Having begun the project of rendering the Zohar—the major work of Jewish mysticism—into English in 1997, Daniel Matt, with the help of two other scholars, is completing the eleventh volume of the most comprehensive translation of the book to date. (The twelfth and final volume will appear next year.) Ezra Glinter reviews Matt’s translation and discusses the Zohar itself, dated by tradition to the 2nd century CE but believed by most scholars to have been composed in late-13th-century Spain:
Written in the style of midrash, or rabbinic commentary on the Bible, the Zohar relates the teachings of [the talmudic sage] Rabbi Shimon and his companions as they wander through Galilee. But the Zohar also strikes out in bold new directions, describing not only the conversations of Shimon’s mystical fellowship but their adventures and exploits [as well]. On their travels, they encounter strange characters who turn out to be more than what they seem—a beggar or a donkey driver who is actually a hidden sage, a child who displays surprising wisdom. At times, some argue, it comes to resemble a kind of medieval novel. . . .
The fundamental concept underlying the Zohar—along with most of medieval Kabbalah—is that of the ten s’firot, the divine aspects or attributes through which God interacts with the world. . . .
The idea of the s’firot served an important theological purpose. Following philosophers like Maimonides, God had become an abstract, practically inconceivable entity, which made the idea of prayer and religious observance seem almost absurd. With the s’firot kabbalists preserved this notion of God as the ultimate source of being, but introduced a mechanism by which God could relate to the world. Of course, the idea of a tenfold divinity didn’t always sit well with the followers of a religion that prided itself on strict monotheism. . . .