Principal literary production of the Jewish cabala, mostly in the form of comments on parts of the Hebrew Bible. The term (Heb. zōhar, brightness) is taken from Ez8.2: Dn 12.3.
Origin and Contents. The origin of the Zohar is shrouded in mystery. Toward the end of the 13th century a Spanish-Jewish mystic, Moses ben Shemtob de Leon (1250–1305), introduced the Zohar to the public, and at once there arose legends concerning its origin. Moses de Leon himself spoke of finding an ancient manuscript the authorship of which he attributed to Rabbi Simeon ben Yoḥai (or, bar Yochai), but his widow later denied the existence of such a manuscript and called her husband the real author of the Zohar. The controversy has continued ever since. Many great cabalists, among them contemporaries of the "discoverer," subscribed to the authenticity of the Zohar, which they regarded as a deposit of mystical revelation at least equal to the written Law (the Bible) and the oral Law (the talmud). On the other hand, notable historians, particularly H. Graetz, have held the Zohar to be a forgery of Moses de Leon.
Viewed as a work of literature, the Zohar has no unity. The Zohar proper, the second part of the whole four-part work, is a midrash (see midrashic literature) on the Mosaic Law in the form of conversations between Simeon ben Yoḥai, a famous but mysterious Tanna (Mishnaic rabbi) of the 2d century, and his students on the mysteries of God and creation. The first part of the work is called midrāš hanne'ělām (Interpretation of What Is Hidden); the third part, rā'ayā m ehem enā' (The Faithful Shepherd); the fourth part, tiqqūnnê hazzōhor (Emendations on the Zohar). The second (main) part contains the sipra' diṣenyūta' (The Book of Mysteries) on the mysteries of creation in the form of baraita, the idra' rabba’ (Large Assembly) and the idra' zutā’ (Small Assembly), which contain dramatic accounts of mystic experiences, and other fragments, such as the sitrê tôrâ (Mysteries of the Law).
The language of the Zohar is Aramaic, with wide stylistic variations in the various parts of the work from the abbreviated, fragmented Talmudic style to a literary homiletic one. The vocabulary, in which neologisms are not wanting, is, however, rather poor compared to the Talmudic literature. The syntax and construction are strongly influenced by medieval rabbinical Hebrew.
Could the basis of the Zohar be (as in the case of ancient rabbinical literature) older documents that were gathered by one or more compilers and supplemented? This was long considered a very probable thesis. Professor G. Scholem of Jerusalem distinguishes in the composite work three redactional strata, of which at least two have the same author.
Leaving aside the question of authorship, in which regard Moses de Leon has recently again come into the foreground, it can be said that the Zohar, with all its lack of unity, is an elaborate synthesis of very old mysticesoteric traditions in Judaism. The beginnings of such traditions can be found in the more recent Biblical literature, they become more common in the apocryphal and apocalyptical literature, and they have their undisputed place in the Mishnah and the Gemara. To this are to be added philosophical and mystical elements from the Hellenistic sphere and Gnostic speculation. After an initial appearance in Babylonia, cabalistic literature came into the open with the Book of Bahir (Splendor) and the Book of yes: irah (creation), and then spread both to Germany, where a special school of mysticism arose, and to Spain. In the latter country mysticism came in contact with religious philosophy, and from Spain it finally passed to southern France, where, in the circle of Isaac the Blind (c. 1200), it developed into the cabalistic system, which has been employed as the basis of the Zohar.
Doctrine. Any attempt to present a consistent treatment of the doctrine of the Zohar and its supplementary tracts meets with difficulty because of the entirely unsystematic character of the work. Contrary to the traditional rabbinical notion, the Zohar assumes, in the realm of divine activity, variously graded powers, whose inner unity is established in an unreachably distant divine principle, the 'ên sôph (the endless, infinite).
Since, in this perspective, creation cannot be considered the work of the divine prime principle, which, by definition, is static, the Zohar solves the difficulty by introducing a series of emanations through which, in the last instance, the passage from the prime principle to the created world is effected. The cosmic creation proceeds (analogously with Philo's logos) from the first creature (Adam qadmon, First Man) and is effected in the four streams of creative power: Aṣîlut (emanation), Ber'iah (creating), Yeṣîrah (forming), and 'Aśiyah (making). Before the present created world, in which man is the focal point, there existed other worlds, which have passed away and which, allegorically with haggadic reminiscences, are termed Kings of Edom.
The world of the Aṣîlut unfolds itself in the ten Sephirot, whose creative spiritual channels are concentrated in the 6th Sephirah, Tiph'eret (beauty), in order to arrive at visible creation in the 10th, Malkut (kingdom). Within the Sephirot, which all have various names, there are manifold structures and combinations, among which are a "most high trinity," which is often likened to the Plotinic trinity, and the constellation of the "three columns"—right, middle, and left column. The left column embodies the negative element, the sitrā ăḥērā (other side), the world of evil, while the right column embodies the positive element. The mutual relations between the positive and negative powers are often presented in the Zohar by the image of the relationship between the two sexes.
The center of all creation is man, who, as a microcosm in his structure, reflects the structure of the macrocosm. The souls of all mankind were contained in Adam's soul. Through the fall of man the human image was darkened; but through the divine plan for salvation, as expressed especially in the covenant of Sinai, man's reascent was initiated, and it will find its glorious completion in the Messiah. Since there is a mysterious relationship of exchange between the higher and lower worlds, man can exercise influence on the higher world by the purity of his intention (kawwānah ).
Other peculiarities of the Zohar's teachings are transmigration of souls (gilgul ), which is foreign to rabbinical literature, the large space that the Zohar gives to the world of the angels with its manifold gradations, and the significance that the Zohar gives to the letters of the Hebrew Bible as the direct results of the substantial sounds based on the "primeval sound." The mysticism of letters and numbers that follows from this idea is often used exegetically in the Zohar.
In the course of the centuries the Zohar became the true Bible of the cabalists, especially from the time of Isaac luria (1534–72) and the cabalistic circle founded by him at Safed. As early as 1557 it first appeared in print. From the time of Luria on, all Jewish life fell more and more under the influence of the cabala in the form proposed by him. This was effective particularly in Jewish prayers, in which texts borrowed from the Zohar and its world of ideas gradually spread a luxuriant growth over the old trunk of the ancient prayers. Even in modern times, the traditional prayer book of the Synagogue has preserved many such elements.
After the study of the Zohar had fallen into discredit in rabbinical circles as a result of the spiritual confusion caused by the disturbances of shabbataiÏsm, it experienced a revival in the Hasidic movement (see h:asidism) and it is still highly regarded in the eastern communities of the Jews.
The Zohar has always been of great interest to Christian authors also, chiefly because of the points of agreement that it contains (or is interpreted to contain) with Christian concepts, such as the Trinity and messianism. The Zohar has been repeatedly translated into other languages, though mostly in the form of excerpts.
Bibliography: g. g. scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (3d ed. New York 1954; repr. pa. 1961) 156–243. h. sperling et al., trs., The Zohar, 5 v. (London 1931–34).
"Zohar." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 22, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/zohar
"Zohar." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Retrieved August 22, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/zohar