The Zohar is not one book, but a group of books; these books include scriptural interpretations as well as material on theosophic theology, mythical cosmogony, mystical psychology, and what some would call anthropology.
De Leon himself ascribed this work to a rabbi of the second century, Shimon bar Yochai. Jewish legend holds that during a time of Roman persecution, Rabbi Shimon hid in a cave for 13 years, studying the Torah with his son, Elazar. During this time he is said to have been inspired by Elijah the Prophet to write the Zohar.
Over time, the general view in the Jewish community came to be one of acceptance of Moses de Leon's claims; the Zohar was held to be an authentic book of mysticism passed down from the second century, though certain small groups (Baladi Yemenite, Andalusian [Western Sefardic or Spanish and Portuguese Jews] and some Italian communities) never accepted it as authentic. The Zohar spread among the Jews with remarkable swiftness. Scarcely fifty years had passed since its appearance in Spain before it was quoted by many Kabbalists, including the Italian mystical writer Menahem Recanati. Its authority was so well established in Spain in the 15th century that Joseph ibn Shem-Tov drew from it arguments in his attacks against Maimonides. 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 Talmudic 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. According to the Zohar, the moral perfection of man influences the ideal world of the Sefirot; for although the Sefirot accept everything from the Ein Sof (Heb. אין סוף, infinity), the Tree of Life itself is dependent upon man: he alone can bring about the divine effusion. This concept is somewhat akin to the concept of Tikkun olam. 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. 2:5), which means that there had not yet been beneficent action in heaven, because man had not yet been created to pray for it.
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.
One objection considered 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 Shimon ben Yochai 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 Shimon ben Yochai should have foretold future happenings. See below however for a more extensive explanation of these problems.
Most of the major Halachic authorities—like most other Orthodox Jews for that matter—accepted the Zohar as authentic, and many of them were themselves Kabbalists. This includes R' Yosef Karo, R' Moses Isserles, R' Solomon Luria, R' Yechiel Michel Epstein, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (The Alter Rebbe), The Vilna Gaon and R' Yisrael Meir Kagan.
See Likeutei Sichos Vol. 33 pg. 98 where the author, quoting a response Reb Hillel Paricher related from Rabbi Shne'ur Zalman of Liadi (The Alter Rebbe) (quoted also in the beginning of Shar Kakolel) explains that where there is an argument between Kabbalah and Poskim, the former should be followed. For it is impossible to say that the Kabbalah is in contradiction with the Talmud itself, rather the Kabbalists and the Halachists have variant understanding of the explanation of the Talmud as explained by the Radvaz (Chelek 4, Siman 1,111)and the Chacham Tzvi (Siman 36) (cited in the Sha'arei Teshuvah 25:14). See also Responsa Tzemach Tzedek A.H. Siman 18,4 and Divrei Nechemia Responsa O.H. 21. It should be noted however that as Poskim, the view of the Radvaz [and of the Chacham Tzvi] is that one should follow the opinion of the Zohar only where a conclusive statement has not been made by the Gemara or Poskim or when an argument is found between the Poskim. The above quoted view, attributed to Rabbi Shne'ur Zalman of Liadi, would thus be accepted as authoritative by followers of Rabbi Shne'ur Zalman of Liadi , followers of the Ben Ish Chai, and followers of other Halacha codifiers who accept to follow the rulings of Kabala over those of the Poskim. Such include: Chassidim, select Sefardim, and other well known groups.
Some in Modern Orthodox Judaism reject the above view as naive. Some Orthodox Jews accept the earlier rabbinic position that the Zohar was a work written in the middle medieval period by Moses de Leon, but argue that since it is obviously based on earlier materials, it can still be held to be authentic, but not as authoritative or without error as others within Orthodoxy might hold.
Jews in non-Orthodox Jewish denominations accept the conclusions of historical academic studies on the Zohar and other kabbalistic texts. As such, most non-Orthodox Jews have long viewed the Zohar as pseudepigraphy and apocrypha. Nonetheless, many accepted that some of its contents had meaning for modern Judaism. Siddurim edited by non-Orthodox Jews often have excerpts from the Zohar and other kabbalistic works, e.g. Siddur Sim Shalom edited by Jules Harlow, even though the editors are not kabbalists.
In recent years there has been a growing willingness of non-Orthodox Jews to study the Zohar, and a growing minority have a position that is similar to the Modern Orthodox position described above. This seems pronounced among Jews who follow the path of Jewish Renewal.
Elijah Delmedigo, in his Bechinat ha-Dat endeavored to show that it could not be attributed to Shimon bar Yochai. The objections were that:
These arguments and others of the same kind were used by Leon of Modena in his Ari Nohem. A work devoted to the criticism of the Zohar was written, Miṭpaḥat Sefarim, by Jacob Emden, who, waging war against the remaining adherents of the Sabbatai Zevi movement, endeavored to show that the book on which Zevi 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 term for \"synagogue,\"; and gives a mystical explanation of the Hebrew vowel-points, which were not introduced until long after the Talmudic period.
There is a small group among the Orthodox who refuse to accept the Zohar, known as Dor Daim (דרדעים). They are mainly from the Jewish community in Yemen, and claim that the Zohar cannot be true because its ideas clash with the ideas of the Rambam (Maimonides), the great medieval rabbi and rationalist, Rabbi Saadiah Gaon, and other early representatives of the Jewish faith.
In the mid-20th century, the Jewish historian Gershom Scholem contended 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, its suspicious traces of Spanish words and sentence patterns, and its lack of knowledge of the land of Israel. This finding is still disputed by many within Orthodox Judaism, although not because of any scholarly proofs, but rather because of tradition.
Yeshayahu Leibowitz, noted professor of philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, claimed that \"It is clear that the Zohar was written by de Leon as it is clear that Theodore Herzl wrote Medinat HaYehudim (The Jewish State).\" Other Jewish scholars have also suggested the possibility that the Zohar was written by a group of people, including de Leon. This theory generally presents de Leon as having been the leader of a mystical school, whose collective effort resulted in the Zohar.
Another theory as to the authorship of the Zohar is that it was transmitted like the Talmud before it was transcribed: as an oral tradition reapplied to changing conditions and eventually recorded. This view simultaneously believes that the Zohar was not written by Shimon bar Yochai, but was a holy work because it consisted of his principles.
Even if de Leon wrote the text, the entire contents of the book may not be 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. It is possible that Moses de Leon considered himself inspired to write this text.
Concerning the Zohars's lack of knowledge of the land of Israel, Scholem bases this on the many references to a city Kaputkia (Cappadocia) which he states was situated in Turkey not in Israel.
R' Reuvein Margolies (Peninim U' Margolies) states that in an ancient Israeli tombstone there is mentioned a village Kaputkia. In addition, the Zohar states that this village was sitiuated within a day's walk of Lod and Margolies's research corroborates this. This would imply that the author of the Zohar had precise knowledge of the geography of Israel.
In the same book he cites many statements of Maimonides that could only have come from a text very similar to the Zohar. In his notes on the Zohar (Nitzotzei Zohar), he points to many corrolaries between statements in the Zohar and other Tannatic literature (Medrashim, The two Talmuds,etc.).
In \"Zohar\", the Encyclopaedia Judaica article written by the late Professor Gershom Scholem (Hebrew University of Jerusalem) there is an extensive discussion of the sources that the author of the Zohar drew upon. Scholem's views are widely held as accurate among historians of the Kabbalah, but like all textual historical investigations, are not uncriticially accepted; many of the following conclusions are still accepted as accurate, but some current academic scholars of Kabbalah have differing ideas.
Scholem views the author of the Zohar as not writing a totally original work, but rather based the Zohar on a wide variety of Jewish sources that existed before him. The author, however, invents a number of fictitious works that the Zohar supposedly quotes, e.g., the Sifra de-Adam, the Sifra de-Hanokh, the Sifra di-Shelomo Malka, the Sifra de-Rav Hamnuna Sava, the Sifra de-Rav Yeiva Sava, the Sifra de-Aggadeta, the Raza de-Razin and many others.
While many original ideas in the Zohar are presented as being from (fictitious) Jewish mystical works, many ancient and clearly rabbinic mystical teachings are presented without their real, identifiable sources being named. Academic studies of the Zohar show that many of its ideas are based in the Talmud, various works of midrash, and earlier Jewish mystical works. Scholem writes:
The author of the Zohar drew upon the Bible commentaries written by medieval Jewish rabbis, including Rashi, Abraham ibn Ezra, David Kimhi and even authorities as late as Nahmanides and Maimonides. Scholem gives a variety of examples of such borrowings.
Scholem's studies concluded that the author of the Zohar \"develops tendencies which appeared first in the writings of the circle of the Gnostics in Castile in the middle of the 13th century .\" While this view is still widely accepted as plausible, it is currently being argued that perhaps Scholem has this conclusion backwards. Moshe Idel has argued that the Gnostic views found within the Zohar developed indigenously within Judaism, and from there extended outwards towards adherents of Gnostic theology. A similar approach has been taken by other scholars as well, for example, Yehuda Liebes and Elliot R. Wolfson. A careful reading of Scholem indicates that Idel's critique is only partially correct. Scholem was equivocal on this point, sometimes arguing that medieval kabbalah was a gnostification of rabbinic thought and practice, and at other time arguing that underlying the ancient gnostic sources we could find a Jewish heterodoxy. The latter position is not at odds with the more recent work of Idel, Liebes, and Wolfson.
Mention should also be made of the work of Elliot Wolfson (Professor of Jewish Mysticism, New York University), who has almost single-handedly challenged the conventional view, which is affirmed by Idel as well, although in the above passage Idel's views were presented as unique. Wolfson likewise recognizes the importance of heteroerotic symbolism in the kabbalistic understanding of the divine nature. The oneness of God is perceived in androgynous terms as the pairing of male and female, the former characterized as the capacity to overflow and the latter as the potential to receive. Where Wolfson breaks with Idel and other scholars of the kabbalah is in his insistence that the consequence of that heteroerotic union is the restoration of the female to the male. Just as, in the case of the original Adam, woman was constructed from man, and their carnal cleaving together was portrayed as becoming one flesh, so the ideal for kabbalists is the reconstitution of what Wolfson calls the male androgyne. Much closer in spirit to some ancient Gnostic dicta, Wolfson understands the eschatological ideal in traditional kabbalah to have been the female becoming male (see his Circle in the Square and Language, Eros, Being). If his reading is accepted, then Idel's ditheism may not be the most felicitous term to characterize kabbalistic theology.
Woe unto the man, says Shimon ben Yochai, 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. If 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. Woe 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.|30px|30px|Zoharexegesis: Peshat (\"simple/literal meaning\"), Remez (\"thru its hint or allusion/allegorical meaning\"), Derash (\"thru rabbinic sermon's comparison or illustration/metaphorical meaning), and Sod (\"thru its secret or mystery/hidden meaning\"). The initial letters of the words (P, R, D, S) form together the word PaRDeS (\"paradise/orchard\"), which became the designation for the fourfold meaning of which the mystical sense is the highest part. Note also the similarity to the word and concept of \"paradise.\"
The mystic allegory in the Zohar is based on the principle that all visible things, including natural phenomena, have both an exoteric reality and an esoteric reality, the latter of which instructs Man in that which is invisible.
This principle is the necessary corollary of the fundamental doctrine of the Zohar. According to that doctrine, as the universe is 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 only to those 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 head between the knees, absorbed in contemplation and murmuring prayers and hymns, At the end male and female will unit and desire will prevail
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:
One of the most central parts of the Zohar is its interpretation of Biblical text. The Biblical exegesis of the Zohar has been described in the past as a \\"Mystical interpretation of Biblical verses,\\" however this does not accurately describe the Zohar's relationship to the biblical text. As is often the case in mystical traditions, the author or authors of the Zohar are not satisfied examining anything from a superficial level. This is especially true regarding the Biblical text, where four different levels of increasingly secretive reading are presented. Collectively known as PaRDeS, they include Peshat (most simple) Remez , Drash and Sod (most secretive). Interestingly, unlike many philosophical books of its time, the Zohar works closely with the Biblical text. Its authors closely analyze verses from the Bible, trying to make sense of them without imposing any ideology on to them from the outside. Often, the most enigmatic verses can be understood only after the nuances in the biblical text have been sufficiently understood. Unlike many medieval commentators, the Zohar does not apply any sort of order to systematic thought when trying to understand the Bible. In his book Mishnat Hazohar, Isaiah Tishby describes the style of the Zohar as a \\"homiletical exegesis.\\" Similarly the style is associative and many verses are explained multiple ways through a constructed dialogue. However Tishby also notes that this lack of structure also has its downsides. The reader who is unfamiliar with the internal logic of the Zohar will find it very difficult to decipher its message.
Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the Zohar's exegesis is its relationship to the Bible itself. Unlike most commentators who develop a subject-object relationship with the text, the Zohar describes a different sort of relationship, comparing the Torah to a lover. This sort of subject-subject relationship allows the reader of the Torah (the author of the Zohar) to engage in a sort of playful dialogue with the text. Significant is Elliot Wolfson's argument in \\"Beautiful Maiden Without Eyes: Peshat and Sod in Zoharic Hermeneutics,” in The Midrashic Imagination: Jewish Exegesis, Thought, and History, edited by Michael Fishbane (State University of New York Press, 1993), 155-203, that the zoharic understanding of the literal and mystical is such that the two are in essence one. For one who first sets out on the path, it seems as if the inner and outer are separate, but as one becomes enlightened, one comes to understand that the external is the internal, and the internal is external. In more recent work, for example, in Language, Eros, Being, Wolfson develops his earlier insight by speaking of the dialectic of concealment and disclosure. Prone to paradoxical modes of expression, Wolfson has argued that the secret is seen from within the garment of the text, and not by discarding that garment. In Wolfson's formulation, the mystery lies right on the surface. In that sense, the text of Torah comprises everything; indeed, from the standpoint of the Zohar, the Torah is the name of God, and just as the name is hidden (the written form YHWH is not pronounced) and revealed (it is vocalized by its epithet Adonai), so the Torah is hidden and revealed. The mystic sage, who is the lover of the Torah, knows, however, that the hidden and the revealed are not paradoxically the same. Wolfson has also argued (in the fifth chapter of Language, Eros, Being) that this insight on the part of the zoharic kabbalists is a tacit polemic against Christian exegesis, which is based on a sharper distinction between the literal and the mystical. The kabbalist resists any notion of reaching the spirit of the text without taking hold of the letter.
On the other hand, the Zohar was censured by many rabbis because it propagated many superstitious beliefs, and produced a host of mystical dreamers, whose overexcited imaginations peopled the world with spirits, demons, and all kinds of good and bad influences. Many classical rabbis, especially Maimonides, viewed all such beliefs as a violation of Judaic principles of faith.
Its mystic mode of explaining some commandments was applied by its commentators to all religious observances, and produced a strong tendency to substitute mystic Judaism in the place of traditional rabbinic Judaism. For example, Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, began to be looked upon as the embodiment of God in temporal life, and every ceremony performed on that day was considered to have an influence upon the superior world.
Elements of the Zohar crept into the liturgy of the 16th and 17th centuries, and the religious poets not only used the allegorism and symbolism of the Zohar in their compositions, but even adopted its style, e.g. the use of erotic terminology to illustrate the relations between man and God. Thus, in the language of some 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 God.
Originally, many held that only Jewish men who were at least 40 years old could study Kabbalah, and by extension read the Zohar, because they were believed to be too powerful for those less emotionally mature and experienced.
This and other similar doctrines found in the Zohar are now known to be much older than Christianity; but the Christian scholars who were led 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.
The disastrous effects of the Sabbatai Zevi messianic movement on the Jewish community dampened the enthusiasm that had been felt for the book in the Jewish community. However, the Zohar is still held in great reverence by many Orthodox Jews, especially the Hasidim (Hasidic Jews).
To the larger appendixes are added the following fragments: