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Ideas | Ezra Glinter

A mysterious medieval text, decrypted

Yevgenia Nayberg for the Boston Globe

Around the year 1290, a set of mysterious writings began to circulate in the Jewish community of Castile, an area in what is now modern-day Spain. Written in a lyrical, abstruse Aramaic, they were disseminated by a man named Moses ben Shem-Tov de León, a member of the region’s circle of Jewish mystics. De León claimed that the work was not his own — that he had copied an ancient manuscript in his possession, which had been composed in Palestine in the second century by the legendary sage Rabbi Shim’on bar Yohai. These writings had remained secret for centuries, de León claimed, and were only now being revealed to the world at large.

In the following centuries, the writings distributed by de León and his peers would be published as Sefer HaZohar, “The Book of Radiance,” a wide-ranging work that became the central text of Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism. Based on traditions going back to the Bible, Kabbalah crystallized in southern France and northern Spain in the 12th and 13th centuries. Unlike other Jewish traditions, which depict God in relatively simple terms, Kabbalah describes an intricate divine structure and heavenly realm, and elaborates on the relationship between God and creation. The Zohar, as the writings were called, while drawing on earlier works, used these ideas to re-interpret the Bible, thus transforming Judaism’s most foundational text.


Like many such works, the Zohar is intentionally obscure. Its language is full of neologisms, linguistic borrowings, occasional grammatical mistakes, and inspired wordplay on rabbinic and biblical passages. Its ideas are often paradoxical and contradictory, referring to esoteric concepts that are never fully spelled out. But with its cryptic Aramaic, lyrical poetry, and radical ideas about God, the Zohar captivated the imagination of both Jewish and Christian thinkers.

The Zohar has also attracted translators and commentators who have attempted to make it accessible, despite — or perhaps because of — its difficulty. These efforts include early translations into scholarly languages like Hebrew and Latin, as well as more recent efforts into English, French, and Spanish. But what is likely the most successful Zohar translation in history is only now nearing completion. The Pritzker Zohar, a 12-volume project from Stanford University Press, saw its 10th volume published in May, with the 11th due in September, and the last installment early next year. Translated primarily by Daniel Matt, a scholar of Jewish mysticism in Berkeley, Calif., with contributions by Joel Hecker and Nathan Wolski, the Pritzker edition will make the Zohar the most accessible it has ever been.


Describing the body of texts that make up Zoharic literature is almost as difficult as studying them. Written in the style of the Midrash, or rabbinic commentary on the Bible, the Zohar relates the teachings of Rabbi Shim’on and his companions as they wander through Galilee. But the Zohar also strikes out in bold new directions, describing not only the conversations of Rabbi Shim’on’s mystical fellowship but also their adventures and exploits. On their travels, they encounter strange characters who turn out to be more than what they seem — a beggar or a donkey driver who is actually a hidden sage, a child who displays surprising wisdom. At times, some argue, it comes to resemble a kind of medieval novel.

Even more vexing than the convoluted structure of the Zohar is the question of its authorship. According to the story propagated by de León, the real author was Rabbi Shim’on, who was inspired by the Prophet Elijah while hiding in a cave from Roman persecution. After his death, the manuscript passed from one generation of adepts to the next, until it made its way to Spain. Despite its improbability, this account was widely accepted, especially after the Zohar was embraced in the 16th century by the renowned Kabbalists of Safed. In the centuries since then, Rabbi Shim’on has become a venerated figure in Jewish folk belief; today pilgrims flock to what is his supposed burial place in the Israeli town of Meron. If de León was the author, his exercise in pseudepigraphy was among the most successful in history.


But if Rabbi Shim’on wasn’t the author, who was? Skeptics of de León’s story could be found from the beginning. According to one account, de León’s widow told an inquirer that there was no ancient manuscript, and that the work was composed completely by her husband. He attributed it to Rabbi Shim’on, she said, only so that people would “buy these words at a high price.”

That story is apocryphal, but scholars found other reasons to question the Zohar’s authorship. In the 18th century, Rabbi Jacob Emden, one of the most prominent rabbinic authorities of the period, identified many of the issues that would later be pointed to by modern scholars: the apparent influence on the text of medieval works; grammatical mistakes in the Aramaic; and other peculiarities and anachronisms that showed the Zohar to be a product not of second-century Palestine but of 13th-century Spain. Almost two hundred years later, Gershom Scholem, the father of the modern study of Kabbalah, made the definitive case for de León’s authorship through an intensive, decades-long philological examination of the Zohar, comparing it with de León’s Hebrew works.

Today, most authorities accept de León’s role in composing the Zohar, although many question whether he was the sole author, as Scholem claimed. Scholars like Yehudah Liebes and Ronit Meroz have argued that the Zohar was a collaborative effort by a group of Spanish Kabbalists, who gathered for esoteric study during the period of the Zohar’s composition. This group, they suggest, might even have mirrored the fellowship portrayed in the Zohar itself and may have included an exceptional personality represented by Rabbi Shim’on. But whether the Zohar was primarily the work of de León, or of de León and a circle of colleagues, why would he or they disguise their authorship? What writer doesn’t want to be credited for his work?


The answer may be, as the story with de León’s widow suggests, a financial one — manuscripts would sell better if people believed them to be the work of a legendary cleric. But financial considerations were only a part of the reason, if they played a role at all. Some scholars suggest that de León and his contemporaries believed they were channeling ancient teachings, and the Zohar often refers to itself as “new-ancient words.” Most of all, by attributing the work to a talmudic sage, the authors of the Zohar gave their ideas an authority they would not otherwise have possessed.

The fundamental concept underlying the Zohar — along with most of medieval Kabbalah — is that of the 10 Sefirot, the divine aspects or attributes through which God interacts with the world. In the early mystical work Sefer Yetzirah, “The Book of Creation,” the Sefirot were a numerological concept akin to Pythagorean mysticism, “metaphysical potencies through which creation unfolds,” as Matt writes. By the 13th century, they had come to represent a more elaborate scheme of divine becoming, from the first and most recondite Sefirah, “Keter,” all the way to “Shechina,” representing God’s worldly presence.


The idea of the Sefirot served an important theological purpose. Following philosophers like Maimonides, God had become an abstract, practically inconceivable entity, which made the idea of prayer and religious observance seem almost absurd. With the Sefirot, Kabbalists preserved this notion of God as the ultimate source of being, but introduced a mechanism by which God could relate to the world. Of course, the idea of a tenfold divinity didn’t always sit well with the followers of a religion that prided itself on strict monotheism. The conception of God as both the inaccessible, indescribable being called “Ein Sof” (“Without End”) and the more accessible Sefirot smacked of dualism and perhaps even of polytheism.

This was especially problematic in the Middle Ages, when Jewish theologians distinguished their faith from Christianity by forcefully rejecting the idea of the Trinity. As the “prophetic Kabbalist” Abraham Abulafia wrote, “As the gentiles say, ‘He is three and the three are one,’ so certain Kabbalists believe and say that divinity is ten sefirot and the ten are one.” In a couple of passages, the Zohar even refers to the Sefirot as the son of God, “who shines from one end of the world to the other.”

What made the Sefirotic schema even more problematic was that it depicted God anthropomorphically as “Adam Kadmon,” the “Original Man,” with the first three Sefirot corresponding to a head, and the latter seven representing arms, torso, legs, and both male and female genitals. Several pairs of Sefirot are portrayed as male and female, and the interactions between them as acts of sexual union. As Scholem noted, the Kabbalah was indeed of ancient provenance, though not the way its authors intended. Rather than reveal hidden wisdom handed down over generations, it represented the “revenge of myth,” reintroducing into Judaism elements that had been long banished by the prophets and rabbis.

While many of these ideas were already present in Kabbalistic works, it was the Zohar’s innovation to use them as a way of reading Scripture. Through a web of correspondences between the Sefirot and nearly every word in the Old Testament vocabulary, it turned the Bible from a set of stories, teachings, and legal precepts into a biography of God. “This is the secret,” the Zohar announces portentously at the beginning of Genesis. Following the literal Hebrew word order, the Zohar reads the first verse in the Bible not as, “In the beginning God created . . .” but as, “With beginning [blank] created God.” In other words, in the Zohar’s reading, the first act of creation wasn’t of the world by God, but of the Sefirotic God by the unmentioned subject of the sentence, Ein Sof.

Then, of course, there is the Zohar’s poetry:

At the head of potency of the King,

He engraved engravings in luster on high.

A spark of impenetrable darkness flashed

Within the concealed of the concealed

From the head of Infinity,

A cluster of vapor forming in formlessness, thrust in a ring,

Not white, not black, not red, not green, no color at all.

As a cord surveyed, it yielded radiant colors.

Deep within the spark gushed a flow, splaying colors below,

Concealed within the concealed of the mystery of Ein Sof.

It split and did not split its aura,

was not known at all

until, under the impact of splitting,

a single, concealed, supernal point shone.

Beyond that point, nothing is known,

So it is called Beginning, first command of all.

This is Matt’s rendering of the Zohar on Genesis, in the first of nine volumes that he translated. “The Zohar penetrates the outer layer of the text and tries to find a way to directly encounter God, whose presence lies within,” Matt told me. “It is based on the authors’ mystical experience, yet most of it is a highly creative or playful engagement with the text. So there’s a wonderful creative poetic spirit in the Zohar, it’s constantly weaving a mystical tapestry.”

Matt would know. Now 65 years old, he speaks with a precision that seems to reflect his meticulous process of translation. For nearly two decades, he’s been working on the Zohar and has been studying the text for much longer than that. In the 1970s, he wrote his Brandeis doctoral thesis on “The Book of Mirrors,” a 14th-century Kabbalistic text that contained one of the first translations of the Zohar into Hebrew. In 1983, while teaching Jewish mysticism at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, he published a selection of Zohar translations. Then, in 1995, he was approached by Chicago philanthropist Margot Pritzker, who had been studying the Zohar with her rabbi and was interested in sponsoring a full, scholarly translation. Matt demurred at first — the project would take decades of full-time work, he warned her — but he eventually agreed to take it on, starting in 1997 and publishing the first volume in 2004.

Translating the Zohar turned out to be a more laborious process than he had anticipated. Although he planned to translate from a standard printed edition, he found that every version engaged in its own subtle editing of the text. So, with the help of a research assistant, he went back to early manuscripts, searching for a Zohar unencumbered by the interpolations and “corrections” of copyists and printers. It’s a process that has drawn both praise and criticism. While scholars in the field are quick to praise Matt’s erudition and skill as a translator, some point out that the Zohar he has produced is, in a sense, hypothetical. Ironically, in trying to uncover a more “authentic” Zohar, he has produced a version that never existed before.

But such issues — important as they are to specialists — pale beside Matt’s achievement. Although his translation attempts to provide a poetic, literary version of the Zohar, he is also deeply faithful to the Aramaic text, seeking to “preserve the Zohar’s ambiguity and obscurity,” rather than to smooth out its rough edges. Almost as important are the copious notes that fill the volume, often taking up roughly two-thirds of each page. Here, Matt is able to explain the Zohar’s difficult language and guide the reader through its dense web of allusions and symbolism.

All of this has made the Pritzker Zohar a new standard text for academics, rabbis, and casual readers alike. “It’s a very important landmark,” said Jonathan Garb, the Gershom Scholem chair in Kabbalah at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “Even when I teach in Hebrew, I use this translation. . . . It has a certain literary power, and this translation conveys that nicely.”

“There’s no other translation of the Zohar that even compares,” said Benyamin Newman, a rabbi in Fort Collins, Colo., who teaches an online class in Zohar using the Pritzker edition.

After decades of work, Matt has left a permanent mark on the world library of mystical literature, and the Zohar has left a permanent mark on him. “The Zohar forces you to look into yourself,” he told me, describing the effect of translating day in and day out, for years on end. “In trying to decipher what the text means, you’re actually engaged in an inner spiritual search.” Through that search, the “new-ancient” teachings of the Zohar have been renewed yet again.

Ezra Glinter is the editor of “Have I Got a Story for You: More Than a Century of Fiction From the Forward.” He is currently writing a biography of the Lubavitcher Rebbe for Yale University Press.