A syllabus for plumbing the depths of a multi-volume masterpiece of Jewish mysticism.
Ever since it emerged mysteriously in thirteenth-century Spain, the Zohar has enthralled, confounded, challenged, and enraptured readers. Composed mostly in lyrical Aramaic, the Zohar is a mosaic of biblical interpretation, medieval homily, spiritual fantasy, and imaginative commentary written in the form of a mystical novel in which a group of rabbis wander through the hills of Galilee, discovering and sharing secrets of the Torah along the way.
This immense compendium of writings, widely regarded as the apex of medieval Jewish mysticism’s intellectual and literary prowess, forms the centerpiece of the kabbalistic tradition within Judaism today and is regarded by many as sitting alongside the Torah and Talmud as a sacred text in its own right. Comprising twelve large volumes, the Zohar is virtually an entire body of literature, and after two decades of painstaking translation, all volumes are now available in an authoritative English translation (a limited edition collector’s set is also available). No longer bound by its ancient Aramaic vault, the English translation found in The Zohar: Pritzker Editions opens myriad avenues of religious and academic exploration to English-speaking audiences for the first time.
To help guide curious seekers through this monumental text, we’ve gathered below a short syllabus of books that will help unpack the many subtleties, splendors, and mysteries of the Zohar as well as the history of medieval Jewish mysticism.
Sefer ha-Zohar, which means The Book of Radiance, shows us how to discover radically new meaning in an ancient text, challenging readers to delve deeply into scripture, and offering insights into the Torah that complicate or even break with traditional interpretations. Written in poetic and elusive prose, the Zohar expounds upon biblical teachings from Genesis through Deuteronomy as seen from the perspective of Rabbi Shim’on bar Yohai, a second-century sage and theologian, and his companions. Focusing on the ten sefirot, the various stages of God’s inner life and the aspects of the divine personality, the Zohar explores the nature of God, which is depicted as equally feminine and masculine, joined together in sacred union as the Holy One. The central, continually underscored theme that permeates all volumes is the intimacy between human beings and the divine. In this lies one of the Zohar’s boldest propositions: the capacity of the mere mortals to effect change in the divine realm.
For the uninitiated, the first volume includes introductory remarks from both Daniel C. Matt, the main translator and leading authority on Jewish mysticism, and theologian Arthur Green, who is Professor Emeritus of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University. Matt and Green offer suggestions for how to read the Zohar, demystifying parts of its symbolic system, while also situating it within the history and development of Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism more broadly. Extensive commentary provided by Matt throughout the text also serves as a helpmeet to render the strange and enigmatic text accessible to inquisitive lay readers.
Published concurrently with the first two volumes of The Zohar: Pritzker Editions, Arthur Green’s A Guide to the Zohar explores the origins and history of Kabbalah and the advent of the Zohar, which synthesized and expanded on this mystical tradition. Green unpacks the alphanumeric codes and esoteric symbols of the text and offers an introduction to the Zohar’s narrative structure, language, and prevailing themes. Among these are the themes of creation and the origin of the world, the significance of the Ten Commandments, the nature of evil and demonic forces, and the nature of a life of worship and piety. At its core, contends Green, the Zohar depicts a numinous worldview—scratch the surface of anything in creation and God is revealed as the underlying structure of that being.
ALSO SEE: Arthur Green’s interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air.
Attending to the music of the Zohar’s prose, Melila Hellner-Eshed explores the mythos, eroticism, and metaphorical creativity that flows from its pages as a means of unpacking the deeper mystical insights of the text. Charming, bewildering, and wondrous as the Zohar’s literary qualities may be, it is its overarching worldview, argues Hellner-Eshed, that has endeared the text to generations of readers. That view, in which divinity flows like a river into the world of humanity, calls worshippers to encounter dimensions of reality unattainable through ordinary states of consciousness in everyday life. This mystical calling espoused in the Zohar invites individuals onto a journey known as the “secret way” or the “way of truth” that brings sojourners into a special intimacy with the divine.
ALSO SEE: An excerpt from the Introduction of A River Flows from Eden.
Structured as a novel, the Zohar follows the theological and physical wanderings of Rabbi Shim’on bar Yohai and his disciples as they contemplate scripture and the nature of the divine. The text oscillates between the conversations of the theologians and the objects of their contemplation; biblical characters routinely come into and recede from view as the rabbi and his companions re-tell and interpret the familiar beacons and obscure corners of the religious canon, all while wandering through the hills of Galilee. In Roads to Utopia, David Greenstein explores the motif of the walking story and makes the case that these liberally interspersed pedestrian interludes are integral to understanding the Zohar as a whole. They serve as a metaphor, argues Greenstein, reminding readers of the proximity of the everyday with the realm of the sacred. Examining these narrative shards, what Greenstein calls the “walking stories” of the Zohar, the text embraces the reality of mundane existence, and Greenstein’s exploration of this literary device reveals a singular and under-studied achievement of this jewel of Jewish mystical literature.
ALSO SEE: The Introduction of Roads to Utopia.
A tenet that has historically distinguished the Jewish and Christian traditions is the degree of separation that each faith believes to exist between humanity and God. Whereas Christianity has among its cardinal principles that God became man, mainstream Judaism has long held that the crossing of such boundaries is impossible as humans are flawed and frail while God is omnipotent. But Shaul Magid disputes the rigidity of this distinction in intellectual history in his book Hasidism Incarnate, arguing that Hasidic and mystical iterations of Judaism entertained the notion of “incarnational” thinking—the idea that the divine permeates all levels of existence, including human beings.
As Christianity became more committed to high Christology and as Judaism defined itself more and more in opposition to Christianity, incarnational thinking faded in Judaism, with the exception of the esoteric traditions, such as the Kabbalah, where traces of such a doctrine remained but were largely veiled in metaphysical and cosmological jargon. This paradigm was nearly interpreted out of existence until a profusion of mystical literature, including the Zohar, surfaced and popularized the notion of the zaddik, a God/man who has achieved quasi-divine or incarnational status (represented in the Zohar by the figure of Rabbi Shim’on bar Yohai). The doctrinal tenets of Hasidism, argues Magid, thus bridge one of the most divisive theological boundaries between Judaism and Christianity, and offer new insight into the shared genealogies of these two faiths.
In As Light Before Dawn, Eitan P. Fishbane explores the mystical thought of Isaac ben Samuel of Akko, a major medieval kabbalist remarkable first and foremost for his role as an intellectual bridge between Western kabbalists, who followed in the tradition of Nachmanides, and Eastern kabbalists, who were more influenced by the ideas of their Sufi neighbors. His persistent search for the truth about the authorship of the Zohar, which brought him from Israel to Spain, yielded questions that would continue to be debated by scholar for centuries to come: namely, did the text derive, as its publisher Moses de León claimed, from antiquity, penned by the hand of its protagonist, Rabbi Shim’on bar Yohai? Or was de León, in fact, the author? Isaac’s thought examines a host of questions central to Kabbalah, including the nature of metaphysical experience, the power of mental intention, and the capacity for human beings to invite divine energy into their physical bodies through ritual and contemplation. A comprehensive examination of this pivotal kabbalist’s work profits the reader with a richer understanding of Jewish mystical trends in the Middle Ages.
ALSO SEE: An excerpt from the Introduction of As Light Before Dawn.