The Zohar’s Influence

Few post-talmudic works have been as revered as the Zohar, the mystical commentary on the Torah.

Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

The first two editions of the Zohar were published in Mantua (1558-1560) and Cremona (1559-1560) [Italy]. A fierce debate took place on whether the Zohar should be printed at all, some Kabbalists arguing that it is forbidden to spread the Kabbalistic doctrines among the masses, the inevitable result of its publication in print. With the printing and subsequent wide dissemination of the Zohar, the process, beginning after the expulsion from Spain, continued of treating the Zohar as a sacred book and not only for the Kabbalists. Moralistic works quoted extensively from the Zohar. Laws and customs based on the Zohar found their way into the standard Codes, although there was much discussion on whether Zoharic practices should have the status of law. The general principle that emerged was that where the rulings found in the Zohar (and the Kabbalah generally) are in conflict with those of the Talmud and the Codes, it is the latter rulings that are binding. But where there is no conflict, the rulings found in the Zohar should be followed.

In the Christian Kabbalah and in the [false messianic] Shabbetai Zevi movement, the Zohar was set off against the Talmud, the former being held to be the true, secret meaning of religion. Naturally, this distinction was totally negated within Judaism where the idea was developed that the Zohar contains the secret meaning of the Torah and its teachings for the Kabbalists alone, while the Talmud and the codes belong to the “revealed Torah” binding upon all devout Jews, whether or not they are Kabbalists. The followers of the Haskalah movement [the Jewish Enlightenment], on the other hand, denigrated the Zohar and the Kabbalah in general as a foreign shoot implanted into Judaism to encourage superstition and the irrational in religion. There are echoes of this conflict in Yemen, where followers of the Darda movement [a Yemenite Haskalah movement] rejected the Zohar as a sacred work.

In Hasidism, the Zohar became a “canonical” book together with the Bible and the Talmud. The early Hasidic master, Pinhas of Koretz, it is said, used to thank God that he had not been created before the appearance of the Zohar for it was the Zohar that had preserved him for Judaism (gehalten bei Yiddishkeit). Of the Baal Shem Tov [the founder of Hasidism], it is related that he would carry a copy of the Zohar with him at all times and he would see the whole world in the Zohar. Elijah, Gaon of Vilna, the fierce opponent of Hasidism, also believed in the supreme sanctity of the Zohar and his attitude was shared by the majority of the Mitnagdim [those who opposed the Hasidim].

The Zohar, like other classical works of Judaism, has been the subject of applied study by modern scholars in the historical‑critical mode. On the contemporary religious scene, many Orthodox Jews, even if they have little or no knowledge of the Zohar, still revere the work as sacred literature. But it has never become a matter of dogma to believe that the Zohar is a sacred work and, even among the Orthodox it is possible to be a good Jew and a true believer without accepting the Zohar as an inspired work. Reform and Conservative Judaism are often critical of the Zohar and its influence while at the same time admiring the many beautiful ideas and numinous insights found in this remarkable work, unique in the history of religion for its mystical style and daring flights of the imagination.

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