Who Wrote the Zohar?

This question has been an issue since the first fragments of the Zohar began to circulate among Kabbalists. There are a few complicating factors in identifying the authentic authorship of the book. First of all, the Zohar has a number of different components. Most of the Zohar is written in Aramaic, but what is believed to be the earliest part, the Midrash HaNe'elam (the Hidden Midrash), is written largely in Hebrew. The Aramaic that is used in the bulk of the Zohar is an Aramaic likely learned from reading other texts, as it does not appear to be the author's spoken language. From its earliest stages people questioned the presumed authorship of Shimon bar Yokhai, though most Kabbalists who accepted the work over the centuries did not. The Zohar was circulated by Rabbi Moshe de Leon, a Kabbalist who lived in Spain from about 1240 to 1305. He claimed that this ancient manuscript had come into his hands having found its way to Spain from the Holy Land.

Shimon bar Yokhai was a tanna (a Rabbi of the Mishnah) who lived during the second century C.E. He was a disciple of Rabbi Akiva. Bar Yokhai strongly opposed the Roman occupation, and as a result he was sentenced to death. He survived by living in a cave for twelve years, the time during which legend says he composed the Zohar.

Shimon bar Yokhai

Many believe that the Zohar is an ancient text written by Shimon bar Yokhai, whose spoken language was Aramaic. The Aramaic of the Zohar, however, contains numerous grammatical mistakes, terms that are clearly translations from Medieval Hebrew, philosophical terms that were coined in the Middle Ages, and other elements that would never characterize something written by an authentic Aramaic speaker such as Shimon bar Yokhai.

The Land of Israel, where Shimon bar Yokhai lived and which is the landscape regularly depicted in the pages of the Zohar, is described with geographical errors that a native inhabitant would not make. However, all of these characteristics make sense if this was the imaginative setting of a work written in late-thirteenth-century Spain. All modern nonorthodox scholars believe this to be the case. Orthodox believers, however, maintain that Shimon bar Yokhai is the author of the Zohar.

Isaac of Acco and the Zohar

In 1291 the Mamluks, a military class of Muslims that held much power in the Middle East, massacred most of the Jews and Christians living in Acco (or Acre), Israel. Among the few who escaped was a Kabbalist who came to be known as Isaac of Acco. He was one of the more influential Kabbalists of the fourteenth century.

From Acco, Isaac fled to Italy and eventually went to Spain, having heard of this ancient Kabbalistic text from the Land of Israel. He met Moshe de Leon, who promised to show him the original manuscript when Isaac came to visit him, but Moshe died on his way home. When Isaac arrived in Spain, Moshe's widow told him that there was no ancient manuscript, but that Moshe wrote the work himself. These details are from parts of Isaac's diary that have survived.

Many modern scholars believe that Moshe de Leon was the actual author of the Zohar, but the most recent research has veered toward the conclusion that Moshe was not the sole author. Much of the Zohar revolves around a group of ten Kabbalists, with Shimon bar Yokhai at the center. The latest theory is that a number of Kabbalists who studied together, much like the Kabbalists depicted in the book itself, all contributed to the composition of the Zohar, with Moshe de Leon as the main author.

The term Zohar appears in a passage in the biblical Book of Daniel: “The enlightened will shine like the illumination [Zohar] of the firmament” (12:3). This passage is quoted in the introduction to the first volume of the Zohar. Zohar appears one more time in the Bible in Ezekiel (8:2), in the description of one of Ezekiel's visions of God.

Pseudepigraphy (writing under a false name or ascribing authorship falsely) is not unprecedented in spiritual writings and could possibly be attributed to a number of different factors. The author may not want to draw attention to himself both out of humility and a sense of being a mere vessel receiving these insights from another source. The author might even believe himself to be the reincarnation of the rabbi in whose name he is writing. Remember that in Sefer HaBahir, which greatly influenced the Zohar, reincarnation was an accepted belief.

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