The Zohar

By :  Eitan Fishbane Professor of Jewish Thought Posted On Apr 16, 2024 / 5784

Dr. Fishbane describes the Zohar as most significant pillars of thought and creativity in the entire history of Jewish civilization. This episode explores its development in 13th and 14th Century Spain and the circles dedicated to its creation and circulation. We explore questions around its language and authorship and how the mystical midrashim or stories of the Zohar redefine conceptions of the Divine self.

Show Notes

Sefer ha-Zohar: literally the Book of Radiance. Pseudepigraphically attributed to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, a second centuty Tannaitic sage; written in Aramaic. (This attribution was discredited by scholar Gershom Scholem in the 20th Century).  Pritzker Edition

Kabbalistic Leaders

  • Rabbi Todros Abulafia (El Rab), revered senior teacher-figure by the kabbalists of the early circles who were composing that which later came to be known as Sefer ha-Zohar (The Book of Radiance)
  • Rabbi Moshe de Leon, claimed to discover the Zohar, attributed it to Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai


Announcer: Welcome to Exploring Kabbalah—a JTS podcast with Dr. Eitan Fishbane, professor of Jewish Thought. Throughout this seven-part series, we’ll trace the evolution of Jewish mysticism—from Biblical and Rabbinic times, to the explosive creativity of the Medieval period, to the Hasidic movement in Eastern Europe. Join us for a tour through time and space in which Professor Fishbane provides insight into the thinkers, texts, and concepts that became central not only to the Jewish mystical tradition but to the fabric of Judaism itself. This is episode 4, in which we focus on the Zohar and its development in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Spain.

In our last episode, we explored the evolution of mysticism as it spread through medieval Europe over the 12th and 13th centuries. Today we will focus on one time and place, centering our discussion on the Kingdom of Castile-Leon, following the death of Nahmanides.

In the late thirteenth century, the king of Castile, Alfonso X, known as El Sabio (the wise one) fostered a robust culture of learning and creativity. Among the many religious leaders, poets, and thinkers that Alfonso invited to his court in Toledo, the seat of the Castilian monarchy, was Rabbi Todros Abulafia (not to be confused with the Hebrew poet of the same name and time), otherwise known as El Rab, a chief rabbi of sorts to the Castilian Jewish community. Todros Abulafia was  revered as a senior teacher-figure by the kabbalists of one of the early circles of those who were composing that which later came to be known as Sefer ha-Zohar (The Book of Radiance).

The Zohar may be viewed as the culminating masterpiece of a century of growing kabbalistic creativity, and I would suggest the most extraordinary and revered text in the entire history of Jewish mysticism. Indeed, we would not be exaggerating to make the bold claim that the Zohar is one of the most significant pillars of thought and creativity in the entire history of Jewish civilization!

Some recent scholars have suggested that because the Zohar stretches beyond the work not only of any one person but also any one circle of mystic fellowship, it is more accurate to refer to this monumental corpus as a literature unto itself that developed in stages over the span of sixty years, from 1270 to 1330. The Zohar first emerged in this time and place in sections and short manuscript pamphlets circulated by one rabbi, Rabbi Moshe de Leon. De Leon wrote numerous kabbalistic books under his own name, but he claimed to have discovered a hitherto unknown ancient mystical manuscript, written in a mysterious-sounding Aramaic by the revered second-century tannaitic sage, Rabbi Shimon bar Yoḥai. This fact is key in understanding both the literary genre itself and the powerful, nearly instant, appeal of the text, for the Zohar is the example par excellence of medieval pseudepigraphy—a phenomenon mentioned in Episode 3 in which a later (in this case medieval) author successfully attributes a work to a revered sage of a bygone, classical age. The Zohar was successfully attributed, with some scattered skepticism, in traditional circles to Rabbi Shimon bar Yoḥai until the rise of modern critical study of the text began to develop and unfold, culminating in the academic research of the pioneering scholar Gershom Scholem in the early and mid 20th century.

Before this work became known as the Zohar, de Leon and his contemporaries referred to it as Midrasho shel RashBY, the Midrash of Rabbi Shimon bar Yoḥai. The Zohar appears to be a collaboration between de Leon and fellow kabbalists including such major personalities as: Rabbi Yitzhak Ibn Sahula; Rabbi Yosef Gikatilla; Rabbi Yosef Angelet; Rabbi Bahya ben Asher, known as Rabbeinu Bahya; and a range of others.

Let’s return to the fact that the Zohar was written in Aramaic, while virtually all the rest of kabbalistic texts from this period (along with those we discussed in Episode 3) were composed in Hebrew. An elegant and literary Hebrew was the language of religious writing in 13th Century Castile, so the Zohar’s distinctive language is notable.

The Aramaic text provided gravity to the assertions that the Zohar was a newly-discovered mystical midrash of Rabbi Shimon bar Yoḥai. Indeed, in one of its very evocative turns of phrase, the Zohar from time to time will introduce a striking mystical teaching as one of the New-Ancient words of hidden Torah, milin haditin-atikin.This playful phrase in a certain sense encapsulates the self-awareness of the Zohar’s authors—that they were formulating radical and imaginatively rich new ideas while still cloaking them in the garments of revered Antiquity. The Aramaic of the Zohar was strikingly different from earlier Aramaic texts like the Babylonian Talmud. This language distinction served several key functions in the Zohar’s emergence and subsequent impact on generations of readers:

First: It was a lyrical and mythically rich Aramaic in its evocation of theology and religious experience, both poetic in the music of its rhythm, profoundly creative in its construction and deployment of imagery, metaphor, and symbolism.

Second: Despite the fact that scholars have observed how different its language is from earlier Aramaic sources, its use in thirteenth-century Castile does seem at least partially intended to create the illusion that it came from a bygone classical era, from times and places when Jews wrote in elaborate and erudite Aramaic. This is despite the very notable fact, first underscored by Gershom Scholem almost a century ago, that most mystical and scholarly texts were not composed in Aramaic in tannaitic times, all the more so because Aramaic in those years was the spoken vernacular of the non-elite, and Hebrew was the language of erudition and sacred writing. It was the opposite of what the authors of the Zohar may have been imagining! Thus, a secret mystical text like the Zohar, replete with complex erudition and theological symbolism, would not have been written in Aramaic in the time of Shimon bar Yoḥai . 

A third aspect of the Zohar’s use of language is the distinctively musical, otherworldly, and esoteric-sounding Aramaic that casts a spell of mystery and wonder upon its readers, evoking the sense of hiddenness and deep symbolic allusion that kabbalists sought to emphasize. The zoharic word for this is raza—Aramaic for the Hebrew raz, sod, or secret—a term that encapsulates the texture of this rhetoric: indeed, the most exalted teachings of the Zohar—the theology of the sefirot, the mythic and dynamic flow of emanation through ten river-like dimensions of inner divine life—are referred to by the Aramaic term raza de-me-heimanuta, the secret of faith.

To observe the Zohar at the peak of its sonoric and rhythmic powers, let us first consider the well-known passage at the beginning of the Zohar’s commentary on parashat bereishit.  There we are told of the primordial engraving of the supernal ether—גליף גליפו בטהירו עילאה—a mystifying image that is the first paradox of these opening lines (for how is an ether to be engraved?). Indeed it is paradox that dwells as a repeating refrain in zoharic poetics in general, and in this opening passage in particular. The mystic-poet is simultaneously opening his hand and swiftly drawing it away—stunning our perception into the depths of unknowing.  From the image of engraving, the author shifts to a second visual paradox: the flashing of a darkened or hardened spark, the בוצינא דקרדינותא. The spark is called “darkened,” the Zohar implies, because it is supremely hidden and unimaginable—it is the purity of concealment and formlessness.

The poetics of light continue in the ensuing pages of the Zohar.  The texts sings of the mysteries of the hidden light, the spark from which all manifest being emerges:

ויהי אור, אור דכבר הוה. אור דא רזא סתימא, אתפשטותא דאתפשט ואתבקע מרזא דסתרא דאויר עלאה סתימא. 

And there was light, light that already was.  This light is a concealed mystery—a spreading forth that spreads and bursts from the mystery of the secret of the supernal hidden air.”

Though it is a simplification of the complex rhetoric and prose poetry of the Zohar, it is fair to say that the main body of this literature alternates between two dominant genres:

  • The first is a relatively fragmented tale of a re-imagined Rabbi Shimon bar Yoḥai and his band of faithful disciples wandering throughout a fictionalized version of ancient Galilee in the Land of Israel. These narratives, episodic and fragmentary paint a wondrous and often poetic portrait of kabbalists traveling in quest of mystical wisdom. Their road is one of mystical Torah and of the homiletical-symbolic speech of secrets.

  • It is these mysteries and symbolic theological expositions that are the subject of this dialogue along the road, and thus the large majority of the main body of the Zohar is taken up with what may be characterized as mystical midrashim—units of discourse that seek to resemble some of the forms and methods of ancient Midrash, but which are ultimately concerned with the kabbalistic content of the ten sefirot, their dynamic emanation as rivers of metaphysical light from the fountain of Ein-Sof (Infinity), the interplay of Divine Love  or Compassion and Divine Severity or Judgment, and the heavily erotic and gendered mythic drama of the love, separation, and re-union of the masculine and feminine dimensions within the divine self. This striking feature of the Divine Feminine (the Shekhinah) was developed in earlier Kabbalah, and it is expanded into a full-scale mythology in the Zohar, where one senses the re-eruption of God and Goddess mythology in the heart of traditional Judaism. The kabbalists themselves would never tire of reminding us of course, as the Zohar does again and again, that this highly sexual dynamic between male lover and female beloved within the very Self of God is ultimately but a reflection of a deeper Oneness and Unity that is All-encompassing. The commitment to the principles of monotheism is fierce even as the mythology of the sefirot bespeaks a startling interplay of multiple forces within that oneness, indeed even an interplay of a deeply erotic nature.

As we move forth from the monumental Zohar, the summit of Jewish mysticism through the ages, Episode 5 will consider another deeply important phenomenon of this same time period in the history of Kabbalah: those mystics who reflected explicitly and extensively on the nuanced nature of mystical experience in prayer, contemplation, and meditation, often articulating through confession or instruction a map of mystical contemplative techniques.

Announcer: Thanks for listening to Exploring Kabbalah with Professor Eitan Fishbane, a JTS podcast. It was recorded and produced by Ellie Gettinger, with editing assistance from Sarah Brown. I’m Rabbi Julia Andelman, JTS’s Director of Community Engagement. The music for this series is Yah Notein Binah by sixteenth-century Kabbalist Israel Najara, from the album Seeds of Song, produced by JTS. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe and leave a review wherever you listen to podcasts. For those who want to dig deeper, visit, where you’ll find sources, archival material, and more in the Exploring Kabbalah show notes—along with the complete library of JTS podcasts.