Sefer Ha-Zohar: A Book of Splendour in Times of Woe

THE various spiritual and philosophical strands that were circulating among the denizens of European Jewry in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries would eventually culminate in the Sefer ha-Zohar (‘Book of Splendour’). Indeed, the importance of this mysterious text in the overall development of Early Kabbalah cannot be overstated and it was apparently written by a Judeo-Spanish mystic by the name of Moses de León (1240-1305) or, in Hebrew, Moshe ben Shem-Tov. The claim of authorship, however, is accompanied by a long-running controversy.

Born in Guadalajara, a town north-east of Madrid in the Crown of Castile, de Léon was part of a dedicated Kabbalistic salon that was clustered around the region that surrounds the old Visigothic capital of Toledo. Unlike most of their contemporaries at Gerona, those in Castile were considered more Gnostic and de Léon sought to combine the corresponding ideas of the two communities in a work that, regardless whether he was actually the author or simply the redactor, has since become the most important and highly-valued Kabbalistic text of all. From an authoritative perspective, at least, between 1500 and 1800 the Sefer ha-Zohar would be considered the equal of both the Talmud and the Hebrew Bible. Nonetheless, as one source reveals the text began life as something very obscure that

had to make its way out of an almost complete, hardly penetrable anonymity and concealment. For a hundred years or more it elicited scarcely any interest to speak of. When it came on the scene it expressed (and therefore appealed to) the feeling of a very small class of men who in loosely organized conventicles strove for a new, mystical understanding of the world of Judaism, and who had not the faintest notion that this particular book alone, among the many which sought to express their new world-view in allegory and symbol, was destined to succeed.[1]

The Sefer ha-Zohar is not a single, concise tract, but a body of writings and commentaries that have been collected from various sources. Some are interpretations of Biblical passages, for example, whilst others are religious homilies which seek to provide a degree of spiritual edification. There is also a section that is said to be an ancient Midrash, although the literary style itself is distinctly medieval. The fact that many of these extracts are based on the work of a second-century Tannaitic scholar called Simeon bar Yochai is what helps to fan the controversial flames of de Léon’s disputed authorship. When, in the nineteenth century, the German-Jewish historian, Heinrich Graetz (1817-1891), concluded that de Léon was the sole author of the Sefer ha-Zohar it led to worldwide condemnations. Not only was he attacked by his fellow Jews, but Graetz was also criticised by the Austrian authorities for producing messianic theories that were considered blasphemous in the eyes of the Catholic Church. However, it was not so much his insistence that the text had been written by one man, but that de Léon himself was both a plagiarist and a charlatan. Nonetheless, parts of the book are extremely confusing and most Jews regard the Sefer ha-Zohar as a work that lacks unity. This does not, of course, undermine its enormous spiritual value and the work remains hugely popular. Furthermore, behind the text

stands the living personality of a mystic who, starting with the philosophical and talmudic education of his time, lets himself be ever more deeply drawn to the mystical and gnostic ideas of the Kabbalah, and finally gives up his philosophical interests altogether, developing instead a truly astonishing genius for mystical homiletics; indeed, half a century had to elapse before Jewish literature was again able to show anything comparable.[2]

Modern versions of the Sefer ha-Zohar are comparatively more organised and selected editions of the book usually contain three main sections: ‘Genesis,’ ‘Exodus’ and ‘Leviticus-Numbers-Deuteronomy’. The very first edition, however, appeared in the form of three books and was printed in Mantua in 1557, whilst a slightly amended version appeared in Cremona in 1558 as a single volume. Others followed in Mantua between 1558 and 1560 (three-volumes), Salonika in 1597 (two-volumes) and Constantinople in 1719. This latter then served as the basis for many of the editions that followed, although today most of us outside Jewish Orthodox circles use the slimmed-down 1947 edition that has been so elegantly compiled by Gershom Scholem. In this text ‘Genesis’ is broken into fifteen sub-sections, ‘Exodus’ into eleven and ‘Leviticus-Numbers-Deuteronomy’ just eight.

In the original Sefer ha-Zohar, among the various sections included are the Zohar ‘Al haTorah (‘Zohar on the Torah’), which contains the Sifra diTzni’uta, Idra Rabba, Idra Zuta, Ra’aya Meheimna, Midrash haNe’elam, Idra deVei Mashkana, Heikhalot, Raza deRazin, Saba deMishpatim, Tosefta and Sitrei Torah; Zohar Chadash (‘The New Zohar’); and Tikunei haZohar (‘Rectifications of the Zohar’). the broad consensus among rabbinical scholars is that these sections were written and compiled by Rabbi Shimon bar Yocha, although the Sefer ha-Zohar also contains sections of earlier sources such as Sefer Raziel, Sifra de’Agad’ta, Sifra de’Adam haRishon, Sifra de’Ashmedai, Sifra Chakhmeta ‘Ila’ah diVnei Kedem, Sifra deChinukh, Sifra diShlomoh Malka, Sifra Kadma’i, Tzerufei de’Atvun de’Itmasru le’Adam beGan ‘Eden and several others. These have their roots in the Torah.

I have already examined the ten sefirot of the Kabbalistic Tree in a separate article, but suffice it to say that at this early stage in its development the system was mainly centred on man’s place within God’s moral scheme. Humans themselves are said to be capable of assisting the process of spiritual effusion by practising virtue. All physicality is subject to this virtue and the Early Kabbalists believed that prayer can be a means of sprinkling the earth with heavenly goodness. Although Kabbalistic teachings were to move in a radical new direction in the sixteenth century, at the time of the Sefer ha-Zohar the Western Neoplatonic and Oriental Gnostic elements were very apparent. As far as the teachings themselves are concerned, the general understanding was that there must be a fusion of two seemingly incompatible interpretations of God. This involved the religious dichotomy thought to exist between the more ‘academic’ ideas of Maimonides and the mystical ‘elitism’ of Yehuda ha-Levi:

One is the abstract ‘rational’ God of philosophy, so essentially ‘one’ that not even attributes can be postulated of him and nothing can be said about him. This God lacks the divine vitality, he had become a ‘state’, not a ‘process’, and still less a ‘person’. The other is the living dynamic God whose relevance to man resides precisely in his personality and multiplicity. The Kabbalists, however, accepted both aspects of the divine, combining them into a single theology – the hidden and unknowable deus absconditus and the manifest, self-revealing, accessible God of religious experience. Of the former not even existence can be postulated; it is the great divine Nothing.[3]

This ‘great Nothing,’ of course, is the Ein Sof and yet Jews had always been told that it is the divine word that acts as the self-manifestation of the hidden God. It is precisely at that very moment that man comes into being, something that – until now – had not been discussed outside of the Hebrew Bible. Jewish scripture, therefore, had never advanced any kind of theory about what this mysterious realm either might or might not contain. For Kabbalists, the creative act is related to the manifestation of a divine power which, until then, had remained obscure and concealed. The arrival of the Sefer ha-Zohar meant that Jews were now discussing the appearance of a godly force which burst into life for the purposes of creating the world and, as a result, emanated downwards in a remarkable crystallisation of energy.

Indeed, the interaction of the ten sefirot is a direct manifestation of the divine godhead and it was this notion that led many Orthodox Jews to criticise the Sefer ha-Zohar for having created ten different ‘gods’ in a fashion similar to Christianity’s own idea of a threefold deity. In actual fact, the sefirot represent the higher notion of a divine unity that permeates all aspects of manifest physicality. As R.J. Zwi Werblowsky explains:

The relation between two particular sefiroth – the sixth (Tif’ereth) and the tenth (Malkhuth) – is particularly important in kabbalistic thought and practice. Tif’ereth is in a way the central sefirah, the hub and pivot of the whole system, receiving power or influx from higher potencies, harmonizing them, and passing them down to the lower ones. Embodying the creative dynamism of the sefiroth, it is expressed exclusively in dominant or male symbols: Sun, King, Bridegroom, etc. Malkhuth is at the lower end of the sefiroth-cluster, occupying the point where the lower sphere meets the non-divine. She is the receptive womb, the Moon, Queen and Bride. Although the lowest of the sefiroth, she acquires authority in relation to the nether world, where her creative, active and ‘royal’ aspects are emphasized, and the Bride is also Mother.[4]

As we can see from this brief example, just two sefirot can represent a profound holy union (hieros gamos) that symbolises two complementary aspects of the divine. Any separation between the two would lead to the destruction of that fundamental unity and thus undermine the overall wholeness and integrity of God. Whenever disunity takes place, something that is a direct consequence of the original Adamic sin, it becomes man’s duty to repair it through mystical contemplation and good works. In fact Adam himself, as the first man, represents the meeting between humanity and the universe. This is the mirrored relationship between the microcosmic and macrocosmic dimensions or, as it appears in one Hermetic source:

That which is Below corresponds to that which is Above, and that which is Above, corresponds to that which is Below, to accomplish the miracles of the One Thing.[5]

Ultimately, the fact that the Sefer ha-Zohar represents such a major shift in Jewish mysticism imparted a new lease of life to a religion that was becoming evermore entrenched within its own dogmatic formulations. What these Kabbalistic teachings also did, was to use the notion of divine union to reinforce existing ideas about the sanctity of marriage. The example of Tif’ereth and Malkhuth, as we have seen, transforms what many consider to be a patriarchal religion into a unifying bastion of male-female complementarity. At a higher level, it symbolises union within the mystical Godhead itself.

Finally, two further books were produced at the very end of the thirteenth century by an unknown Kabbalist who sought to build upon the texts of the Sefer ha-Zohar and thus continue in the same rich vein. These are the Ra’aya Mehimna and Sefer ha-Tikkunim, which display the kind of dialogue and narrative that is ordinarily associated with one of Moses de Léon’s closest associates, Joseph ben Abraham Gikatilla (1248-after 1305), a well-travelled former student of Abraham ben Samuel Abulafia. Gikatilla’s works include commentaries on Maimonides and the Sefer Yetzirah, but whilst we cannot establish for certain whether he produced either the Ra’aya Mehimna or Sefer ha-Tikkunim, whoever wrote these Zoharic texts tried to equate Moses de Léon with the Moses of the Bible.

* * *

In the wake of the Sefer ha-Zohar and Moses de Léon’s death in 1305, daily life for the Jews of Spain became fraught with danger. In 1321, when a so-called Shepherds’ Crusade crossed the Pyrenees mountains from France to aid the Reconquista against the country’s Moorish overlords, many Spanish people greeted it as a sign of Christian reassertion and during the course of this revived religious fervour Jews in both Pamplona and Estella were massacred.

By 1348, the demoralising effects of the Black Death led to a further escalation of inter-ethnic violence and Jews were targetted in Barcelona and elsewhere in the Principality of Catalonia. This spread to the Crown of Castile, the very region where de Léon and his friends had generated the kind of mystical industriousness that led to the emergence of the Sefer ha-Zohar, and it was there that competing European aristocrats accused one another of siding with the Jews themselves. In 1355, Jews were slaughtered in Toledo and, in 1366 when they failed to pay their taxes, at Burgos. Many were sold into slavery and the following year Jewish synagogues were also burnt to the ground. Worse atrocities occurred in 1391 at the Crowns of both Castile and Aragon,when hundreds were killed. Homes were stripped of their belongings and places of worship converted into Christian churches and chapels. The survivors, meanwhile, were forced to flee to either France, Portugal or North Africa.

Despite the one-sided nature of modern history, however, Jews were not entirely blameless and their corrupt money-lending activities – known as usury – had led to them taking advantage of many poor Spaniards and plunging them into a state of increasing debt and destitution. Nonetheless, from 1411 onwards, following these violent pogroms, Jews were forced to wear a red badge sewn into their clothing in order to distinguish them from the host nation. The Talmud was also banned and Gentiles were busy forcing Jews to convert to Christianity under the auspices of the dreaded Holy Office of the Inquisition. Many ‘Crypto-Jews’ continued to practise their religion in secret, but this was tantamount to heresy and those who were unfortunate enough to find themselves unmasked were duly tortured and executed. Those who did convert, on the other hand, were known as ‘Marranos’.

As the Fifteenth Century wore on, there were barely a thousand practising Jews left in the Crowns of Castile and Aragon, so the great promise that seemed assured with the Kabbalistic rejuvenation of Judaism was now under serious threat. In Barcelona, Valencia and Palma the Jews had almost completely disappeared and the final blow came in 1424 when the Barcelona authorities finally abolished Judaism altogether. It is thought that 80,000 Jews remained in the Crown of Castile and 150,000 in the Crown of Aragon.

In 1480, ruling Catholic monarchs Queen Isabella I (1451-1504) of Castile and King Ferdinand II (1452-1516) of Aragon tried to end the pogroms by enforcing segregation between Jews and their Christian neighbours. The Jews were considered the ‘property’ of the Spanish Crown and therefore both Isabella and Ferdinand felt duty-bound to protect them. By 1492, when it became clear that twelve years of enforced ghettoisation and ethnic separatism had been completely ineffectual, an expulsion order came into force when the Courts of Toledo decreed that the only solution was to clear out the Jewish communities entirely. Inquisitors, operating under the direction of the infamous Tomás de Torquemada (1420-1498), were deployed in a large-scale attempt to expel all Jews from the kingdom and confiscate their property. They had just four months in which to leave, which meant that many Jews had to sell their belongings prior to the arrival of the Inquisitors themselves.

The consequences of the 1492 Expulsion were to have long-ranging effects on the future of World Jewry. Whilst it is thought that between 45,000 and 350,000 Jews were expelled from Spanish soil, with many others being murdered or forced to convert to Christianity, those among the Iberian Sephardim who had not relocated to North Africa or other parts of Western Europe went to eastern Mediterranean countries that were under Turkish-Ottoman rule. Others still, ended up in Palestine.

As the deadly flames of persecution began to die down and those who had survived the methodical purges of the Spanish Inquisition finally came to terms with the tragic loss of their people’s spiritual and cultural heritage, Jews in sixteenth-century Poland were enjoying something of a boom.

Although the nation’s Jewish inhabitants were descended from the wider Ashkenazim that had arrived in Eastern Europe in the wake of the decline of the old Khazar Empire, their religious schools (yeshivas) were slightly different to that of their cousins in neighbouring countries. Study was almost wholly centred on the Talmud and

had to be entirely consistent, in accordance with the strict rules of logic, and in complete unity and harmony, and that by comparing and examining the various sources all the discrepancies that appeared among them could be adjusted. The students resorted to far-fetched intellectual exercises, whose main achievement was more often intellectual pungency than clarification of the problem under discussion.[6]

On the other hand, Polish Jews had a knack of applying these strict tenets to their everyday lives and many of their commentaries were written in Yiddish. This, given the linguistic proliferation of Hebrew elsewhere, was a new development. The country’s Jews also employed surprisingly unique methods of religious historiography, meaning that non-Jewish sources were incorporated into the more traditional Judaic corpus.

The true mystical revival, however, was to appear among those who had travelled east.


1. Scholem, Gershom; Zohar, The Book of Splendour: Basic Readings from the Kabbalah (Schocken Books, 1977), p.viii.

2. Ibid., p.xvi.

3. Werblowsky, R.J. Zwi; “Jewish Mysticism” in Elie Kedourie (Ed.); The Jewish World: Revelation, Prophecy and History, op.cit., p.221.

4. Ibid., p.222.

5. Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus; Quoted in Dennis William Hauck’s The Emerald Tablet: Alchemy of Personal Transformation (Penguin Arkana, 1999), unnumbered.

6. Grossman, A.; “The Jews in Byzantium and Medieval Europe” in Elie Kedourie (Ed.); The Jewish World: Revelation, Prophecy and History, op.cit., p.177.

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