The Sefer ha-Zohar (Book of Splendor) is the fundamental book of the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah. It contains a commentary on the Pentateuch filled with mystical speculations on the esoteric meaning hidden within the text.
Kabbalists attribute the origins of the teachings contained within the Zohar to an ancient wisdom tradition which was first received by Moses from God. This secret doctrine was passed down through the generations of Major Prophets and rabbis as part of an oral mystic tradition.
It was first published by Moses de Leon (1250–1305), who attributed its authorship to the legendary rabbi of the 2nd century, Simeon bar Yohai. Orthodox Judaism and modern scholarship consider the work to be pseudepigraphical, and regard Moses de Leon as the true author.
The internal evidence of the text of the Zohar conclusively points to a far later date of composition then the 2nd century, as it contains indisputable anachronisms as well as quotations from the Talmud. Although the early date of the text has been disproven, the mystical speculations contained within the Zohar certainly have their roots in the gnostic and Neoplatonist traditions of the 2nd and 3rd centuries. The esoteric approach to interpreting the scripture in the Zohar is also reminiscent of the allegorical hermeneutic of the Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo.
The Zohar is mainly written in a form of Aramaic (the language of second-temple Israel), which resembles the dialect of the Palestinian Talmud. The remaining portions of the Zohar are written in a popular form of Hebrew.
The Zohar: Origins
Although the Zohar is undoubtedly the central text of Kabbalah, its literary ancestry can be traced back through the primary texts of the movement.
The ancient cosmological work, Sefer Yetzirah (Book of Creation) is the earliest extant book of Jewish mysticism, and it established many of the concepts that would influence the Zohar. The literature associated with ancient Jewish mystical traditions known as Hekhalot (Heavenly Palaces) and Merkabah (Chariot) mysticism (which date back to late antiquity) were also influential on the formation of Kabbalah.
Another important influence on the development of Kabbalah and the Zohar was the Sefer Ha-Bahir (Book of Brightness). The Bahir is a compilation of Jewish mystical writings that was published in the 12th century by the earliest known Kabbalists, the Provence school in France. The Bahir presents a hermeneutic of the Old Testament which focuses on a mystical interpretation of the numbers and letters of the Torah which enables the Kabbalist to gain mystical knowledge of God and the cosmos. It is also the first appearance of the concept of the ten sephiroth (“emanations”), which became a central idea within the Zohar and the Kabbalah. The Kabbalah was published during the following century. The Zohar was first printed at Cremona and Mantua in 1560, and has since seen many reprints with various additions.
The Zohar: Teachings
The Zohar is not the product of a single author, but is rather a somewhat disorderly compilation of independent treatises drawn from multiple authors and eras. It was compiled by the publishers of the first editions. The Midrash Ha-Zôhār, or the Midrash of Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai, is the earliest (and largest) of the collection of books which were arranged to form a commentary on the Pentateuch.
God is totally transcendent and beyond all thought and conception. God is therefore defined using negative theology: He is immovable, intangible, ineffable; it cannot be said of Him that he possesses a will, desire, thoughts or actions. There is also nothing without Him, referred to by the name En-Soph (אֵין סוֹף) (“without end”); He is beyond our limited human grasp.
The One Becomes the Many
The unlimited and perfect nature of God contrasts starkly with the imperfection and restrictions of the world. When you also consider the lack of any will within God, our world could not have been a direct creation of God, Who could not produce anything that is not like Himself. The Zohar teaches that our world was not directly created by God but is rather the result of a process of ten Sephiroth (“emanations”) which emanate from the En-Soph.
Following the first of these emanated (not created) Sephiroth is a process of downwardly cascading emanations. The first sephiroth emanates the second, the second emanating the third, and so on until there are ten.
Each Sephiroth represents a different attribute of the same divine Being, like flames that proceed from a fire. They are all manifestations of the En-Soph.
The cascade of ten Sephiroth combine to form a descending hierarchical cosmic structure, made up of four worlds. The highest world (“the Realm of Unity”) is distinct from the lower three worlds (“the Realm of Separation”). Each Sepiroth has its own name and particular jurisdiction within one of the worlds:
1. Keter (“Crown”)
2. Chochmah (“Wisdom”)
3. Binah (“Understanding”)
4. Chesed (“Grace”)
5. Gevurah (“Divine Justice”)
6. Tiferet (“Beauty”)
7. Netzach (“Endurance”)
8. Hod (“Splendor”)
9. Yes (“Foundation”)
10. Malchut (“Kingdom”)
The Tree of Life
The Sephiroth, as the manifestation of God, forms the structure of the higher, spiritual world. The lower world is made up of matter, and everything in it corresponds to the higher world of the Sephiroth. “The whole world is like a gigantic tree full of branches and leaves, the root of which is the spiritual world of the Sephiroth; or it is like a firmly united chain, the last link of which is attached to the upper world; or like an immense sea, which is being constantly filled by a spring everlastingly gushing forth its streams.” The Sephiroth created the lower world of matter and also maintain it by the divine power present within them. This divine power is transmitted into the world and can be accessed through religious practices such as prayer and the offering of sacrifices. These are acts which take on a mystical significance within Kabbalah. According to the Zohar, the special role of the Jewish people was to gain possession of these blessings for the benefit of the entire world.
The Zohar: European Legacy
The influence of the Zohar (and Kabbalah) was not limited to Jews alone and was studied in Europe during the Renaissance. The mystical hermeneutics and cosmology of texts such as the Zohar inspired the development of Christian Kabbalah as well as Renaissance magic.
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