Authenticity of the Zohar
by Rabbi Moshe Miller
Part I: The Zohar's Mysterious Origins
Jewish mystical teachings were always an integral part of the Oral
Law and were transmitted together with the rest of the Oral Law by Moses
to Joshua, through the era of the Prophets and the Men of the Great
Assembly, until the time of the redactors of the Talmud. The Five Books
of Moses and the Prophets describe numerous mystical visions and experiences
but do not explain them or the methods used to achieve them.
There is no doubt that explanation and the methods of achieving prophecy
were expounded in an oral tradition, just like the rest of Torah. However,
because of their esoteric nature, these mystical teachings were not
published together with the remainder of the Oral Law. [Although according
to Shem HaGedolim, they may have been part of the 600 orders of Mishnaic
teachings prior to their redaction by Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi.]
Furthermore, study of the esoteric texts was restricted to those who
were considered worthy of its knowledge, as is written: "One may
not expound...the Work of Creation to more than one student [at a time];
the Work of the Chariot not even to one student - unless he is wise
and can understand these matters by himself" ( Mishna Chagiga 2:1).
The Gemara explains, "Rabbi Chiya taught, '[One may not expound
the Work of the Chariot to any student] but one may give him the 'chapter
headings,' [i.e. the fundamentals, without lengthy explanation]. Rabbi
Zeira added, 'And then only to the Head of a Rabbinical Court, or to
those who are properly wary'. Some maintain that Rabbi Zeira said, 'And
then only to the Head of a Rabbinical Court, and only if he is properly
wary.'" The Gemara then goes on to list various other conditions
and limitations relating to the transmission of this esoteric wisdom
The question of the authorship of Zohar has interested scholars in
yeshivas and secular academics alike. Those who believe, in accordance
with Jewish tradition, that the Zohar is indeed an authentic document
of the teachings of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai ( Rashbi), generally agree
that part, but not all, of the Zohar was written by Rashbi. The sections
of the Zohar that are from Rabbi Shimon himself are described as "the
First Mishna," apparently written while hiding in a cave from the
Roman authorities who sought to execute him for derogatory statements
he had made against them. (Concerning the First Mishna, see Chabura
Kadmaa mentioned in Zohar III, p. 219a. See also Zohar II, 123b; vol.
III, 296b; Shabbat 33b).
The remainder of the Zohar, like the Talmud, was the product of generations
of masters and their disciples. Early sources state that the composition
of the Zohar extended over the period of Rashbi, his disciples and their
disciples who recorded many of the teachings passed on orally from
Rabbi Shimon to his close associates and disciples. Thus its authorship
spanned several generations. This view is substantiated by the Zohar
itself, as stated in Idra Zuta (Zohar III p. 287b):
[Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said,] "The holy matters that I did not
reveal until now, I wish to reveal in the presence of the Shechina,
so that no one will say that I left the world without fulfilling my
task and that I concealed [these secrets] in my heart until now so that
they would come with me to the World to Come. I will present them to
you; Rabbi Abba shall write, and Rabbi Elazar my son will review them,
and the remaining circle of disciples must whisper them in their hearts."
One layer of the Zohar was thus clearly written by Rabbi Abba, who
hailed from Babylonia, at the behest of his master, Rabbi Shimon bar
The original written texts comprising the Zohar were concealed for many
centuries, although its present form, following the order of the weekly
Torah portions, is of a much later date, most likely from the period
of the Geonim, and there are some interpolations from these late editors.
(This explains why names of sages who lived several generations after
Rashbi also appear in the Zohar). They became revealed only in the thirteenth
century and were published by one of the leading kabbalists living in
Spain, Rabbi Moshe de Leon. Some believed that the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe
ben Nachman c. 4955-5030 (1194-1270 CE), himself a renowned Kabbalist,
had sent them from Israel by ship to his son in Catalonia, but the ship
had been diverted and the texts ended up in the hands of Rabbi Moshe
de Leon (Shem HaGedolim, Chida Sefarim, Zayin, 8). Others explained
that these manuscripts had been hidden in a vault for a thousand years
and had been discovered by an Arabian king who sent them to Toledo to
be deciphered. Some maintained that Spanish conquistadors had discovered
the manuscripts of the Zohar among many others in an academy in Heidelberg
(Shem HaGedolim, ibid.) Other explanations have also been offered. How
exactly the Zohar came to be in the possession of Rabbi Moshe de Leon
is thus not clear.
Rabbi Moshe de Leon began disseminating the text of the Zohar around
the early 1300's. The prevailing academic opinion (although there are
some notable dissenters) is that Moshe de Leon himself wrote the Zohar.
These claims are based on the testimony of Rabbi Yitzchak of Acco, on
an analysis of the names of places mentioned in the Zohar, on linguistic
arguments, on the use of terminology which first appeared in medieval
times, and so on. Although a comprehensive analysis of all of these
arguments is beyond the scope of this essay, some of these arguments
will be closely examined.
The earliest record of a systematic inquiry into the Zohar's authorship
came from the ranks of the Kabbalists themselves. Rabbi Yitzchak of
Acco 5010-5100 (1250-1340 CE), a disciple of Ramban (after the latter
settled in the Holy Land) and an accomplished kabbalist, decided to
examine the question for himself, given the importance of the texts
and the gravity of the rumors surrounding its authorship.
The entire account was recorded in Rabbi Yitzchak's Divrei HaYamim,
but unfortunately no known manuscripts of this text are extant. Nevertheless,
the majority of his account was published in Sefer HaYuchasin (Phillipovski
edition, London and Edinburgh 1857) by Rabbi Avraham Zacuto (5185- c.
5275 / 1425- c. 1515 CE), although the conclusions Rabbi Yitzchak reached
were not recorded. A paraphrase of the account follows:
Rabbi Yitzchak traveled to Spain, and he met Rabbi Moshe de Leon in
Vallidolid. The latter swore under oath that he was in possession of
the manuscript written by Rabbi Shimon. He averred that the manuscript
was in his hometown of Avila and that he would gladly show it to Rabbi
Yitzchak there. They parted company, and on the way back home Rabbi
Moshe took ill in Arevalo and died there. Rabbi Yitzchak was extremely
upset by this turn of events but decided nevertheless to proceed to
Avila. There he found a certain David di PanCorbo who divulged to him
that he had clarified without any doubts that the a work called Zohar
had never come to be in Rabbi Moshe's possession nor was there any such
work in existence.
Rather, Rabbi Moshe had knowledge of the Holy Name by which writing
is produced, and this is how he had written the book. He told Rabbi
Yitzchak that Rabbi Moshe had written the Zohar and imputed it to Rabbi
Shimon bar Yochai in order to extract large sums of money from the wealthy
for copies of the manuscript. When he had heard of Rabbi Moshe's passing,
he asked a certain very wealthy man, Yosef di Avila to ask his wife
to attempt to acquire the manuscript from Rabbi Moshe's widow in exchange
for his son marrying her daughter and a promise to support her for the
rest of her life. According to David, both the mother and daughter swore
that Rabbi Moshe had never possessed such a work. Rather, he had written
it "from his head, his heart, his knowledge and intellect."
When Mrs. de Leon herself had questioned Rabbi Moshe as to why he claimed
to be copying a manuscript (as he would be better off if he told them
that he himself had written it), he replied that if he revealed that
fact no one would be interested in buying it from him! But if he claimed
they were the writings of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, they would buy it
at a high price.
Rabbi Yitzchak was stunned at these words and found them hard to believe.
He traveled on to Talavera where he found a great sage named Rabbi Yosef
HaLevi, the son of Rabbi Todros (Abulafia) the kabbalist. Upon making
inquires from the latter he was told that without a doubt Rabbi Moshe
had in his possession the work called the Zohar written by Rabbi Shimon
bar Yochai, and he would make copies of it and distribute them to whomever
he pleased [note that nothing about money was mentioned here - Ed.].
Rabbi Yosef then stated that he himself had put Rabbi Moshe to the test.
A long time after Rabbi Moshe had given him a copy of many pages of
the Zohar, Rabbi Yosef hid a few pages and claimed that he had lost
them, and asked Rabbi Moshe for another copy of those pages. Rabbi Moshe
requested to see the pages preceding and following the lost sections,
and a few days later he provided Rabbi Yosef with an exact copy of the
Rabbi Yitzchak decided to continue his investigations and traveled on
to Tolitula, where they told him that Rabbi Moshe's chief disciple,
a certain Rabbi Yaakov, called heaven and earth to witness that the
Zohar that was written by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai...
Unfortunately, the account in Sefer HaYuchasin ends here since the
Rabbi Avraham Zacuto did not find the remainder of the original text.
Nevertheless, some conclusions do emerge from the above account. There
was apparently a text from which Rabbi Moshe made copies, as is clear
from the test administered by Rabbi Yosef HaLevi, the son of Rabbi Todros
Abulafia. This clearly contradicts the testimony of Rabbi Moshe's wife
and daughter and makes their testimony unreliable. Who the author of
the text may have been, however, is not clear from this account, although
from its concluding words, "the Zohar that was written by Rabbi
Shimon bar Yochai...," there is evidence that Rabbi Isaac of Acco
himself accepted that the Zohar was written by Rashbi and his disciples.
The succeeding articles in this series examine the arguments of acedemia
and the counter-arguments. But to read it you will have to go to our
sister site: Kabbala
Miller, a guest teacher at Ascent when he lived in Israel, was born
in South Africa and received his yeshiva education in Israel and America.
He is a prolific author and translator, with some twenty books to his
name on a wide variety of topics, including a new, authoritative, annotated
translation of the Zohar. He currently lives in Chicago.