The Structure of the Zohar

The Zohar is largely written as a mystical Midrash. As the Khevraya (the Kabbalistic companions) wander the countryside of the Land of Israel, they discuss secrets of the Torah. The Midrashic style consists of opening the discussion by taking a verse of Scripture and essentially finding new insight in it. Usually this process occurs, as in the case of traditional Midrashim, by adding other verses that elucidate the original verse. The author or authors of the Zohar exhibit a remarkable ability to find profundity in even seemingly mundane sections of Scripture.

The Zohar itself has quite a number of sections. There is the main body of the Zohar, which is organized around the weekly Torah portions. Traditionally the Zohar is published in three large volumes comprising approximately 2,000 folio pages. The first volume covers Genesis; the second volume is devoted to Exodus; and the third deals with Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Interspersed within these three volumes, however, are smaller sections. Among these we find:

  • Sifra D'Tzeniuta (The Book of Concealment)

  • Idra Rabba and Idra Zuta

    (The Great Chamber and the Small Chamber)

  • Raza D'Razin (The Secret of Secrets)

  • Midrash HaNe'elam (The Hidden Midrash)

  • Raya Mehemna (The Faithful Shepherd)

  • Sitre Otiyot (The Secrets of the Letters)

In addition to these sections are a number of others that are significantly smaller and less well known.

The Sifra D'Tzeniuta is a short section that provides Kabbalistic commentary on the first weekly Torah portion, Bereshit (which is essentially the first six chapters of Genesis). In the sections Idra Rabba and Idra Zuta, Shimon bar Yokhai assembles his disciples for the purpose of revealing mystical secrets to them. There is a climax in each section, as the overwhelming ecstasy of consciousness leads to the death of three disciples in Idra Rabba, and Rabbi Shimon himself dies in Idra Zuta.

The biblical book the Song of Songs, on the surface a collection of love poems, was in ancient times interpreted as a metaphor for the relationship between God and the people of Israel. Despite the fact that parts of the book are quite erotic, Rabbi Akiva said that while all the books of the Bible are holy, the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies.

The segment of the Zohar entitled Raza D'Razin contains sections on physiognomy (discerning someone's character through the study of their face) and chiromancy (analyzing someone on the basis of their palm). Midrash HaNe'elam largely focuses on Creation, the soul, emanation, and the nature of God. Raya Mehemna concentrates on the purpose of the mitzvot. Sitre Otiyot speaks about the secrets of the letters that comprise God's name.

There are two other volumes of Zoharic literature in addition to the traditional three bound volumes. One is called Zohar Chadash, literally “the New Zohar,” which is a collection of Zohar writings from manuscripts assembled after the printing of the original volumes, but written at the same time as the teachings in the standard three volumes. The other is Tikkunei Zohar, which scholars believe was written in the early 1300s in imitation of the style of the Zohar. The contents consist of basically seventy explanations of the first word of the Torah, bereshit (in the Beginning). This is a Kabbalistic offshoot of the rabbinic statement (in the Midrash Bemidbar Rabba 13) that there are seventy faces to the Torah.

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