The Zohar, or Book of Splendor, is the basic source of Kabbalah and shows us the sublime wisdom concerning the metaphysical characteristics of all Creation.
The Zohar was written by Rav Shimon bar Yochai while hiding in a cave in the mountains of the Galilee with his son Elazar for thirteen years, two thousand years ago. He hid there after being sentenced to death by the Romans. After its revelation during the generation of Rav Shimon, the Zohar was then concealed for another twelve hundred years. It was later brought to the public light in Spain by Rav Moses de Leon over seven hundred years ago, and further revealed through the Safed kabbalists and the Lurianic system of Kabbalah just over four hundred years ago.
The authorship of the Zohar is a subject of debate among academics, without ever attempting to understand the content of the works they analyze. Many of these 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 better understood, however, it becomes evident that only someone of the stature and spirituality of Rav Shimon could have composed the work.
We know that each generation has a lesser understanding of Torah than the previous one (Talmud Bavli, Tractate Berakhot, 20a). To credit a work such as the Zohar to any age other than that of the Tannaim — the compilers of the Mishnah who lived from the first to the third centuries C.E. is simply not possible. Since this would imply that the level of spiritual consciousness and understanding of Rav Moses de Leon was comparable to, if not higher than, that of the saintly Tannaim. When the historians select Rav Moses de Leon as the author of the Zohar, they thereby neglect the opinion of such great kabbalists as Moses Cordovero, Shlomo Alkabetz, Joseph Caro, Isaac Luria, Moses Luzzato, 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 Rav Shimon was the author of the Zohar.
The underlying assumptions of these great men were that the one man who wrote the Zohar must have been on the same level of spirituality as its contents, and that only Rav Shimon fits that description.
In the seclusion of the cave, Rav Shimon was visited twice a day by the prophet Elijah, who revealed to him the secrets of the Zohar. The deeper and more comprehensive sections, known as the Beloved Shepherd, are a record of the discourses that also took place between Rav Shimon and Moses himself.
One should not take this to mean that the secrets of the Zohar were revealed only to Rav Shimon. His teacher, Rav 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 Kabbalah, but few could make others see and understand. For this, the written text of the Zohar, we would have to wait for Rav Shimon.
Why was Rav Shimon chosen to set down the teachings of the Zohar in preference to his teacher, Rav Akiva, or indeed any of the other giants of the 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, Rav 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.
To answer the question and understand why it was Rav Shimon who was chosen to reveal the Zohar, the Ari explains the spiritual make-up of Moses.
“Moses encompassed the Inner and Encircling Lights; the inclusion of the Inner Light is alluded to by the verse ‘and she saw he was good’ (Exodus 2:2), and the Encircling Light is denoted by the verse “the skin of his face shone” (Exodus 34:30).”
The Ari, Likutai Torah, Vol 12, p. 126
Within the human physical body we find two distinct motivating factors called the Inner Light and the Encircling Light. The Inner Light is the element of Light contained within human beings upon their descent into this mundane world at birth, and accompanies the individual as an aid in the pursuit of spiritual ascent.
The Encircling Light is the level of consciousness the individual merits during his or her lifetime through good deeds and actions; it is acquired gradually and is not present at birth. The Encircling Light level of consciousness is unlimited, depending on how well the individual is able to subordinate the physical body to the Light. The degree to which an individual is limited by the constraints of time, space, and motion—-the physical laws of the universe—is dependent on the degree to which he or she manages to control the body’s desire to receive for itself alone (the evil inclination.)
Gradually, he or she acquires the Encircling Light and ascends the ladder of spirituality.
Regarding Rav Shimon, the Ari explains:
“One must understand that among the souls of the righteous, there are those who possess the Encircling Light, and who have the capability of communicating the esoteric mysteries of the Torah by means of concealment and cryptic references, so as to prevent those who lack merit from understanding it. Rav Shimon’s soul incorporated the Encircling Light from birth; he thus had the power to encompass the esoteric lore and also to discourse on it. Subsequently, permission was granted to Rav Shimon to write the Book of Splendor. The sanction to write this book of wisdom was not given to the Sages who preceded Rav Shimon because, even though they were highly knowledgeable in this wisdom, even to the extent of exceeding Rav Shimon, they lacked his ability to encompass and to protect the esoteric lore. This is the meaning of the reference to Rav Shimon made above.”
The Ari, Kitvei Ari, Vol. 6, Gate of the Parables of Rashi, p. 91
If the world’s literature holds any volumes that might truly be designated as being complete, or, in the language of Kabbalah, as being “sealed with ten seals,” that work is the Zohar. Since its completion some two thousand years ago, few works have exercised as much influence on humankind.
The Zohar is the fundamental work of the Kabbalah, and thus, the premier textbook of Kabbalah. However, because of the highly esoteric nature of its teachings, not to mention the difficulties presented by its original language, which was partly Aramaic and partly ancient Hebrew, the Zohar remained for centuries inaccessible to all but a few learned and carefully chosen initiates.
The Zohar is in the form of a commentary on the Bible and contains several sections. The main section, which bears the general title of Sefer ha Zohar, is connected and related to the weekly portion of the Torah. To this are attached:
(1) Idra Rabbah (Greater Assembly), which was written when Rav Shimon and his son Elazar emerged from the cave and selected eight disciples, who, together with Rav Shimon and his son, formed the “Greater Assembly.” This is where the esoteric, internal teachings of the Torah were revealed for the first time.
(2) Sifra diTzenuta (The Book of the Veiled Mystery), inserted before Parashat Tzaveh, which deals with the structure of the creative process;
(3) Sitrei Torah (Secrets of the Torah) which treats essentially the power of the Divine Names and how they are used to tap the immense power of the cosmos;
(4) Idra Zuta (The Lesser Assembly) which describes those teachings of Rav Shimon bar Yochai that were not revealed during the Greater Assembly but on the day of Rav Shimon’s death;
(5) Ra’aya Mehemna (Faithful Shepherd, the faithful shepherd being Moses), which deals with those cosmic precepts and doctrines not covered in the discourses between Elijah the Prophet and Rav Shimon bar Yochai;
(6) Midrash haNe’elam (Recondite Exposition), which contains a vast collection of scriptural exposition concerning the method of numerology i.e. the permutations and combinations of the letters of the Aleph Beth and the Hebrew numerals;
(7) Zohar Hadash (The New Zohar) an independent commentary along the same lines as the Zohar, and which 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) which addresses the same general subject matter as the Zohar, but also discourses upon teachings specifically directed to the Age of Aquarius; and
(9) Tosefta (Additions) which adds some fragmentary supplements to the Zohar in which references to the Sefirot are made.
The Zohar is more than just a commentary on the Torah. In fact, in the Zohar’s own words, a literal translation of the Bible is virtually worthless. It is most interesting to read the Zoharic words on the veracity of biblical explanation, which stops just short of a complete repudiation of any literal translation or understanding of the Bible.
The Zohar declares, “Woe unto those who see in the Torah nothing but simple narratives and ordinary words.” The truth of the matter is that every word of the Bible contains a sublime coded mystery which, when deciphered, reveals a wealth of elevated meaning. The narratives of the Torah are but outer garments in which the real meaning is clothed. And woe unto those who mistake the outer garment for the Bible itself.
This was precisely the idea to which King David addressed himself when he declared, “Open my eyes that I might behold wondrous things from your Torah.”
Another passage from the Zohar states this same sentiment when it queries, “If the Torah merely consisted of ordinary words and narratives like the stories of Esau, Hagar, and Laban, or like the words spoken by the donkey of Balaam, or even by Balaam himself, why should the Torah have been referred to as Torah Emet, the ‘Torah of Truth’?”
The Bible has long been viewed by many as nothing more than a collection of religious morality tales. Seen from a Zoharic perspective, the Bible is not intended merely to improve the outward conduct of humankind, but to assist each individual in creating an intimate personal relationship with the universe. In ancient times, the most mundane events in everyday life and customs were associated with the grandeur of the cosmos.
The Zohar is concerned with the relationships between the unseen forces of the cosmos and their impact on humanity. In essence, the Bible, upon which the Zohar is based, is a cosmic code that the Zohar deciphers and reveals.
The Zohar promises that with the ushering in of the Age of Aquarius, the cosmos will become readily accessible to human understanding. Already, for the perceptive observer, there are signs that this revolution is underway. It is becoming increasingly apparent that, in a very real and profound sense, humanity and the cosmos are inseparable.
Through the Zohar, we can raise our consciousness and transcend the crushing weight of earthly concerns. In the right hands, the Zohar is a tool of immense power. It can, when correctly perceived, provide answers to our most seemingly baffling problems.
The Zohar has been published in a set of twenty-four volumes. The placement of these volumes within the home or office infuses it with the Zohar’s Light, spreading harmony in the atmosphere and among its inhabitants. The scanning alone of the Zohar’s letters and words will have the result of comforting the body and restoring balance even when one cannot pronounce the words or know their meaning.
Spiritual values have their own system of making impressions.
The daily perusing of the Zohar, without any attempt at translation or “understanding” will fill our consciousness with the Light, improving our well-being and influencing all in our environment toward positive attitudes. Even the scanning of the Zohar by those unfamiliar with The Hebrew Aleph Beth will accomplish the same result.
The connection that we establish through scanning the Zohar is a connection and unity with the Light. The letters, even if we do not consciously know Hebrew or Aramaic, are the channels through which the connection is made and could be likened to dialing the right telephone number, or typing in the right codes to run a computer program. The connection is established at the metaphysical level of our being and radiates into our physical plane of existence, but first there is the metaphysical “fixing.”
We have to permit, consciously, through positive thoughts and actions, the immense power of the Zohar to radiate love, harmony, and peace into our lives for us to share with all humanity and the universe.
As we enter the years ahead, the Zohar will continue to be a people’s book, striking a sympathetic chord in the hearts and minds of those who long for peace, truth, and relief from suffering. In the face of crises and catastrophe, it has the ability to resolve agonizing human afflictions by restoring each individual’s relationship with the Force.
Darkness cannot prevail in the presence of Light. A darkened room must respond even to the lighting of a candle. As we share this moment together, we are beginning to witness, and indeed some of us are already participating in, a people’s revolution of enlightenment. The darkened clouds of strife and conflict will make their presence felt only as long as the Eternal Light remains concealed.
The Zohar now remains a final, if not the only, solution to infusing the cosmos with the revealed Light of the Force. For those seeking to improve the quality of both their mental and physical well being, the Zohar provides us with an opportunity to become masters of our fate, captains of our destiny.