Sefer ha-Zohar was an influential Kabbalistic work written approximately during the time 1280-1286 by Moses de Leon. This text was distributed in small segments at a time. It was a unique text marking the end of a significant period of development in Kabbalah which had begun with Sefer ha-Bahir . The Zohar contained a number of literary distinctions which characterized it and set it apart from other texts.
Pseudepigraphy was not uncommon to mystical texts. Early Kabbalists used pseudepigraphy in order to introduce new teachings while attributing these teachings to the long succession of oral Torah (Ariel 55). The Zohar was no exception to the attribution of the text to a far earlier source. The Zohar was said to have been written by Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai during the Tannaitic period (Dan 4), a period that occurred many centuries earlier than when Moses de Leon actually wrote the text.
Moses de Leon tried to conceal the fact that the text was his own invention by writing in such a way as to give the appearance that the Zohar was truly an ancient text. The Zohar was written in midrashic form which was an ancient method for scouring passages, phrases, or individual words of the Bible to uncover their meaning (Matt 7). Moses de Leon even attempted to mimic the language of the Tannaitic period although he was transparent in this attempt.
The Zohar was written primarily in Aramaic although the earliest section of the text, Midrash ha-Ne'elam , was written in a combination of Hebrew and Aramaic (Matt 8). The style of writing, however, betrayed its thirteenth century origin. There were a number of grammar and vocabulary errors, Spanish syntactical constructions, neologisms, and medieval Hebraisms in the writing (Matt 29). The Aramaic itself was problematic. It could be connected to texts which de Leon had in his own library. He used Aramaic constructions from the Babylonian Talmud as well as the Targum Onkelos with preference given to grammatical constructions of the latter (Scholem, Major Trends 164). Generally, the language of the Zohar was full of medieval constructions which betrayed its true authorship in the thirteenth century. Gershom Scholem gives a detailed account of this fact in Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism as well as explaining how there is only minute doubt that Moses de Leon was the true author of the Zohar.
The Zohar, while being a Kabbalistic work, actually avoided mentioning Kabbalistic doctrines (Scholem, Major Trends 180). Moses de Leon was careful not to use any Kabbalistic terminology to maintain the ancient facade of his work. The text contained imagery and symbolism of the sefirotic systems, however, the term " sefirot " was never used. Instead euphemisms such as lights, levels, links, roots, or other images were used to identify each of the ten sefirot leaving decoding up to the reader (Matt 33).
Matt points out as well that only a careful and devoted reader could decipher the Zohar because, like the Torah, the true meaning was hidden. Both works could only approximately symbolize that which is essentially beyond words or comprehension (Matt 32), Eyn Sof, the infinite God. Eyn Sof was thought of as the hidden, unknowable, unfathomable nature of God. In writing the Zohar, de Leon was deeply interested in trying to express mystically and symbolically this hidden world of Eyn Sof (scholem, On Kabbalah 53).
The Zohar propounded that it was through the Torah that one could begin to access Eyn Sof. The Torah was a living organism, the Tree of Life (Scholem, On Kabbalah 56). The Tree of Life was also a reference to the sefirotic system, the ten emanated spheres of Eyn Sof. Each sefirah expressed a different level of meaning according to the Zohar (Scholem, On Kabbalah 56). However, the Zohar went another step further by saying every word and letter of the Torah had 70 aspects which were secrets that could be revealed of the nature of God (Scholem, On Kabbalah 62-3). What was intended by this passage of the Zohar was that there were innumerable levels of interpretations to be found in the Torah.
The Torah held four levels of meaning according to the Zohar: literal, Aggadic, philisophico-allegorical, and theosophical (Scholem, On Kabbalah 54). The Zohar was a theosophical text (Scholem, Major Trends 205). Original texts were used primarily as a springboard for de Leon to espouse his own imaginative renderings except when the Aggadah was of a mystical nature in which case de Leon emphasized that aspect, even writing that aspect into a new myth (Scholem, Major Trends 174).
The Zohar was a narrative commentary, yet often based entirely on the imagination of Moses de Leon. It read more like a literary novel than a serious theosophical commentary. Imagination was a key necessity, though, to bring to the reading of the Zohar (Matt 32). The Zohar was full of imagery, colorful expressions, and symbolic representations which pointed the way to the secret aspects of God for the careful reader. Whether the Zohar was ancient or medieval was actually irrelevent when its uniqueness and influence on the development of Kabbalah were taken into account
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