What is Zohar?

In Judaism, The Sefer ha-Zohar(Book of Splendor) is the central text of Kabbalah, the mystical branch of Judaism. Today, "the Zohar has become one of the indispensable texts of traditional Judaism, alongside and nearly equal in stature to Mishnah and Gemara." {1} (Compare Jewish denominations)

The Zohar was written by a Spanish kabbalist named Moses de Leon towards the end of the 13th century, but de Leon himself passed them off as the work of the famous second-century sage Rabbi Simeon. This ascribed it with authority that de Leon could not have given it. The Zohar is written in Aramaic, which supports its ostensible provenance, but its awkward language and traces of medieval Jewish thought betrays its true origins for modern scholars.

The Zohar is structured much like any other collection of midrashim, but the subject matter is unique and deeply kabbalistic. It discovers in the Torah underlying codes and keys that lead to not just knowledge of, but direct involvement with, the nature of the Godhead itself. To read the Torah with the proper mystical understanding is to interact with and even affect the divine wisdom and energy.

In the Zohar we find the first full treatment of mystical concepts that had been developing in the 13th century, namely the Gnostic dualism of good and evil within the Godhead and the doctrine of the Ten Sefirot (emanations of God). It discusses the creation of the universe at length, as well as the problem of evil and the cosmic significance of prayer and good deeds.

The Zohar did not enjoy mass popularity outside of kabbalistic circles until after 1492, when Jews were expelled from Spain and consequently began to focus more on messianic and eschatological ideas. It has been approached with caution by most rabbis, some of whom have restricted its reading to those over the age of 40 to ensure that it is approached not only maturity, but a solid knowledge and understanding of the Torah and Talmud.

In recent years, the Zohar is finding a broader (and often non-Jewish) audience through such organizations as the Kabbalah Centre. For more on Kabbalah, see Jewish Sects.


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  1. George Robinson, Essential Judiasm: A Complete Guide to Beliefs, Customs and Rituals (Pocket Books, 2000).
  2. "Sefer Ha-zohar." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service (2004).
  3. Tracey R. Rich, " Torah." Judaism 101 (1995-99).

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