THE ZOHAR AND KABBALAH
The Zohar is the central text of Kabbalah, and Kabbalah is the spiritual heritage of all humankind. Though it is often defined as the mystical tradition of Judaism, Kabbalah predates and transcends identification with any religion, nation, or ethnicity. Kabbalah is a body of spiritual wisdom and teachings, but it is not "religious" as that word is often understood. Kabbalah is not about rote obedience of laws or commandments. It is not based on literal interpretation of scriptures, nor does it include fear of punishment as a motivation for observance. Moreover, unlike traditions that celebrate ecstatic or transcendent approaches to divine wisdom, Kabbalah includes logical analysis of spiritual matters as an important tool. As in quantum physics or genetics, however, logic in Kabbalah can take challenging and paradoxical forms. To fully grasp the kabbalistic principles as they are presented in the Zohar, it is best to discard both conventional religious expectations and linear, mechanistic styles of rational thought. Science tells us that an electron can exist in two places at once, even at opposite ends of the universe. Kabbalah does not ask us to accept anything more radical than that--or any less radical, either!
It is most useful to think of Kabbalah in terms of tools, practical applications, guidebooks, and sometimes delphic utterances, rather than as religion or academic philosophy. By doing so, we can begin to put these tools to work in our own lives. We can also eliminate preconceptions that are utterly foreign to the true teachings of the sages. Kabbalah and the Zohar belong to everyone who has a sincere desire to learn, grow, and transform.
When the Creator brought the world into being, it was not His intention to include the pain and suffering that today beset us. Kabbalah, in common with other spiritual traditions, teaches that the negativity that afflicts humankind came about through the temptation and fall of primordial man. The kabbalists have used the word chaos to describe the negative circumstances that surround us--the "Murphy's Law" environment in which things will go wrong if they possibly can. Chaos is indeed an apt word. It is the opposite of harmony with the Creator, or more precisely, the unity with Him that once existed and will one day be regained.
Achieving this unity, according to Kabbalah, is the true purpose of lives: to restore Creation to the state that God intended for it, and to reenter the Eden from which we were exiled by Adam's sin. To make possible this return to paradise, the Creator has provided us with powerful spiritual tools, including the Sabbath, the Hebrew language and alphabet, and many others. Most of these tools are identified with Judaism in the public mind. But they, like the redemption they are intended to foster, are the birthright of everyone. Making this clear is an important purpose of this book, and of Kabbalah as a whole.
The Zohar is a very long book--a complete translation comprises many volumes--but even at full length the sages of Kabbalah view it as a concentrated distillation of infinite wisdom. To the kabbalists, the Zohar is more like a finely polished gem than an object made of paper and ink. Like a diamond or ruby, the Zohar is hard and durable. It is ageless. It shines as brightly today as it did at the time of its creation. Again, like a jewel, it is easily hidden, and there have been centuries in which its very existence was known to only a few. Moreover, the Zohar has many facets and colors, depending on the angle and the spiritual light in which it is viewed. Perhaps it is no surprise that one of history's greatest kabbalists, Rabbi Moses Chaim Luzzatto (1707-1746) was a diamond merchant in Amsterdam.
Among secular scholars and historians there is controversy surrounding the authorship and chronology of the tradition's most important texts, but the kabbalists themselves are very clear on these points. The first book of Kabbalah, the Sefer Yetzirah (The Book of Formation) was revealed by the Creator to Abraham the Patriarch. Since this occurred four hundred years before the revelation of the Ten Utterances (or Commandments), the Sefer Yetzirah preceded the written Bible by many centuries. In fewer words than a slender paperback, the Sefer Yetzirah describes how Creation was accomplished through the distinct energies of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the letters' numerological significance. The teachings of the Sefer Yetzirah, however, are so compressed as to be impenetrable to all but very elevated souls. If the Zohar is like a shining, multifaceted jewel, the Sefer Yetzirah is a small but perfectly cut diamond whose proportions can be appreciated only by a highly trained eye.
The Authorship and Structure of the Zohar
It was in the second century c.e., during the Roman occupation of what is now Israel, that the Zohar was revealed by the Creator to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son Elazar, who had taken refuge from the Romans in a mountain cave. This is a very firm kabbalistic teaching, although the origin of the Zohar is a subject of debate among academics. Many scholars maintain that the Zohar was written by the eleventh-century kabbalist Moses de Leon or by others among his contemporaries. When the Zohar is truly understood, however, it becomes clear that only Rabbi Shimon could have composed the work.
When the historians elect Moses de Leon as the author of the Zohar, they ignore the opinion of such great kabbalists as Moses Cordovero, Shlomo Alkabetz, Joseph Caro, Isaac Luria, Moses Luzzatto, and many others--men for whom the Zohar was a way of life, rather than a field of study, and who were unanimous in their agreement that Rabbi Shimon was the author of the Zohar. The underlying assumptions of these great men were that the man who wrote the Zohar must have been on the same level of spirituality as its contents, and that only Rabbi Shimon fit that description.
In the seclusion of the cave, Rabbi Shimon was visited twice a day by the prophet Elijah, who revealed to him the contents of the Zohar. The text comprises a commentary on the Bible and contains several sections. The main section, which bears the general title of Sefer haZohar, is generally connected and related to the weekly portion of the Torah. To this are attached: (1) Idra Rabbah (The Greater Assembly), which was actually written when Rabbi Shimon and his son Elazar emerged from the cave and selected eight disciples; these eight, together with Rabbi Shimon and his son, formed the "The Great Assembly" where, for the first time, the esoteric, internal teachings of the Torah were revealed; (2) Sifra diTzenuta (The Book of the Veiled Mystery) deals with the structure of the creative process; (3) Sitrei Torah (Secrets of the Torah) treats the power of the Divine Names and how they are used to access the immense power of the cosmos; (4) Idra Zuta (The Lesser Assembly) describes those teachings of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai that were not revealed during the Greater Assembly, but only on the day of Rabbi Shimon's death; (5) Ra?aya Mehemna (The Faithful Shepherd), Moses, deals with those cosmic precepts and doctrines not covered in the discourses between Elijah the Prophet and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai; (6) Midrash ha?elam (The Recondite Exposition) contains a vast collection of scriptural exposition concerning the method of numerology, that is, the permutations and combinations of the letters of the Aleph Beth and the Hebrew numerals; (7) Zohar Hadash (The New Zohar) is an independent commentary along the same lines as the Zohar, but it embraces, in addition to the Torah, the Five Megillot (Scrolls): The Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther; (8) Tikunei Zohar (Emendations of the Zohar) addresses the same general subject matter as the Zohar but also discourses on teachings that are specifically directed to the Age of Aquarius; (9) Tosefta (Additions) adds some fragmentary supplements to the Zohar in which references to the Sefirot are made.
One should not take this to mean that the secrets of the Zohar were revealed only to Rabbi Shimon. His teacher, Rabbi Akiva, and several others before him were fully versed in all the teachings of the Zohar. In fact, the entire understanding of Kabbalah was presented in its oral form to Israel on Mount Sinai. Many understood the dazzling truths of Jewish mysticism, but few could make others see and understand them. For this, the written text of the Zohar, we would have to wait for Rabbi Shimon.
Why was Rabbi Shimon chosen to set down the teachings of the Zohar in preference to his teacher, Rabbi Akiva, or indeed any of the other giants of Kabbalah who preceded him? This problem has been the source of many commentaries and parables; it is often stressed, for instance, that through his fugitive and solitary life, Rabbi Shimon was able to overcome the physical restraints and limitations that normally prevent the attainment of higher levels of spiritual consciousness. He was thus able to transcend the laws governing time and space, thereby acquiring root knowledge of all existence as we experience it on this earthly plane.
The first text of the Zohar was in Aramaic, the vernacular of the region at that time. As with the Sefer Yetzirah, however, the wisdom of the Zohar was out of harmony with the consciousness of its time--nor was this disharmony limited to the realm of the intellect. Kabbalah teaches that the Zohar is an energy source in a very physical sense. Contemporary writers on Kabbalah compare the Zohar to an overwhelmingly powerful source of electrical power: Until the world was ready to make use of electricity, the presence of such a power source would be useless, and perhaps even dangerous. Therefore the Zohar was hidden away for more than ten centuries; Rabbi Shimon himself predicted that the concealment would last twelve hundred years.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Essential Zohar by Rav P. S. Berg. Copyright © 2002 by Rav P. S. Berg. Excerpted by permission of Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.