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Zohar

The Zohar ("Radiance") is the greatest classic of Jewish mysticism. It is a mystical commentary on the Torah, written in Aramaic and Hebrew; it contains a Kabbalistic theosophy, treating of the nature of God, the cosmogony and cosmology of the universe, the soul, sin, redemption, good and evil, etc.

Table of contents
1 Mysticism in the Zohar
2 Pardes and Biblical exegesis
3 Spread of the Zohar
4 Ethical System
5 Influence on Christian Mysticism

Origin of the Zohar

This book first appeared in Spain in the thirteenth century, being made known through the agency of the Jewishwriter Moses ben Shem-Tov de Leon; he ascribed it to the miracle-working Jewish rabbi Simeon ben Yohai[?], who lived in the second century. It was said that during a time of Roman persecution, Rabbi Shimon hid in a cave for 13 years, studying the Torah (five books of Moses) with his son. During this time he is said to have been inspired by God to write the Zohar.

The fact that the Zohar was found by such an unreliable sponsor as Moses de Leon, taken together with the circumstance that it refers to historical events of the post-Talmudical period, caused the authenticity of the work to be questioned from the outset. After the death of Moses de Leon, it is related, a rich man of Avila, named Joseph, offered the widow, who had been left without means, a large sum of money for the original from which her husband had made the copy; and she then confessed that her husband himself was the author of the work. She had asked him several times, she said, why he had chosen to credit his own teachings to another, and he had always answered that doctrines put into the mouth of the miracle-working Simeon ben Yohai would be a rich source of profit. Incredible as this story seems — for it is inconceivable that a woman should own that her deceased husband had committed forgery for the sake of profit — it at least proves that shortly after its appearance the work was believed by some to have been written entirely by Moses de Leon.

Acceptance of authenticity

Over time, however, the general view in the Jewish community came to be one of acceptance of Moses ben Shem-Tov's claims; the Zohar was held to be an authentic book of mysticism passed down from the second century. 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. The only objection worthy of consideration by the believers in the authenticity of the Zohar was the lack of references to the work in Jewish literature; and to this they answered that Simeon ben Yohai did not commit his teachings to writing, but transmitted them orally to his disciples, who in turn confided them to their disciples, and these to their successors, until finally the doctrines were embodied in the Zohar. As to the references in the book to historical events of the post-Talmudic period, it was not deemed surprising that Simeon ben Yohai should have foretold future happenings.

Rejection of authenticity

The first attack upon the accepted authorship of the Zohar was made by Elijah Delmedigo. Without expressing any opinion as to the real author of the work, he endeavored to show, in his "Beḥinat ha-Dat," that it could not be attributed to Simeon ben Yohai. The objections advanced by him were as follows: (1) were the Zohar the work of Simeon ben Yohai, it would have been mentioned by the Talmud, as has been the case with the Sifre and other works of the Talmudic period; (2) the Zohar contains names of Talmudists who lived at a later period than that of Simeon; (3) were Simeon ben Yohai the father of the Kabbalah, knowing by divine revelation the hidden meaning of the precepts, his decisions on Jewish law would have been adopted by the Talmud; but this has not been done; (4) were the Kabbalah a revealed doctrine, there would have been no divergence of opinion among the Kabbalists concerning the mystic interpretation of the precepts ("Beḥinat ha-Dat," ed. Vienna, 1833, p. 43).

These arguments and others of the same kind were used by Leon of Modena in his "Ari Nohem" (pp. 49 et seq., Leipsic, 1840). A work exclusively devoted to the criticism of the Zohar was written, under the title "Miṭpaḥat Sefarim," by Jacob Emden, who, waging war against the remaining adherents of the Shabbethai Tzevi movement, endeavored to show that the book on which the pseudo-Messiah based his doctrines was a forgery. Emden demonstrates that the Zohar misquotes passages of Scripture; misunderstands the Talmud; contains some ritual observances which 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 corruption of "synagogue," and explains it in a cabalistic manner as a compound of the Hebrew words and ; gives a mystical explanation of the Hebrew vowel-points, which were not introduced until long after the Talmudic period.

In the mid 20th century the Jewish historian Gershom Scholem[?] offered persuasive evidence 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 and its suspicious traces of Spanish words and sentence patterns. This finding is still disputed by many Orthodox Jews. Although de Leon apparently wrote the text, the content of the book is not 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. No doubt Moshe de Leon truly considered himself inspired to write this text.

Mysticism in the Zohar

"Wo unto the man," says Simeon ben Yohai, "who asserts that this Torah intends to relate only commonplace things and secular narratives; for if this were so, then in the present times likewise a Torah might be written with more attractive narratives. In truth, however, the matter is thus: The upper world and the lower are established upon one and the same principle; in the lower world is Israel, in the upper world are the angels. When the angels wish to descend to the lower world, they have to don earthly garments. It this be true of the angels, how much more so of the Torah, for whose sake, indeed, the world and the angels were alike created and exist. The world could simply not have endured to look upon it. Now the narratives of the Torah are its garments. He who thinks that these garments are the Torah itself deserves to perish and have no share in the world to come. Wo unto the fools who look no further when they see an elegant robe! More valuable than the garment is the body which carries it, and more valuable even than that is the soul which animates the body. Fools see only the garment of the Torah, the more intelligent see the body, the wise see the soul, its proper being; and in the Messianic time the 'upper soul' of the Torah will stand revealed"

"The man," it is said in the "Sifra di Ẓeni'uta," "who is not acquainted with this book is like the savage barbarian who was a stranger to the usages of civilized life. He sowed wheat, but was accustomed to partake of it only in its natural condition. One day this barbarian came into a city, and good bread was placed before him. Finding it very palatable, he inquired of what material it was made, and was informed that it was made of wheat. Afterward one offered to him a fine cake kneaded in oil. He tasted it, and again asked: 'And this, of what is it made?' and he received the same answer, of wheat. Finally, one placed before him the royal pastry, kneaded with oil and honey. He again asked the same question, to which he obtained a like reply. Then he said: 'At my house I am in possession of all these things. I partake daily of them in root, and cultivate the wheat from which they are made.' In this crudeness he remained a stranger to the delights one draws from the wheat, and the pleasures were lost to him. It is the same with those who stop at the general principles of knowledge because they are ignorant of the delights which one may derive from the further investigation and application of these principles."

Pardes and Biblical exegesis

The Zohar assumes four kinds of Biblical exegesis: "Peshat" (literal meaning), "Remez" (allusion), "Derash" (anagogical), and "Sod" (mystic). The initial letters of the words "Peshat," "Remez," "Derash," and "Sod" form together the word "PaRDeS" (Paradise), which became the designation for the fourfold meaning of which the mystical sense is the highest part.

The mystic allegorism is based by the Zohar on the principle that all visible things, the phenomena of nature included, have besides their exoteric reality an esoteric reality also, destined to instruct man in that which is invisible. This principle is the necessary corollary of the fundamental doctrine of the Zohar. The universe being, according to that doctrine, 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 to those only 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 hand 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. The Zohar gives the following illustration of an ecstatic state:

"Once," says R. Simeon ben Yohai, "I was plunged in a contemplative ecstasy, and I beheld a sublime ray of a brilliant light which illumined 325 circles, and amid which something dark was bathing. Then the dark point, becoming bright, began to float toward the deep and sublime sea, where all the splendors were gathering. I then asked the meaning of this vision, and I was answered that it represented the forgiveness of sins."

Spread of the Zohar

The Zohar spread among the Jews with remarkable celerity. Scarcely fifty years had passed since its appearance in Spain before it was quoted by many cabalists, among whom was 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. It exercised so great a charm upon the cabalists that they could not believe for an instant that such a book could have been written by any mortal unless he had been inspired from above; and this being the case, it was to be placed on the same level with the Bible.

Even representatives of non-mysticism oriented Judaism began to regard it as a sacred book and to invoke its authority in the decision of some ritual questions. They were attracted by its glorification of man, its doctrine of immortality, and its ethical principles, which are more in keeping with the spirit of Talmudical 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. Indeed, according to the Zohar, the moral perfection of man influences the ideal world of the Sefirot; for although the Sefirot expect everything from the En Sof, the En 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. ii. 5), which mean that there had not yet been beneficent action in heaven because man had not yet given the impulsion.

Ethical System

These and similar teachings appealed to the Talmudists and made them overlook the Zohar's disparities and contrasts and its veiled hostility to the Talmud. The influences of the Zohar on Judaism were both beneficial and deleterious. On the one hand, the Zohar was praiseworthy because it opposed formalism, stimulated the imagination and feelings, and restored prayer (which had gradually become a mere external religious exercise) to the position it had occupied for centuries among the Jews as a means of transcending earthly affairs for a time and placing oneself in union with God; and on the other hand, it was to be censured because it propagated many superstitious beliefs, and produced a host of mystical dreamers, whose over-heated imaginations peopled the world with spirits, demons, and all kinds of good and bad influences.

Its mystic mode of explaining some commandments was applied by its commentators to all religious observances, and produced a strong tendency to substitute a mystic Judaism for the rabbinical cult. Thus the Sabbath, with all its ceremonies, began to be looked upon as the embodiment of the Divinity in temporal life, and every ceremony performed on that day was considered to have an influence upon the superior world. Zoharic elements even crept into the liturgy of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and the religious poets not only used in their compositions the allegorism and symbolism of the Zohar, but even adopted its style, the characteristic features of which were the representation of the highest thoughts by human emblems and human passions, and the use of erotic terminology to illustrate the relations between man and God, religion being identical with love. Thus, in the language of many 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 the Deity.

Influence on Christian Mysticism

The enthusiasm felt for the Zohar was shared by many Christian scholars, such as Pico de Mirandola, Reuchlin, Ęgidius 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 of the Christian dogmas, as for instance the fall and redemption of man, and the dogma of the Trinity, which is 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"]" (Zohar, iii. 288b). This and also the other doctrines of Christian tendency that are found in the Zohar are now known to be much older than Christianity; but the Christian scholars who were deluded 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, among whom was Knorr, Baron von Rosenroth, who rendered into Latin the introduction, the "Sifra di-Ẓeni'uta," the "Idra Rabbah," and the "Idra Zuṭa" ("Kabbala Denudata," Sulzbach, 1677).

The disastrous effects of the Shabbethai Tzvi movement, which was greatly fostered by the obnoxious influences of the Zohar, damped the enthusiasm that had been felt for the book, and the representatives of Talmudic Judaism began to look upon it with suspicion. Especially was this the case when the Shabbethaian movement had degenerated into religious mysticism and had produced the anti-Talmudic sectaries who styled themselves "Zoharites," and who, under the leadership of Jacob Frank, finished by embracing Christianity. However, the Zohar is still held in great reverence by many Orthodox Jews, especially the Hasidim, who, under its influence, assign the first place in religion not to dogma and ritual, but to the sentiment and the emotion of faith.

The Zohar contains and elaborates upon much of the material found in other Jewish mystical texts such as the Sefer Yetzirah and the Sefer Bahir, and without question is the Kabbalistic work par excellence.

See also Kabbalah, Sefer Yetzirah, Mysticism, Judaism



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