This Day in Jewish History

Print Puts the Zohar in Reach of the Masses

Controversy still surrounds the foundation text of Jewish mysticism, which was first printed in 1558 and written nearly 300 — or 1,400 — years earlier.

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On August 4, 1558, the first print edition of the Zohar appeared, though its origins lay centuries earlier, in the Jewish community of Spain. The book’s publication had the effect of popularizing the study of kabbala, a Jewish form of mysticism and messianism a popularized version of which became quite the fad among the glitterati starting in the 1990s. 

The Zohar is a group of books, written mainly in Aramaic, that elaborates on mystical elements in the Torah, not least of which is the nature of God and of the universe – and of evil, which some consider a necessary manifestation of the divine.

Yet the Zohar has never been wholly accepted by all Jews, as is for instance the Bible itself, in part due to questions about its origin.

Orthodox Judaism largely believes that the Zohar, like the Torah, is based on the word of God that was handed down to Moses (some say Abraham too), which then passed down the generations through oral tradition until being redacted by the second-century Jewish sage Shimon Bar Yochai.

What’s certain is that the Zohar was first published — as opposed to being printed — by Rabbi Moses de Leon in 13th century Spain. He ascribed the books to Bar Yochai, who according to Jewish legend was inspired by the prophet Elijah to write them while hiding in a cave from the Romans for 13 years, studying Torah.

Aramaic was the lingua franca of the Jews during the period of the Second Temple (leading to endless arguments over which language Jesus actually spoke), and the language in the Zohar has been described as an “exalted” form of the language. But based on the form of the Aramaic used, latter-day academics believe de Leon wrote the books himself, which to some detracts from their sacredness and authority.

That hasn’t touched its standing among today’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities, which takes its writings with deadly seriousness. It is sometimes quoted in daily life, for instance when raising money for charity. The Zohar has also been used as a source for hexes, and is often wrongly associated with being the source of the infamous “pulsa denura” (“whip of fire”) curse of death. The Zohar mentions the curse, but no more.

Lest you think the death curse is some ancient extravagance now abandoned by modern society, in 2005 extreme-right activists tried to apply it to then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon who was, they explained, too well-guarded to be assassinated by regular means. It didn’t work — he didn’t die then, and neither did they, though according to the theory failed curses backfire.

Why weren’t these mystical traditions included in other Jewish texts, such as the Talmud itself? Possibly because the material was considered dangerous for ordinary folk and the young: Should they start studying before their minds are mature, they could be driven insane.

Its mystical implications aside, kabbala is also perceived as having practical applications, such as the creation of “golems” — live monsters from clay and rock. One of many such examples is the legendary Golem of Prague, a monster brought to life in order to protect the beleaguered Jews of the city in the 16th century.

While there is no law governing the start of study, according to popular tradition, the prerequisites for delving into the “deeper learning” of kabbala include being older than 40, strictly observant, and married with children. Clearly that wasn’t the rule over the ages, as some great kabbalists, such as the Safed-based 16th-century luminary Isaac Luria (known as “the Ari”), didn’t even live to age 40. He died at age 38 in Safed on July 25, 1572.

Also clearly, the warnings that kabbalistic knowledge poured into unready minds can lead to insanity hasn’t deterred the modern masses. Famous “converts” to “kabbalism” — which isn’t a religion — include Madonna, who in 2006 famously dumped poor Britney Spears for the younger singer’s decision to abandon kabbala study in favor of raising children. And no, wearing a “kabbalist” red string on your wrist hasn’t been proved to protect you from the evil eye.