Was the Zohar ever a book?

Daniel Abrams, “The Invention of the Zohar as a Book” Kabbalah 19 (2009) 7-142

I just finished a very long (135 pages) rambling article by Daniel Abrams with many topics and looks to be the core of a forthcoming book. The article is a seminal one for Abram’s approach and the vast literature review of the field that it contains will make it required reading in the field.

The Zohar was neither written, nor edited, nor distributed as a book by the various figures who produced the various literary units which were later known by the name Zohar. (10)

The Zohar is not a Book – Nor does it have an author (105)

I have tried to express my theoretical discomfort, indeed a perceived dissonance, concerning published methodologies for evaluating the literary quality and forms of the texts known by the name Zohar. (127)

No satisfactory evidence has yet been offered in the relevant scholarship proving that the zoharic writings were intentionally composed, edited, or copied as a book. Not only can ‘the’ Book of the Zohar not be restored to its full form, but there was no single original moment that is recoverable amidst the disparate writings and unstable text(s). (142)

Abrams claims the  idea of the Zohar as a preexisting book was created in the 16th century by the printers- before that point there were only various unconnected manuscripts of esotericism. The production of the Zohar as ideas, texts, and isolated units, has little to do with consumption of the product as a book. He notes that books of esotericism had continuous reworkings.  Then in  the 16th century there arose the idea of a single book, The Zohar.

He spends much of the article reviewing statements of what this work is, from the 13th century to the 16th century printers to 20th century  and then all 20th and 21st century academic studies on what they thought about the nature of the Zohar as a book and whether they imagined that there was such an original lost book to be recovered

Abrams rejects Scholem’s theory of a single author and he rejects Yehuda Liebes’ theory of circle of Zohar authors- hug haZohar. The Zohar contains variety of styles and diverse literature, hence Abrams is sympathetic to Moshe Idel’s reclamation of the theory of Moses Gaster, who considered the work a collection of diverse sources.

He accepts parts of Ronit Meroz’s articles that claim that the texts of the Zohar originated between the  11-14th centuries. But he demurs from her suggestion that there are 14th century imitators of the Zohar’s style Abrams asks: Who says there was ever a fixed thing called the Zohar to imitate?And form criticism does not work if you do not know that the text existed as we have it in these earlier centuries.

With a bit of overkill, he cites Walter Benjamin that in an age of reproduction the book is different than in the era of production. (He does not know Stephen Greenblatt on how a printed book can have ever more aura). He uses Foucault’s “What is an Author” mentioning that author is a constructed idea. But he does not mention that in the middle ages philosophy was authorless while science had an author. Now, in the modern era, we treat science as authorless and give philosophy an author. Abrams does not state why he should think esotericsm should be different than philosophy. He might have been between off citing the shelf of books on authorship in medieval literature- Foucualt may not be proving his point. He has a nice use of Brian Stock on textual communities that have an interplay of textuality and orality.

Abrams suggests that the field needs to go back to manuscripts and first edoitions, and especially colophons  – every text must be treated in its context of production of the manuscript.

He notes:  Danny Matt is creating a synthetic text that does not correspond to any text out there.  Meroz is creating a synoptic edition but that already assumes a whole to be recreated or an original text to retrieve Abrams compares the Zohar to Rabbinic works. Zohar is like the tannaic collections that existed before the Bavli was edited.

He is glad to substantiate Meroz’s finding that some of the texts of the Zohar were originally circulating in Hebrew and then later editors translated them into Aramaic because they thought they were returning the text to its original language of Rashbi which was lost.

He is perturbed by the new book on the Zohar by Melila Heller-Eshed. There is no proof for a hevraya around the Rashbi nor is there any proof that the texts joined as the Zohar have anything in common in the original formation. Abrams is against the literary and thematic studies produced by the students of Yehudah Liebes. (I have a forthcoming review of Melila Heller-Eshed’s book)

Finally Abrams notes the phenomena of hyper-animation of the text where there is an assumed personal authorship. He notes that this started in the 16th century with the poem to Bar Yohai and continues with Liebes’ poem to Rashbi and the invocationof the spirit of Rashbi By Heller-Eshed. He asks rhetorically why doesn’t anyone ask for the spirit of the author of Sefer Yetzirah to descend on them?

9 responses to “Was the Zohar ever a book?

  1. Based upon your summary there are two issues here.

    One is the history of the text and ideas of the book that we now call The Zohar. The other is the philosophical and hermeneutic implications.

    Wouldn’t just a straightforward history of the Ideas and Texts of the Zohar be far more useful and helpful to scholarship without an explanation of what it all means?

    • I find your post unclear. What are you proposing? and how it is it different than the other options?
      Did you thinks Abrams was explaining what it means?
      What are the philosophic and hermeneutic issues?

  2. The Foucault, Benjamin, Stock quotes seem to be unnecessary.

    If Abrams is correct, he could just lay out his historic, manuscript and textual proofs and overturn existing theories of how the “book” of the Zohar came to be.

    He could then set the agenda for the next decade, which would be microstudies of pieces of Kabbalah that ended up in the 16th century book known as the Zohar.

  3. he could just lay out his historic, manuscript and textual proofs.

    There are not enough proofs and one of his points is that the research into the proofs has yet to start.
    Little has been done on the textual level.
    His first line of argument is – who said it had an author? Do books have authors
    The Gaster approach is Idel, Abrams is trying to be more careful and avoid conclusions until we start the textual work.

  4. Do books have authors. Well, erphas i am bieng simpeminded here, but Maimonides wrote the Guidd of the Perplexed, Judah Halevi wrote the kKuzari, Ramban wrote Torat ha-Adam, etc, etc., etc.,etc. Am I missing something here?

  5. LK – yes you are missing something here.
    firstly, the assumption that since a collection of text has been printed and bound that it was composed to be presented thusly. simply because we now have a printed edition of THE ZOHAR does not mean that “it” (whatever “it” is) was produced as such.
    Abrams is bringing out an important differentiation between production and consumption.

  6. This article is revealing on a few fronts. It shows the continuous bias of a scholarly community which still denies the aboriginal version of a tradition taken from a non-European context.
    According to Abraham Azoulay, a foremost contextual Zohar specialist, the Zohar was kept in the Dra valley in Morocco.
    The Zohar tradition in the Moroccan context has a whole inner definition which transcends the boundaries of theological research done in the 19th Century German style by Scholem, Green, and their disciples. Because of the immense bond between Moroccan identity and the Zohar, such a study should go into anthropological considerations, without which even the outer layer of meanings would be lacking.

    The article also makes me wonder whether what we are seeing here is a continuous act of appropriation through commentary overload, done by ‘scholars’ bent on killing the spirit of a people through the outdated European dissection of their living traditions. I think anthropologists would have at least the decency to sit and listen. The Zohar tells the story of the Moroccan Jews by showing how they viewed the universe, God, and the human journey in this world. It is a specific perspective which became the mirror of an entire community for centuries, revealing their spiritual identity and their own sense of values. The roots of the language found in the Zohar then surely go as far back as the community which carries it. That community’s history goes from biblical times all the way to the Phoenician Aramaic speaking Empire of Carthages, and through the Mishnaic, Christian Unitarian, Gaonic, Talmudic, Andalusian, and post Andalousian periods. It is obviously why the Zohar shows the same itinerary. In the case of the Hindu Vedas, noone questions the antiquity of the tradition, and accepts it has gleaned and grown from each successive generation. But in the case of the Zohar, it seems that the Israeli academic approach wants to avoid the original Moroccan context at all cost. Scholem fought hard to establish that the Zohar was written in Spain, trying to pull it by the hair into a European context with links to French Provence schools, and Gnosticism, as if Spain was not part of the Maghreb in the Andalous days.
    Nowhere do Scholem or his students seriously address the Islamic perspective of influence from North Africa to Europe, in the fields of cosmology and theology, how it became the background of the Crusades, which kick-started the integration by Europe of North African and Oriental cultural elements. The German 19th Century method of investigation, espoused by the Scholem school is typical in its cynical attitude toward the aboriginal versions of the traditions they study. The typical superiority complex of old Europe toward the ‘uncivilised’ is almost transparent in their discourse which gives no consideration whatsoever to origin stories told by the Moroccans about their own Moroccan mystical heritage, celebrated and living until today. The Zohar continued to be ‘lived’ in Morocco long after pages from it were printed and being pondered.

    • It is famous that Scholem did not not know Arabic or About Jews under Islam.
      Many of the points you make are also found in Gil Anidjar, Our Place in al-Andalus including the Azulai perspective.
      For those who need it, the Azulai piece is translated in Haim Zafrani, TWO THOUSAND YEARS OF JEWISH LIFE IN MOROCCO
      And for Moshe Idel’s perspective on Morocco, see

      Click to access MosheIidel.pdf

      Jake, Where in Morocco do you live?

      • I do not see the use of bringing up Morocco as an origin of the Zohar when you have enough literary parallels in 13th century Spain to break the back of a camel.

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