Sunday 3 July 2016



Who wrote the great kabbalistic work known as the Zohar?[1]

The short simple answer is: it was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai[2], who lived during the 2nd century.

According to many, he wrote down the Zohar which had hitherto been an oral tradition dating back to the biblical period. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai thus redacted the Zohar at about the same time as Rabbi Yehudah haNasi redacted the Mishna.[3]

But there are many Torah scholars who take a different view.


The problem is that the first sections of the Zohar only emerged in Spain as late as the 1200’s.[4]

This is significant because it was about 1000 years after Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. There is also no reference to the Zohar in Talmudic or other writings during this interim period.[5]

At the heart of the debate is Rabbi Moshe de León (1240-1305) who first publicised the book. The controversy hinges around whether he revealed an ancient document or wrote the book himself.
Rabbi Moshe de León himself claimed he had published the Zohar as written by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai some 1000 years before, based on the ancient and original manuscript.


In 1305 the kabbalist Rabbi Yitzchak of Akko[6] fled persecution in the Holy Land and settled in Spain. On arrival on Spanish soil he heard that Rabbi Moshe de León had recently discovered and published a mystical book called the Zohar. Intrigued by this, and not having heard of the Zohar while previously in Israel, he met with Rabbi Moshe de León, who took an oath that he had in his possession the original copy of the Zohar as written by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. He offered to show the original manuscript to Rabbi Yitzchak but unfortunately passed away before he was able to return to his home in Avila, where the alleged document was apparently hidden.

The story then takes on an even more bizarre twist.

Now, more intrigued than ever, Rabbi Yitzchak of Akko located a certain Rabbi David Rafan, who revealed to him that Rabbi Moshe de León’s widow and children admitted that the work was not copied from an ancient document but authored by de León himself:

Shadal:  Vikuah Al Chachmat HaKabbalah

“A story tells that after the death of Moshe de Leon, a rich man of Avila...offered Moses’ widow (who had been left without any means of supporting herself) a large sum of money for the original from which her husband had made the copy. She confessed that her husband himself was the author of the work. She had asked him several times, she said, why he had chosen to credit his own teachings to another, and he always answered that doctrines put into the mouth of the miracle-working Shiman bar Yochai would be a rich source of profit.”[7]

According to Shadal’s version; “All the money that Rabbi Moshe de León made from the false document was squandered during his lifetime and his wife and children were left with nothing.”[8]

If this is true, it may explain the motive behind the testimony of de León’s widow and children.[9]

Accordingly, at this point in the saga, Rabbi Yitzchak of Akko had received two conflicting versions of the events: 
- One from Rabbi de León himself who claimed the original was concealed at home. 
- And the other from a family associate who claimed the widow and children admitted it was a fake. 

There appears to be further controversy as to which version of the events Rabbi Yitzchak of Akko considered to be truthful.[10]


Two hundred years later, in 1504, a major historical work known as Sefer HaYuchsin was written by the great Jewish chronicler Rabbi Avraham Zacuto[11]. One of the documented events in the chronicle was the controversy surrounding the authorship of the then celebrated Zohar. 

Rabbi Zacuto recorded the story of Rabbi Yitzchak of Akko as outlined above, and it appeared in the first edition of Sefer HaYuchsin some sixty years later, in 1566. 

However this section was censored from all subsequent printings for the next 300 years, until it was restored in the 1857 edition. Some believe this censoring out of the difficulties raised by Rabbi Yitzchak of Akko for as long as three centuries, helped cement the assumed authority of the Zohar.

Either way, when this blatant censorship was revealed, it only added fuel to the fire of intrigue and uncertainty, surrounding the issue of authorship of the Zohar.


Adding an extra dimension to the narrative, there is a view that Ramban obtained the original manuscript of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and sent it by ship from Israel to Catalonia which was closer to the centre of mysticism at that time. Somehow, due to the ship diverting, the document found its way to Rabbi Moshe de León.[12]


There is another theory to why Rabbi Moshe de León may have authored the Zohar. In 1264 de León commissioned a Hebrew copy of Rambam’s Guide for the Perplexed. The copy was specially written for ‘the scholar Rabbi Moshe de León’.[13]  With time he became increasingly wary of the growing influence of Rambam and his rationalism, especially among the Spanish wealthy class. On one occasion he apparently accused the rationalists of laughing at and mocking the hakafah (or circling) ceremony on Sukkot. 

According to this theory, Rabbi Moshe de León began to write a mystical Midrash to counter the developing rationalist trend.


According to Rabbi Delmedigo[14], the Zohar could not have been written by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai because it is not mentioned in the Talmud, while other non-Talmudic writings were. 

This criticism is particularly relevant to the Zohar which explains the hidden meanings behind the commandments. So a work which dealt with the very material the Talmud was debating and explained the divine nature of the commandments, would most certainly have been referenced by the Talmud. He also points out that the Zohar contains names of Rabbis who lived after Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.[15]

RABBI YOSEF KARO (1488- 1575):

Although primarily a legal writer, having authored the code of the Shulchan Aruch, Rabbi Yosef Karo did occasionally lean towards kabbalistic rulings.[16] Both he as well as Rabbi Moshe Isserless who wrote glosses to the Shulchan Aruch, believed strongly in the authenticity of the Zohar.

These are significant views as our legal rulings today are taken primarily from the Shulchan Aruch which supersedes all other halachic writings, even those of Rambam.

Needless to say that the avowed mystics throughout the ages all considered the Zohar to have been written by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. The Chassidic Rebbe Pinchas of Koretz is known to have said; “The Zohar has kept me Jewish.” 


In 1639, the Italian Rabbi Modena wrote in his Ari Nohem that the Zohar was not written by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and that ‘it was not than 350 years old’.[17] He did, however acknowledge the inspirational element to the work. Apparently Rabbi Modena was afraid to publish his Ari Nohem and it was only printed 200 years later in 1840.


Rabbi Yaakov Emden was outspoken in his view on the Zohar and considered parts of it to be outright forgeries. He wrote a book, Mitpachat Sefarim which was directed against the followers of the false messiah Shabetai Zvi who used the Zohar to justify their messianic claims.  See here.

Rabbi Emden is rather scathing in his criticism of the Zohar saying that it misquotes the Torah, misunderstands the Talmud, mentions the Muslims (who only came centuries after Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai), and writes about practices that were only introduced much later. 

He pointed out that there were 280 additions to the Zohar and that the books Raaya Mehemna and Tikkunim were absolute forgeries. He also mentions that the Zohar refers to a synagogue by the Portuguese designation ‘esnoga’, and references Nikud (vocalization) and Trop (cantilation) which are much latter innovations.

Rabbi Emden wrote that it took him forty years of suppressing these ideas before he mustered up the courage to write them.

CHASSAM SOFER (1762-1839):

Although he does not say so directly, The Chassam Sofer references Rabbi Emden’s Mitpachas Sefarim mentioned above, in a responsum; “.. .The book Mitpachas Sefarim is available in your neighbourhood...and you will find in it a great thing, which will amaze everyone who reads it...enough said!”[18]

This way he states his view on the Zohar, seemingly in support of Rabbi Emden, in an indirect manner avoiding harsh criticisms that most certainly would have been levelled against him had he been more direct.


While both the Alter Rebbe and the Vilna Gaon were at spiritual loggerheads with each other, they both accepted the authenticity of the Zohar which was absolutely intrinsic to both their very different systems of theology.


The original Yemenites were great rationalists and very anti mysticism because they believed it led to superstitious practices. The based their teaching on Rambam and are considered themselves to be Talmidei haRambam (students of Rambam). Some still survive to this day. They too, particularly under Rabbi Yichya Kapach regarded the Zohar to be a forgery. See here.


Some modern day authorities declare those who do not accept the authenticity of the Zohar to be heretical. However both Rabbi Dessler[19] (1892-1953) and Rabbi Nadel[20] (1923-2004) maintain that it is perfectly acceptable to take the view that the Zohar was not written by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and that its authorship may have been of a later date.

It is recorded that someone approached Rabbi Aryeh Carmel[21] and asked whether there was an obligation be believe Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai wrote the Zohar.  

Rabbi Carmel said; “My Rebbe (who was Rabbi Dessler) accepted the possibility that the Zohar was written sometime in the 13th century.”


Rabbi Kasher, author of the encyclopaedic work on the Torah known as Torah Shleimah, wrote a defence of the Zohar. He mentions that Rabbi Yitzchak of Akko was sent by Ramban to investigate the Zohar and cites a document that attests, with witnesses, that Rabbi Yitzchak physically saw the original manuscript of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Rabbi Kasher also points out that Rabbi Moshe de León could not have written the Zohar because its writing style is very different from his other writings. He further points out that there are only a few cases of non-chronological events which could quite conceivably have been additions during the Geonic period (500-1038).[22]


Rabbi Nachman was a fervent follower of the Zohar. He wrote; “Learning Zohar is capable of bringing good favour (mesugal). By learning Zohar, desire is generated for all other types of study of the holy Torah.”[23]


The controversy over who wrote the Zohar is not easy to resolve. At the end of the day it is probably a matter of emotion rather than fact that will sway us one way or the other.

- Those with mystical leanings, who today would probably make up the majority of the Torah world (including non-Chassidim), would go with the view that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai wrote the Zohar about 1800 years ago.

- And those who take a different position would go with the view that it may only have been written about 800 years ago by Rabbi Moshe de León.

Both views have significant bodies of support from within the Torah world.

Whatever side one takes, one thing is certain – there is an astonishing array of vastly divergent views regarding a text considered so primary by so many.

[1] The Zohar falls under the category rabbinic literature known as Midrash. It is not just one book but comprises many books, some only a few pages long (such as the Sifra DiTzniuta or Hidden Book which has three pages).
[2] Also known as ‘Rashbi’. He was a student of Rabbi Akiva.
[4] According to the diary of Rabbi Yitzchak of Akko, the Zohar was first distributed only in small portions. When the first complete text of the Zohar was printed in Italy in the 16th century, it was printed from numerous smaller manuscripts.
[5] See Bechinat HaDa’at by Rabbi Eliyahu Delmegido (1458-1493).

It must be pointed out that this article is dealing specifically with the Zohar. There were, however, other mystical texts that were in usage from the earliest of times.

Take Sefer Yetzirah for example; “The Sefer Yetzirah is without question the oldest and most mysterious of all Kabbalistic texts. The first commentaries on this book were written in the 10th century, and the text itself is quoted as early as the sixth. References to the work appear in the first century, while traditions regarding its use attest to its existence even in Biblical times. So ancient is this book that its origins are no longer accessable to historians. We are totally dependent on traditions with regard to its authorship.” (From Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s introduction to Sefer Yetzirah.)

[6] Rabbi Yitzchak ben Shemuel d’min Akko. He may have been a student of Ramban (who had moved to the Holy Land) who also had mystical leanings.
[7] Jacobs, Joseph; Broydé, Isaac. “Zohar”. Jewish Encyclopedia. It appears as if this section is a paraphrase of Shadal (Shmuel David Luzzato, 1800-1865) in his Vikuach al Chachmat haKabbalah. It should be pointed out that some would consider Shadal to be a controversial reference source. Rabbi Gil Student says (See Shadal and the Orthodox Canon); "The traditional yeshiva student will have no need for Shadal. However, the sophisticated reader will find many worthy interpretations in Shadal’s commentary."  Either way, the same series of events is recorded in the original version of Sefer haYuchsin, which is the (only?) primary source for this version of the story, and seems to have been quoted by all who deal with it, including Rabbi Yaakov Emden.
[8] Vikuach al Chachmat haKabbalah, quoting Rabbi Yitzchak of Akko as written in Sefer HaYuchsin and recorded in Mitpachat Sefarim of Rabbi Yaakov Emden.
[9] There is another version of the story which states that Yosef of Avila, a wealthy tax collecter, had offered his son to de León’s widow for her impoverished daughter to wed provided that the family would transfer the original manuscript of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai to them.

·        [10]Some say he did indeed accept the testimony of the widow and children that it was a forgery.
·        Others say he disregarded the testimony of the widow and daughter, and opted instead to believe the testimony, under oath, of a student of the de León, Yosef ben Todros (of the Abulafia family), who swore it was not a forgery.
·        Others say that he believed the Hebrew sections of the Zohar were forgeries while the Aramaic sections were from Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.

[11] Rabbi Zacuto of Tunisia wrote this work which dealt with the history of the Jewish People during the first 1500 year period - from creation to the end of the period of the Rishonim.
[12] Shem HaGedolim (A biographical dictionary by Chida, Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai, 1724-1806) Seforim 8
[13] MS no. 771 catalogued in Guezenberg collection, presently in Moscow. See Israel Zinberg, A History of Jewish Literature.
[14]See Bechinat HaDa’at, Vienna 1833.
·        [15] This may not be such a crucial issue, as perhaps sections of the Zohar were added a later stages while the majority of the work could have still been penned by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.
·        Also, some assert that writing about the future in a mystical work is appropriate as this can be achieved through ruach hakodesh (a spirit of prophesy).
·        Shadal writes in his Vikuach al Chachmat haKabbalah; “The Zohar was written with spiritual (Mohammed) the prophet of the Ishmaelites and the two pairs of tefillin (Rashi and Rabbenu Tam).”  
·        It is of further interest to note that the Mishna, also of the second century, was written in Hebrew, while the Zohar is in Aramaic.
·        Others maintain that the reason why it is not mentioned in the Talmud was because it remained a secret document at that time.
[16] Rabbi Yosef Karo’ s colleague, the famous kabbalist Rabbi Cordovero, said that while in Salonica Rabbi Karo was instructed by a maggid – an angelic teacher who taught him the ways of mysticism.
[17] Yaakov H Dweck, The critique of Kabbalah in Leon Modena’s Ari Nohem.
[18] Shu’’t Chassam Sofer, vol. 6, siman 59
[19] The mashgiach ruchani (spiritual counsellor) of Ponevezh Yeshivah.
[20] A leading student of the Chazon Ish.
[21] Rabbi Carmel was Rosh Kollel at Gateshead in the 1940’s and then went on to serve as mashgiach ruchani at Ponovezh Yeshivah.
[22] See Sinai 2012-06-06
[23] Sichot HaRan 108


The following is extracted from the writings of R. David Bar-Hayim of Machon Shilo:

"...the Talmud, like all extant Hazalic literature, has come down to us by a long but clearly traceable chain of tradition
The Oral Tradition was known and studied by Jews from that time down to the present day, as opposed to the Zohar which was unknown until it suddenly made its appearance in 13 th century Spain. 

We know with great precision who the Hakhamim of the Mishna and Talmud were, where they lived, from whom they received the Oral Tradition, etc. This cannot be said of the Zohar.

To point to certain great rabbis of the past who believed the Zohar to have been authored by R. Shimon ben Yohai or his disciples and claim that therefore it must be so is simply no argument at all. 

A man, even a very sagacious man, can be mistaken. Hazal were misinformed regarding certain aspects of the physical world due to the poor state of scientific knowledge in their day; this fact in no way detracts from their greatness or authority.

R. Ya'aqov Emden was not alone. R. Moshe Sopher, the famous Hatham Sopher, was of the same view. In the fascinating book Me M'nuhoth p. 43b a close disciple of the Hatham Sopher, R. Eliezer Lipman Neisatz, quotes his teacher as saying "before many of his students that were it possible to identify the authentic statements in the midrashim of Rashbi, as opposed to the material which was added over the generations by various Hakhamim, it would be a very small book indeed, and would come to no more than a few pages. " "

See: Truth, Authenticity, Tradition and Reason: Who Wrote the Zohar? Written by Rav Bar-Hayim Sunday, 26 February 2012 


  1. On what basis did the VG accept the Zohar? Why?

  2. No mention of the Arizal. The Arizal wrote a book explaining the Zohar called eitz chaim.
    In the uncensored version of sefer yuchsin both students of Moses de Leon swore it was found by him in the name of the Rashbi.
    Rav Isaac of acco also swore it was authored by Rashbi in otzros Chaim.
    Komarno or karlin have a tradition that the tikuney Zohar was compiled via malbush - channeling.
    Rav Isaac Yitzchok chover a student of Rav Menachem mendel of shklov a student of the Vilna Gaon wrote a whole book defending it called magen vetzena and kadmus hazohar.
    The ikar part of the Zohar according to all is the idra Raba and zuta. The rest is more midrashic. As r.aryeh Kaplan stated, the Zohar is a commentary of the eser sefiros on the parsha.

  3. It is interesting to note, though, that the authority of so much of primary mystical literature is based on oaths and 'assurances' - more so than other areas of Torah literature.

    We see the same thing with the suggestion that Rambam was a secret mystic and that towards the end of his life, he wrote that he recanted all the anti-mystical sentiment he expressed. This alleged document was also sworn to have been seen and to be extant.

    Of course, none of this excludes the possibility that Rashbi wrote the Zohar a thousand years earlier, it's just that the basis of that possibility is not as concrete as that of most of the other areas of rabbinical literature where we do not have to resort to matters of oaths and channeling.

  4. I think the Zohar was a pious forgery. Although this does not distract from the significance of the book.

  5. Superb blog! Have a look here as well:

    “And all those who know the ins and outs of the holy Zohar, that is, who understand what is written in it, unanimously agree that the holy Zohar was written by the divine Tanna Rabbi Shim’on son of Yoḥai. Only some of those who are far from this wisdom doubt this pedigree and tend to say, relying on fabricated tales of opponents of this wisdom, that its author was the kabbalist Rabbi Moshe de León, or others of his contemporaries.

    And as for me, since the day I have been endowed, by the light of the blessed Holy One, with a glance into this holy book, it has not crossed my mind to question its origin, for the simple reason that the content of the book brings to my heart the merit of the Tanna Rabbi Shim’on son of Yoḥai far more than all other sages. And if I were to clearly see that its author is some other name, such as Rabbi Moshe de León, then I would praise the merit of Rabbi Moshe de León more than all other sages, including Rabbi Shim’on son of Yoḥai.

    Indeed, judging by the depth of the wisdom in the book, if I were to clearly find that its writer is one of the forty-eight prophets, I would consider it much more acceptable than to relate it to one of the sages. Moreover, if I were to find that Moses himself received it from the blessed Holy One Himself on Mount Sinai, then my mind would really be at peace, for such a composition is worthy of him. Hence, since I have been blessed with compiling a sufficient interpretation that enables every examiner to acquire some understanding of what is written in the book, I think I am completely excused from further toil in that examination, for any person who is knowledgeable in Zohar will now settle for no less than the Tanna Rabbi Shim’on son of Yoḥai as its author” (Ba’al ha-Sullam, Rabbi Yehudah Ashlag, Haqdamah le-Sefer ha-Zohar, 59–60).

  6. Excellent article.
    You say "Rabbi Yaakov Emden was outspoken in his view on the Zohar and considered it an outright forgery. "

    I prefer the earlier wording you used below.

    Rabbi Emden believed that many sections of the mystical work known as the Zohar were forgeries and therefore not authoritative[5]
    למרות דבריו של הגאון יעב"ץ, שקבל את הזוהר בכללותו אבל הוכיח שחלקים
    גדולים מהספר אינם עתיקי יומין ועאכו"כ שאינם מדברי רשב"י,

    1. Thank you Gershon. Good detective work. I have amended the text to read "considered parts of it" instead if "considered it."