‘Illumination’ or ‘Brightness’, the classical work of the Kabbalah, containing the record of revelations regarding the divine mysteries alleged to have been vouchsafed to the second century teacher Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai and his mystic circle. The name Zohar is based on the verse (Daniel 12: 3), commented on at the beginning of the work (as a comment on the first verse of Genesis): ‘And the intelligent shall shine like the brightness [ke-zohar] of the firmament, and they that turn many to righteousness like the stars for ever and ever.’ The Zohar first saw the light of day through the efforts of Moses de Leon of Guadalajara in Spain, at the end of the thirteenth century. Modern scholarship concurs with the views of Scholem that Moses de Leon was in fact the author of the work, which does not mean that Moses de Leon was engaged in pious fraud and that, as Graetz puts it out of hostility to the Kabbalah, the Zohar is ‘the book of lies’. The work bears all the marks of a pseudepigraphic production; that is to say, Moses de Leon used the figures of Rabbi Simeon and his associates as the vehicle for the transmission of his own ideas. It has also been noted that many of the Zoharic ideas go back to a much earlier period than that of de Leon.
The first two editions of the Zohar were published in Mantua (1558–1560) and Cremona (1559–60). A fierce debate took place on whether the Zohar should be printed at all, some Kabbalists arguing that it is forbidden to spread the Kabbalistic doctrines among the masses, the inevitable result of its publication in print. With the printing and subsequent wide dissemination of the Zohar, the process, beginning after the expulsion from Spain, continued of treating the Zohar as a sacred book and not only for the Kabbalists. Moralistic works quoted extensively from the Zohar. Laws and customs based on the Zohar found their way into the standard Codes, although there was much discussion on how far Zoharic practices should have the status of law. The followers of the Haskalah movement denigrated the Zohar and the Kabbalah in general as a foreign shoot implanted into Judaism to encourage superstition and the irrational in religion.
In Hasidism the Zohar became a ‘canonical’ book together with the Bible and the Talmud. The early Hasidic master, Pinhas of Koretz, it is said, used to thank God that he had not been created before the appearance of the Zohar for it was the Zohar that had preserved him for Judaism (gehalten bei Yiddishkeit). Of the Baal Shem Tov it is related that he would carry a copy of the Zohar with him at all times and he would see the whole world in the Zohar. Elijah, Gaon of Vilna, the fierce opponent of Hasidism, also belived in the supreme sanctity of the Zohar and his attitude was shared by the majority of the Mitnaggedim.
The Zohar, like other classical works of Judaism, has been the subject of applied study by modern scholars in the historical-critical mode. On the contemporary religious scene, many Orthodox Jews, even if they have little or no knowledge of the Zohar, still revere the work as sacred literature. But it has never become a matter of dogma to believe that the Zohar is a sacred work and, even among the Orthodox, it is possible to be a good Jew and a true believer without accepting the Zohar as an inspired work. Reform and Conservative Judaism is normally critical of the Zohar and its influence while at the same time admiring the many beautiful ideas and numinous insights found in this remarkable work, unique in the history of religion for its mystical style and daring flights of the imagination. (See also CORDOVERO, EN SOF, KABBALAH, and SEFIROT.)