An Aspiring Mekubal

The confessions of a Rabbi and would be mystic

The Origins of the Zohar: Rabbi Mendel Kasher

Open book magic on blackIf 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 [1941] 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 I, myself, possess material in manuscript for my [unpublished] book Midreshei Ḥazal VehaZohar in which I have dealt with hundreds of passages from the Zohar that are quoted in the [first] 17 volumes of my Torah Sheleimah,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 [1491], 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].

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2 thoughts on “The Origins of the Zohar: Rabbi Mendel Kasher

  1. Thanks for sharing the translation. “You can evidently see that Kabbalist Rabbi Moshe de Leon, who was the last to possess it and by whom it appeared in the world, did not understand a word of it. This is because in those books where he introduces pieces of The Book of Zohar, it is clear that he did not understand the words at all, as he interpreted it according to the language of the Bible. He confused the understanding completely, although he himself had a wonderful attainment, as his compositions demonstrate… we do not use their explanations, either the explanations of Rabbi Moshe de Leon himself, or his successors’, as their words in interpreting The Zohar are not true, and to this day we have but one commentator—the Ari” (Rav Yehudah Ashlag, The Teaching of Kabbalah and Its Essence).

    reaperofthefield on May 31, 2013 at 4:21 pm
    “59) And all those who know the ins and outs of the holy Book of Zohar, that is, who understand what is written in it, unanimously agree that the holy Book of Zohar was written by the Godly Tanna (sage) Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. Only some of those who are far from this wisdom doubt this pedigree and tend to say, relying on fabricated tales of opponents of this wisdom, that its author is the Kabbalist Rabbi Moshe de Leon, or others of his contemporaries.

    60) And as for me, since the day I have been endowed, by the Light of the Creator, with a glance into this holy book, it has not crossed my mind to question its origin, for the simple reason that the content of the book brings to my heart the merit of the Tanna Rashbi (Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai) far more than all other sages. And if I were to clearly see that its author is some other name, such as Rabbi Moshe de Leon, then I would praise the merit of Rabbi Moshe de Leon more than all other sages, including Rashbi.

    Indeed, judging by the depth of the wisdom in the book, if I were to clearly find that its writer is one of the forty-eight prophets, I would consider it much more acceptable than to relate it to one of the sages. Moreover, if I were to find that Moses himself received it from the Creator Himself on Mount Sinai, then my mind would really be at peace, for such a composition is worthy of him. Hence, since I have been blessed with compiling a sufficient interpretation that enables every examiner to acquire some understanding of what is written in the book, I think I am completely excused from further toil in that examination, for any person who is knowledgeable in The Zohar will now settle for no less than the Tanna Rashbi as its writer” (Rav Yehudah Ashlag, Introduction to the Book of Zohar).

    • The Raven and the Dove
      “But the wise shall understand [Daniel 12:10]. These are the scholars of Kabbalah. It says about them: And they who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmaments [ibid.3]. This refers to those that place their effort in the splendor called Zohar, that is like Noah’s Ark, to which are gathered two from a city, seven from a kingdom and, occasionally, one from a city and two from a family, by whom comes true, Every son that is born you shall cast him into the river [Exodus 1:22][Son - this is Torah, that is born – comprehended. Cast him תשליכוהו - this is like 'teach him' תשכילוהו. Into the river – of light]. Teach [the son] how to be, this is the light of the book of Zohar and all is due to you [Moses the Faithful Shepherd]. Who caused all this [lack of Zohar study]? The raven, since at that time you [Faithful Shepherd] will be like a dove. There was another messenger named after you, like the raven that was originally sent but did not return from his mission and made his effort with insects who are the ignorant [Cf. BT Pesahim 49b] because of their money. He did not strive in his mission to cause the righteous to repent and he has not fulfilled the mission of his master [Ramchal of blessed memory wrote that it refers to Jeroboam, the son of Nebat, who was worthy to be the redeemer of Israel. He faltered with the golden calf, sinned, and caused many others to sin. He is compared to the raven that betrayed his mission].

      The secret of the dove that entered the depths of the sea shall come true with you, and likewise you will enter the deep chasms of Torah. This is what is written by the prophet: For you did cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas [Jonah 2:4]. The Faithful Shepherd rose, kissed him, and blessed him. He said, ‘it seems that you are the messenger of your master to us. The Tannaim and the Amoraim opened the discussion saying: Faithful Shepherd, you knew all this and through you it was revealed [Cf. Vayikra Rabbah 22: "Scripture, Mishnah, Talmud, Tosefot, Aggada and even that which a venerable student will say before his master, all was said to Moses at Sinai;" BT Menahot 29b]. But in your humility, as was said about you, Now the man Moses was very meek [Numbers 12:3]; in these areas that you are shy to take credit for yourself, the blessed Holy One has nominated us to the Holy Lamp [Rabbi Shim'on bar Yohai] to act as your hand and your mouthpiece in these areas” (Ra’aya Meheimna).

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      reaperofthefield on April 10, 2013 at 7:01 pm
      “But are those who see Him through a speculum that shines so few? Did not Abaye in fact state, ‘The world never has less than thirty-six righteous men who are vouchsafed a sight of the Shekhinah every day, for it is said, Happy are they that לו ‘wait’ [for Him] [Isaiah 30:18] and the numerical value of לו is thirty-six? – There is no difficulty: The latter number refers to those who may enter [Shekhinah] with permission, the former to those who may enter without permission” (BT Sukkah 45b).

      “The Zohar is like Noah’s Ark, in which there are many species, and there is no chance of survival unless they enter the Ark. The same applies to the exile because through the exile, all the righteous ones become damaged. Their darkened illumination is more bitter than death. To maintain themselves, so that the exile will not rule over them, they work in secret to repair the damage of the exile. Then the light of the Shekhinah will, at least, dimly shine and enclose the righteous ones. The righteous ones will enter the light of this work in order to be maintained. The merit of this work lies in the fact that as soon as one occupies himself with it, with desire, the love for the blessed Holy One will penetrate him as the rock shatters iron. One’s love for the blessed Holy One will save his nefesh, ruah and neshama and will repair him” (Tiqqunei Zohar Hadash 72).

      Reply
      reaperofthefield on May 31, 2013 at 4:15 pm
      “You can evidently see that Kabbalist Rabbi Moshe de Leon, who was the last to possess it and by whom it appeared in the world, did not understand a word of it. This is because in those books where he introduces pieces of The Book of Zohar, it is clear that he did not understand the words at all, as he interpreted it according to the language of the Bible. He confused the understanding completely, although he himself had a wonderful attainment, as his compositions demonstrate… we do not use their explanations, either the explanations of Rabbi Moshe de Leon himself, or his successors’, as their words in interpreting The Zohar are not true, and to this day we have but one commentator—the Ari” (Rav Yehudah Ashlag, The Teaching of Kabbalah and Its Essence, Michael Laitman edition).

      Reply
      reaperofthefield on May 31, 2013 at 4:21 pm
      “59) And all those who know the ins and outs of the holy Book of Zohar, that is, who understand what is written in it, unanimously agree that the holy Book of Zohar was written by the Godly Tanna (sage) Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. Only some of those who are far from this wisdom doubt this pedigree and tend to say, relying on fabricated tales of opponents of this wisdom, that its author is the Kabbalist Rabbi Moshe de Leon, or others of his contemporaries.

      60) And as for me, since the day I have been endowed, by the Light of the Creator, with a glance into this holy book, it has not crossed my mind to question its origin, for the simple reason that the content of the book brings to my heart the merit of the Tanna Rashbi (Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai) far more than all other sages. And if I were to clearly see that its author is some other name, such as Rabbi Moshe de Leon, then I would praise the merit of Rabbi Moshe de Leon more than all other sages, including Rashbi.

      Indeed, judging by the depth of the wisdom in the book, if I were to clearly find that its writer is one of the forty-eight prophets, I would consider it much more acceptable than to relate it to one of the sages. Moreover, if I were to find that Moses himself received it from the Creator Himself on Mount Sinai, then my mind would really be at peace, for such a composition is worthy of him. Hence, since I have been blessed with compiling a sufficient interpretation that enables every examiner to acquire some understanding of what is written in the book, I think I am completely excused from further toil in that examination, for any person who is knowledgeable in The Zohar will now settle for no less than the Tanna Rashbi as its writer” (Rav Yehudah Ashlag, Introduction to the Book of Zohar, Michael Laitman edition).

      Reply
      reaperofthefield on May 31, 2013 at 4:32 pm
      “All the indications are that the author of the Ra’aya Meheimna lived in Spain in the fourteenth century, and that he wrote his book shortly after the appearance of the Zohar. He must have known that the Zohar was published piecemeal by Rabbi Moses de Leon, and the charges leveled against him and against the book itself must have reached his ears. He thought that the Zohar was an ancient and sacred work that had come into the possession of Rabbi Moses de Leon so that he could disseminate it and so benefit the Jewish public. But because of the despicable manner in which he had set about this task, Rabbi Moses de Leon had discredited the Zohar and alienated the pious scholars. Consequently, he considered Rabbi Moses de Leon to be an untrustworthy agent like the raven, and in his own works he set up in opposition to him and was ‘the faithful shepherd,’ the loyal dove.

      By the revelations transmitted through him he would redeem the good name of the Zohar and repair the damage that had been done (the author of Ra’aya Meheimna might also have been named Moses). The accusation that the raven had turned to the rich when publishing the mysteries of the Torah in order to obtain money from them fits exactly the description that Rabbi Isaac of Acre gave of Rabbi Moses de Leon’s character and activity. He is portrayed there as a money-grubber, and his house was supposed to ‘be full of the silver and gold given to him by the wealthy who learned the great mysteries [of the Zohar] that he would present to them.’ In the second version, which appears in the first edition of the Sefer Yuhasin [Abraham Zacuto, 1504], it says that ‘the aforementioned Rabbi Moses would write mysteries and marvels for the wealthy of that kingdom, and would receive from them many gifts, silver and gold’” (Isaiah Tishby, Wisdom of the Zohar p.1120-21, fn. 193).

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