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 (Chagiga 13a).[1]

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[2] 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 Yochai.

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.[3] (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 missing pages.

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 Online.

Rabbi Moshe-Leib 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.


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