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What is the Zohar?

The Zohar, or the Book of the Zohar to give the text its full title, is the major component of the Jewish tradition known as Kabbalah or in English as Jewish mysticism.

The simplest way to understand the Zohar is as a commentary on the Torah- the five books of Moses. Despite what is claimed by some, The Zohar is not a book that can be read or properly understood in isolation from the Hebrew bible. The text is written in almost exclusively in Aramaic, however, passages and phrases also appear in both ancient Greek and Latin.

The ideas contained within are mystical and sometimes hard to understand. Indeed, Jewish tradition holds that the ideas in the book of the Zohar are so mind-bending that study of the Zohar should be restricted to married men over 40. What this means practically is that only those with sufficient maturity and mental strength to properly understand the ideas without losing their sanity, should be permitted to study the book.

Historically, this has ensured that those who most fully understand the Zohar are learned in the Jewish tradition on the other hand, this has allowed wide scope for the ideas to be misunderstood and or misrepresented in the non-Jewish world.

Origins of the Zohar

The precise origins of the book of the Zohar are shrouded in mystery. The book’s entry into history is recorded by secular scholars as the late 13th Century and authorship is often attributed to Rabbi Moses de Leon. However, de Leon himself claimed that the text was a manuscript written by Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (the Rashbi).

To complicate matters further, Jewish tradition asserts that the teachings found in the Kabbalah date back to the Sinai revelation and that the Zohar is an integral part of Judaism’s oral tradition, (known also as the oral Torah) which also includes the Mishna and the Talmud.

Structure of the Zohar

As noted earlier, the Zohar is a commentary on the Torah and as such it is structured to mirror the structure of the five books of Moses. The sections of the Zohar are in large parts commentaries on the weekly Torah portion and are arranged in canonical order (i.e. Genesis through to Deuteronomy).

There are additional texts which comprise the book of the Zohar and these include texts which are alleged to be transcripts of discussions between the Rashbi and his students on the subject of Kabbalah, as well as the teachings of Moses which reveal the deep and mystical secrets behind the commandments.

Since the invention of the printing press, books sold under the title ‘the Zohar’ may also include additional works and commentaries such as Tikkunei haZohar. The Zohar eBook App (available to download on this website) includes the full text of the Zohar and Tikkunei HaZohar.

Why read the Zohar Book?

There are many reasons to consult the Zohar, although those who are simply curious will find it quite a difficult text to understand. The reason for this is simple; Jewish tradition forbids writing down the oral Torah in full. When out of necessity these texts were written down (so as to prevent their vanishing from history) it was done in a deliberately obscure way; allowing the tradition to remain spoken, because one must find an expert teacher in order to explain the book’s otherwise unclear contents.

Beyond this, reading the Zohar is said to have many spiritual benefits and whilst studying the text is recommended over and above simple reading, some of these benefits can be accrued even if you don’t fully understand the text, or even the language it is written in.

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