Moses de Leon

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Moses de Leon

The Jewish mystic Moses de Leon (ca. 1250-1305) is the reputed author of the most important of Jewish mystical books, the "Book of Zohar."

Born in León, Spain, Moses de Leon lived in Guadalajara for the first 30 years of his life, then moved to Ávila, where he spent the remainder of his years. There is little authentic information about his early life, but as a young student he is known to have been attracted to the Cabala, the occult theosophy then flourishing in Provence and Spain.

From 1280 onward, Moses de Leon was circulating copies of the Zohar, stating that he had the original ancient manuscript in his home. The scholar Isaac ben Samuel of Acre visited Spain in 1335 in order to see the original. But by that time Leon was dead, and his widow denied that the book had ever existed. Modern scholars have found that the Zohar is written in an artificial Aramaic with stray influences from medieval Hebrew; its material is drawn from ancient sources now lost. Leon's style has also been detected in the Zohar. Scholars have concluded that Leon wrote the book himself and attributed great antiquity to it in order to ensure its acceptance.

Like so many others, Leon feared the use of philosophy and rationalism in his day. To combat it, he composed the Zohar, which is an interpretation of the Pentateuch. It is composed of three parts: the Book of Zohar ("Book of Splendor") proper, interspersed with short tracts; the Tiqqune Zohar ("Restoration of Splendor"); and the Zohar Hadash ("New Zohar").

The purpose of the Zohar is to describe the 10 sefiroth, or souls, of God. In so doing, it also explains man's destiny and God's commandments governing that destiny. Man can only partially understand these mysteries. But by means of the sefiroth man can mount to God through created things. The 10 sefiroth therefore form a "world of union," a mystical tree by which God's life is communicated to man and by which man is able to ascend to God in perfection. The present unredeemed condition of the world is due to the fact that the original union between God and His Shekhina, or Presence, has been ruptured by impurity and evil. Man's hope is that union will again be achieved, and to that end man must practice attachment to God by observing His commandments.

Moses de Leon was a homiletic genius, a skillful compiler, and a complex commentator. Influenced chiefly by the Neoplatonism of the Spanish school of mystics, he had a close liaison with Joseph Gikatila, a disciple of the famed Abraham Abulafia (who developed an elaborate system of contemplative techniques). As with all Cabalistic development in Jewry, the Zohar and its popularity corresponded to the ever-deepening desire of the Jews to be saved from their European exile and bondage. The Zohar offered a mystical solution to their to their yearnings.

Further Reading

For information on Leon see Gershom G. Scholom, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (1941; 3d ed. 1961) and Jewish Gnosticism, Merkabah Mysticism, and Talmudic Tradition (1960). □