If you have been around this blog at all, or have read any of my, shall we say spirited, defenses of Kabbalah over at DaasTorah, you would have heard me mention Rabbi Mendel Kasher. Rabbi Mendel Kasher wrote an amazing essay on the origins of the Zohar, where he essentially sets out to investigate the claims of many of the academics such as Gershom Scholem, and find the truth.
In my personal opinion he takes a very circumspect and novel approach at examining the evidence and comes up with a fairly solid hypothesis of the origins of the Zohar. It is well worth the read. However, it has until recently only ever been available in Hebrew. Now a fellow blogger, follower of this blog and somewhat frequent commentor has translated the article into English. His blog is called Ohr Ganuz and by following this link you will find the translation of the above mentioned article. I give you here as a teaser the first two pages from the Forward:
In the year 5701  a book entitled Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism was published in Jerusalem, by professor G. Scholem, in which he treats at length the question of the Zohar and its author. He takes the position of those who attribute the work to R. Moshe de Leon and not of those who fix it at an earlier date.
Scholem’s student, Y. Tishby, in his Mishnath ha-Zohar (Jerusalem, 5709/1949), also maintains that the Zohar’s principal parts were written by R. Moshe de Leon, and that no part of the work preceded him. In the introduction to his book he declares that we must accept the conclusions of his teacher [Scholem] as “the final word in the great dispute concerning the composition of the Zohar and its author, which spanned several generations of Judaic scholarship.”
I have waited many years for someone from among the faithful Torah scholars to arise and deal with this question, however, I have waited in vain. I, myself, possess material in manuscript for my [unpublished] book Midreshei Ḥazal VehaZohar in which I have dealt with hundreds of passages from the Zohar that are quoted in the [first] 17 volumes of my Torah Sheleimah, comparing them to other Midrashic works of the Sages. I have especially focused on sayings of the Sages which, though quoted by the Rishonim, are not found in extant Midrashim, but which are relevant to the literature of the Zohar and Midrash HaNe`elam. R. David Luria in his book “Kadmuth Sefer HaZohar,” anaf 2, cited a number of similar passages in order to prove the antiquity of the Zohar, and I have continued in this vein. I have principally shown [the correlation of passages from the Zohar with] Midrashim and the works of ancient scholars which have been discovered in manuscript form in recent times. I also discuss in the book many questions and inquiries concerning the Zohar and the relationship between the Zohar and the works of R. M. de Leon. Due to my many other activities I am unable at present to arrange all of the material which I have accumulated. Therefore, I have decided that it is worthwhile to clarify at least some particular points about this important topic.
First of all, I must point out that after having carefully reviewed all of the sources which Scholem and Tishby cite to draw their conclusions, I have found that those sources in fact support the exact opposite. For it is clear, without any doubt, that the contents of R. M. de Leon’s published works “HaNefesh HaḤachamah” and “Sheqel HaQodesh,” and especially his works that are still in manuscript, “HaRimon” and “Mishkan Ha`Eduth,” demonstrate that R. M. de Leon did not author the Zohar – rather, he made much use of the Zohar manuscripts in his possession and translated many passages into Hebrew. In the following chapters I will make it clear that Scholem and Tishby erred in the very foundations of their theory by comparing the works of R. Moshe de Leon to the Zohar. In general, one who carefully examines the works of R. M. de Leon will clearly see that his style, his mode of expression, his phraseology, his topical descriptions and his methods of explanation and discourse are as far from those of the Zohar as the east is from the west. The pen that wrote them is neither qualified nor competent enough to write even one chapter – let alone the one thousand seven hundred published pages – of the authentic, living Aramaic of the Zohar.
The Zohar is a gigantic, unique creation. It has a wondrous ability to arouse and enflame a person’s soul to supernalkedushah (holiness). This is the book that speaks to men’s hearts, and thus it has been loved and revered so much over the generations by G-d-fearing, elevated people. It bears no resemblance at all to the books of R. Moshe de Leon, which are ordinary books, like the other Kabbalistic works which were composed in that time period.
To be perfectly honest, I cannot understand the reasoning of the two aforementioned authors. Scholem writes that we must admit that there is a large portion of the Zohar whose Aramaic is exemplary, and which comes from the mouths of sages for whom Aramaic was a living language. And even Tishby writes that the Zohar has unique literary qualities, a sublime and lofty pathos, a style of poetic imagery, colorful and vivid constructs, et cetera. So, we must inquire: Is it possible to find even one of all these wonderful qualities in the works of R. Moshe de Leon? How could one find one of these things in the books of R. Moshe de Leon? And how, in the midst of writing these same lines, could an author disregard his own statements and declare that it is definite that R. Moshe de Leon wrote the Zohar, and that there is no section of it that precedes his era?
The Progression of the Disputations Concerning the Zohar
The first reports of the existence of the Zohar are found in many works of the Rishonim who lived in the first half of the first century of the sixth millennium [1240-1290]. In these books, parts of the Zohar are quoted in the name of “the midrash,” “Midrash Yerushalmi,” just “Yerushalmi,” or “Midrash R. Shim`on bar Yoḥai.”
R. Eliyahu del Medigo in his work Beḥinath HaDath, which was authored in the year 5251 , writes critically of the Zohar: “the book has only been publicly known in our nation for close to 300 years.” Even according to his statement, the Zohar had already been publicized by the last century of the fifth millennium [circa 1200].
Answer: The study of Kabbalah is extremely important and it is in it’s merit that Israel will be redeemed, as is explained in the Holy Zohar, “In the future Israel will taste of the tree of life which is this Sepher HaZohar they will redeemed by it from the exile with mercy and lovingkindness.” And also in the Holy Zohar parashat Pekudei(247) it is how important is the study of the Zohar.
In the Shu”T Torah Lishmah(17) it is written: It is a truth that a man is required to labor in the study of Kabbalah and to learn the secrets of Hashem as it is written by David HaMelekh upon him be peace and his son Shlomo, “Know the G-d of your fathers and how to serve him.
However the Rama writes(Yoreh Deah 246:4): “A man should not sojourn in the orchard, until after he has filled his belly with meat and wine, which means to know Issur V’Heter and the laws of the mitzvot.” And the Shakh writes(S”K 6): “The Kabbalists and the other achronim have argued over whether one should not learn Kabbalah until after he has filled his belly from the Shas. There are also those that have written that one should not learn Kabbalah until he is forty years old as it is written: ‘A forty year old to understanding.’ Also there is need for holiness and purity and exactingness and cleanliness for this, many who rush to ascend to this wisdom do so before the proper time as it is written concerning the four Sages of truth.”
The Rema wrote in his sefer Torah HaOleh(3:4): “Many of the ordinary people, rush to study Kabbalah because it is desirable in their eyes… even Baalei Batim who do not know their right from their left in their ignorance they don’t even know who to explain a page of gemmarra or the parasha according to Rashi, and they rush to study Kabbalah… and they all learn only a little but boast in learning much and give speeches to the masses.” Note the warning of the Ramban in his well known introduction to the Torah for a man not to dare to learn the Kabbalistic issues in his book except from the mouth of a man who is certified to teach them.”
See the Shu”T Rav Pealim(Y”D 1:56) which writes: “Eve a great sage amongst the sages and a great Gaon of the Gaonim it is impossible for him to clearly understand the issues from his own wisdom and understanding, even if he has all the holy books the Kabbalah, for it is a tradition passed orally from man to man until our teacher Rabbi Haim Vital who received it from our master the Ar”i Z”l who received it from the mouth of Eliyahu HaNavi Z”l, because there are things that are impossible to write and impossible to describe with pen and ink, rather they are only possible to be passed from person to another.” Also in Shu”T Rav Pealim(O”C 2:61) he brings the words of the Hayei Adam(Nishmat Adam Klal 145:2) that in the midst of the things that bring a man to impurity he writes, “Also a person who is not worthy to learn the wisdom of Kabbalah it causes him to be impure. Our teacher Rabbi Haim Vital writes(in the introduction to Shaar HaHakdamot 1C, and it is printed in the introduction to Sefer Eitz Chaim) Therefore a man should not say I will go and I will learn the wisdom of Kabbalah before he has learned Torah, Mishnah and Talmud, for our sages have already said, “A man should not enter the orchard unless he has filled his belly with meat and wine, and behold this is like a soul without a bodythat has no reward, or deeds or accounting until it is joined with a body and is thus able to uphold the 613 mitvot that are commanded in the Torah as is necessary.”
Therefore, one who has not learned Shas, and has not learned the four parts of the Shulchan Arukh is not able to enter into the wisdom of the Kabbalah, rather it is permitted and even a mitzvah to learn Chok L’Yisrael with the Zohar that is brought there even if he has not filled his belly with Shas and Poskim, even in depth, but not more than this. Also one who is accustomed to learn Zohar simply by reading it, this is permitted for it purifies the soul, but he should not learn it in depth.
There is also to know, that the study of Kabbalah requires one to be in holiness and purity and it is forbidden for women to join in this even if they Yirei Shamayim, and it is certainly forbidden for women and men to learn together. Hashem the Blessed One may He save us and save all Yisrael from the curses written there by the Shakh.
And may it be his will that we shall all merit, and that everyone will return in complete teshuva, and that we will merit to serve the creator and to do his will and may we merit to see the redemption speedily in our days. Amen may it be His will.
WIth great Blessing
Rav Mordekhai Eliyahu
Rishon L’Tzion Chief Rabbi of Israel
This is an excerpt from Rav Porush’s introduction to the Shaar HaShamayim printing of Sefer Sulam HaAliyah. Sefer Sulam HaAliyah is a well known sefer that promotes the Abulafian system of Kabbalah, namely the letter permutation meditations. Here Rav Porush offers first a brief history of Kabbalah and then a longer exposition on how the Ari’s Kabbalah was primarily a codification of what had gone before, as well as how the Ari was a recipient of the Abulafian system and how he passed it on to his own students. I am sorry that this is only in Hebrew I have no time presently to translate it: