The Zohar’s origin

Studies in Scholem: part 2 of a series of explorations on his essays on the Zohar and Kabbala.

Excerpts from essay entitled “The Zohar 1: the Book and it’s Author”, part 2.

Scholem explains why it may appear to the first time reader that the Zohar is a multi layered work with multiple authors having added and amended to the work, eventhough this is not the theory he himself has ultimately come to adopt.

He gives us a breakdown of the components of the Zohar which make up the full five volumes.
These may be summarized as follows:

a) A bulky part with no specific title, wholly composed of discursive commentaries on various Torah passages. Includes discourses, discussions and longer or short stories

b) Sifra di-Tsiniuta – “Book of Concealment” : Six page document containing a sort of commentary on the first six chapters of Bereishit. Style is obscure.

c) Idra Rabba – “Greater Assembly”: Simeon ben Yohai assembles his followers in order to reveal to them the mysteries hitherto hidden from their eyes. Each in turn rises to speak and is praised by the master. The totality of the speeches constitute a systematic whole. The participants of the assembly are increasingly overcome by ecstasy resulting in the death of three of them in an ecstatic trance.

d) Idra Zutra – “Lesser Assembly”: Simeon ben Yohais own death is described in the same dramatic fashion. The lengthy speech of the Idra Rabba is summed up with some novela.

e) Idra de-be-Mashkana – “Assembly on the occasion of a lecture on the Tabernacle”: follows the form of the Idra Rabba, mainly on the subject of the mysticism of prayer.

f) Hekhalot: a description of the seven “palaces” of light perceived by the soul of the devout after his death, or by the inner vision of the mystic during prayer.

g) Raza de-Razin – “Secretum Secretorum”: Seperate pieces of physiognomy and chiromancy. One chapter is anonymous, the other employs the setting Simeon ben Yohai and his pupils.

h) Sava – “The Old Man”: a romantic story centring on the speech made by an old man, who under the appearance of a donkey drive, reveals himself before the pupils of Simeon ben Yohai as master Kabbalist. The discourse deals mainly with the mysteries of the soul, the roots of which he traces in the legal code of the Torah concerning the treatment of the Hebrew slave.

i) Yenuka – “the Child”: the story of an infant prodigy, it’s discourse on the Torah and grace after meals. This child is discovered by Simeon ben Yohai after it’s parents and relatives regarded it incapable of learning.

k) * Rav Methivtha – “The Head of the Academy”: Description of a visionary journey taken through paradise by members of the circle, and a discourse by one of the heads of the celestial academy on the destinies of the soul.

l) Sithre Torah – “Secrets of the Torah”: Allegorical, mystical interpretation of Torah verses with a tendency towards theosophy & mystical psychology.

m) Mathnitin – “Mishnayot (and Tosefa)”: attempt to follow the style of the Mishna and Tosefta on a purely Kabbalistic basis. Designed to serve as introductions to speeches and discussions in part a), similar to the relationship of mishna to the discussions of Gemara. The “mishnas” seem to express some sort of revelation of heavenly voices.

n) Zohar to Shir haShirin: kabbalistic commentary on first verses of Song of Songs, with digressions.

o) Kav Ha-Midda – “The Mystical standard of measure”: Profound and searching interpretation of the meaning of Deut 6:4 (the Shema Israel).

p) Sithre Othiot – “Secret of the letters”: a Kabbalistic monologue by Rabbi Simeon on the letters which occur in the names of God, and on the origins of Creation.

q) A commentary for which no title is supplied on Ezekiels vision of the Merkabah.

r) Midrash Ha-Neelam – “Mystical Midrash”: on the Torah. We encounter Simeon ben Yohai, his pupils and other legendary figures or Talmudic teachers of the second, third and fourth centuries.

s) Midrash Ha-Neelam on the Book of Ruth: closely parallels the above.

t) Raya Mehemna – “the Faithful Sheperd”: Kabbalistic interpretation of the commandments and prohibitions of the Torah.

u) Tikkune Zohar: a new commentary on the first section of the Torah, divided into seventy chapters each of which begins with a new interpretation of the first word of the Torah, Bereishit. (In print this part constitutes a seperate bibliographical unit).

v) Further additions to the Tikkune Zohar or texts written in the same style eg. A new commentary to Ezekiels Merkabah.

These are the main parts of the Zohar, baring some “forged” parts, imitations, written much later.

These writings cover about two thousand four hundred closely printed pages.
Scholem the states that these components must be divided into two groups:
One includes the first eighteen items on the above list, the second is the last three which are said to be radically different.

The first group Scholem claims are all by one sole author. They cannot be divided as layered amendments added over time by multiple authors.
Scholem notes the uniformity of these writings and claims one noticed within them the sole authors distinctive personality with it’s strengths and weaknesses.

Evidence of this is to be found in the books literary style, language and the doctrine it sets forth.

* j) is skipped in my edition but this looks like a print error as the author refers to 21 sections which there indeed are.

Tonight: part 3

As previously discussed, Scholem rejects the multiple and time layered authored theory, instead putting crediting a sole author (Moses de Leon)

He now enters into a description of the Zohars grammatical and vocabularic characteristics: in summary, the authors Aramaic is uniform throughout the various chapters as remarkably and noticeably clumsy.

It is evident that such artificial Aramaic (it barely is Aramaic) could not have been spoken by Aramaic speakers at the time of the Tanaim. The author has fashioned his own Aramaic based on mainly the Babylonian Talmud and Targum Onkelos. (Elements of the Palestinian Talmud show up but the usage is rare).

Scholem tells us that “every page of the Zohar displays a rainbow picture of linguistic eclecticism, the constituent elements of which, however, remain constant throughout. The syntax is extremely simple, almost monotonous, and wherever there are differences between Hebrew and Aramaic, the construction is distinctly Hebrew. Syntactical peculiarities of mediaeval Hebrew recur in Aramaic disguise”.

Scholem in fact describes the language of the Zohar as being visibly influenced by and constructed from mediaeval

The Zohar’s problematic language includes, but is not limited to, the following features:
– misunderstandings and grammatical misconstructions (confusion of Hebrew verb forms)
– awkward vocabulary: mediaeval Hebrew expressions based on Arabic expressions used by the philosophers, Spanish words and phrases, Aramaic words used out of context or with new meanings, demonstrable usage of Hebrew and Aramaic words fr dictionaries of the 13th century, new words and expressions made up by the author.
– the same problems with the vocabulary applies to the Zohars phraseology. There is a great deal of phrases not found in the ancient Jewish literature but taken from Neoplatonic terminology.
– an interesting repeated usage of oxymora and paradoxes employed to describe a concept spiritual and impenetrable.
– homiletical phrases foreign to the old Midrash but common in writings of the time.

Scholem uses the footnotes to point out multiple examples of all of the above.

These characteristics are uniform across the body of works with the exceptions of the Raya Mehemna and the Tikune Zohar.
As already discussed, Scholem claims that those two works were composed by a seperate author to the other eighteen components already listed in Part 2.
He supports this now by describing the style of the Raya Mehemna and Tikunim as deliberate imitations of the other parts.
The author of this group knows even less Aramaic than the author of the other parts. He often uses pure Hebrew and appends an aleph at the end of the word to make it appear as an Aramaic word.
Scholem describes various other stylistic differences and then tells us that these two works are not too different in style but that the Tikunim is less distinguished than the Raya Mehemna.

Part 4:

Previously we had read Scholem’s philological critique of the author of the Zohar and noted problems with vocabulary and grammar, mistakes, newly invented words, words from other languages, Hebrew constructs adapted willy nilly into Aramaic, etc.

Scholem now turns his attention to the Zohars literary form.
This discussions focuses on those parts of the Zohar which Scholem has coined “the real Zohar”, which excludes the Raya Mehmna and Tikkunim, which as noted previously, are works of seperate authors with even poorer command of Aramaic.

Scholem notes that the stage setting of the contents of the narrative , ie Palestine, is more of an imaginary land than the actual one as it existed. The contents which at times include descriptions of places, do not accord with reality, therefore making it clear that the author of the Zohar had actually never set foot in Palestine.

Scholem demonstates this with a well known example: the Zohar frequently mentions a town called Kapotkia as a village in the Lower Gallilee. The reality in fact is that Kapotkia was a region of Cappadocia, in part of what is today Turkey. Like with some other geographies mentioned in the Zohar, the author read of the town Kapotkia in the Talmud but mistakenly understood it as being in Palestine. *
Similarly, his romantic descriptions of the mountains of Palestine seem more fitting a description of those in Castille.

The same issues apply to the the characters discussed in the Zohar’s narratives: the author mistakes Phineas ben Yair as Simeon ben Yohais father-in-law, when in fact the Talmud describes him as his son-in-law (Sabbath 33b).

Chronology is not a barrier either for the author: he describes certain figures who lived generations after ben Yohai as being part of the group assembled around him in the narrative. He makes mention of a Rabbi Rechumai, who first appears in the Sefer Bahir. Given however that the Bahir was written in Provence in the 12th century, this too highlights the Zohars chronological position – it must have been written after the Bahir.

Contrasting this pseudo-realism, is the setting of the Raya Mehemna and the Tikkunim, which take place in the celestial spheres. The author, different to that of what has been defined as the Zohar, saw himself as continuing the story of Simeon ben Yohai after his death.

Scholem then provides further discussion around the literary composition of the Zohar: the author attempted to imitate the style of the old Midrashim but more than often his mediaeval homily is apparent.

* As an aside, while on the topic of the Kapotkia error, one can view rabbi Josh Waxmans excellent parshablog entry on this, where he counters the publication (on the Chabad website) of a certain rabbi Miller in debunking Scholem and Tishbys theory’s on the Zohars authenticity.
Millers efforts are full of holes and Waxman points these out:

Kabbalah Sefirot Tree
he Zohar: Pritzker Edition


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