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The Aramaic of the Zohar: The Status Quaestionis

Damsma, A; (2018) The Aramaic of the Zohar: The Status Quaestionis. In: Kahn, L, (ed.) Jewish Languages in Historical Perspective. (pp. 9-38). Brill Green open access

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Introduction: Towards the end of the thirteenth century, the Kabbalah in Spain reached its creative peak with the emergence of Sefer ha-Zohar ‘The Book of Splendor’ (henceforth referred to as the ‘Zohar’ or ‘Zoharic literature’), Judaism’s most important corpus of mystical texts. The Zohar owes its name to Daniel 12:3: והמשכלים יזהרו כזהר הרקיע ‘The enlightened shall shine like the splendour of the sky’. It is a voluminous work of over twenty treatises mainly written in Aramaic (the tractate Midrash ha-Neʿelam ‘The Concealed Midrash’ is partly written in Hebrew). The majority of its mystical doctrines and esoteric teachings are presented within the framework of a commentary on the Torah. For comprehensive introductions to the Zohar, see Tishby (1989: 1–126) and Green (2004). An extensive overview of the structure of the Zohar can be found in Tishby (1989: 1–7; cf. Green 2004: 159–161). Over the centuries, the Zohar has aroused mixed feelings among its readership, which initially was rather limited. Both lavish praise and immense scorn have fallen to this Jewish mystical magnum opus. Many readers have been left bewildered by the obscurity of its language, style, and contents, considering it an inscrutable work, whereas others regard its wildly fragmented and opaque nature as a genuine reflection of life’s ‘spiritual turbulence’ (quoting Tishby 1989: 8). However, once the veil that obscures its contents is lifted, the Zohar discloses an esoteric theosophy, depicted in symbolic imagery, which covers all aspects of life, from the most mundane of matters to profound divine secrets. The Zohar’s origins and the transmission of its mystical lore were shrouded in mystery. The Spanish Jewish kabbalist Rabbi Moses de Leon, who lived in Castile and died in 1295/1305, was one of the first to bear witness to the existence of the Zohar, which initially circulated only in fragments among the kabbalists in Castile and Aragon. De Leon claimed to have an ancient Aramaic manuscript – the Zohar – in his possession that had circulated for centuries and originated from the Holy Land. It was believed that the Zohar’s main protagonist, Rabbi Simeon bar-Yochai, was its author – a belief that is still held among traditional kabbalists and Orthodox Jews. Rabbi Simeon bar-Yochai, also known under his acronym Rashbi, was a Palestinian sage who lived in the second century CE. However, shortly after the Zohar’s mysterious appearance in late-thirteenth-century Castile, the claim of Rashbi’s authorship was already met with suspicion. Some of de Leon’s contemporaries seem to have doubted the ancient, Palestinian provenance of the Zohar, rather believing that it had been pseudepigraphically written by de Leon himself. A review of the traditional and scholarly opinions on the origins and authorship of the Zohar can be found in Tishby (1989: 30–55). In more recent times, Gershom Scholem (1897–1982), the founding father of modern Kabbalah scholarship, went to great lengths to prove that Moses de Leon was indeed the main author of the Zohar (1941: 156–204). Under the influence of Scholem’s academic authority, it was henceforth commonly accepted as axiomatic that the Zohar was composed in late-thirteenth-century Castile by de Leon, who had attributed his work to the second-century Palestinian sage Rashbi to give it authoritative status. Scholem’s single-authorship theory drastically shifted the cultural context in which the Zohar had been written: it was no longer second-century Palestine, but thirteenth-century Spain. Not only was the Zohar rooted in rabbinic thought and kabbalistic concepts which dated all the way back to the high Middle Ages, it was also influenced by the intellectual exchange of ideas with the surrounding Christian and Muslim cultures. More recently, the prevalent scholarly opinion on both the authorship and the coherence of the Zohar has undergone a drastic revision. It is now commonly accepted by researchers that the Zohar was written by multiple authors, although, in all probability, Moses de Leon is likely to have contributed to the bulk of the Zohar. The multiple authorship theory had already been briefly touched upon by Jellinek (1851), but it was properly advanced by Liebes (1993) (see also Meroz 2016). Because the Zohar seems to have been composed, extended, and changed throughout several generations, it is nowadays generally viewed as a collective literary product, hence the increasingly popular reference to this corpus as ‘Zoharic literature’. Nevertheless, although contemporary scholarship has tackled fundamental questions regarding the provenance and authorship of the Zohar, this Jewish mystical corpus still poses many a riddle, especially when it comes to its Aramaic idiom.

Type: Book chapter
Title: The Aramaic of the Zohar: The Status Quaestionis
Open access status: An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
DOI: 10.1163/9789004376588_003
Publisher version: https://doi.org/10.1163/9789004376588_003
Language: English
Additional information: This version is the submitted version. For information on re-use, please refer to the publisher’s terms and conditions.
UCL classification: UCL
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH > Faculty of Arts and Humanities
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH > Faculty of Arts and Humanities > Dept of Hebrew and Jewish Studies
URI: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/10088406
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