An old Jew reflects on what the Zohar illuminates about the nature of the Jewish tradition.
In 2002, Stanford University Press embarked on the ambitious initiative of publishing a 12-volume translation of the foundational work of Jewish mysticism, The Zohar. This monumental, 20-year translation project, generously underwritten by Margot Pritzker, was undertaken by Daniel Matt with assistance on the final three volumes from Nathan Wolski and Joel Hecker. I am honored to have supervised this program at the Press from the beginning, and have had the sincere pleasure of working with both Daniel Matt and Rabbi Yehiel Poupko, who has overseen and managed the work on behalf of the Zohar Education Project, Inc (ZEPI). In two companion blog posts, Daniel Matt and Rabbi Poupko reflect on their experiences. While the translation was completed in 2016, and the final volume was published in 2017, SUP will continue to develop the work and help it to reach new audiences. The beautiful, limited run Collector's Edition was released at the end of 2017, and we plan to release ebook editions of all twelve volumes in the summer of 2018, while at the same time re-releasing native HTML editions of the Aramaic source texts. Watch out for future new works on the Zohar web page.
—Alan Harvey, Director, Stanford University Press
Until the Zohar was written down, or emerged and erupted, or was composed, sometime in the late-thirteenth to early-fourteenth century, a Mitzvah, a Commandment, was just that: It was God’s instruction. If anyone wanted to know why the Jews obeyed the Mitzvot, or if anyone were curious as to the purpose of the Commandments, the answer was very simple: The purpose is to obey God. The reason why the Commandments are obeyed, followed, and observed is because God commanded them. Thou shalt not steal…; Remember the Sabbath Day…; Do not eat everything available out there…; and on, and on, and on. Any time a Jewish person asked that question from the first century onward (and even earlier), the given answer was the same. The reason for the Commandments is that God has commanded them.
Yet the Zohar changed the answer to that question in a fundamental way. One obeys the Mitzvot. One fulfills the Commandments. One integrates the Mitzvot-Commandments into one’s life not only because God commanded it but because the Mitzvot have far-reaching cosmic power. They can in fact have an effect, as if one can imagine it or even say it, on God’s very Self.
Now that is pretty heady stuff. But if you think about it, one of the consequences of every relationship is that both parties are mutually affected and altered by their relation to one another. We should not be surprised that God is affected by God’s relationship with the Jewish people. After all, when God thinks of annihilating the Jewish people for the grave sin of the Golden Calf, He has to ask Moses’ permission. He says to Moses, “Now let Me be that My anger may rage against them”—meaning that if Moses does not let God be, God cannot act. Thus relationships have an effect, even on God. It is the task of humans in this world, through the Mitzvot, to adorn the human and the Divine reality with the consequences of the Mitzvot. This adornment comes through the Mitzvot. Indeed, if one imagines it, there are different aspects or emanations to the One God, and our earthly reality is merely the surface expression of vast parallel worlds of spiritual reality.
One integrates the Mitzvot-Commandments into one’s life not only because God commanded it but because the Mitzvot have far-reaching cosmic power.
One of the great and mysterious, or possibly not so mysterious, features of The Zohar: Pritzker Edition, is that the translation was done by Daniel Matt. This is no accident. In fact, I would even go so far as to say it was determinative that he would be the great translator and commentator on the Zohar. I suspect that his parents gave him this name with exactly that in mind. How do I know that? We read in the Book of Daniel, “And the knowledgeable will radiate (yazhiru, from the ‘z’ in our Zohar) like the bright expanse of sky, and those who lead the many to righteousness will be like the stars forever and ever.” This is one of only two places in all of the written word of the Hebrew Bible that the word ‘zohar’—meaning radiance or illumination—is found. The moment the name Daniel was put upon him it was clear that he came into this world with this as his determined task. And he has fulfilled his destiny and brought much radiance—the Zohar—to all of us.