Sunday 12 January 2020


Transcription of a section of the Aleinu Responsum of Rav Hai Gaon which is believed to be a forgery.




There is a bitter controversy over just who authored the primary Kabbalistic work known as the Zohar:

1) According to some, the Zohar was written by R. Shimon bar Yochai, a Tanna (from the Mishnaic period) who passed away in 160 CE. R. Shimon was a student of R. Akiva.

2) According to others, the Zohar was written by the Spanish Kabbalist R. Moshe ben Shem Tov de León (1240-1305), who in their view - falsely claimed to have found R. Shimon bar Yochai’s thousand-year-old manuscripts of the Zohar.

While the first view is the more traditionalist one, most scholars and some rabbis take the second view that the Zohar (or, according to some, parts of it) was a forgery by Moshe de León from around 1280.

This controversy over the authorship and dating of such a pivotal work is no small matter because over one thousand years separate between each extreme view. A thousand years in Jewish history has a huge implication in terms of textual authority.

Two facts, however, are certain:

1) Whoever wrote it and whenever it was written, the Zohar was published for the first time around 1280.

2) Prior to 1280, there are no references to the Zohar during that thousand-year period in any authoritative works; including the Talmud, the writings of the Gaonim and the early Rishonim.


This article is based on the groundbreaking research of Professor Elliot R. Wolfson[1] from whom I have drawn extensively. In the interests of full disclosure, Wolfson believes that Moshe de León was either the author - or part of the editorship circle - of the Zohar.

Our focus here, will be on another allegation of forgery that has been levelled against Moshe de León and that concerns a fascinating Responsum (a Teshuva or written answer to a Halachic query) attributed to Rav Hai Gaon.


Rav Hai Gaon is regarded as the last of the rabbis of the Gaonic period (589-1038). He was the head of the Talmudic Academy of Pumbedita (modern-day Fallujah). He is best known for his Teshuvot or Responsa literature, where his decisions informed much of the Halachic practices which were followed and accepted by the Jewish world. Questions were sent to him from all over the Jewish world, even as far as Ethiopia; and his collection of Responsa numbers around eight hundred.


For some reason - probably because of his widespread Halachic authority - many spurious writings have been attributed to Rav Hai Gaon, especially by later Kabbalists. This was an effective method of retroactively transposing Halachic authority on later mystical teachings.

R. Ezriel Hildeshimer wrote about such Kabbalistic material falsely attributed to Rav Hai Gaon.[2]
These spurious writings include Responsa as well as entire books which have been forged or completely misattributed to earlier authors.[3]


Our interest is specifically in one Responsum in the form of a letter attributed to Rav Hai Gaon endorsing the custom of reciting Aleinu on a daily basis in the prayers. The letter also contained a section which was effectively a Kabbalistic interpretation of, and commentary on the Aleinu prayer.

The mystics were evidently bent on showing a Halachic ‘paper trail’ and authoritative provenance supporting the daily incorporation of Aleinu into the prayers. This was because they held this prayer to be ideologically vital in that it incorporated two important elements: Firstly, it unquestionably distinguished between the spiritual status the Jew and the gentile; and secondly, it expressed a plea for an imminent messianic awakening which would eliminate all evil.

Wolfson describes this letter which he believes was falsely attributed by Moshe de León to Rav Hai Gaon:

“Both parts [of this letter][4], but especially the second, have striking parallels to the ‘Zohar’ as well as to the other writings of de León...

[T]he zoharic style and technical kabbalistic terminology are apparent in the text...

In sum, the letter and commentary on ‘Aleynu’ provides us with an early sample of de León's pseudepigraphical [falsely attributed][5] activity in which he tried to place kabbalistic ideas in the context of halakhic issues.” 

Moshe de León was born 202 years after Rav Hai Gaon passed away and, according to Wolfson, by forging this letter, he was trying to show some prehistory and Halachic authority and provenance for his later mystical teachings.

Wolfson is not the only one to suggest that Moshe de León forged not just the Zohar, but other works as well. Gershom Scholem also maintained that it was Moshe de León who was active in forging a host of other books.[6] In fact, the zoharic style was so evident in these forged works that some even used these as proofs for the antiquity of the Zohar.[7] But Scholem was quick to point out that it was indeed Moshe de León who was often the first to quote from these ‘old’ works which had not been known until then.

According to Professor Neil Danzig, who examined the Rav Hai Gaon Responsa literature, one version of these Responsa collections shows Moshe de León’s second attempt to rewrite the material in his first collection; to which he then proceeded to append the title: “These are the Responsa of R. Hai Gaon.[8]

Furthermore, according to Professor Israel Ta-Shema, parts of 12th-century She’elot uTeshuvot min haShamayim were also ‘contributed to’ by Moshe de León (who was only born in 1240).

R. Yisrael Moshe ben Eliezer Hazan, in his commentary Iyey haYam, also raised some textual and historical issues regarding the Aleinu responsum attributed to Rav Hai Gaon, and “almost concluded that the work was a forgery.”[9]

Aryeh Leib ben Shlomo Gordon, in his commentary Iyun Tefillah published in Otzar haTefilot, claimed that one who examines this Aleinu responsum will realize that “it is not [a work] of R. Hai Gaon but rather one of the great [rabbis] in the generation of Rashi...and was erroneously attributed to R. Hai Gaon.[10]

Regarding this alleged Responsum of Rav Hai Gaon on Aleinu, Wolfson writes:

“[I]t is clear that both traditional and critical scholars have expressed doubt about the authenticity of this text.”

Wolfson, however, is the first to do an in-depth analysis of the text of the Aleinu Responsum, which is extant in six (possibly seven) manuscripts housed in libraries around the world.



The Aleinu Responsum, as mentioned, is composed of two distinct sections. The first is a letter purportedly sent by Rav Hai Gaon to various rabbis and deals with Halachic issues of the Aleinu prayer. The second section is a Kabbalistic commentary on the Aleinu prayer.

Wolfson explains that, based on the consistency of style, it is clear that both sections were written by the same hand.

In the Halachic section, Rav Hai Gaon rules according to the opinion of Rabbeinu Gershom Meor haGolah (960-1028 or 1040):

According to the text, Rabbeinu Gershom held the view that that the practice of reciting the Aleinu prayer was already very old and well established, dating back to very early Talmudic times:

“In truth Joshua composed [Aleynu] was the reform of R. Yohanan ben Zakkai to make it obligatory [to recite Aleynu] every day in order to establish the pillar of faith...”

Accordingly, although the biblical Joshua (around 1 400 BCE) originally composed Aleinu when he entered the Land of Israel, it hadn’t yet been instituted as part of the daily prayer service until R. Yochanan ben Zakkai introduced it (in the 1st -century CE). R. Yochanan ben Zakkai was an early Tanna (Mishnaic sage), and the first to be called by the title ‘Rabbi’. The reason why he instituted Aleinu into was to inspire and encourage faith (lekayem kiyum ha’emuna).

The Responsum claims that this opinion of Rabbeinu Gershom is correct - as opposed to the opinion of R. Alfasi (also known as the Rif) who holds that the reason why we recite Aleinu on a daily basis is because it was a decree of the more recent Gaonic rabbis (takkanat haGaonim).

Accordingly, Rabbeinu Gershom held that the recitation of Aleinu was instituted in the daily prayers from as early as the 1st-century, while R. Alfasi held it was only a more recent institution.

Thus far are the purported views as put forth in the Aleinu Responsum.

Wolfson writes:

“Obviously the conclusion that the custom to recite the Aleynu daily began in the tannaitic period and not in the time of the Geonim strengthened the effort to establish the custom in a community where it was not yet established.”

However, these alleged views of Rabbeinu Gershom and R. Alfasi - as well as the conclusion by Rav Hai Gaon that we rule according to the former, which makes Aleinu a much more ancient custom - are questionable for a number of reasons:

a) Hai Gaon died in 1038 and R. Alfasi was born in 1013. It is unlikely (although not impossible) that the two were able to communicate on technical Halachic matters during that 25 year period as Alfasi was growing up and Rav Hai Gaon was in his declining years.

b) On the other hand, Rabbenu Gershom was indeed a contemporary of Rav Hai Gaon, however, besides this text, there is no other compelling evidence that the two ever communicated.[11]

c) There is no other evidence of either R. Alfasi or Rabbeinu Gershom ever dealing with the matter of Aleinu in any other texts.

d) Wolfson maintains that the literary style of the letter attributed to Rav Hai Gaon is distinctly that of Moshe de León:

One example is the expression ‘to inspire and encourage faith’ (lekayem kiyum ha’emuna) as mentioned above (in the view of Rabbeinu Gershom).

This unusual expression is frequently used by Moshe de León is his other writings and it also parallels (the Aramaic version lekaima kiyuma) as found in the Zohar.


Another anomaly of this document that is also typical of Moshe de León is what Wolfson calls the ‘citation of pseudo-talmudic sources’- or to put it more bluntly - referencing Talmudic sources which do not exist:

The alleged author, Rav Hai Gaon, quotes two passages apparently from the Babylonian Talmud which are not found in the specified tractates or anywhere else in the Talmud either.

One passage is very interesting because it makes use of a phrase that really sounds as if it was lifted directly from the Talmud. In response to the question as to why Moshe did not recite Aleinu while outside of the Land of Israel, is the answer ‘because a person does not give praise to something that has not come into his hands.

Referring to this tendency of Moshe de León to ‘quote’ from non-existent sources, Wolfson writes:

“It is known that in his Hebrew theosophic writings de León was prone to either cite a zoharic passage in the name of classical rabbinic sources or invent things in the name of the rabbis which resemble the Zohar stylistically and thematically, even though the exact parallels cannot be found in the printed versions of that work.”[12]


Many terms, expressions and concepts which are found in what Wolfson calls the ‘pseudo-Hai’ text are paralleled in the Zohar. This ties into the idea that both were authored by the same person.

For example, the novel zoharic notion of sefirot or ‘spiritual gradations’ are referred to in the letter as ‘madreigot’ in Hebrew, and in the Zohar similarly as ‘dargin’ in Aramaic. Although the sefirot are mentioned in the ancient Sefer Yetzirah, the names and definitions of the sefirot were later introduced and elaborated upon in the more recent Zohar.


In the text of the commentary section of the letter attributed to Rav Hai Gaon, is a reference to the distinction between Jews and the nations of the world. The unflattering imagery is that the Jews sit at the ‘table’ while the nations enjoy the scraps as ‘dogs’, sustained by the ‘overflow of the Land of Israel’.

The same mystical imagery is to be found in the Zohar where the nations await “the gift from above like dogs before the table.” [13]


Another reference in the letter is to the words of Aleinu which are said to be very powerful because “in each and every word there is a chariot.” This too is a common theme in Moshe de León’s other writings and a similar idea is also found in the Zohar: “Each and every letter is in a chariot that is appropriate to it.”[14]


The commentary section of the Responsum states very mystically:

“[T]he matter of Aleynu was a tradition from our rabbis, hidden and concealed. When R. Yosiyah ha-Parush came from the Land of Israel and passed among us, he said that Abraham ha-Parush, his relative, found this matter in many books and other matters which we do not have...”[15]

Thus two ascetics are said to have come from the Holy Land, namely Avraham haParush and Yosiyah haParush. Whether or not these personalities actually existed, the title ‘parush’ means ‘saintly’– someone who conducts himself in an extremely disciplined manner usually involving some degree of abstention.

It is interesting to note that descriptive terms and honorifics such as ‘parush’, ‘nazir’ and even ‘chasid’ – even though they existed before – became popular only from the 12th-century.

Wolfson writes that it was only during the 12th-century that:

“...parush designates a member of a well-defined social group which had a vocation for the ascetic and contemplative life, somewhat detached from mundane affairs.”

These ‘parushim’ and ‘chasidim’ were associated with members of esoteric and mystical circles of that time.

Considering that Rav Hai Gaon passed away in 1038, it again is unlikely that during his time such ascetics would have been known by such designations as ‘parushim’. The Chasidei Ashkenaz or German Pietists, as another example of these new mystical movements, only flourished between 1150 and 1250 – also more than a century after Rav Hai Gaon.[16]


According to Zev Farber, Moshe de León apparently also added some text to a genuine Responsum of Rav Hai Gaon:[17]

A questioner asks whether the practices of hand washing and eruvin originated with King Solomon.[18] Rav Hai Gaon confirms that that indeed was the case. They were established by King Solomon.

Then suddenly there is a section thrown in about Aleinu being composed by Joshua. It continues to say that Aleinu was to serve as a ‘tikkun’ or Kabbalistic remedy. Immediately after this insertion about Aleinu, the previous topic about King Solomon is repeated and resumed.

Note how the underlined sections are repetitions of each other to create the impression of one continuous flow.

Farber writes that this was a common technique, often used by a forger who wished to insert a fake text within an original one:

“A better example of a Wiederaufnahme (resumptive repetition) masking a later insertion could hardly be envisioned.”

This highlights, once more, the obsession that Moshe de León had with instituting the daily recitation of Aleinu, and making it appear authoritatively older than it really was.[19] This was because, according to Farber, there were two main themes prevalent in the Aleinu prayer:

“...distinguishing between Israel and its God and the nations and their gods, and the future establishment of God’s kingdom on earth, with all the nations bowing to God’s will.” [20]

This would tie in with the theme of the ‘dogs at the table’ which we saw earlier on.


Wolfson reiterates that what motivated such frequent pseudepigraphic attempts on the part of some mystics, particularly Moshe de León, was the need to substantiate and justify the emergence of the new mystical literature (including the Zohar). This could be achieved by falsely showing some Halachic authority to new ideas making them seem as if they ‘originated’ from a much earlier time:

“At this juncture it appears that one of his [Moshe de León’s][21] main interests was placing kabbalistic ideas within halachic contexts...”

And this Responsum attributed to Rav Hai Gaon is really not even an extreme example of such pseudepigraphy, because:

“What is lacking here is any direct citation from the Zohar in the fictitious guise of an ancient midrash, a common trait of de León...”


Wolfson remains adamant but not dogmatic about his research into the authorship of the letter attributed to Rav Hai Gaon. He writes:

“Other examples could be adduced to support my claim, but I think that what I have already cited is sufficient to prove the point or at least to present a reasonable argument.”


Wolfson concludes with a plea for further study into the literature surrounding the composition of the Zohar:

“The continual study of texts such as the one discussed in this paper, some of which may still be buried in manuscripts, remains a desideratum [i.e., a priority][22], for only such study will help clarify with more accuracy the unresolved problem of the process of literary composition of one of the most intriguing books in the history of Jewish spirituality.”


Amongst the many other forged works of some of the mystics is one which even attempts to show how Rav Hai Gaon was opposed to the rationalist and philosophical writings of Aristotle.[23] 

Opposition to Aristotle was often used as a veiled reference to opposition to Maimonides (who was only born 97 years after Rav Hai Gaon passed away).

This indicates that some mystics were so consumed with creating a prehistory which favoured them at the expense of rationalists like Maimonides who were perceived as a real threat to future Judaism. The mystics, therefore, felt justified in involving themselves in such revisionism because it was for the greater good.

These nefarious pseudepigraphic practices need to be evaluated against the backdrop of the Maimonidean Controversies which plagued the Jewish community for more than a century after Maimonides passed away in 1204. Some would argue it continues to this very day.

Interestingly, the custom to recite Aleinu is not found in the writings of Maimonides. Nor is it found in any contemporary Sefaradic Halachic literature. Furthermore, even as late as the 16th-century, R. Yosef Caro does not mention in his Shulchan Aruch that Aleinu is to be recited at the end of the daily services.

[1] Hai Gaon’s Letter and Commentary on Aleynu: Further Evidence of Moses de Leon’s Psuedepigraphic Activity, by Elliot R. Wolfson, New York University.
[2] E. E. Hildeshimer, “Mystik und Agada im Urteile der Gaonem R. Scherira und R. Hai, pp. 275-276, n. 8.
[3] These include Kol Hashem Ba’Koach, Pitron Chalom and Sefer Refafot. (See: Moses Botarel commentary on the "Sefer Yeẓirah," p. 10a, Grodno, and: Steinschneider, Cat. Bodl. p. 1029; idemHebr. Uebers. p. 893; Harkavy, Studien und Mittheilungen, iii. 14.)
[4] Parenthesis mine.
[5] Parenthesis mine.
[6] These include Orchot Chaim, attributed Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, as well as Sha’arei Teshuva which also contain forged Responsa of Hai Gaon. (See: G. Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (New York 1956) pp. 183, 200.)
[7] See the Introduction to the 1858 Leipzig edition of Sha’arei Teshuva, by David Luria.
[8] Danzig, The Collection of Geonic Responsa, pp. 26-32, 41-48.
[9] Teshuvot haGaonim im haggahot Iyey haYam (Livorno 1869) 20a.
[10] Otzar haTefilot (New York 1966), p. 433.
[11] There is a 13th-century source which Wolfson calls ‘evidently spurious’ that Rabbeinu Gershom received instruction from Hai Gaon. This is included in a Responsa (no. 29) of Shlomo Luria, known as the Maharsal (1510-1574).
[12] For more on Moshe de León’s tendency to forge rabbinic sources, see I. Ta-Shema “Ha-Pores Sukkat Shalom,” pp. 188-189.
[13] Zohar 3:197a. This, interestingly, as Wolfson citing Richard White points out seems to parallel a reference in Mark 7:28.
[14] Zohar 2:132a.
[15] MS Oxford 1565, fol. 4b.
[16] Wolfson does not cite the Chasidei Ashkenaz as a support for this notion. It is my own conjecture.
[17] Sha’arei Teshuva 44.
[18] Eruvin 21b.
[19] Moshe de León was not the first to do this as it seems, based on the siddur of R. Eleazar of Worms, to have been a feature of Chasidei Ashkenaz.

[20] Farber, Images of Joshua in the Bible and Their Reception, p. 379.

[21] Parenthesis mine.6
[22] Parenthesis mine.
[23] Monatsschrift, xi. 37; Grätz,, note 2; Geiger, in Wiss. Zeit. Jüd. Theol. i. 206.


  1. Interesting post as usual.

    It's worth noting that, shocking as it seems to us in an era where rigorous attribution of sources is a prerequisite for serious scholarship, in the Middle Ages it was considered acceptable to attribute a document to a historical figure who it was felt would have approved of its contents. And at least de Leon was not benefiting personally; it was common for monasteries to forge documents awarding themselves lands or powers that they felt were rightly theirs, but for which they had no documentary proof, the Donation of Constantine being the most significant example.

  2. R' Michal, I've been greatly enjoying your blog / essays. It occurs to me that they'd work really well as a podcast (a kind of generalist "topics in Jewish history, philosophy, religion" orientation). Have you ever considered that approach?

  3. Thanks Jordan. No, I haven't thought of that but, it sounds like a good idea. Right now most of my time is consumed with researching what I find to be the most fascinating ideas about a religion I thought I knew.

    1. I understand. It would be an interesting way to disseminate your learning and ideas. Perhaps something for the future! Let me know if you ever want a co-host!

  4. Thanks. Please send your email address to my email: