Sefer HaZohar, or the Zohar, is considered the most important book in the history of Jewish mysticism. All later Kabbalah is based on it to one degree or another. Countless rumors and legends have been woven around this mysterious text from the time it first appeared.
What is the Book of Zohar?
The Zohar (lit. "radiance") presents midrashim (exegetical, textual interpretations) on the Torah portions in their order of appearance in the Torah, as well as a Kabbalah-inspired interpretation of the books of the Prophets, the Mishnah and the Talmud. The Zohar also includes the book Ra'aya Meheimna (lit. "the faithful shepherd" in Aramaic), sermons on the Torah’s commandments. Yet another addendum is Tikkunei HaZohar, a kabbalistic interpretation of the Torah portion Bereshit (Genesis) comprising dozens of sermons that relate to the creation of the world.
Most of the Zohar was written in Aramaic. Over the years, it has been translated into various languages, including Hebrew, Ladino, Yiddish, Latin and English. The Zohar is written in an ambiguous and difficult-to-understand language, with extensive use of material images that embed deep spiritual ideas. The name “Zohar” can be read as an expression of the great light it has spread in the world.
When Was the Zohar Written?
For generations scholars have debated the issue of when exactly the Zohar was written, but so far, all that researchers and scholars can agree on is the date of its first appearance in manuscript form. The date of its writing remains controversial.
The Zohar was first published in the 13th century. Many academic scholars believe that the book was compiled close to the date of its appearance, and that the additions Ra'aya Meheimna and Tikkunei HaZohar were written later, in the 14th century. However, according to tradition, the Zohar was written much earlier, as early as the 2nd century AD, that is, about 1,100 years before the date noted by researchers. Some researchers believe that the book was written by various authors between the 11th and 14th centuries.
Who Wrote the Zohar?
The question of the identity of the Zohar’s authors is tied to the issue of when it was written. The consensus among scholars is that the Sephardi Kabbalist Rabbi Moshe De León (RaMD”L) first publicized the Zohar at the end of the 13th century. Scholars who believe that this is the date of the book’s writing conclude that De León and people in his circle were the authors.
In contrast, De León himself clarified that he was only making available the treatise, which was written by the second century Tannaitic sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (Rashbi). According to this view, the Zohar’s contents had been concealed and were quietly handed down from rabbi to disciple for over a thousand years. Jewish tradition adopted De León’s approach according to which the Zohar was written by Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and a group of his disciples in the Land of Israel in the second century CE.