What is the Zohar? Originally Published July 15-16, 2022.

A while back we were discussing what is Lag BaOmer, and we mentioned the plague among Rabbi Akiva’s students, and that some scholars feel it was really referring to the students who participated in the revolt led by Bar Kochba against the Romans.  So as not to become targets of the Romans, they may have shrouded the story of their dead in a mystery disease rather than reveal that they had waged warfare against Rome.  One of Rabbi Akiva’s precious few disciples who survived the revolt (or the plague) was Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, and it is said that later, after continuing to rail against Rome, he had to flee and spend twelve years in hiding with his son Eleazar, and subsequently he died on Lag BaOmer.  This was said to be Divine retribution, as he came out of the cave of hiding after twelve years eschewing everything but Torah study, and the Almighty - who had provided sustenance for them - felt that was inappropriate and made him remain becaved an extra year.  Despite the punishment, Rabbi Shimon’s asceticism caught on somewhat, and carried forward through Jewish mysticism.  He is widely believed to have been the original author of the Zohar based on Rabbi Akiva’s teachings.  (There is interesting discussion about this - stay tuned for Part 2 in the coming weeks.)

Now we are asking what the Zohar is.  Sefer HaZohar, the Book of Radiance, is a book of commentary on the Torah written in the light of mysticism.  It is published in multiple volumes, as it is over 1,000 pages long.  It is a part of the study of Kabbalah, written in Aramaic, and in the early 20th century Gershom Scholem, a German-born Israeli thinker, translated and popularized it.  The work may have been collated by Rabbi Moshe de Leon of 13th-century Spain along with other tenacious compilers.  Some scholars believe that they actually wrote it, and used Aramaic to make it seem much older.  The work begins (translation from Sefaria.org):

Rabbi Hizkiyah opened, “It is written, as a rose among thorns.” (Song of Songs 2:2) What is the Rose? It is the Congregation of Israel. Because there is a rose, and there is a Rose. Just as the rose among the thorns is tinged with red and white, so is the Congregation of Israel affected by the qualities of Judgment and Mercy. Just as a rose has thirteen petals, the Assembly of Israel is surrounded on all sides by the thirteen attributes of Mercy. Thus, between the first mentions of the name Elohim, [in the Torah] these [thirteen] words surround and guard the Congregation of Israel.

(Reminds one of the much later and the late Gertrude Stein’s work, doesn’t it?)  The work goes into such matters as the nature of the universe (especially vis-à-vis God), the attributes of God (the sefirot), what is life, what are the commandments, prayer, ancient rituals, souls, sin, good and evil, and so on.  It delves into numerology and balance while also dealing with the unfathomable.  Numbers and words to students of the Zohar become like protons and electrons to scientists.  The book is very dense, and the study is intense. 

The Jewish Virtual Library says, “These books include scriptural interpretations as well as material on theosophic theology, mythical cosmogony, mystical psychology, and what some would call anthropology.”  The Zohar and those who study it are looking for that which we cannot readily see.