The Strange and Convoluted Tale of the Origins of the Zohar

According to tradition, the Zohar—the major canonical work of Jewish mysticism—was written by the 2nd-century sage Simon bar Yohai (the anniversary of whose death will be celebrated on May 26), and the well-guarded manuscript was discovered and revealed to the world in 13th-century Castille by Moses de Leon. In the 19th and 20th centuries, academics applied modern scholarly methods to the text and determined that it was in fact composed in Medieval Spain by Moses de Leon himself—a conclusion still rejected by the pious. Or, at least, that’s the most common version of the story of what we know about the Zohar.

In truth, as Tamar Marvin explains, both the traditional tale of the Zohar’s origins and the latest academic consensus are more complicated than that. Take the latter first:

Like many other works that we think of as “books”—discrete objects with clear boundaries that we interact with intellectually and also physically—the Zohar was in many respects the creation of early modern printers. This does not mean, of course, that the Zohar didn’t exist prior to the mid-16th century, when the first two editions of it were printed, in Mantua and Cremona. Rather, the Zohar didn’t exist as a unitary, closed text. Instead it circulated in many manuscripts, containing some two or three dozen texts (depending on how you delineate them), and many variants. The fixed text established by the printers, each of whose editors used multiple, though limited, manuscripts, became, by virtue of mass production, unusually powerful.

Pious rabbis who believe in the Zohar’s antiquity and divinity provide even stranger stories, befitting the strangeness of the book itself. Marvin turns to the layered narrative recorded by Rabbi Abraham Zacuto (ca. 1452–1515), which cites an account given to another rabbi by a third, David of Corfu:

The situation described by Rabbi David—we’re now three layers of story deep—is indeed astounding. He describes a situation in which, after gaining great wealth, Moses de León left his wife and daughter in dire poverty. When David went to Arévalo to investigate, he found the wealthy Rabbi Joseph de Ávila and hatched a plan to determine the true nature of the Zohar.

David tells Joseph that he can finally get the precious manuscript that had eluded him, if he follows David’s plan: Joseph is to dispatch his wife to meet the widow of Moses [de Leon] in Ávila to ask for her daughter’s hand in marriage to Joseph’s son. Since Joseph is wealthy, the widow and daughter’s bitter financial situation would be forevermore happily resolved. In return, Joseph wife is to request just one thing from Moses’ wife: the manuscript of the Zohar. She is, moreover, to make the pitch to the widow and the daughter separately, so as to test the alignment of their responses.

This story, with its tales within tales, comic romance, lost manuscripts, and Castilian setting should be entirely familiar to anyone who’s read that great work of post-expulsion Spanish literature, Don Quixote.

Read more at Stories from Jewish History

More about: Don Quixote, Medieval Spain, Zohar

While Israel Is Distracted on Two Fronts, Iran Is on the Verge of Building Nuclear Weapons

Iran recently announced its plans to install over 1,000 new advanced centrifuges at its Fordow nuclear facility. Once they are up and running, the Institute for Science and International Security assesses, Fordow will be able to produce enough highly enriched uranium for three nuclear bombs in a mere ten days. The U.S. has remained indifferent. Jacob Nagel writes:

For more than two decades, Iran has continued its efforts to enhance its nuclear-weapons capability—mainly by enriching uranium—causing Israel and the world to concentrate on the fissile material. The International Atomic Energy Agency recently confirmed that Iran has a huge stockpile of uranium enriched to 60 percent, as well as more enriched to 20 percent, and the IAEA board of governors adopted the E3 (France, Germany, UK) proposed resolution to censure Iran for the violations and lack of cooperation with the agency. The Biden administration tried to block it, but joined the resolution when it understood its efforts to block it had failed.

To clarify, enrichment of uranium above 20 percent is unnecessary for most civilian purposes, and transforming 20-percent-enriched uranium to the 90-percent-enriched product necessary for producing weapons is a relatively small step. Washington’s reluctance even to express concern about this development appears to stem from an unwillingness to acknowledge the failures of President Obama’s nuclear policy. Worse, writes Nagel, it is turning a blind eye to efforts at weaponization. But Israel has no such luxury:

Israel must adopt a totally new approach, concentrating mainly on two main efforts: [halting] Iran’s weaponization actions and weakening the regime hoping it will lead to its replacement. Israel should continue the fight against Iran’s enrichment facilities (especially against the new deep underground facility being built near Natanz) and uranium stockpiles, but it should not be the only goal, and for sure not the priority.

The biggest danger threatening Israel’s existence remains the nuclear program. It would be better to confront this threat with Washington, but Israel also must be fully prepared to do it alone.

Read more at Ynet

More about: Iran nuclear program, Israeli Security, Joseph Biden, U.S. Foreign policy