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When Was the Zohar Written?

By Ephraim Rubin

Posted July 26, 2002

Introduction

Many circles of the contemporary religious public share the view which states that the Book of Zohar--the basic work of kabbalah whose importance to Jewish mysticism is as the importance of the Talmud to Jewish halacha--was written by Rabbi Simeon Bar Yohai, one of the Tannaim, the Mishnaic sages of the 2nd century CE. This view is so commonplace and accepted that the covers of many editions of the Zohar, published by religious people and organizations, are labeled "The Book of the Zohar by Rabbi Simeon Bar Yohai." Based on this approach, outreach workers seek in the Zohar descriptions of events which took place long after the death of Rabbi Simeon Bar Yohai and present them as prophecies which were fulfilled.[1]

We will try to answer the question: When, in fact, was the Zohar as we know it today written? It is important to emphasize: Our main question is not who wrote the Zohar, but when it was written. Even so, since the date of the book's authorship is closely linked to the lives and work of various people throughout Jewish history, the discussion of the date of authorship also demands a discussion of who wrote the book, and therefore we will have to discuss the questions together. We will attempt also to answer the question of whether the approach which views Rabbi Simeon Bar Yohai as the author of the Zohar is indeed the sole approach in traditional Judaism through the ages, as many today view it.

The Structure of the Zohar

Before we begin on the question of who wrote the Zohar when, it is worthwhile to present the structure of the book. The Zohar is not a unified work, as we might expect from a book written and planned by one man, but is built section by section. This is what one of the greatest researchers into the kabbalah, Dr. Gershom Scholem, wrote in his entry on "Zohar" in the Encyclopedia Hebraica[2]:

In its literary structure the Zohar is a collection of essays and pieces of essays which include short pieces of medrash, long homilies and lectures on various topics, the majority of which appear as the words of the Tanna Rabbi Simeon Bar Yochai (Rashbi) and his companions (the hevraya), but long anonymous sections also appear. To a certain extent it is known that this is not a single book, but an entire branch of literature unified under a single name. In printed editions the Zohar is comprised of five volumes: three--based on the division in most editions--are printed under the names Sefer HaZohar Al HaTorah, a volume called Tikunei HaZohar and one called Zohar Hadash, a collection of compositions and essays found in the manuscripts of the Sefad Kabbalists after the printing of the main Zohar text and gathered by Abraham HaLevi Bruchim. Below, the linguistic highlights of the Zohar will be cited from the Jerusalem edition of 1940-1953 (Mosad Rav Kook).

The divisions which comprise the Zohar in its widest sense are:

  1. The main text of the Zohar, organized according to portions of the Torah, mainly until the portion of Pinchas; of the book of Deuteronomy we find only the portion of Ve'etchanan, some of Valeyech and the portion of Haazinu...

  2. Zohar on the Song of Songs (Zohar Hadash 71d-85b), found mainly on the first chapter, and all a Kabbalistic commentary.

  3. Sifra di-Tzeniuta (The Book of Concealment), a brief commentary on the portion of Bereshit using short, obscure sentences, a sort of anonymous Mishna, five chapters long (printed after the portions of Terumah or Bereshit).

  4. Idra Rabba (The Greater Assembly), printed in the portion of Naso, a description of a meeting of the companions with Rashbi, in which the most deep secrets of the Divine revelation in the form of early man are discussed ...

  5. Idra Zutta (The Lesser Assembly), found at the beginning of the portion of Terumah, the story of Rashbi's death and his final speech to them before his death, a sort of parallel to the death of Moshe, our teacher...

  6. Idra dibiMashkana (The Assembly on the Occasion of a Lecture in Connection with the Torah Section Concerning the Tabernacle), printed at the beginning of the portion of Terumah, a meeting of Rashbi with the companions to discuss the versions dealing with the Tabernacle; mainly deals with the secrets of prayer.

  7. Hechalot (Hechalot of Rashbi), two descriptions of seven palaces in the upper regions of Paradise in which the souls take pleasure while their prayers ascend and after they depart the earth. Another, shorter version is incorporated into the portion of Bereshit (Zohar I 38a-45b) and a longer version enlarging upon the secrets of prayer and angelology is found at the end of the portion of Pekudei (Zohar II, 244b-262b).

  8. Raza deRazin (Secretum Secretorum), an anonymous composition on physiognomy and chiromancy, based on the verse "and you shall foresee" in the portion of Yitro. Printed in the main text of Zohar II, 70a-75a, and continued in the "Deletions" and Zohar Hadash 56c-60a.

  9. Sava diMishpatim (The Old Man), printed in the main text of the Zohar on the portion of Mishpatim, the story of the meeting of the companions with Rav Yavi Sava, a great Kabbalist who hides in the guise of a lowly donkey driver and lectures them on the mysteries of the soul using a mystical interpretation of the laws of slavery in the Torah.

  10. Yenuka (The Child), a story in the portion of Balak (Zohar III, 186a-192a) about a child prodigy, the son of Rabbi Hamnuna Sava, who discusses the grace after meals and other matters while two of the companions lodge in his mother's house....

  11. Rav Mativta (The Head of the Academy), a story (in the portion of Shelach, Zohar III 161b-174a) about a visionary journey through Paradise undertaken by the companions and Rashbi and a long discourse by one of the heads of the celestial academy on matters of the afterlife and the secrets of the soul.

  12. Kav haMiddah (The Mystical Standard of Measure), in Zohar Hadash 56d-58b, a clarification of the particular secrets of lordship in an interpretation of the Shema, given in the guise of a lecture by Rashbi to his son.

  13. Sitre Otiot (The Secret of the Letters), in Zohar Hadash 1b-10d, a discussion by Rashbi on the letters in the names of G-d and the secrets of lordship.

  14. A commentary on the vision of the throne-chariot in Ezekiel 1, in Zohar Hadash 37c.

  15. Matnitin and Tosefta, numerous short compositions written in a laconic and obscure style which serves as a sort of gemara in the main text of the Zohar. The connection between these sections and the commentary on the portions in the main text of the Zohar is sometimes clear and sometimes superficial...The compositions are scattered throughout all parts of the Zohar.

  16. Sitre Torah, compositions on verses in Genesis, printed in special columns parallel to the main text of the Zohar (on the portions of Noah, Lech-lecha, Vayera, and Vateytze) and in Zohar Hadash (on the portions of Toldot and Vayeshev).

  17. Midrash haNeelam al haTorah (Mystical Midrash on the Torah), on the portions of Bereshit, Noah, and Lech-Lecha in Zohar Hadash, Vayera and Chaye Sarah in the main text of the Zohar, Vayetze in Zohar Hadash and also perhaps the beginning of the portion of Vayeche and certain pages of Shemot and Bo... This section is written in a mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic. Many sages are mentioned in it and unlike the long lectures in the previous sections--here mainly short compositions are presented in the style of earlier aggadic midrashim...

  18. Midrash heNeelam l'Migillat Rut (Mystical Midrash on the Book of Ruth), in Zohar Hadash, similar in nature and content to the one just mentioned, but found in many manuscripts as a book unto itself.

  19. Beginning of Midrash Neelam l'Shir haShirim (Mystical Midrash on the Song of Songs), in Zohar Hadash, an opening exegesis of the scroll with no continuation.

  20. Mamar Ta Chezi ("Come See" Compositions), in Zohar Hadash 7a, "Deletions," end of 8a. A different interpretation of the portion of Bereshit in short anonymous compositions, mainly starting with the words "come see," using blatantly Kabbalistic language.

  21. Raya Mehemna (The Faithful Shepherd), a special book about the reasons for the commandments according to the Kabbalah, found in some manuscripts as a book unto itself. In printed editions it is scattered into portions in which a specific commandment is mentioned, and is printed in special columns...This composition relies explicitly on the main text of the Zohar, whose words are often brought in the name of "the first composition" or "the early composition," particularly in the portion of Pinchas. The numerical order of the commandments has been retained in a few places and testifies to the original mixed-up order.

  22. Tikkunei Zohar, also a book unto itself, whose framework is similar to that of Raya Mehemna. It includes a commentary on the portion of Bereshit in which each chapter (tikkun) begins with a new interpretation on the word bereshit. The book was meant to include 70 tikkunim, for the seventy aspects of the Torah, but actually includes more, some printed in appendices at the end of the book; the pages Zohar I 22a-29a also belong to this book...

  23. Unnamed composition on the portion of Yitro, in Zohar Hadash, 31a-35b), a work similar in nature to the tikkunim on physiognomy in Raza deRazin (see [8] above).

  24. Various compositions such as Zohar Hadash 43d-46b, ibid. 50a-53b which look like an imitation of the Zohar but were undoubtedly written close to the time of the book's publication.

Aside from these divisions, Kabbalists had other sections in manuscript form which were not included in the printed editions, and some of them have been lost entirely...

Zoharic literature is divided into three distinct strata: (1) the main Zohar (1-15 in the above list); (2) Sitre Torah and the Midrash heNeelam (16-19); (3) Raya Mehemna and the tikkunim (21-24). Divisions 21-24 are most of most doubtful provenance and are perhaps post-publication additions. There is some relationship between the strata which establishes the relative order of the texts, but for the most part each stratum is uniform to itself and this uniformity is confirmed by examination of the details.

It is clear that dismantling certain sections while shattering their original order (Raya Mehemna), eliminating certain sections from printings until some were lost entirely, and integrating others can recognizably change the meaning of the words of the Zohar in many places. Even so, according to Gershom Scholem there is a recognizable unity "in the language of the [main text of the Zohar], in its literary style, and, last but not least, in the doctrine which it sets forth."[3] This refers not only to the main text of the Zohar in its most limited form, but all that Scholem calls "the real Zohar." From this one may conclude that all the sections which comprise "the real Zohar" were written by a single author.

The testimony of Rabbi Isaac of Acre

But who was that author? The only historical evidence which deals with the issue is a section in an essay by Rabbi Isaac of Acre, a famous Kabbalist who lived in Acre and fled from there to Spain after the city was conquered by the Muslims in 1291. When he reached Spain, Rabbi Isaac investigated the circumstances of the writing and distribution of the Zohar, and his testimony is brought in Sefer haYuhsin by Rabbi Abraham Zacutto[4]:

In the month of Adar Rabbi Isaac of Acre wrote that Acre had been destroyed in the year fifty [-one][5] and that the pious of Israel had been slaughtered there with the four statutory kinds of death. In 1305 this Rabbi Isaac of Acre was in Novara, Italy,[6] having escaped from Acre, and in the same 1305 he came to Toledo. And I found the diary of Rabbi Isaac of Acre...he went to Spain to find out how the book of the Zohar, which Rabbi Simeon and his son, Rabbi Eleazar, composed in the cave, came to exist in his time (happy are those who have merited its truth: in its light may they see light)--'its truth' because part of it has been forged...This is what he says: "And since I saw that its words were wonderful, drawn from the celestial source...I pursued it and asked the scholars who possessed some of its great words of wisdom whence had come these wonderful mysteries that had been transmitted orally and not written down, and that were now plain to all who could read. And I did not find their answers to my question very convincing. Some said one things and some said another. Some said in answer to my question that the faithful rabbi Nachmanides had sent it from the land of Israel to Catalonia, to his son, and the wind had brought it to Aragon, and others say to Alicante, and it had fallen into the hands of the sage Rabbi Moses de Leon, who is also described as Moses de Guadalajara. Some say that Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai did not write the book at all, but that this Rabbi Moses knew the Holy Name and through its power wrote these wonderful words, and in order to sell them for a good price, much silver and gold, he ascribed them to our great ancestors, saying: I have transcribed for you these words from the book composed by Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai and his son, Rabbi Eleazar. When I came to Spain I went to Valladolid, where the king was, and I found Rabbi Moses there, and he liked me and spoke with me, and swore: "may G-d do so to me, and more also, if there is not at this moment in my house, where I live in Avila, the ancient books written by Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai, and when you come to see me there I shall show it to you.' Rabbi Moses left me after this and went to Arévalo on his way home to Avila, but he fell ill in Arévalo and died there. When I heard the news I was furious, and resumed my journey and came to Avila. There I found a great and venerable scholar named Rabbi David de Pancorbo, and we got on well together and I adjured him, saying: "Do you know the mysteries of the Zohar about which people are divided, some saying one thing, and some another? Rabbi Moses swore an oath to me, but did not complete his promise before he died, so that I do not know whose authority to rely on, and whose words to believe." And he said: "Know for sure that it is clear to me without a doubt that the Zohar was never in Rabbi Moses's possession, and in fact has never existed. But Rabbi Moses was a master of the Holy Name, and whatever he wrote in this book he wrote through its power. And now, listen how it is that I know all this. Rabbi Moses was a great spendthrift and would part with his money very easily. One day his house would be full of the silver and gold given to him by the wealthy who learned the great mysteries that he would present to them written down through the power of the Holy Name, and the next day the money would all be gone, so that he has now left his wife and daughter naked, overcome with hunger and thirst, and in utter destitution. Now, when the news reached us that he had died in Arévalo, I went to call on a prominent wealthy man who lived in this city, by the name of Rabbi Joseph de Avila. And I said to him: If you do as I advise, you will be able to obtain the book of the Zohar, whose value surpasses both crystal and gold. I suggested that this Rabbi Joseph should summon his wife and tell her to send a servant with a present for the wife of Rabbi Moses. And this she did. And on the next day he said to her: Now go to the house of Rabbi Moses's wife and say as follows: I should very much like my son to marry your daughter, and then you will never lack bread to eat or clothes to wear. And I require nothing at all from you except the book of the Zohar from which your husband used to copy extracts for people. You shall say this to both the mother and daughter separately, and listen carefully to what each one says to see if their replies tally. And she did as she was asked. And Rabbi Moses's wife replied to Rabbi Joseph's wife on oath, saying: May G-d do so to me and more also if my husband ever possessed such a book. But he wrote what he did out of his own head and heart, and knowledge and mind.[7] And when I saw him writing without any material before him I used to say to him: Why do you tell everybody that you are copying from a book, when you have no book, and you write out of your own head? Would it not be better for you to say that the work was your own brainchild, because then you would get more credit? And he would reply: If I told them my secret and that what I wrote was my own invention, they would pay no heed to my words, and would not give me a penny for them, because they would say that I had made it all up. But, as it is, when they hear that I am copying extracts for them from the Zohar that was written under the influence of the Holy Spirit by Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai, they pay a lot of money for them, as you can see for yourself. After this, Rabbi Joseph's wife spoke with Rabbi Moses's daughter and told her exactly what she had told her mother, that she wished her to marry her son and in return to give her mother food and clothing. And the daughter answered just as the mother did--neither more nor less.[8] Can you want more convincing proof?

When I heard what he had to say I was astounded and amazed and I really believed then that there never had been a book, but that he had written pieces for other people through the power of the Holy Name. Then I left Avila and came to Talavera, and discovered there a great and remarkable scholar, a benevolent and good-hearted man, whose name was Rabbi Joseph Halevi, son of the Kabbalist Rabbi Todros, and I questioned him about this book. And he said to me in reply: Take it for a fact that the Zohar that Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai wrote was in the possession of Rabbi Moses, and he copied from it and gave the copies to whoever he wished. And now see the important test to which I subjected Rabbi Moses to see whether he copied from an ancient book, or whether he wrote with the power of the Holy Name. This was the test. A long time after he had written for me a number of lengthy extracts from the Zohar, I hid one of them, and told him that I had lost it, and asked him to make me another copy. He said to me: Show me the end of the text that preceded it and the beginning of the text that followed it, and I shall then copy the whole section that you have lost. And this I did. A few days later he gave me the recopied text, and I compared it with the first, and I saw that there was no difference between them: nothing added, and nothing missing, no discrepancy in either subject matter or wording. But it was all of a piece, as if one text had been copied from the other. Can there be a more stringent test than this, or stronger proof?

Then I left Talavera and came to Toledo, and I continued to make inquiries about this book among the scholars and their pupils, and I again found them divided, some saying one thing and some another. And when I told them of Rabbi Joseph's test, just mentioned, they said it did not prove anything, because one could say that before he gave a text to someone, which he wrote through the power of the Holy Name, he would make a fair copy of it for himself, and this would always be with him, and he would keep on copying it, as if he were transcribing from an ancient work. However, there was one new element, because some students told me that they had seen an old man by the name of Rabbi Jacob, a reliable pupil of Rabbi Moses, who loved him like his own soul, and this man called heaven and earth to witness that the book of the Zohar that Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai had written...(I have not found the conclusion of this passage in the book[9]).

Isaac of Acre's testimony can be divided into two types: direct evidence and indirect evidence. From the direct evidence one can learn that:

  1. The Book of Zohar was first publicized in Spain sometime near the time Rabbi Isaac came to Spain, that is, at the end of the 13th century.

  2. Sections of the book were publicized in separate leaflets by Rabbi Moses de Leon; he claimed he had copied them from an ancient manuscript written by Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai and his companions.

  3. Spanish sages of that period were divided about the authenticity of the book: There were those who believed in its antiquity and that Nachmanides had sent the manuscript from Palestine to his son in Spain, and there were those who suspected that Moses de Leon wrote the book himself, using magical Divine names or through simple premeditated hucksterism to earn cash.

The indirect evidence can be divided into three parts:

  1. The testimony of Rabbi Joseph de Avila.

  2. The testimony of Rabbi Joseph Halevi, son of the Kabbalist Rabbi Todros

  3. The (truncated) testimony of Rabbi Jacob, the student of Rabbi Moses de Leon.

From the truncated testimony of Rabbi Jacob we can learn nothing except that he believed the Book of Zohar which de Leon publicized was originally written by Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai. What the reasons were for this assumption and whether Rabbi Jacob attempted to test its truth in any way are not known.

We can learn a bit more from the testimony of Rabbi Joseph Halevi: he tried to check de Leon's words about Rabbi Simeon bar Yochi's ancient manuscript, but all his examination showed was that de Leon copied the leaflets he publicized from some manuscript he had. Whether this was an ancient manuscript or one de Leon conceived and wrote Halevi did not think to check. It is quite likely that before he began publicizing any of his leaflets in public, de Leon prepared for himself an "original" of that leaflet, and from that copied all duplicates he offered for sale. In those days, when the copying of manuscripts was the only possible manner of replication, this was the most natural way to disseminate any text.

Much more may be learned from the testimony of Rabbi Joseph of Avila. He points to an examination that was undertaken of two separate witnesses, the two closest people to Rabbi Moses de Leon: his wife and daughter. They each, independently, testified that de Leon wrote the leaflets on his own, and even quoted the explanation he gave as to why he was publicizing the work as authored by Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai: the increase in price which was assured by the presentation of the Zohar as an ancient book. Considering de Leon's spendthrift nature, this reason could have been decisive: hungry people have committed worse crimes than forging books.

De Avila's version also explains another puzzle on the matter of the Zohar: If Rabbi Moses de Leon had a copy of the complete ancient book, why did he divide the Zohar into different sections and publicize each on its own while destroying the original structure of the book and creating a mess which has not been untangled to this very day? It is difficult even to guess what would have happened had the texts of other basic Jewish texts (the Babylonian Talmud, for example, or Maimonides's Mishneh Torah) been distributed this way. According to de Avila's explanation the matter is clear: de Leon did not know how long his imagination could produce new leaflets, and he needed as much money as quickly as possible--he didn't have time to wait until he finished the book. It is also possible that he hoped his financial problems would be solved shortly and then he would have no need to continue the forgery (it is entirely possible to see de Leon's actions not as proceeding from his corrupt nature, but as the result of his desperate financial situation). Even if we suppose that de Leon did not intentionally perpetrate a fraud, that he used magical writing methods (using the Holy Name), it is logical to assume that the length of each "writing seance" was limited and the content given him in each "seance" was in Heaven's hands--and since he himself did not know if he would succeed the next time, de Leon hurried each time to publicize what he received to date through the Holy Name.

The details of the testimony brought in the name of Rabbi Isaac of Acre in Sefer Yuhsin are also verifiable. Rabbi Isaac of Acre was a famous Kabbalist and the author of several books. He lived at the end of the 13th and beginning of the 14th centuries, and after he escaped from Acre, Rabbi Isaac did live in Spain.

We also know a sufficient amount about the life of Rabbi Moses de Leon: He was born around 1240 and died sometime after 1293 (Rabbi Isaac of Acre sets the date of his death as 1305). De Leon is also known in Judaic sources as Rabbi Moses of Guadalajara (as Rabbi Isaac of Acre calls him). Moses de Leon's other works are full of the language of the Zohar, mostly in Hebrew and to a certain extent in Arabic--in the period before the Book of Zohar was publicized.

Spanish documents of that period reveal that Rabbi Joseph of Avila did live in Avila at the beginning of the 14th century and could definitely have met Rabbi Isaac of Acre. Rabbi Joseph the son of the Kabbalist Rabbi Todros who received two copies of the same Zohar leaflet from Rabbi Moses de Leon, is none other than Rabbi Joseph Abulafia, a Spanish Kabbalist and a contemporary of de Leon whose name is known to us from other sources. He was also a close friend of de Leon--the latter dedicated to the former two books, Sefer haRimon and Sefer Shekel haKodesh. We also know that Rabbi Moses de Leon wrote his essay Sefer haNefesh haChachama for a student named Jacob--perhaps the same Rabbi Jacob whose truncated testimony is preserved in Sefer Yuhsin.

In light of the verification of these details, the testimony of Rabbi Isaac of Acre, as preserved in Sefer Yuhsin, seems most trustworthy, and the logical conclusion from this testimony is that Rabbi Moses de Leon wrote the Book of Zohar on his own in Spain of the late 13th century. The Zohar is not the only book de Leon wrote in the guise of an old composition: the compilation of moral homilies and descriptions of the World of the Souls, written in Hebrew and known as "Testament of Rabbi Eliezer the Great" – that is, related to the Tanna Rabbi Eliezer ben Horkenos of the late 1st century CE – is also Rabbi Moses de Leon’s work;[10] moreover, de Leon most likely had a share in writing the bogus "responsa of Geonim" on halachic matters which were later printed under the title "Shaarei Teshuvah"[11] and falsely related to Rav Hai Gaon and the other Babylonian Geonim of the late 1st millennium CE.[12]

Testimony about the Publication of the Zohar

Aside from the testimony of Rabbi Isaac of Acre, we have other evidence of the publication of the Zohar, and though they do not deal with the identity of the author, we can learn from them that the book was first publicized around de Leon's time and did not initially meet with great success. Rabbi Judah Hayyat, a Kabbalist exiled from Spain, wrote in the introduction to his book Minhat Yehuda, a commentary on the book Ma'arekhet haElohut: "How happy are we, how good is our portion, in that we are fortunate enough to possess the Zohar, which our predecessors did not have, although their little fingers were thicker than our loins, such men as Rav Hai Gaon, and Rav Sheshet Gaon, and Rabbi Eliezer of Worms, and Ramban, and Rashba, and Ravad. All these were scholars of mystical wisdom, but they did not taste its honey, because it was not revealed in their time." Rabbi Abraham Zaccuto states in Sefer Yuhsin (without reference to Rabbi Isaac of Acre's testimony) that "This book appeared after Ramban and the Rosh, who did not see it."

The Ravad died in 1198, Ramban in 1270, the Rashba in 1310, and the Rosh in 1327. All these sages were spiritual leaders of their generations and are accepted, then and now, as great in the knowledge of revealed and hidden Torah. None of them knew what the Zohar was, even 30 years after it was released by Rabbi Moses de Leon. This means that in the generation in which the Zohar was first publicized it was not considered a basic Kabbalistic book, which it certainly would have been were it considered the work of the Tanna Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai. The authenticity of the book itself as we have it has been called into question; in the 14th century (less than 100 years after the Zohar was publicized) Rabbi Joseph ibn Wakkar wrote: "There are many mistakes in the Zohar and one should beware of them to avoid falling into error."[13]

But the most interesting evidence may be found in the Zohar itself, in Tikunei haZohar:

"And they who are wise shall shine as the brightness (zohar) of the firmament" (Daniel 12:3). "They who are wise" are Rabbi Simeon and his companions. "Shine" -- when they began to compose this work, permission was given to them and to Elijah with them, and to all the souls of the academies to descend among them...and (the celestial power) gave permission to the ten sefirot to reveal hidden secrets to them, but not to divulge them publicly until the generation of the Messiah-king."

(Tikkunei haZohar, beginning of the introduction)

Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai said, "It is true that the Holy One, blessed be He, has agreed that the upper and the lower worlds should be with us in this book. Happy is the generation in which this is revealed; and all this will be renewed by the hand of Moses, at the end of days, in the final generation."

(ibid., Tikkun 69)

Since calculations of the time of Redemption in the Zohar argue that the time of the Redemption will be the beginning of the sixth millennium "from the creation of the world" (the middle and end of the 13th century CE), the Zohar states that it will "be revealed" in the lifetime of Rabbi Moses de Leon, "by the hand of Moses." It is possible to claim that these words are a prophecy by Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai about what would happen 1100 years after his death, but then we will have to accuse him of being a false prophet--Redemption, as we well know, did not occur in the 13th century nor later still. We are now, according to the Jewish calendar, in the last quarter of the sixth millennium and the Redemption still tarries. Either Rabbi Simeon's prophecy has been proven completely false or the words in Tikkunei Zohar are an ex post facto prophecy: Rabbi Moses de Leon did live in the beginning of the sixth millennium, and at that time many Kabbalists thought that the Redemption would occur within decades of the turn of the millennium. In full compliance with this convention, de Leon wrote in the Zohar that his generation was the generation before the Redemption, and this was the time for the hidden Torah to be revealed in public. As is known, the Redemption did not occur, but this is more proof that the Zohar was written in the 13th century.

Quotations from the Zohar

Another important criterion in determining the time of the Zohar is checking which Judaic books through the generations quote it. In early Kabbalistic literature there is not a single quote from the Zohar. Moreover, Nachmanides, who died in de Leon's lifetime, brings ideas from the Zohar as his own novella. Thus, for example, in interpreting the verse, "If you do well, there is uplift..."[14] Nachmanides wrote: "My view is that it means: if you do well you shall have superiority over your brothers, for you are the firstborn."[15] This same interpretation is brought in the Zohar,[16] "Rabbi Judah said, 'Why does it say "If you do well, there is uplift..."? This is what He said [to Cain], 'If you do [your work] well, shall it not be lifted up?' What does lifted up mean? It means superiority, as in yeter se'et[17], since the firstborn always takes precedence." Were Nachmanides aware of the existence of the Zohar and had he agreed with the approach which claimed the book had been written in the days of Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai, he would not have presented the interpretation as his own view.

There is, therefore, a logical basis for the words of Rabbi Judah Hayyat, that Nachmanides did not know about the Zohar. And if we mention that at the time of the publication of the Zohar there were only two theories about its appearance--that it was written by Rabbi Moses de Leon himself or that there was an ancient manuscript, sent from Palestine to Spain by Nachmanides, from which de Leon copied his leaflets--we will have to conclude that the second theory is incorrect. That means that de Leon is the author of the Zohar (whether this was done through deliberate forgery or using magical powers is not the issue). Therefore, the date of the composition of the Zohar is the end of the 13th, not the second, century.

Only after 1280, when Rabbi Moses de Leon was about 40 years old, do we find the first quotations from Zohar in other Kabbalistic works; even in these books the Zohar is not mentioned by name, and most of these citations do not attribute the quotes to Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai specifically; they use a special general language used for quoting Tannaim and Amoraim: "Our rabbis OBM," "It is said," "We have found that the sages say," etc.

Thus, in the book Meshal haKadmoni by Rabbi Isibn Avi Sahulah (written in 1281) we find one passage in a version slightly different than the text of the Zohar we possess,[18] while the correct version is found in the Zohar Cambridge manuscript, Add. 1023.[19] Similarly, Meshal haKadmoni contains another passage attributed as "We have found a powerful example given by the sages" which is paralleled in the Zohar's Midrash ha-Ne'elam.[20] Such parables were commonplace in the Medieval period, not only in Jewish literature but also in Christian sources,[21] and it is difficult to say with certainty that the passage was taken from the Zohar and not from another source.

In the commentary on Song of Songs by Rabbi Isaac ibn Avi Sahulah, found only in manuscript (written in 1284), there are several phrases which originate in the Zohar [22] though again he does not mention the Zohar by name, but writes "I have found that our rabbis OBM said," "This is what our rabbis said," or "It was said in the Yerushalmi." The term Yerushalmi, incidentally, almost always signifies the Jerusalem Talmud, but none of these passages are found in our Jerusalem Talmud, and Gershom Scholem proved in his article that many Kabbalists of the 13th and 14th centuries used "phrases from the Midrash ha-Ne'elam attributed to the Yerushalmi, and it seems that under this name they were first distributed."[23] Moreover, Scholem showed that

Though Rabbi Isaac [ibn Sahulah] possessed ha-Midrash ha-Ne'elam and calls it the Yerushalmi, the other parts of the Zohar, like the Zohar on the Song of Songs or the homilies in the main text of the Zohar which touch upon the Song of Songs were not in his possession, it appears. It also seems certain that as something which had just been uncovered these midrashim were amazing to Rabbi Isaac; he did not use, in his commentary, the phraseology of the other midrashim (Shir haShirim Rabbah, the interpretations in the Gemara, etc.) and the passages from ha-Midrash ha-Ne'elam are the only midrashim he brings in his whole book, and from this I see that only a short time before he got them and wanted to publicize them in public because he found them wonderful.[24]

In the 1280s de Leon had already written the Midrash haNe'elam and publicized it via leaflets, but the other sections of the Zohar had yet to be written--we can not only pinpoint when the various sections appeared, we can even tell the order in which they were written. Another interesting detail: Rabbi Isaac ibn Sahulah came from the city of Guadalajara--the same city in which de Leon lived. It is no wonder that he was among the first to receive the Zohar leaflets.

Rabbi Todros Abulafia (the father of Rabbi Joseph, cited in Rabbi Isaac of Acre's testimony) brought, in his book Otzar haKavod, two passages found in the main text of the Zohar [25]: The first he attributes to Rabbi Elhanan of Corbeil,[26] but about the second, in any case, it is said, "We have found in the words of our rabbis OBM." We do not know when Otzar haKavod was written and the year of Rabbi Todros Abulafia's death is controversial: some say he died at the beginning of the 14th century, some say it was in 1283, Gershom Scholem first supported a date of 1283, but later decided that Rabbi Todros's year of death was 1298.[27] The Encyclopedia Hebraica gives a date of "around 1285."[28] In any case, there is a very high probability that at the time Otzar haKavod was being written Rabbi Moses de Leon had already distributed some of the Zoharic leaflets.

The first to cite the words of the Zohar as "the midrash of Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai" is Rabbeynu Bahya ben Asher, in his commentary on the Torah.[29] Rabbeynu Bahya brings several passages from the Zohar, introducing them, "and in the midrash I saw..." or "This is what I saw in the midrash."[30] Rabbeynu Bahya started writing his commentary on the Torah only in 1291,[31] when the dissemination of the Zohar by Rabbi Moses de Leon was already at its height.

From the beginning of the 14th century hundreds of citations from the Zohar appear in the writings of Rabbi Menacham Recanati: in his commentary on the Torah, in the book Ta'amei haMitzvot, and in his commentary on prayers. Rabbi David the son of Judah the Hasid, who lived in Spain at the start of the 14th century, brings in his works (particularly Marot haTzovot) many passages from the Zohar, mostly translated into Hebrew. Scholars believe that neither of these sages ever saw the complete Zohar.[32] On a broader scale and in a form closer to the full text we possess, Livnat haSapir, written by an anonymous author in the 1320s, brings passages from the Zohar.[33] But then--some 50 years after de Leon started distributing the Zohar--it is no wonder that the author of Livnat haSapir was acquainted with the text of the full Zohar.

This theory, too, is problematic--we have explicit testimony that during the expulsion from Spain the various parts of the Zohar had not yet been put together. Rabbi Judah Hayyat writes, in the introduction to his commentary on the book Ma'arekhet haElohut: "And I...went from strength to strength in order to collect whatever could be found of the aforementioned book [the Zohar], and I gathered a little here and a little there until I had most of what there was. And I believe with complete certainty that this was a reward for all the hardships that I suffered during the expulsion from Spain."[34]

The Personalities in the Zohar

The words of the Zohar itself prove that it is not possible for the book to have been written by Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai. The text always refers to him in the third person, which it would not were he the author of the book. When the Torah spoke of Moses in the third person, the commentators were forced to explain how it was possible that a book written by Moses refers to him in this manner. The most accepted answer is the one Nachmanides gave in the introduction to his commentary on the Torah:

And the reason that the Torah was written in this manner is that it preceded the creation of the world, and most certainly the birth of Moses our teacher; tradition tells that it was written as black fire on a background of white fire, Moses, like a scribe, would copy from the ancient book and write, and therefore he referred to himself in the third person.

No one ever tried to say that the Zohar, in its present form, preceded the creation of the world or the birth of Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai. It is therefore clear that Rabbi Simeon did not write the book. The Zohar itself admits that the work of writing and the clarification of the words of Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai about the secret teachings was not done by his hands, but by his companions.[35]

But even the more general theory, that the Zohar was composed by Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai and his companions, is contradicted by the words of the Zohar itself. Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai, we should recall, lived in the time of the Tanaaim, one generation after Rabbi Judah haNasi, the collator of the Mishnah. That means he lived in the second century CE. The Zohar is full of names and descriptions of people who lived hundreds of years later. Dozens of times the Zohar brings passages in the name of "the book of Rav Hamnuna Sava." In the story of the Yenuka [36] we even hear about two sages, known to us from the Zohar as companions of Rabbi Simeon -- Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Isaac -- who stayed in the home of Rav Hamnuna's widow and met his small son. The Talmud mentions Rav Hamnuna Sava as a sage of the Amoraic period, a student of Rav [37] -- he lived at least 100 years after Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai and his fellow Tannaim.

The same is true of Rav Yeva Sava: We know him from the Talmud as one of Rav's students,[38] an Amora from the 3rd century, while in the Zohar he appears before the companions of Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai as a poor donkey driver and reveals secrets of the Torah to them; his words are attributed to "the book of Rav Yeva Sava" and "the aggadah of Rabbi Yeva Sava."

Two other sages mentioned in the Zohar as companions of Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai -- R' Hezkiah bar Rav and R' Yesa -- are Amoraim, people who lived dozens or hundreds of years after Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai did. We learn that R' Hezkiah was an Amora from his father's name -- the appellation "Rav" in Chazal sources is used only for Talmudic sages (as opposed to the appellation "Rabbi," which also refers to Mishnaic sages). "Rav" with no name means the greatest Amora, the student of Rabbi Judah haNasi. Rabbi Hezkiah bar Rav, therefore, is the son of Rabbi Judah haNasi's student. He lived three generations after Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai and could not have possibly been among the companions. "Rav Yesa" is an appellation for the Amora Rav Asi, who appears in the Jerusalem Talmud as Rabbi Johanan's student. Rabbi Johanan was a member of the second generation of Amoraim, and for that reason, again, more than a hundred years separate Rav Asi and Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai. Even Midrash haNe'elam, according to Gershom Scholem the earliest part of the Zohar, is full of time inconsistencies. Midrash haNe'elam mentions the visit of R' Zeira to R' Elazar ben Arach, though R' Elazar ben Arach lived in the generation of the Second Temple's destruction and was one of Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai's students, while we know of two "R' Zeira"s, both Babylonian Amoraim; the older of them was a student of Rav Judah,[39] the student of Rav's student and a contemporary of Rabbi Johanan.[40] More than 200 years separate these two sages which the Midrash haNe'elam has visiting each other.

Another sage mentioned in the Zohar as one who returned evildoers in repentance during the generation of Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai and his companions is R' Simlai.[41] The real R' Silmai was a great preacher, one of the Palestinian Amoraim, and a student of Rabbi Judah II the Patriarch, the grandson of Rabbi Judah haNasi, the compiler of the Mishnah.[42] Four generations separate him from Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai and his companions.

Yet many more names of Amoraim--Talmudic sages who lived, according to all accounts, dozens and hundreds of years after Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai--are scattered upon the pages of the Zohar. It is, of course, possible to say that the Zohar is correct and that the Talmud, which brings the names of these Amoraim and their fathers', teachers', and friends' name, is the incorrect source, but this theory completely contradicts the spirit of halachic Judaism, which is almost entirely based on the Talmud as an authentic document. Objectively, it is clear that the Babylonian Talmud was written in the fifth century CE and the Jerusalem in the fourth century CE, and though they are not innocent of later additions, the precision of the two Talmuds on the details of the sage's lives in the time of the Amoraim is quite high.

The logical conclusion is that the person who wrote the Zohar not only didn't live during the period of Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai and his companions, his knowledge about that period and the period of the Amoraim who followed was very weak, which says that the author of the Zohar lived hundreds of years after the closing of the Talmud. It is possible, perhaps, to say that the sages mentioned in the Zohar by name are not the same as the sages of later periods who bore the same names, and they truly were contemporaries of Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai. But to say so,

we would at the same time have to accept the remarkable hypothesis that there is in the Zohar a large group of important rabbis of whom nothing is known in other sources, but whose names, and sometimes even patronymics, are identical with the names of later rabbis. And we would have to suppose, in addition, that some of these "unknown" rabbis had the same personal qualities and the same experiences as their later namesakes.[43]

The folly in this theory is clear.

Another possible attempt to get out of the difficulties placed in the way of seeing Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai as the author of the historical bedlam in the Zohar is to attribute all the confusions about time and signs of later authorship to mistakes on the part of copyists and later additions. An example of this can be seen in the words of Rabbi Abraham Zacutto in Sefer Yuhsin that "The forger slightly forged his forgery," but:

...if we were in fact to adopt this argument in all seriousness with respect to all the doubtful passages in the Zohar, we should have to invalidate and scrap a large part, perhaps most, of the book. And, once the omissions and excisions had been made, only unintelligible fragments would remain in most sections of the Zohar.[44]

Or, as another researcher on the Zohar, Samuel David Luzzatto, wrote 150 years ago:

I do not know, and I have not heard, of a book that has so much material added to it as the Zohar. Since we have in the Zohar so many statements that cannot possibly be attributed to the Tannaim and the Amoraim, no intelligent man should make difficulties for himself by believing that these matters are merely additional to the book. It would be better for him to state categorically that the whole book is a forgery.[45]

The Topography of the Zohar

The Zohar frequently mentions different places, particularly cities and villages in Palestine--but from those mentions it is completely clear that the author of the book, whoever he was, did not know second century CE Palestine. The author, it seems, built his geographic outlook not from reality, but from various literary sources and incorrect interpretations which sometimes led him to gross errors, including inventing fictitious places.

The Sea of Galilee is described in the Zohar as a body of water in the section of the tribe of Zebulon, in which the members of the tribe fished for the murex, from which they extracted the azure die for tzitziyot.[46] The Scripture clearly shows that the Sea of Galilee was in the portion of the tribe of Naftali.[47]

The Babylonian city Mata Mehasia, mentioned dozens of places in the Talmud, in the Zohar becomes Kfar Tarsha in the Galilee. In the story about Rabbi Aha it is explained how the name was changed from Kfar Tarsha to Mata Mehasia.[48] The Aramaic word "mata" means "city," and many Zohar scholars see this as a variation on the Talmudic saying "Mata Mehasia cannot be categorized neither as a city nor as a village."[49]

Turei Kardu, also called Turei d'Kardu, are mentioned in the Zohar as the mountain of Ararat, as they are in the Targum Onkleos on the Torah.[50] On the other hand, Turei Kardu are considered to be near Palestine's borders, for Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai's companions are shown to be journeying and happen upon Turei Kardu.[51] Not only is the real distance between Israel and the mountains of Ararat, located in northeast Turkey, some 10,000 kilometers, the whole area around the Ararat mountains -- between Lake Van (Turkey), Lake Sevan (Armenia) and Lake Urmia (Iran)-- is a very mountainous region. If Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai's companions did indeed reach the Ararat mountains, it is not possible that frighteningly high cliffs suddenly popped in front of their faces, as described in the Zohar.

But the clearest example of topographic errors in the Zohar is the village "Kapotkia." The Zohar frequently mentions the visits of Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai and his companions to this village, so it appears that the author of the Zohar assumed this village was either in Palestine or nearby. In reality, this village never existed. The name "Kapotkia," mentioned many times in the Talmud, is nothing but a distortion of the province Cappadocia in Asia Minor, today's northern Turkey. The Zohar attributes especially evil qualities to the people of Kapotkia,[52] and from this we can trace the fictitious village to a passage from the Jerusalem Talmud which speaks of "the Kapodkians in Sepphoris."[53] The sages of the Talmud meant the Cappadocians who had immigrated to Palestine and settled in Sepphoris, but the author of the Zohar mistakenly understood this to mean the inhabitants of a village close to Sepphoris.[54] This sort of mistake is inconceivable for one who lived in Palestine during the first centuries CE, but if Rabbi Moses de Leon authored the Zohar, there is no wonder he made topographical errors: bigger and greater men than he did, too. Rashi, the great commentator on the Holy Writings and the Talmud, who lived 200 years before de Leon, "placed" the city of Acre in eastern Palestine.[55]

The Language of the Zohar

Another area is which we have overwhelming proof about the Zohar's late date is the laof the book. Most of the Zohar is written in Aramaic, aside from Midrash haNe'elam, which is written in Hebrew or a mixture of the two languages. The very use of Aramaic gave some of the critics [56] an important sign that it had been written in the Middle Ages. It is also clear that the Zohar was written for Kabbalists and the idea behind the use of Aramaic was to hide the secrets of the Torah from the eyes of the public. But in the time of Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai Aramaic was the vernacular and Hebrew the language of the sages alone. In Medieval Spain the opposite was true: almost anyone who could read and write also knew Hebrew, while fluency in Aramaic was the lot of very few.

The author of the Zohar himself, whoever he might be, was not entirely fluent in Aramaic. According to scholars, the language of the Zohar

...it is not in any sense a living language which Simeon ben Yohai and his friends in the first half of the second century A.D. in Palestine might conceivably have spoken. The Aramaic of the Zohar is a purely artificial affair, a literary language employed by a writer who obviously knew no other Aramaic than that of certain Jewish literary documents, and who fashioned his own style in accordance with definite subjective criteria. The expectation expressed by some scholars that philological investigation would reveal the older strata of the Zohar has not been borne out by actual research. Throughout these writings [the sections of the Zohar], the spirit of mediaeval Hebrew, specifically the Hebrew of the thirteenth century, is transparent behind the Aramaic facade. It is a further important point that all the resultant peculiarities of the language in which the Zohar is written, and which set it off from spoken Aramaic dialects, are to be found equally in all its various parts. It is true that the style shows a great many variations; it runs all the way from serene beauty to labored tortuousness, from inflated rhetoric to the most paltry simplicity, and from excessive verbosity to laconic and enigmatic brevity,--all depending on the subject and the mood of the author. But these stylistic variations all play upon a single theme and never obscure the essential identity of the mind behind them. It remains to be added that the author's vocabulary is extremely limited, so that one never escapes a feeling of surprise at his ability to express so much with the aid of so little.

In general, the language of the Zohar may be described as a mixture of the Aramaic dialects found in the two books with which the author was above all familiar: The Babylonian Talmud and the Targum Onkelos, the old Aramaic translation of the Torah; in particular, the grammatical forms of the latter are given preference over all others. The author apparently regarded the language of the Targum Onkelos as the dialect which was spoken in Palestine around 100 A.D. Nevertheless, linguistic elements from the Babylonian Talmud occur in almost every line. It is noteworthy that the Palestinian Talmud has exercised virtually no influence on the language of the Zohar, although elements of it are traceable in some of its contents. Evidently it was not one of the author's standard books of reference. To take an example, the terminology of the discussion on questions of exegesis and Halakhah is wholly derived from the Babylonian Talmud, albeit not copied literally but enriched by certain stylistic novelties.[57]

The author's knowledge of Aramaic grammar was very limited. The Pe'al verb conjugation is often used in the sense of the Pa'el or Af'el, for example: le-mahadei, le-me'al, le-mazkei instead of le-hada'ah (to make someone happy), le-a'ala'ah (to introduce), le-zaka'ah (to accord merit). The opposite also holds: le-karva, le-asra'ah, ullifana are used in place of le-makrev (to approach), le-mashrei (to rest), yalafna (I/we learn). The author of the Zohar uses the Itpa'al conjugation transitively: le-istamara (to keep), le-itzana (to feed), le-itdabaka (to attain or perceive).[58]

Sometimes the author uses an Aramaic verb as the equivalent of a Hebrew verb which comes from the same root, despite the vast difference in meaning between the two. The Aramaic verb ozif, "to lend money," obtains, in the Zohar, the additional meaning of "escort someone." Sometimes, as the result of an incorrect interpretation of literary sources, the author gives certain words meanings they never had before: tukfa, "strong," in the Zohar also means "lap," can be traced to Onkelos's commentary on "carry it in your bosom."[59] Onkeles translates it as "endure it in your strength (be-tukefakh)," and the author of the Zohar thought this to be a literal translation.[60]

In some places the author of the Zohar was tripped up by the similarity between Hebrew and Aramaic words. Zahuta, which in Aramaic only means "thirst," is interchanged with the Hebrew word zahut to mean clear understanding. Sometimes the author misunderstood the Aramaic word, and so tayyah, "an Arab" becomes a Jewish mule driver.[61] There is even a verb form constructed by the author of the Zohar: le-tay'ya, "to drive a donkey."[62] The word askupa, which means "doorstep," becomes a treasure house.[63]

In some places the author of the Zohar took Hebrew phrases which were innovated in the Middle Ages and translated them into Aramaic, word for word and letter by letter, as there had never before been such expressions in Aramaic. More than a hundred times the Zohar uses the expression im kol da, meaning "even though" and "nevertheless." This is naught but a literal translation of the Hebrew phrase im kol ze, innovated by the Ibn Tibon family of translators in the 12th and 13th centuries.[64]

Many times, particularly in Raya Mehemna and in Tikkunei haZohar we find phrases which originated in the poem Keter Malchut by Solomon Ibn Gabirol, one of the great poets of 11th century Spain. The rhyme "aval yad adon aliyhem hamachashich m'oreihem" -- "But there is a Lord over them who darkens their lights,"[65] said of a solar eclipse, is brought in Raya Mehemna (about the secret of the solar and lunar eclipses) almost word for word, without even a translation to Aramaic: "dait adon aleyhem hamachashich m'oreihem" -- "But there is a Lord over them who darkens their lights,"[66] in a passage otherwise written completely in Aramaic. Ibn Gabirol's Hebrew "And these fourfold elements have one principle and one origin, and thence they emerge and assume new forms, and from thence they part and become four heads" becomes, under the pen of the Zohar's author, a mystical homily on Genesis 2:10: "Come and see: the [supernal] fire, air, water, and dust are all bound inextricably together, without any division, and when the dust produces subsequently [the material elements] they are not bound together like the supernal ones, as it is said, 'and from thence it was parted and became four heads'."[67]

The use of the verb ta'an in the Zohar's sense of "to goad pack animals along" does not exist in Aramaic. Rabbi David Kimchi innovated this use in Hebrew in Sefer haShorashim c. 1200. The source for this use of the verb ta'an is from the Arabic, but the author of the Zohar, apparently, did not know this and planted Rabbi David Kimchi's innovation in the mouth of Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai.

Even words from other languages, found in neither Hebrew nor Aramaic and which Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai and his companions could have had absolutely no knowledge of, find their way into the book of the Zohar. In Raya Mehemna it is said, "The Shechinah is a brightness, and the fire has brightness (ve-nogah la-esh--Ezekiel 1:13). Hence they call the synagogue esh nogah."[68] Neither in the second century CE nor in the Talmudic era did anyone call a synagogue esh nogah. It was only in Medieval Portuguese that esnoga, a corruption of the Greek synagoga, appeared. It is quite logical to assume that this word was familiar to the Jews who lived in Catholic Spain and Portugal in the 13th century--and the author of the Zohar, a person of that place and time, was tripped up by a slip of the pen which gives us a golden opportunity to identify the time of the book's true authorship.

The word gardini, guardian angels, is used dozens of times in the Zohar (gardini nimusin, gardini tahirin). This words does not, of course, occur in Hebrew nor in Aramaic, but it does in Spanish.

The author of the Zohar did not stint on other foreign phrases, translated literally into Aramaic, since no dialect of Aramaic has any of these expressions. The phrase labsama dina,[69] "sweetening stern judgement" is coined from the Spanish phrase in which the word endulzar appears in the sense of "sweetening or mitigating," particularly of judgment. On the other hand, the concept of "mitigating judgement" has no source in either Hebrew nor Aramaic before de Leon's era.[70]

Contemporary practices

The religious and cultural environment in which the author of the Zohar lived left its mark on the book. And how amazing--all these references are reminiscent of Jewish life in 13th century Spain.

The author of the Zohar claims "sorcerers and magicians are diminishing in number,"[71] and this was not the reality of the ancient world, in which magical dealings were quite popular, but does fit the environment of medieval Christian societies in which the practice of witchcraft, and even those merely suspected of such practices, were literally persecuted to death by the Catholic church, and belief in magic was waning.

Many times the Zohar mentions vowel-points and cantillation marks, not only by name, but with a description of their forms [72] and it is written that the vowel-points are below, inside, or above the letters.[73] The relationship between the vowel-points and the letters is compared to that of the soul and the body [74] and there are many hints about the names of G-d, interpreted according to their vocalization, particularly with the Tetragrammaton vocalized with the vowels of the word Elohim.[75] On several occasions cantillation is mentioned and interpreted in connection with particular words in the Torah.[76] The Sephardic order of cantillation marks is mentioned: zarka, makkef, shofar holekh, segolta.[77] Even the author was aware of the problematic nature of his references and therefore in the Zohar on Shir haShirim we find a passage which relates that vowel-points and cantillation marks are tradition given to Moses at Sinai, "and they were entirely forgotten, but sages arose who had received the light of wisdom from the earlier rabbis and they put them above the letters in order that the letters might be pronounced properly."[78]

Modern research shows that the vowel-points and cantillation marks

were created...only in the final centuries of the first millennium CE. The accepted vowelization, called "Tiberian vowelization" after the Tiberian punctuators who created it, was only one of the vowelization schemes in use in the Jewish Diaspora. Alongside the Tiberian vowelization there was also Babylonian vowelization, Palestinian vowelization, and Palestinian-Tiberian vowelization.[79]

Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai could not have known the vowel-points and cantillation marks while Rabbi Moses de Leon could, did, and mentioned the cantillation marks according to Sephardic usage, not Ashkenazic nor Yemenite.

Jewish tradition holds that as far back as Ezra the scribe's days the Scripture was read with "cantillation punctuation,"[80] but this still is no proof that vowel-points and cantillation marks as we now know them were familiar to Ezra; we do know that as recently as 1100-1300 years ago these signs varied amongst the Babylonian, Tiberian, and Palestinian populations.[81] There is no reason to assume that the markings of any one specific school were those used by Ezra.

The Zohar even mentions the saying of the Kol Nidrei prayer on the eve of the Day of Atonement.[82] We know that the first to say Kol Nidrei with that timing were the 9th century Babylonians, and even then many Jewish leaders fervently opposed the practice.[83] The Talmud mentions a specific text for the abolishing of the next years' vows, to be said on Rosh haShana.[84] Therefore, Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai did not write this, either.

The Date of the Zohar's Composition -- According to Scholars and According to Jewish Tradition

Based on these proofs and many others, scholars have reached the conclusion that Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai and his companions did not write the Zohar, but that Rabbi Moses de Leon, at the end of the 13th century or, at the latest, the beginning of the 14th century CE, wrote it. There isn't complete agreement amongst scholars about the exact years in which the Zohar was written: Gershom Scholem contends that Midrash haNe'elam was written c. 1275-1280 and most of the rest of the book c. 1280-1286.[85] De Leon's motives in writing the book and presenting it as an ancient text can also be debated--financial hardship, a strong desire to foment a conceptual revolution (for which he needed the assistance of a Tanna from generations past), or some other motive--this is not our concern. Factually it is clear that the book of Zohar was written only 700 years ago and not 1800 years ago, as held by the view predominant amongst the religious public.

But has Jewish tradition really made a mistake of 1100 years? Is the sole view of religious Judaism about the Book of Zohar the view which sees it as the composition of Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai and his companions? Not at all! It can be seen from Rabbi Isaac of Acre's testimony that he himself had serious doubts about the source of the book, and he even quoted Spanish rabbis who explicitly stated that "Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai never wrote any such book," that it was the work of Rabbi Moses de Leon. This was, it should be recalled, during the era in which the book first appeared.

In 1491 Rabbi Elijah Delmedigo, the head of the Padua, Italy yeshiva and later a beloved and admired rabbi of Candia on Crete, wrote in his book, Behinat haDat:

What the adherents of the kabbalah say, namely that they are the words of Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai in a book called the Book of Zohar, is not true. First, if Rabbi Simeon had composed it, a baraitha or an aggadah from it would have been mentioned in the Talmud, as is the case with the Sifre and other talmudical books, but we do not find such a mention. Furthermore, the men whose names are mentioned in this book lived many years after Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai, as is evident to whoever looks at these names and then looks at the Talmud. And, if this is so, then the author of this book could not possible have been Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai.[86]

Rabbi Judah Aryeh Modena, one of Venice's most important rabbis at the end of the 16th century/beginning of the 17th century, wrote an entire book devoted to critique of Kabbalah and the Zohar, Sefer Ari Nohem. He concludes that the Zohar "is a new and not a traditional work, not written by Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai or by any of his disciples, but a product of one of the later rabbis, written not more than 350 years ago."[87]

Rabbi Jacob Emden, one of the greatest rabbis of the 17th century, wrote Mitpahat Sefarim, a composition which is still thought of as the foundation of Zohar critique.

He did not stop at citing the evidence of Rabbi Isaac of Acre, but examined the work from every angle, and by using his historical acumen tested its accuracy by relating it to the circumstances of its age. But even this was not sufficient. He did not simply rely on the views of his predecessors, but subjected all the books of the Zohar, page by page, to the most detailed critique, and drew up a list of some three hundred separate arguments against the antiquity of the Zohar. His reasons, which mostly follow in order the pages of the Zohar, touch upon practically every aspect of internal criticism: the personalities in the Zohar, its language, its sources, the historical allusions, and so on. From this point, all that modern scholars had to do was to classify the arguments, establish them on a more solid scientific foundation, and widen their scope with additional material. Emden also distinguished the various sections, noted the individual characteristics of each one, and tried to determine the date of their composition.[88]

Critics of the Zohar definitely have upon whom to rely.

Only in the Enlightenment period, when people began to disaffirm the Zohar and its kabbalistic outlook, did the leaders of the Rabbinical world--both Hasidic and mitnaged--take a radical stance which saw the entire book of Zohar as the work of Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai and his companions. Even so, even in that era there were Torah scholars who did not go that far. Rabbi Eliakim Hamilzahagi of Brod wrote Sefer Raviah and other works devoted to the topics of Kabbalah and the Zohar.

On the basis of these critical criteria...Milzahagi came to the conclusion that the Zohar was made up of various layers, some early and some late, that were written and joined together over a long period of time. This conclusion is presented as an original hypothesis concerning the way in which the Zohar developed and finally reached the form that has come down to us.[89]

This viewpoint is, of course, far from the conclusions of modern research on the Zohar, but it is just as far from the radical view which speaks of "The Book of the Zohar by Rabbi Simeon Bar Yohai."

The view of the Zohar as a book written relatively recently is not the predominate view in Jewish thought, but this view does exist within traditional religious Judaism and is not solely the position of apostatic scholars. It is good that this is so, for denying reality and common sense can lead to no good; it leads only to severe intellectual and conceptual degeneration. Therefore it is imperative that a religious Jew can face the facts without feeling that he is abandoning the tradition to which he has pledged his loyalty. In any case, this cannot change the basic fact: the most logical conclusion, based on a comprehensive and objective analysis of the time of the Zohar's composition is that all sections of the book were written between 1275-1305 -- and now, go and learn.


[1] See, for example, Rabbi Mordechai Neugroshel's book Masah El Pisgat Har Sinai, pg. 80.

[2] Volume 16, pp. 631-648.

[3] Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, Shocken, 1965, pg. 163.

[4] The text cited here is from Sefer haYuchsin haShalem (Filipowski edition, London and Edinburgh, 1857) pp. 88-89. In many editions of Sefer haYuchsin this testimony was censored. Cited in Isiah Tishby, The Wisdom of the Zohar: An Anthology of Texts, Volume I, The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, London, 1989, General Introduction, pg. 13.

[5] Based on the count from "the creation of the world" in the Jewish calendar. Acre was conquered in 5051, 1291 CE.

[6] Apparently the province in northwest Italy, but in the Oxford manuscript of Sefer Yuchsin the text reads Estella, a province in Spain rather than of Italy, making the named city Navarre in northern Spain.

[7] Emphasis added.

[8] Emphasis added.

[9] These are the words of Rabbi Abraham Zacutto.

[10] G. Scholem, the entry Moshe ben Shem Tov de Leon in Encyclopedia Hebraica, v. 24, p. 571.

[11] The responsa were printed as an appendix to the book Naharot Damesek in Saloniki, 1802.

[12] G. Scholem, Major Trends, p. 200.

[13] Quoted in Tishby, The Wisdom of the Zohar, pg. 24.

[14] Genesis 4:7.

[15] Emphasis added.

[16] Zohar I, 36b.

[17] Genesis 49:3.

[18] See G. Scholem, "Ha-Zitut ha-Rishon min ha-Midrash ha-Ne'elam," (Tarbiz 3: 181-183).

[19] G. Scholem, "Parashah Hadashah min ha-Midrash ha-Ne'elam she-ba-Zohar," Louis Ginzberg Jubilee Volume (New York, 1946), Hebrew section, pp. 425-446.

[20] See Y. Baer, Toldot heYehudim beSfarad haNotzrit, pp. 508-509.

[21] ibid.

[22] G. Scholem, " Prakim M'Toldot Safrut HaKabbalah: Kabbalat R. Yithak ben Shlomo Avi Sahulah ve-Sefer ha-Zohar," Kiryat Sefer 6, pp. 109-118.

[23] ibid., pg. 117.

[24] ibid., pg. 116. Emphasis added.

[25] G. Scholem, "Ha-im Hibber R. Mosheh de Leon et Sefer ha-Zohar," Mad'ei ha-Yahadut 1, (1926), pp. 16-29.

[26] Though the exact text which Rabbi Todros Abulafia used was "and in the name of Rabbi Elhanan of Corbeil I have seen written: 'We have a tradition from the early elders'..." it is logical to assume that Rabbi Elchanan wrote down traditions popular in Kabbalistic circles in France and Spain of his day, and that Rabbi Moses de Leon took these traditions from Rabbi Elhanan's work and presented them in the Zohar as the words of Tannaim.

[27] See, for example, G. Scholem, "Ha-im Hibber," pg. 26 in contrast with "Rabbi David ben Yehudah heHasid, Nekhed haRamban," Kiryat Sefer, 4 (1927), pg. 317, n. 1.

[28] Volume 1, "Abulafia, R' Todros ben Yosef, Hasheni," pp. 101-102.

[29] In his commentary on Genesis 1:21 and Exodus 21:23 (volume 1, pg. 42 and volume 2, pp. 223-224), Mosad haRav Kook; see G. Scholem, "Ha-im Hibber," pg. 28.

[30] In his commentary on Numbers 13:17-23 (volume 3, pp. 81-82), Mosad haRav Kook.

[31] G. Scholem, "Ha-im Hibber," pg. 28.

[32] G. Scholem, "Rabbi David," pp. 302-327; Tishby, The Wisdom of the Zohar, Volume 1, pg. 21.

[33] Tishby, ibid.

[34] ibid.

[35] See the opening to Idra Zuta, Zohar III, 287b.

[36] Zohar II, 186a.

[37] Pesahim 105a.

[38] Pesahim 103b.

[39] Shabbat 41a, Eiruvin 80a, Ketubot 110-11, Baba Mezia 43b.

[40] Kiddushin 52a, Niddah 25b.

[41] Zohar III, 75b.

[42] Avodah Zarah 37a.

[43] Tishby, pg. 62.

[44] ibid.

[45] Samuel David Luzzatto, Vikuah al Hokhmat ha-Kabbalah, pp. 117-118.

[46] Zohar II 48b, Zohar III 150a.

[47] See Joshua 19.

[48] Zohar I 101 (Midrash haNe'elam).

[49] See Tishby, pg. 63

[50] Genesis 8:4; targum Onkleos is considered, in Jewish tradition, the most authoritative translation of the Torah. The meaning of the term Turei Kardu is, apparently, "mountains of Kurdistan."

[51] Zohar III 149a.

[52] Zohar II 38b.

[53] Tractate Shevi'it, chapter nine, halacha four.

[54] See the note of S. Klein on G. Scholem's article in Zion, Ma'assef 1, pg. 56.

[55] Gittin 7b, third reference.

[56] See Rabbi Judah Aryeh Modina, Sefer Ari Nohem, pg. 68.

[57] G. Scholem, Major Trends, pp. 163-164.

[58] Tishby, pg. 66.

[59] Numbers 11:12.

[60] Tishby, pg. 66.

[61] ibid.

[62] Zohar II 156a.

[63] Zohar I 67a.

[64] G. Scholem, Major Trends, pg. 165.

[65] Keter Malchut 12.

[66] Zohar III 82b.

[67] Zohar II 24b.

[68] Zohar III 282a.

[69] Zohar III 27b.

[70] G. Scholem, Major Trends, p. 165.

[71] Zohar II, 172b.

[72] See, for example, Zohar I 15b, 17a, 24.

[73] Zohar II 184b.

[74] Zohar I 15b.

[75] Zohar II 97b, Zohar III 10b, 65a.

[76] Zohar III 189a, 191b, 201a, 203a, 205b.

[77] Zohar I 24; also in Raya Mehemna, Zohar II 158a.

[78] Zohar Hadash 10d.

[79] Prof. Menachem Cohen, "Introduction to the Keter Edition," Miqraot Gedolot haKeter--Mahadurat Yesod Hadashah, Bar Ilan University Press, volume "Joshua-Judges," pg. 57*.

[80] Megillah 3a.

[81] See entries Ta'amei Miqrah (volume 18, pp. 867-872) and Ivrit, lashon: Mesirah v'Nikud (volume 26, pp. 651-658) in Encyclopedia Hebraica.

[82] Raya Mehemna Zohar II 255b.

[83] Encyclopedia Hebraica, volume 19, pp. 395-396.

[84] Nedarim 23b.

[85] G. Scholem, Major Trends, pg. 188.

[86] Behinat haDat (Basle) 5b.

[87] Sefer Ari Nohem pp. 56-57.

[88] Tishby, The Wisdom of the Zohar, volume I, pp. 41-42.

[89] ibid., pg. 47.