The Classic Text of Kabbalah, Rendered into English in All Its Splendor

October 9, 2018 | Eitan Fishbane

After many years of labor, Daniel Matt has completed his oversight of a twelve-volume English translation of the Zohar—the central work of Jewish mysticism. Matt translated and annotated the first nine volumes himself, while his collaborators produced the final three. In his laudatory review, Eitan Fishbane delves into the complex question of the Zohar’s authorship:

While nearly all other kabbalistic works of the [Middle Ages] were written in Hebrew and generally claimed by their authors, the Zohar was pseudepigraphic and written in Aramaic: it represented itself as the product of the 2nd-century Galilean sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yoḥai. . . .

For much of the 20th century, [however, the historian] Gershom Scholem’s conclusion that the Zohar was largely the work of a mystic named Rabbi Moses de León in late 13th-century Castile held sway over scholarly opinion. Scholem’s theory was compelling and far from unfounded. As Matt notes in the very first footnote to the opening passage, . . . there is a parallel passage in de León’s Sefer ha-rimmonim, and Scholem and others have noted many parallels of language and doctrine between the Zohar and de León’s works. In testimony quoted in a late 15th-century text, the kabbalist Isaac of Akko is represented as saying that de León’s widow told him that the work was entirely from her husband’s hand.

This consensus has been shattered in recent decades. First came Yehuda Liebes’s pathbreaking theory that a group of Castilian kabbalists including de León, not unlike the imagined circle of disciples around Shimon bar Yoḥai, were responsible for the composition of the Zohar. More recently, scholars have argued that there were likely several groups of authors in successive decades and even generations, each of whom edited and added to what we now know as the Zohar.

Thus, the Zohar in its present form—including Matt’s English edition—does not reflect any single manuscript but is the creation of the Italian publishers who first printed it in the 1550s.

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