Having recently completed a nine-volume translation of the classic text of kabbalah, Daniel C. Matt discusses some of the difficulties he encountered and reflects on the Zohar’s importance. (Interview by Alan Brill.)
One of the most charming—and frustrating—features of the Zohar is its frequent use of neologisms. The authors like to switch around letters of talmudic terms or occasionally play with Spanish words.
One newly coined word is tikla. In various contexts, this can mean “scale,” “hollow of the hand,” “fist,” “potter’s wheel,” or “water clock.” This last sense refers to a device described in ancient and medieval scientific literature, which in the Zohar functions as an alarm clock, calibrated to wake kabbalists at precisely midnight for the ritual study of Torah. A similar device was employed in Christian monasteries to rouse monks for their vigils. . . .
In interpreting the Bible, the Zohar is willing to ask daring questions. Going beyond traditional midrash, the Zohar employs radical creativity to make us question our current assumptions about life, about ourselves, [and] about God and spirituality. It moves through the Torah verse by verse, asking probing, challenging questions. As the Zohar says, “God is known and grasped to the degree that one opens the gates of imagination,” so it’s up to our imaginative faculty to understand reality, or the reality of God.