Exposing the Zohar's Secrets: First-ever English Translation Unlocks the Gates to Jewish Mysticism

The first-ever complete translation of the seminal work of Jewish mysticism grants access to English readers who were heretofore unable to grasp the brilliant stories rendered in its original Aramaic and medieval Hebrew versions

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Omri Shasha

In one of the dramatic passages of the Zohar, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the work’s protagonist author, declares that the secrets now being uttered are worthy of being revealed only between the “Companions, who are in this holy ring” – that is, the group of those who possess the secret, namely, Rabbi Shimon’s pupils (Zohar 3: 132b; Vol. 8, p. 359). This is the well-known pseudepigraphic setting that the Zohar, which was written in 13th-century Spain, chose to assume: a circle of cognoscenti gathered around Rabbi Shimon in the Land of Israel of the first centuries of the Common Era. The use of the term “holy ring” allows a glimpse into the consciousness of the authors, who are bent on creating a text that is fraught with a deep element of the “secret.” Indeed, the tension between the revealed and the concealed is a theme that runs through the Zohar, and the Zoharic dialectic around it is one of the most beautiful and gentle dances of Hebrew mysticism.

The Zohar is the crowning peak of Jewish mysticism, and is in many senses the cornerstone of kabbala – the place from which it emanates and to which it returns. The depth of its conceptual, psychological and religious ideas, which arise from its splendid homilies and from its dynamic stories, have made the Zohar one of the pillars of Jewish culture for hundreds of years. The Zohar entered the Jewish canon alongside the Talmud and the books of the Bible (in fact, more manuscripts of the Zohar have come down to us than of the Talmud, which indicates its circulation and centrality in the pre-print age). But for the contemporary reader, hundreds of years after the coalescence of the Zohar literature, the tension between revealed and concealed has been determined; regretfully, this canonical composition is sealed with secrecy for the average reader by three “locks.”

The first lock is the Zohar’s homilies and the kabbalistic background required to understand them. A perusal of the Zohar necessitates prior knowledge of kabbala, skill in deciphering the various codes and a close acquaintance with the mechanisms of the Zohar’s homiletics. Remarkably, to this day, no comprehensive commentary on the Zohar has been written from the standpoint of its pshat, its literal meaning, which would provide a fundamental understanding of the text. The profound commentaries that have been composed usually explain it against the background of Lurianic kabbala, which is of later authorship, and don’t help the reader to understand the most basic meaning of the Zohar’s homiletics. Nor has academic study of the Zohar engendered as yet a continuous commentary covering the entire work, but rather, at best, only selected passages.

A second lock is the Zohar’s language. As part of the pseudepigraphic effect, the Zohar was written in a distinctive Aramaic dialect, which is actually a Zohar-specific “invention” that draws on the language of the Babylonian Talmud and the Targum Onkelos (Aramaic translation) of the Torah, as well as on creative pseudo-Aramaic translations for medieval Hebrew words. We will return to this singular linguistic guise later, but the simple fact is that the reader who is not fluent in the Zohar’s Aramaic language will have a hard time entering its gates without the aid of a translation that converts the text into his or her language.

A third and final lock concerns the version of the text. At least for the reader who wishes to undertake a critical perusal of the Zohar, the truth is that we do not have one authorized version of this canonical work. The vast inventory of Zohar manuscripts shows that every page and every line of the book is rife with various alternative wordings, yet no scientific edition of the entire Zohar has yet been published. The critical reader of the Zohar must always ask himself what kind of Zohar he is reading.

Three hurdles separate the contemporary reader from the Zohar.

Herein lies the great marvel of the latest edition of the Zohar, whose 15-year process of publication has now been completed by Stanford University Press under the title “The Zohar: Pritzker Edition” (referring to the family that funded the project). Its 12 volumes constitute a monumental enterprise that sets out to cope with the three hurdles mentioned above, which separate the contemporary reader from the Zohar. Over two decades of painstaking labor, Prof. Daniel Matt, who headed the project, translated the Zohar, line by line, into English. He has also provided continuous, accessible annotation of the Zohar’s symbolism and homiletics, and refers the interested reader to additional commentaries, Zohar parallels, ancient sources in the rabbinic and kabbalistic literature, and in some cases to the research literature as well. (Three of the volumes, which contain discrete Zoharic texts, were translated and annotated by Joel Hecker and Nathan Wolski.)

View an excerpt from the translation of the Zohar here

The version Matt translated does not exist as such in any other “Zohar” that we have, as it too is the fruit of culling and choice. For this edition, a number of versions were scanned in their entirety; from them, Matt and his colleagues derived an eclectic rendering that on each occasion chooses the version that appears most accurate. This is not a critical edition as such (a project of gargantuan scale). But this version of the Aramaic original, which has been uploaded in its entirety to the website of Stanford University Press, might serve as a tool in the hands of teachers and students of the Zohar.

The Pritzker Edition thus serves up the Zohar lucidly and clearly for the reader of English. The body of the work consists of an elucidated text of the Zohar, with its homilies and the verses quoted in it, translated into beautiful, fluent English, and at the bottom of the page footnotes containing commentary, expansion and enriching references

Here, for example, is a sentence on the weekly Torah portion of Vayechi (Zohar 1: 238b; Vol 3, p. 455). This is part of a story, describing the journey of Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Yitzhak, who are walking along the road: “While they were walking, they encountered a certain child who was walking bekastira dehamra and an old man riding [next to him].” The meaning of these two Aramaic words is not easy to fathom. Some earlier commentators assumed that hamra here is a mule (hamor in Hebrew), because of the context of walking and the reference to the elderly man riding, and took it to mean that the boy was leading the animal. Others suggested that the boy was walking “behind the mule.”

A study room at the site of Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yochai's grave in Meron.
A study room at the site of Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yochai's grave in Meron.Credit: Yaron Kaminsky

But those who read Daniel Matt’s translation will discover that his rendering is “wineskin” – the boy walking along the road is carrying a wine bag. As Matt suggests, very reasonably, the “hamra” here is not a mule but wine, as in one of its meanings in Babylonian Aramaic, whereas the word qastira is merely a confounding of the word qatfira – a Zoharic neologism that appears in other stories to describe a wanderer carrying a wineskin (“qatfira dehamra”).

Matt refers the reader to these stories as well as to additional translations, to other parallel cases in the Zohar and to elucidations of this term by commentators and scholars. Indeed, anyone who reads the whole story will quickly discover that this narrative detail is not accidental, and that many of the kabbalistic exegeses of this story will deal with wine and its mystical symbolism, and that they converse with the figure of the boy who is carrying a wineskin (and who, by the way, will be revealed to be a prodigy of Torah, of wisdom and of the esoteric, like the full wineskin he’s carrying).

As we see, the new edition of the Zohar affords us a precise wording of the sentence and its clear translation, together with enlightening, enriching annotations. To grasp the project’s incomprehensible scope, one needs to multiply this fleeting glimpse of one Zoharic sentence by the tens of thousands of sentences in the text. Its importance cannot be overestimated: For the first time, the modern reader is given the keys to a classic text from the Jewish bookshelf, and a broad opening is created to an understanding of the world of medieval kabbala and the streams branching off from it.

Language and translation

The beneficial and productive use of the Pritzker Edition gives rise to reflections about the experience of reading the Zohar in translation. The translation of Zoharic literature does not resemble translations of other classic Jewish works. Here, the language in which it is written is itself a significant and extremely intriguing element of the composition’s identity and essence.

Over two decades of painstaking labor, Prof. Daniel Matt translated the Zohar, line by line, into English.

On the one hand, the Zohar’s Aramaic is a kind of disguise. As noted, it is an artificial Aramaic that was “invented” in medieval Spain by the text’s authors, and consists of a hybridization of various Aramaic dialects amid numerous and odd linguistic innovations by the authors. One aim of the creation of this language resides in the pseudepigraphic disguise: The Zohar attempts, by way of its Aramaic language, to “masquerade” as an ancient text from the period of the rabbinic sages. In this sense, a translation of the Zohar is not only “emptying from one vessel to another,” but also an act of exposure – of tearing the mask from the face of the Zoharic homilies and presenting the ideas, the Zoharic content, without the pseudepigraphic mask. Indeed, often while perusing the new English edition, the reader feels as though at long last the contents of the homilies, which have been abstracted from the Zoharic grammar and language, cast a clearer light. The reading experience becomes similar to that of reading other kabbalistic writings, which made their point without the Aramaic-Zoharic blurring.

One small example of this is the text’s use of the verb ozif, which in the language of the Zohar means “to accompany” someone (Zohar 1: 96b): In this instance, we learn that friends accompanied Rabbi Abba for three miles. But “ozif” is a verb taken from Babylonian Aramaic, in which its meaning is not to accompany someone but to loan money. In their minds, the Zohar’s authors, who were looking for an Aramaic verb for livui (accompaniment) and who thought in Hebrew, connected hilva (loaned) and liva (accompanied), and borrowed the word for a different context, which is incorrect in terms of Babylonian Aramaic. Thus, as the scholars Gershom Scholem and Isaiah Tishby noted, a new Aramaic verb was created, which clearly betrays the Hebrew thinking of the Zohar’s authors. The English translation “saves” the reader from the error and from wondering about the peculiar verb, and simply conveys the writers’ intention: “They escorted Rabbi Abba for three miles.”

But there is also another side to the character of Zoharic Aramaic. As shown by the studies of Yehuda Liebes, the great Zohar scholar, and the research of his followers, Zoharic Aramaic is not only a disguise that the reader must peel off in order to reach the “within”: It is a significant and important part of the work itself. It is not just a pseudepigraphic ploy, but also an inherent component of Zohar literature. The narrative epic that frames Zoharic literature – about Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his pupils wandering across the landscapes of the ancient Land of Israel – and which consists of hundreds of narrative episodes scattered across the length and breadth of the Zohar, is not only a means to induce the reader to accept the authority of the Zohar and to “swallow” the homiletic content, which is often radical, that is presented in the stories. It also has a crucial literary and conceptual role.

I can only mention in passing several of the significations of that narrative layer. First, the Zoharic story about the figure of Rabbi Shimon bears a messianic imprint, which casts portions of the work in a messianic light. Second, the pseudepigraphic stories about the life of the group encapsulate something of the Zohar authors’ self-consciousness, which is related to learning in a group, together. They also describe techniques of this form of study – such as getting up at midnight to study works of mysticism until dawn – which, even if we don’t know whether they were used by the historic authors of the Zohar themselves, nevertheless became accepted practices in its wake.

Another aspect concerns the conception of the Zoharic symbol: The stories in the book form mystical symbols bearing a tangible, concrete character, in a manner not seen in any other kabbalistic literature. For example, in one story, the sages discuss the qualities of the Shekhinah (the indwelling divine presence) and of one of its major symbols: the sea. As they walk along the shore of Lake Kinneret, they praise it as a symbol of sefirat malkhut (kingdom), and thus vest the symbol “sea” with a concrete aspect: This very sea, “the Sea of Ginossar,” described in the story, is transformed from a verbal symbol into a living, dynamic symbol of the higher sefirot.

Title page of first edition of the Zohar, Mantua, 1558.
Title page of first edition of the Zohar, Mantua, 1558.

The Aramaic language of the Zohar is part of the general picture being described here. It forms the Zoharic “setting” of Rabbi Shimon and his friends, and in this sense it is not a disguise but an essential element of the work itself. It is the language of the Zohar that enables the engendering of the great epic that resides at the center of the composition and embodies some of the work’s deep currents.

The fact that the language of the Zohar incorporates something of the essence of the work is most apparent in the history of its reception. Later kabbalists, who sought to carry on with the Zoharic spirit, chose to go on writing precisely in Zoharic Aramaic and to imitate its style – which, as it turns out, is not “only” style – even though this language had no pseudepigraphic role. Thus, for example, Rabbi Isaac Luria, the 16th-century Safed kabbalist, chose to compose piyutim (liturgical poems) in the language of the Zohar. Similarly, Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, the 18th-century Italian kabbalist and author, wrote a kind of new Zohar, wholly in Zoharic Aramaic. It was clear to him that such a work could only be written in that distinctive language.

From this point of view, not only does the translation of the Zohar into another, more accessible language not divest the work of its outer layer and afford the reader contact with its inner strata, it actually heaps one disguise on the other and thus blurs an important element. A reading of the narrative tales of the Zohar in English is bereft of the world that the Zoharic language seeks to instill in the reader.

A small example, but one that is felt throughout the work is the Zoharic neologism – words that the Zohar invented and which in many cases would seem to have no precise literal meaning but rather perform a stylistic-literary role. For example, a sentence such as “sifta btosfara kaptla’i shakhiah” (Zohar 1: 241b) doesn’t so much have a literal, translatable meaning as it has a literary role: apparently to create a sense of solemnity and mystery. But this effect is lost in the English translation – which is in itself a possible rendering – “A treasure-chest can be found among preeminent dignitaries” (though the rich character of the Pritzker Edition allows for a footnote that “signals” the reader that he has missed something that exists in the original).

Dress and undress

A reading of the narrative tales of the Zohar in English is bereft of the world that the Zoharic language seeks to instill in the reader.

Parallel to the Zohar’s mode of thought, we can say that the pseudepigraphic Zoharic disguise does indeed conceal something, but at the same time it reveals something else. It’s a self-aware disguise whose role is to preserve a form of tension between revealed and concealed. To understand this dialectic, let us replace the word “disguise” with the word “dress.” The Zohar, an avowed fancier of dressing up, often addresses the tension between dressing and undressing. In a famous allegory dealing with how one should contemplate the Torah and interpret it, the Zohar compares the Torah to a mistress who’s locked in a palace and is hiding from her lover, a student of the text, but who every so often peeks out, gives him a hint, and immediately returns to her hiding place (Zohar 2: 99a-b). The allegory goes on to recount how, in an encounter between the lover and the damsel, between the commentator and the text, the two initially converse by means of hints, and afterward – through a curtain, later through a thin veil, until finally the damsel undresses and meets him face to face, without masks.

These stages parallel the different levels on which one can understand the text: the layers of pshat, remez (hint), drasha (homily), aggada (legend) and sod (secret). But after the Eros-laden encounter between text and student, the Zohar adds a highly meaningful detail: Only after the full revelation does the student understand that the “pshat of the verse [is] just like it is. One should not add or delete even a single letter.” In other words, “peeling” away all the layers of dress and reaching the innermost part, the secret, does not lead one to reject the outer, simple, “dressed” layer of the text. He returns to it and continues to meet the damsel through her dress, too, though now he also knows about the additional layers that are concealed beneath. Exegetical dialectic, like romantic courting, is made possible by the form of dressing, which reveals and conceals.

And, in fact, the “dress” of the Zohar itself is like this. The pseudepigraphic decor seemingly blurs the place and the time of the work’s genesis, but in a different way it reveals something deep about its yearnings and its thrust. So too the Zoharic Aramaic language, which both covers and reveals bits and pieces. (There are especially exhilarating, confusing moments in which the Zoharic Aramaic seems to inadvertently bare something of the secret below, and clearly medieval words or figures later than the period of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his friends “slip” into the text as if by mistake.)

If so, it is gladdening and enriching to encounter the Zohar in its new dressing, which reveals many of the work’s secrets. But the experience of perusing and studying from a Zohar translated into fluent English misses something of the book’s captivating language, with its clumsiness and its singular enchantment alike. The reader of the Pritzker Edition thus needs to bear in mind that in order to dress the Zohar in this fancy clothing it was necessary to strip it of its Aramaic attire, an act that allowed it to be more tellingly revealed, but at the same time also covered up part of its radiant glimmer.

These reflections lead to the thought that a parallel Hebrew-language project is needed, which will make the Zohar accessible to Israeli readers, accompanied by the Pritzker Edition footnotes in Hebrew translation. Such an undertaking, which would be a kind of analogue to the Talmud translation and commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, would make the Hebrew reader, and not only the reader of English, a recipient of this important contribution to the bookshelf of the classics. Such an edition would be able to juxtapose the Aramaic Zohar to the Hebrew translation. The bilingual edition will continue to sustain the language of the Zohar in a delicate balance, and allow the student of the work to encounter the lover in her various forms of dress – both revealing and concealing.

The Zohar: Pritzker Edition, translation and commentary by Daniel Matt (12 volumes), Stanford University Press

Omri Shasha is a doctoral student in the Goldstein-Goren Department of Jewish Thought at Ben-Gurion University. His work deals with the connection between narrative and exegesis in the Zoharic stories. For additional information regarding the new edition of the Zohar, see https://www.sup.org/zohar/