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The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia
A pseudepigraphic work which pretends to be a revelation from God communicated through R. Simeon ben Yoḥai to the latter's select disciples. Under the form of a commentary on the Pentateuch, written partly in Aramaic and partly in Hebrew, it contains a complete cabalistic theosophy, treating of the nature of God, the cosmogony and cosmology of the universe, the soul, sin, redemption, good, evil, etc. It first appeared in Spain in the thirteenth century, being made known through the agency of the cabalistic writer Moses ben Shem-Ṭob de Leon, who ascribed it to the miracle-working tanna Simeon ben Yoḥai. The fact that it was launched 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 himselfwas 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 Yoḥai would be a rich source of profit (see "Sefer ha-Yuḥasin," ed. Filipowski, p. 89). 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 lucre—it at least proves that shortly after its appearance the work was believed by some to have been written entirely by Moses de Leon. This seems to have been the opinion of the cabalistic writer Joseph ibn Waḳar, and he cautioned the public against the work, which he asserted to be full of errors.
The general opinion, however, was in favor of its authenticity, this view being held not only by the cabalists, for whom the book opened new paths in the field of mysticism, but also by eminent Talmudists. It 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 ("Sefer ha-Yuḥasin," c.). 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 Yoḥai 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 Yoḥai should have foretold future happenings. 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 Yoḥai. The objections advanced by him were as follows: (1) were the Zohar the work of Simeon ben Yoḥai, 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 Yoḥai the father of the Cabala, knowing by divine revelation the hidden meaning of the precepts, his halakic decisions would have been adopted by the Talmud; but this has not been done; (4) were the Cabala a revealed doctrine, there would have been no divergence of opinion among the cabalists 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 Ẓebi 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 Mohammedans (2:32a); uses the expression "esnoga" (3:232b), 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 introduced long after the Talmudic period (1:24b, 2:116a, 3:65a).
Moses de Leon Not the Author.
These and other objections of Emden's, which were largely borrowed from the French ecclesiastic Jean Morin ("Exercitationes Biblicæ," pp. 359 et seq., Paris, 1669), were refuted by Moses ben Menahem Kunitz, who, in a work entitled "Ben Yoḥai" (Budapest, 1815), endeavors to show the following characteristics: that the vowel-points were known in Talmudic times; that the rites which Emden claimed to have been ordained by later rabbinical authorities were already known to the Talmud; and that Simeon ben Yoḥai, who before taking refuge in the cave was designated only by the name of Simeon, is credited in the Talmud with many miracles and mystic sayings. Another work in favor of the antiquity of the Zohar was published by David Luria under the title "Ḳadmut ha-Zohar" (Königsberg, 1855 [?]). It is divided into five chapters, in which the author gives proofs that Moses de Leon did not compile the Zohar; that the Geonim in Babylonia cite cabalistic doctrines from a certain "Midrash Yerushalmi," the language of which strongly resembles that of the Zohar; that the work was compiled before the completion of the Talmud; that a great part of it was written in the period of Simeon ben Yoḥai; and, finally, that the Aramaic language was used in Talmudic times as well as in the geonic period. Of these proofs only those showing the inadmissibility of the authorship of Moses de Leon deserve consideration, the others being mere quibbles; for even if it be conceded that the Talmud knew of the vowel-points and that the Aramaic was commonly used, there is no evidence whatever that Simeon ben Yoḥai or his immediate disciples were connected with the Zohar. As to the identification of the Zohar with the so-called "Midrash Yerushalmi," the single fact that most of the passages quoted are not found in the Zohar, as Luria himself admits, is a sufficient proof that the two works can not be identical. However, Luria has quite as much warrant for asserting, on the ground of his proofs, that a great part of the Zohar was written by Simeon ben Yoḥai as have Jellinek, Grätz, Ginsburg, and many others for maintaining that it was wholly composed by Moses de Leon on the ground that in the works of the last-named there are passages which are found verbatim in the Zohar. These scholars seem to shrink from the idea that Moses de Leon should have been guilty of plagiarism, but they are notafraid to charge him with forgery, and that of so clumsy a nature as to arouse at once the suspicions of the reader. For Moses de Leon could not have supposed for a moment that the insertion in the middle of an Aramaic sentence of two verses from Ibn Gabirol's "Keter Malkut" (which, being recited in the synagogues, were known to every Jew) could have escaped detection; nor could he have thought that a quotation from the Cuzari, which was so much read and commented upon at that time, would pass unperceived by his contemporaries.
Not the Work of a Single Author or Period.
Had Moses de Leon, who was a talented writer and an able scholar, wished for mercenary purposes to forge a work in the name of Simeon ben Yoḥai, he would have been more careful in his statements and would certainly have employed the Hebrew language, first, because the tanna would have written in that language, and, second, because a work in Hebrew, being easier to understand, would have gained a far wider circle of readers, and consequently a larger number of purchasers, than would one written in a peculiar Aramaic dialect that was accessible to only a few. Were the pseudepigraphic "Sefer Yeẓirah," "Pirḳe de-Rabbi Eli'ezer," "Sefer Hekalot," "Sefer ha-Bahir," etc., any the less believed to be the works of those to whom they were attributed simply because they were written in plain Hebrew and not in Aramaic? But apart from all these considerations, the contents of the Zohar clearly indicate that the work is the production not of a single author or of a single period, but of many authors, periods, and civilizations; for it combines the most puzzling incongruities and irreconcilable contradictions with lofty ideas and conceptions which would do honor to a genius of modern times, and also mystic teachings of the Talmudic period with those of the Geonim and later Cabala. To determine the country in which the work originated and the time at which its teachings began to develop, it is necessary to ascertain where and when the Jews became intimately acquainted with the Hindu philosophy, which more than any other exercised an influence on the Zohar. As an instance of Hindu teachings in the Zohar may be quoted the following passage:
"In the book of Hamnuna the Elder we learn through some extended explanations that the earth turns upon itself in the form of a circle; that some are on top, the others below; that all creatures change in aspect, following the manner of each place, but keeping in the same position. But there are some countries on the earth which are lighted while others are in darkness; and there are countries in which there is constantly day or in which at least the night continues only some instants. . . . These secrets were made known to the men of the secret science, but not to the geographers"
The Germ Probably in Persia.
The theory that the earth is a sphere revolving on its own axis, which immortalized Copernicus, was previously known only to the Hindus, who were instructed in the truth of it by Aryabhatta in the first century before the common era. As far as is known, the Vedanta school of the Hindu philosophers found nowhere, outside of its place of origin, so many admirers as in Persia in the eighth century. Under its influence the Mohammedans of Persia founded many mystic sects, among them being that of the Sufis, who for many centuries were very numerous. This mystic movement did not fail to exercise an influence upon the Persian Jews, and there arose among them various sects, such as the 'Isawites, the Yudghanites, etc., the tenets of which, so far as can be ascertained from the scanty information concerning them that is available, bore more or less the stamp of the Vedanta philosophy. Thus the Yudghanites abstained from meat, led ascetic lives, set aside the literal meaning of the Torah for a supposed mystic interpretation, and believed in metempsychosis, etc. All these sects had their sacred writings, which they kept secret; and these writings probably formed the nucleus of the Zohar, which is a mystic commentary on the Pentateuch, as the upanishads are the mystic interpretation of the Vedas and other Brahmanic scriptures. In its peregrinations from Persia to Spain the Zohar probably received many additions and interpolations, among which may have been the various names of the Tannaim and Amoraim, as well as the allusions to historical events.
The Zohar is not considered complete without the addition of certain appendixes, which are attributed either to the same author or to some of his immediate disciples. These supplementary portions are printed as part of the text with separate titles, or in separate columns. They are as follows: "Sifra di-Ẓeni'uta," consisting of five chapters, in which are chiefly discussed the questions involved in the Creation, such as the transition from the infinite to the finite, that from absolute unity to multifariousness, that from pure intelligence to matter, etc.; "Idra Rabbah," in which the teachings of the preceding portion are enlarged upon and developed; and "Idra Zuṭa," giving a résumé of the two preceding sections. The characteristic features of these portions are the absence of the doctrine of the see EN SOF, and the use of the appellation "Ẓaddiḳ" for the ninth Sefirah, which show that these writings are of an earlier period. To the larger appendixes are added the following fragments: "Raze de Razin," dealing with the physiognomy of the Cabala and the connection of the soul with the body; "Sefer Hekalot," describing the seven heavenly halls, paradise, and hell; Ra'ya Mehemna," giving a conversation between Moses, the prophet Elijah, and Simeon ben Yoḥai on the allegorical import of the Mosaic commandments and prohibitions, as well as of the rabbinical injunctions; "Sitre Torah," on various cabalistic topics; "Midrash ha-Ne'elam," explaining passages of Scripture mystically by way of "remazim" and gemaṭria; "Saba," containing a conversation between the prophet Elijah and Simeon ben Yoḥai about the doctrine of metempsychosis; "Yanuḳa," on the importance of washing the hands before meals and on similar subjects, written in the name of a child of Hamnuna Saba, whence the title "Yanuḳa" (child); "Tosefta" and "Matnitin," in which are sketched the doctrines of the Sefirot, the emanation of the primordial light, etc. Besides the Zohar proper, there are also a "Zohar Ḥadash," on Canticles, and "Tiḳḳunum," both new and old, which bear a close resemblance to the original work.
The Zohar repeatedly endeavors to impress upon the mind of the reader that the Biblical narratives and ordinances contain higher truths in addition to the literal meaning.
Mysticism of the Zohar.
"Wo unto the man," says Simeon ben Yoḥai, "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."
The Zohar assumes four kinds of Biblical exegesis: "Peshaṭ" (literal meaning), "Remez" (allusion), "Derash" (anagogical), and "Sod" (mystic). The initial letters of the words "Peshaṭ," "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 (2:36b), "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 (2:99b).
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 Yoḥai, "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-Ṭob 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 Talmudic 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 practise 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" (Genesis 2:5), which mean that there had not yet been beneficent action in heaven because man had not yet given the impulsion.
These and similar teachings appealed to the Talmudists and made them overlook the Zohar's disparitiesand 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, Ægidius 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, 3:288b). 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 Ẓebi 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 Ḥasidim, who, under its influence, assign the first place in religion not to dogma and ritual, but to the sentiment and the emotion of faith.
Among the numerous commentaries written on the Zohar the most important are: "Torat Emet," containing corrections and explanations of words for the section on Genesis, by David ben Abraham Shemariah (Salonica, 1604); "Yesh Sakar," on the religious prescriptions of the Zohar, by J. Bär ben Petahiah, who published also "Meḳor Ḥokmah" and "Imre Binah," on the foreign words in the Zohar (Prague, 1610, 1611); "Yesha' Yah," explanation of the foreign words in the Zohar, by Solomon Isaiah ben Eliezer Ḥayyim Nizza (Venice, 1630); "Ḥibbur 'Ammude Sheba'," by Aaron Selig Zolkiev (Cracow, 1636); "Amarot Ṭehorot," explaining the difficult words of the Zohar, by Wolf Leitmeritz (Lublin, 1645); "'Emeḳ ha-Melek," commentaries on various sections of the Zohar, by Naphtali Herz ben Jacob Elhanan (Amsterdam, 1648); "Sha'ar ha-Shamayim," introduction to and rules of the cabalistic system of the Zohar, by Abraham Herrera (ib. 1655); "Ḥesed la-Abraham," novellæ on the Zohar, by Abraham Azulai (ib. 1685); "Wayaḳhel Mosheh," by Moses ben Menahem (Dessau, 1699); "Or Yisrael," by Israel Jaffe (Frankfort-on-the-Oder, 1711). For the cabalistic system of the Zohar ADAM ḲADMON; AMULET; ASCENSION; AẒILUT; CABALA; CREATION; EMANATION; Sefirot; SOUL.
- Modern sources: Zunz, G. V. 2d ed., pp. 415 et seq.;
- A. Franck, La Kabbale, Paris, 1843; 2d ed., ib. 1889;
- German transl. by Ad. Jellinek, Leipsic, 1844;
- Landauer, in Orient, Lit. 6:178 et seq.;
- Ignatz Stern, in Ben Chananja, i-;
- D. H. Joël, Midrash ha-Zohar, Die Religionsphilosophi edes Sohar, Leipsic, 1849;
- Jellinek, Moses de Leon und Sein Verhältniss zum Zohar, ib. 1851;
- Steinschneider, Jewish Literature, §;
- Jost, Geschichte des Judenthums, , , Index;
- Ginsburg, The Kabbalah, London, 1865;
- Hamburger, R. B. T. s. Geheimlehre, Kabbala and Mystik;
- Hermann Beer, Historische Daten in dem Zohar, in Monatsschrift, 5:158;
- Duschak, Platonische Mythe in dem Zohar, in Orient, Lit. 10:181;
- Rapoport, in Kerem Ḥemed, 1:154;
- Grätz, Gesch. , Index (compare also the notes by Harkavy to the Hebrew translation of Grätz in vol. );
- Bacher, L'Exegèse Biblique dans le Zohar, in R. E. J. 22:33 et seq.;
- idem, in J. Q. R. 3:781;
- Karppe, Etude sur les Origines du Zohar, Paris, 1891;
- Isaac Myer, Qabbalah, Philadelphia, 1888;
- Flugel, Philosophy, Kabbala and Vedanta, Baltimore, 1902.
- See also the bibliography to the article Cabala.
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Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Zohar'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tje/​z/zohar.html. 1901.