What Was that about the Origins of the Zohar? Originally Published July 22-23, 2022.

Last week we mentioned the sparsely living and greatly studying Rabbi Shimon bar Yoai whose mysticism was carried forward through the Zohar.  He was one of Rabbi Akiva’s precious few disciples who survived the revolt (or the plague), 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.  Rabbi Shimon 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. 

Many discussions about the origins of the Zohar have ensued.  See last week’s entry for what the work is about.

The work may have been collated by Rabbi Moshe ben Shem-Tov 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.  Rabbi de Leon said that he had found the second-century work of Rabbi Shimon bar Yoai. 

However, some parts of the work seem to refer to post-Talmudic times.  And there is a story about a wealthy man - Joseph from Avila - who heard of the death of Rabbi Moshe and went to his widow to offer a large sum of money for the original work.  Mrs. de Leon really needed the money, but didn’t have the copy.  In fact, she confessed to Joseph that her husband had been the author of the work, and said she had asked her husband more than once why he attributed his work to someone else.  He had replied, she said, that attributing the doctrines to Rabbi Shimon would increase the value of the work.  Thus the work may have been written entirely by Rabbi Moshe de Leon.

At any rate, folks accepted that it was a valuable document, handed down from the second century, and it spread like a New York Times Best Seller.  Fifty years after it appeared, it was being quoted by Italian mysticist Menaem Recanati.  In the 15th century, Joseph ibn Shem-Tov used parts of it in his arguments with Maimonides.   Todros Abulafia and Isaac of Acco also cited passages from the Zohar.  They brushed off the post-Talmudic references as a foretelling of the future by Shimon ben Yohai.

An early attacker of the claims was Elijah Delmedigo, who said that the Talmud should have mentioned the work, the Talmud should have adopted its precepts, and that the Zohar contains names of rabbis who lived later.  Others would make similar arguments, and further added that Muslims appear in the work, and words which had not been invented at the time appear, and analysis of Hebrew vowels appears as well, all asynchronous with the second century.  The work also has been rejected by some scholars as containing too much superstition, thus being potentially detrimental to the teaching of Jewish faith and principles.

As with many works, there are folks who are willing to believe, folks who will be skeptics, folks who will analyze and study it, and folks who will read with open mind to glean what they can from the work regardless its origin.