The Zohar

The most influential work of Jewish mysticism was, for centuries, shrouded in mystery.


That Moses de Leon authored the Zohar was academic dogma for many decades. Recently however, scholars—particularly Yehuda Liebes—have proposed that the Zohar is actually a compilation, written by a group of mystics that included de Leon. The author of the following article makes passing reference to this academic development, but its significance is worth emphasizing. The following is reprinted with permission from
Essential Judaism
, published by Pocket Books.

How important is Sefer ha-Zohar (The Book of Splendor)? Rabbi Pinkhas of Koretz, a major figure in the first generation of the Hasidic move­ment (not to be confused with the medieval Hasidei Ashkenaz), wrote, “I thank God every day that I was not born before the Zohar was revealed, for it was the Zohar that sustained me in my faith as a Jew.” Many other Orthodox Jews would agree with Pinkhas, even today. Michael Fishbane, a contemporary scholar, has written that the Zohar “pulses with the desire for God on every page,” pinpointing part of its appeal. The Zohar has become one of the indispensable texts of tradi­tional Judaism, alongside and nearly equal in stature to Mishnah and Gemara (the Talmud). 

That Moses de Leon did not receive credit for authoring the Zohar was in large part the result of his own design. When he began showing pieces of the manuscript to fellow kabbalists in the 1290s, he passed them off as ancient texts authored by the second century talmudic sage Simeon bar Yokhai. Rabbi Simeon is best remembered for the thirteen years that he and his son spent living in a cave in Palestine, under threat of death from its Roman rulers. During that period of internal exile, the two men supposedly studied Torah and lived on next to nothing. But Simeon was rumored to have marvelous powers as well as a lightning intellect, and if you were going to pick a sage to claim as the author of a mysterious manuscript, he was a good choice.

Why did de Leon pass off his own writing (or that of a circle of kab­balists with him at the center, as some recent scholars claim) as the work of a second-century sage? Undoubtedly, the simplest answer is the correct one: having a distinguished provenance for the book would give it an authority that de Leon himself lacked. It also gave him an imagina­tive freedom that he might not otherwise have had, and the book soars with that sense of liberation.

Did you like this article? MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

George Robinson, author of Essential Judaism, is the recipient of a Simon Rockower Award for excellence in Jewish journalism from the American Jewish Press Association. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsday, Jewish Week, and The Detroit Jewish News.

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy