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Interpretation and Power:
The Emergence of Zohar Hermeneutics in the 16th century

by Boaz Huss


The Zohar and its Reception

Sefer ha-Zohar, a collection of Kabbalistic writing from the late 13th and early 14th became, especially since the 16th century, the central text of Kabbalah, and one of the most authoritative and venerated text of Judaism, alongside the Old Testament and the Talmud.
The Zohar contains a wide variety of units, which can be roughly divided into three main sections: Midrash ha-Ne`elam (the hidden homily), Zohar to the portions of the Torah (which is the main part of the Zohar), and Tikunei Zohar and Ra`ya Meheimna (Zohar amendments and the faithful shepherd).
Most of the Zohar consists of Kabbalistic exegesis to the Torah, written in Aramaic. The Zoharic homilies, presented in the style of ancient Jewish Midrash, and attributed to a group of Jewish sages, headed by the second century Tanna Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, expose Kabbalistic secrets, pertaining usually to the structure of the divine system (the Sefirot), its inner dynamics, and humans influence on it. The Zoharic literature discusses a wide variety of other subjects as well, including moral, mystical and psychological issues, as well as stories and anecdotes relating to the adventures of Rabbi Shim`on bar Yochai and his fellowship.
Title Page of the Zohar, Mantua EditionSince the early 14th century, the Zohar was attributed to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Yet, through the ages, and especially since the age of enlightenment, doubts were cast on the antiquity (as well as the literary integrity) of the Zohar, a stance accepted by Modern Kabbalah scholarship.
Although the exact authorship of the Zoharic literature is unknown, it is evident that most of this literature was created in Castile in the late 13th and early 14th century. Gershom Scholem, following previous scholars, asserted that most of the Zohar was written in the late 13th century by the Castilian Kabbalist Rabbi Moshe de Leon. 1 According to Gershom, the latter strata of the Zohar - Tikunei Zohar and Ra`ya Meheimna, were written later, in the early 14th century, by a different, unknown Kabbalist, who imitated the style of the Zohar. Yehuda Liebes on the other hand suggested that not only Tikunei Zohar literature, but also Midrash ha-Ne'elam, as well as other Zoharic units, were created by different authors. Thus, the Zoharic literature should be regarded as product of a group of Kabbalists that operated in Castile in the late 13th and early 14th century. Moshe de Leon, according to this view should not be considered as the sole author of the Zohar, but rather a member of this group who played a central role in the creation and edition of the Zoharic literature. 2
Zoharic texts from Midrash ha-Ne'elam and the main part of the Zohar were cited for the first time in the late 13th century, as ancient Midrashic texts (Tikunei Zohar and Ra`ya Meheimna were cited only in later periods). Since the early 14th century Zoharic texts were perceived as belonging to one literary unit, referred to as Sefer ha-Zohar, or the homily of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Until the printing of the Zohar in the 16th century, the Zohar circulated in collections that were very different in their scope and content from one another. The Zoharic canon was created in the mid sixteenth century when its first printers that based their editions on several manuscript collections. First, Tikunei Zohar were printed in Mantua, in 1557 followed by two editions of the other Zoharic units, divided according to the Torah portions, printed in Mantua in three volumes, and in Cremona in one volume, between 1558-1560. Another volume of Zoharic texts was printed under the title New Zohar, in Salonica, in 1597. Most of the later editions of the Zohar follow the Mantua and Salonica editions.

Introduction The development of Zohar exegesis  >


This e-lecture is from the Goldstein-Goren International Center for Jewish Thought
        Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel


(scroll down to see notes)
  1. Gershom G. Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, New York 1961, pp. 156-204. (back to note 1 in lecture)
  2. Yehuda Liebes, Studies in the Zohar, Albany 1993, pp. 85-90. (back to note 2 in lecture)