschev or German Ach, made by putting the tongue against the roof of the mouth. In Hebrew, a chaf can never occur at the beginning of a word. At the beginning of a word, it has a dot in it and is pronounced "Kaf."

u - usually between oo as in spoon and u as in put.

a- sounded like a in arm

ah- used to represent an a sound made by the letter hey at the end of a word. It is the same sound as a. Haganah and Hagana are alternative acceptable transliterations.

'a-notation used for Hebrew and Arabic ayin, a guttural ah sound.

o - close to the French o as in homme.

th - (taf without a dot) - Th was formerly used to transliterate the Hebrew taf sound for taf without a dot. However in modern Hebrew there is no detectable difference in standard pronunciation of taf with or without a dot, and therefore Histadruth and Histadrut, Rehovoth and Rehovot are all acceptable.

q- (quf) - In transliteration of Hebrew and Arabic, it is best to consistently use the letter q for the quf, to avoid confusion with similar sounding words that might be spelled with a kaf, which should be transliterated as K. Thus, Hatiqva is preferable to Hatikva for example.

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