What is the Zohar, and where did it come from?
The Zohar is the most prominent “book” of Jewish mysticism. It is considered holy by many people. It contains the core teachings of modern Jewish mysticism. However, the book is not what it claims to be, its ideas are at best obscure and incomprehensible, its concept of God is often Gnostic, polytheistic,or given Trinitarian aspects.
Most strikingly, the Zohar isn;t even a book; it is an anthology of many parts, added together between 1300 CE to 1500 CE, much of it being pesudigrapha, and we don’t know the authorship of each part, nor which part is the supposed core material.
Daniel Abrams reveals the following
The Zohar was neither written, nor edited, nor distributed as a book by the various figures who produced the various literary units which were later known by the name Zohar. (10)
The Zohar is not a Book – Nor does it have an author (105)
I have tried to express my theoretical discomfort, indeed a perceived dissonance, concerning published methodologies for evaluating the literary quality and forms of the texts known by the name Zohar. (127)
No satisfactory evidence has yet been offered in the relevant scholarship proving that the zoharic writings were intentionally composed, edited, or copied as a book. Not only can ‘the’ Book of the Zohar not be restored to its full form, but there was no single original moment that is recoverable amidst the disparate writings and unstable text(s). (142)
– The Invention of the Zohar as a Book: On the Assumptions and Expectations of the Kabbalists and Modern Scholars, Kabbalah: Journal for the Study of Jewish Mystical Texts 19 (2009), pp. 7-142.
Despite it’s acclaim as an ancient holy book, the Zohar as a unified may have created by 17th century publishers in order to sell an anthology!
Professor Alan Brill writes
Abrams claims the idea of the Zohar as a preexisting book was created in the 16th century by the printers- before that point there were only various unconnected manuscripts of esotericism. The production of the Zohar as ideas, texts, and isolated units, has little to do with consumption of the product as a book. …
Abrams rejects Scholem’s theory of a single author;
he rejects Yehuda Liebes’ theory of circle of Zohar authors- hug haZohar.
The Zohar contains variety of styles and diverse literature, hence Abrams is sympathetic to Moshe Idel’s reclamation of the theory of Moses Gaster, who considered the work a collection of diverse sources.
He accepts parts of Ronit Meroz’s articles that claim that the texts of the Zohar originated between the 11-14th centuries. But he demurs from her suggestion that there are 14th century imitators of the Zohar’s style Abrams asks: Who says there was ever a fixed thing called the Zohar to imitate?
… Abrams suggests that the field needs to go back to manuscripts and first editions, and especially colophons – every text must be treated in its context of production of the manuscript. He notes: Danny Matt is creating a synthetic text that does not correspond to any text out there. Meroz is creating a synoptic edition but that already assumes a whole to be recreated …
Was the Zohar ever really even a book? Alan Brill
Scholars have assembled a host of proofs showing that the Zohar was not an ancient document.
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 asserted that the documents had strangely disappeared. After his death, d’ Leon’s wife admitted that the documents never existed.
2. 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.
3. The rabbis knew nothing about the Zohar until d’ Leon introduced it.
4. Moses d’ Leon had no sense of history; he describes the alleged second century author conversing with people that lived longafter his death.
5. The Zohar author 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.
6. 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.
7. The author inserted terms from Jewish philosophy of the Middle Ages.
8. The book contains ideas copied from the eleventh-century Kuzari of Yehudah Halevi.
9. The author introduces Maimonides’ twelfth-century concept about physics.
10. The volume mentions putting on two pairs of tefillin, a practice that arose in the twelfth century.
11. The Zohar discusses the Kol Nidre prayer of Yom Kippur, a ceremony that began in the eleventh century.
12. The language of the Zohar is later than its alleged date of composition.
13. There are many incorrect quotations from the Bible and the Talmud. The latter did not exist in 130.
14. Prophecies in the volume inform the reader that the Zohar will be revealed around 1300 C.E., a blatant attempt to justify its late appearance.
15. There are parallel passages between the Zohar and other books that were indisputably composed by Moses d’ Leon, including mistakes in the original books that d’ Leon copied into his Zohar.
16. There is no mention in the Talmud or Midrashim that the alleged author of the Zohar, Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai, was interested in mysticism. Thus, d’ Leon took the wrong hero for his work.
17. The famous mystic Rabbi Jacob Emden (born 1697) recorded 280 contradictions, anachronisms and incorrect statements and concluded that the book is a forgery of the thirteenth-century with some later additions.
Lastly I’d like to point out that De Leon “found” this text after it was supposedly hidden for centuries (there are different versions of how and where he found it, but as mentioned earlier, he claimed the original documents mysteriously disappeared). So, even if you were to believe in the secret Rebbe-to-student mesora, it does not even apply in this case since he wasn’t taught this book from his Rav (also, I’d like to know who his Rav was because that fact is also mysteriously and conveniently missing from the pages of history).
Alan Brill writes
This volume contains several sections of the Zohar called Midrash ha-Neelam, which are separate in language and theology than the main body of the Zohar. They have a Hebrew core and an Aramaic overlay, they mainly concern the soul and other allegorical topics, rather than sefirot, and the named scholars are unlike the Zohar. The works use Neoplatonic philosophic language and philosophic terminology. The Midrash ha-Neelam offer a sense of how 13th century Castilian Jews integrated the Heikhalot and early esotericism with the scholastic philosophic traditions.
In the eighteenth century, Rabbi Yaakov Emden considered these sections separate and earlier than the rest of the corpus. In 1926, Gershom Scholem speculated in his inaugural lecture at Hebrew University, that these texts were earlier than the rest of the Zohar. Scholem completely buried this article and never referred to it; he considered these sections from Moses deLeon. Samuel Belkin, (1957) argued that there were Philonic elements in the work, which received a long critique from R.J. Z. Werblowsky (1960).
Current range for the origin of the Midrash ha-Neelam is between 1250 as an allegorical precursor to the Zohar to 1280 as part of De Leon’s large oeuvre, the opposite positions of belong to Ronit Meroz and Nathan Wolski.
Ah… but all this is only background. Pritzker Zohar Volume 11 contains a selection of later texts that are modeled on Midrash ha-Neelam. They are post-Zohar and before the 14th century Tikkune Zohar, and combine philosophic allegory with kabbalistic sefirot. They also have significant amounts of reworked later Midrash such as Eichah Rabbah or the short works of Batei Midrashot.
What is the origin of these later texts? 1250 and then additions in 1280? All 1280? How many strata? Was there an Aramaic overlay on Hebrew original or mixed language right from the start. Were they written by several people? Who were they? What did they think they were doing? Did they relate to one another?