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Who Wrote the Zohar?

Many mystics insist that the Zohar was composed in its entirety by Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai around the year 130 C.E., even though the earliest evidence of its appearance is from 1286. Most scholars contend that Moses d’ Leon, a Spaniard living in Granada, wrote it around this later date, and that parts of it were even added after his death. Moses d’ Leon himself claimed that he put the book together from ancient manuscripts that mysteriously disappeared after he used them.

The first and third views that claim an ancient origin of the volume give the book an aura of sanctity by ascribing it to an early period of Jewish history and a noted talmudic sage. The second scholarly view is in essence a claim that the work is a pious forgery, composed by a knowledgeable thirteenth-century mystic who incorporated the mystical ideas that had developed from ancient times to his own age.

Questions

  1. What is the Zohar?
  2. What does it contain?
  3. What reasons support a late date for the book’s composition?
  4. What arguments support an early date?
  5. Do the details that are presented to prove that the Zohar is a forgery outweigh those that contend that it is an ancient work of the second century C.E.?

The Zohar

The Zohar is a collection of eight different books interwoven into a single volume and is written using both Hebrew and Aramaic. It is composed as a series of conversations between Simeon bar Yochai and his friends discussing the meaning of Pentateuchal verses. According to legend, Simeon bar Yochai escaped Roman persecution during the first half of the second century for some years by hiding with his son in a cave. Several miracles were performed by God to save him. He is mentioned frequently in the Talmud with great respect. Thus, although the Talmud gives no hint that he had a mystical bent, his stature as a tortured scholar made him a prime candidate for authorship of the Zohar, one of the most influential books in the history of Jewish mysticism.

The Zohar is based on two ideas: (1) The Torah is a divine book that was revealed by God and is so holy that it must contain holy matters that an initiate can excavate and uncover and (2) Mysticism is both holy and the truth, therefore the Torah, which is a book of holiness and truth, must contain mysticism. It follows from this syllogism that the goal of the mystic is to search the Torah for its mystical content.

The name Zohar means “the Luminous.” It alludes to the mystical concept that God illuminates the world through the mystical teachings of the Torah.

The Obscurity of the Zohar

While ostensibly dealing with enlightenment, the Zohar is usually very difficult to understand.

An example is the opening words of the Zohar (as translated in the Soncino Press):

Rabbi Hizkiah opened his discourse with the text: “As the lily among the thorns, etc.” (Song of Songs 2:2). “What,” he said, “does the lily symbolize? It symbolizes the Community of Israel. As the lily among the thorns is tinged with red and white, so the Community of Israel is visited now with justice and now with mercy; as the lily possesses thirteen leaves, so the Community of Israel is vouchsafed thirteen categories of mercy which surrounds it on every side. For this reason the term Elohim (God) mentioned here (in the first verse of Genesis) is separated by thirteen words from the next mention of Elohim, symbolizing the thirteen categories of mercy which surround the Community of Israel to protect it….”

The Sefirot

The Zohar’s basic teaching is the doctrine of the Sefirot, a word meaning “numbers,” introduced for the first time in a simple form in the mystical work Sefer yezirah in the ninth century. The Sefirot are the ten divine powers or essences that emanated from God. These emanations carried out the divine will to create the world. Many mystics see them as parts of God. According to mystics, they still exist and function in different ways. They are not figures of speech, but actual divine entities.

The lowest level of the Sefirot is the shekhinah, which is also called malkhut (literally “kinghood,” “kingdom,” or “royal dignity”), seen by the mystics as the feminine aspect of God. Just as the mystics appropriated other ancient names, they took the term shekhinah, which was first used in the beginning of the Common Era to express a human feeling of God’s presence being either in heaven or on earth, and used it to express their somewhat anthropomorphic notion of a feminine part of God interacting with humans.

The mystics felt that the ten parts of God are not combined together and that humans therefore have a duty to help God become one with all the ten parts reassembled. When this is accomplished, the true and ultimate Sabbath, the messianic age, will arrive.

Mystics recognized that this unusual key teaching of the Sefirot was not even hinted at in the Torah. Since they insisted that mysticism was very ancient, going back according to some views to the revelation at Sinai, this absence of their fundamental principle from the Torah was problematic. They resolved this problem by stating that the Torah does refer to the Sefirot as well as the other esoteric teachings of the kabbalists – however, it does not do so openly. The initiate who masters the secrets of mysticism and the Torah, according to the understandings of the mystics, can find the secrets hidden in the words and letters of the Torah.

Mystical Notions in the Friday Night Prayers

Though many people do not realize it, the hymn Lecha Dodi, composed by mystics in Safed in the sixteenth century, was written to express this idea. When the song’s refrain, for example, speaks of one calling to another to come to bring about the Sabbath, the mystic who composed the song, Solomon Alkabetz, understood it to mean that one Sefirah (part of God) was calling to another part (the second being the kallah, literally “bride,” but meaning the feminine malkhut), to rejoin another part (tepheret) of God and bring about the ultimate Shabbat, the messianic age. When the final paragraph of the song, to cite another example, mentions, “come in peace, crown of your husband,” a phrase that literally pictures a wife, as a crown, becoming attached to her husband, it denotes the joining of the male and female parts of the Sefirot, the two parts tepheret and malkhut, thereby creating “peace,” the messianic age.

To cite another example of the joining of the Sefirot in mystical practices, once people are aware that the mystics sometimes visualized part of God as feminine and the Sabbath and peace as symbols of the messianic age, and once people understand that the mystic’s goal was to help produce this age,[1] they can understand the real reason for the mystics’ initiation of the practice of reading Ayshet Chayil, the “valorous woman” of Proverbs 31:10–31, on Friday nights. Mystics understand that the woman in Proverbs is the shekhinah (malkhut) who they pray will reunite with tepheret and bring about the ultimate Sabbath, the messianic age.[2]

Proofs That the Zohar is a Forgery

Scholars have assembled a host of proofs that convinced them that the Zohar was not an ancient document, but basically a thirteenth-century composition by Moses d’ Leon with some later additions. The following are some of the proofs.

  1. A renowned person visited Moses d’ Leon to see the ancient documents that d’ Leon claimed he used to copy the Zohar. Moses d’ Leon kept putting him off and later claimed that the documents strangely disappeared. After his death, d’ Leon’s wife admitted that the documents never existed.
  2. The Zohar uses different languages in different parts of the book and some parts contradict others, evidence that the volume was put together from several diverse sources and is not the work of a single person, Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai.
  3. The ideas in the Zohar are a later development of earlier mystical notions, showing that they were composed after these earlier works, and not in 130 CE, as d’ Leon claimed.
  4. The Talmud and the Gaonim, the latter existing until the eleventh century, knew nothing about the Zohar. If it existed, they would have certainly mentioned it.
  5. The author of the Zohar had no sense of history. While claiming that the work was composed by Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai in 130 CE, the author of the Zohar describes bar Yochai having conversations with people that lived long after his death, such as Rav, who lived in the third century.
  6. The famous mystic Rabbi Jacob Emden (born 1697) studied the work very carefully. He recorded a list of 280 contradictions, anachronisms, and incorrect statements. He identifies sections that were composed after the death of Moses d’ Leon. He felt that while it is possible that a few sections may have been composed shortly before the birth of d’Leon, the book as a whole is a forgery of the thirteenth-century with some additions.
  7. The author of the Zohar knew of the existence of vowels and accent marks used in the Torah books and gave them mystical interpretations. However, these items were not invented until the ninth century, seven centuries after the alleged composition date.
  8. The terms “master of dikduk [grammar]” and “tenuah gedola” (long vowel) are used in the Zohar even though they were not coined until the tenth and eleventh centuries, respectively.
  9. The author inserted terms from Jewish philosophy of the Middle Ages.
  10. The book contains ideas copied from the eleventh-century Kuzari of Yehudah Halevi.
  11. The author introduces Maimonides’ twelfth-century concept about physics.
  12. The volume mentions putting on two pairs of tefillin, a practice that arose at the time of Rabbenu Tam in the twelfth century.
  13. The Zohar discusses the recitation of the Kol Nidre prayer on Yom Kippur, a ceremony that began in the eleventh century.
  14. The language of the Zohar is later than its alleged date of composition. It is as if Chaucer or Shakespeare were written in modern English.
  15. The book contains many Aramaic words that are clear mistranslations from the Hebrew from which it was copied.
  16. There are many incorrect quotations from the Bible and the Talmud. The latter, of course, did not exist in 130 CE.
  17. Prophecies in the volume inform the reader that the Zohar will be revealed around 1300 CE, a blatant attempt to justify its late appearance.
  18. There are a number of parallel passages between the Zohar and other books that were indisputably composed by Moses d’ Leon, including mistakes in the original books that were copied into the Zohar.
  19. There is no mention in the Talmud or Midrashim that the alleged author of the Zohar, Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai, was interested in mysticism.

Arguments to Support an Early Date

Some people offer the following arguments to support the early writing of the Zohar.

  1. Aramaic is one of the languages of the document, along with Hebrew, and Aramaic was not the language of the Jews of the thirteenth century. Of course, it could be pointed out that this only shows that Moses d’ Leon used Aramaic to give his book an aura of antiquity. Furthermore, as mentioned above, the Aramaic is full of mistakes, showing that the author was not that familiar with it. Additionally, while Aramaic was no longer a spoken language among Jews, many Jews did use it in their writings and they studied the Aramaic Talmud daily.
  2. Since Moses d’ Leon wrote his other books in Hebrew, this Aramaic volume could not be from his pen.
  3. How could a single man accomplish such a forgery?

Summary

The Zohar is the most prominent book of Jewish mysticism. It contains the majority of the most important notions of modern Jewish mysticism; that is, ideas that developed from the inception of Jewish mysticism until the thirteenth century. One of the principle ideas is that of the Sefirot, a concept first introduced in the later part of the first millennium, long after the alleged date of composition of the Zohar. This concept sees God composed of ten disjointed parts.

The author of the Zohar attempted to enhance the sanctity of his book by stating that it was composed by a noted talmudic rabbi in the second century. However, scholars highlight much evidence – one scholar even identifying 280 proofs – that it was composed in large part in 1286 by Moses d’ Leon, with a few parts taken from some somewhat earlier works and some sections written after his death.

If the argument that the Zohar is a forgery is true, and, more importantly, if the criticisms that mysticism in general and the Zohar in particular prevent people from enjoying life as God desires people to enjoy it, that it gives people wrong ideas that stifle them from intellectual and emotional growth and that it misleads them and stops them from observing Jewish practices to their benefit and the benefit of society – then the acceptance of the Zohar as a book of piety is wrong.

 

Notes:

[1] The mystics feel they can influence God by means of sympathetic magic. Sympathetic magic is the performance of an act on earth that is similar to what one wants to occur in heaven. For example, they believe they can cause it to rain by pouring water on the ground.

[2] Why is this done on Friday night? If we recall that the mystics borrowed ancient ideas and reinterpreted them to suit their views, the answer is obvious. The Talmud advises that married couples enjoy the Shabbat by having relations on Friday night. This practical and natural idea was reinterpreted by the mystics who stated that Friday night was an appropriate time to supernaturally reunite the masculine and feminine parts of God – by means of sympathetic magic, the joining of the male and female on earth – and bring about the ultimate Shabbat, the messianic age.