Sunday 20 December 2020



Sefer haZohar

Moreh Nevuchim


Almost every single version of the various narratives about Avraham contain the well-known moral lesson that he rejected the idolatrous and occultist practices of his birth culture and pioneered a new monotheistic path.

In this article, however, based extensively on the research of Professor Oded Yisraeli[1], we will explore a very different narrative of the same story. This narrative is from the Zohar which, according to Yisraeli, puts forward the view that:

[N]ot only did Abraham not separate himself from these practices but he himself was responsible for them[!]

Before we look at what the Zohar says in greater detail, let us first turn to the mainstream view as exemplified in the writings of Maimonides (or Rambam, 1135-1204):


According to Rambam:

It is well known that Abraham…was brought up in the religious community of the Sabians…[2]

The Sabians were a cult of Haranites who practised an ancient form of hermetic[3] religion which included idolatry, magic and occultism. Yisraeli explains that the Sabians were often identified as the “inhabitants of the East” who lived in Charan.[4]

The commentator, R. David Kimchi (1160–1235) interprets ‘‘the land of the East’’ (Gen 25.6) as referring to ‘‘Charan and Ur of the Chaldeans’’. This was where Avraham sent his sons from his concubines.

Rambam continues:

We have already made it clear in our…Mishneh Torah, that Abraham…began to refute these opinions…[5]

Rambam thus presents the common view that Avraham rejected the idolatrous practices of his father’s household and identifies those practices as being of Sabian origin.

Let us now turn to a very different view as expressed by the Zohar:


The Zohar states:

Rabbi Abba said: One day I happened upon a certain town formerly inhabited by inhabitants of the East, and they told me some of the wisdom they knew from ancient days. They had found their books of wisdom, and brought me one, in which was written: As one’s aspiration is directed in this world, so he draws upon himself a spirit from above, corresponding to the aspiration to which he cleaves. If his aspiration focuses on a supernal entity, he draws that entity from above to himself below. If he aspires to cleave to the other side, focusing there, then he draws that from above to himself below…

They said the essence of the matter depends on words, action, and the aspiration to cleave, whereby the side to which one cleaves is drawn from above to below.

I found in it all the ritual acts of star-worship, Requisites, and how to focus the will upon them, drawing them down . . .

I said to them: My sons, this is close to words of Torah, but you should shun these books, so that your heart will not stray after these rites, toward all those sides mentioned here, lest—Heaven forbid—you stray from the rite of the blessed Holy One. For all these books deceive human beings, since the inhabitants of the East were wise—having inherited a legacy of wisdom from Abraham, who bestowed it upon the sons of the concubines, as it written: to the sons of the concubines Abraham gave gifts, while he was still alive, and he sent them away from his son Isaac eastward, to the land of the East. Afterward they were drawn by that wisdom in various directions.

Not so with the seed of Isaac and the share of Jacob, for it is written: Abraham gave all that he had to Isaac[, the][6] holy heritage of faith to which Abraham cleaved…

So a person should be drawn to the blessed Holy One, cleaving to him.[7]

According to the Zohar, Avraham did not reject the idolatrous mysticism of his birth culture in the sense that he rejected something he just happened to find or inherit, but he was indeed responsible for “bestowing it upon the sons of the concubines”. However, he kept the purer and more noble mystical traditions for his people who descended from his son Yitzchak.

Yisraeli then cuts straight to the chase. He maintains that the Zohar emphasised[8] this idea that Avraham was responsible for bequeathing a mystical and magical tradition to the “inhabitants of the East” as part of a very real and concerted historic and ideological strategy:

If the books of the Easterners were in fact Sabean, the zoharic author’s attitude toward them reflects one of the prominent religious controversies of the time.


The timing of the emergence of the Zohar in around 1290 and the rise of modern Kabbalistic thought in southern France and Spain (see previous post) in the early  13th century, followed very close in the wake of the passing of Rambam in 1204. Many are of the opinion that the dramatic rise of 13th century mysticism was orchestrated to serve as a counterweight to the recent threat of stark and raw Maimonidean rationalism. This theological tension led to the great Maimonidean Controversies and conflicts which shook the Jewish world particularly in the century after Rambam’s demise, and continue to reverberate to this day despite the fact that the mystical tradition became dominant.

[To get an idea of the depths of these controversies, see: Between Provence and Barcelona, The Politics Behind the Piety, Displacing Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, The South Will Rise Again?, and How Rashi was Used as ‘Leverage’ During the Maimonidean Controversies.]

Rambam was outspoken in his condemnation of superstitious and magical practices. He even developed the idea that many commandments of the Torah were put in place specifically to counter these occultist beliefs, customs and practices.

Rambam writes in no uncertain terms:

            I . . . say that the meaning of many of the laws became clear to me and their causes became known to me through my study of the doctrines, opinions, practices…of the Sabians.[9]

The Sabians are selected and discredited as representing everything that Avraham and Torah stood for, and tried to eradicate:

You know how widespread were in those days the opinions of the Sabeans: all men, except a few individuals, were idolaters, that is to say, they believed in spirits, in man’s power to direct the influences of the heavenly bodies, and in the effect of talismans.[10]

Rambam believes that it was within this hermetic and occultist context that Judaism arose, essentially, in order to counter it.

But, as Yisraeli points out, the Zohar took a different and more “complex” stance on the matter:

The Zohar’s complex attitude toward the hermetic book of the ‘‘Easterners’’ must thus be understood as a response to Maimonides’s critical position and an alternative to his absolute rejection of such esoteric teachings.

The Zohar, and the other emerging Kabbalistic traditions, now offered a mystical alternative to Rambam’s stark rejection of magic and theurgy as the antithesis of Torah. The mystics came up with a complicated solution somewhere between partial acceptance and outright rejection of hermetic and magical principles.

As we saw in the Zohar above, “ritual acts of star-worship” are somehow considered “close to words of Torah” although they are to be shunned lest we “stray after these rites”.


The Zohar walked a fine line by connecting Avraham, not just to but as a source for, the occultist practices of the “inhabitants of the East”.  He was responsible for teaching the ‘‘sons of the concubines” those practices and beliefs in the first instance. Of course, he made a distinction between his sons and only gave the more refined version of mysticism to Yitzchak – but this does not detract from the idea that he also gave the occultist practices to Easterners or Sabians.

This ‘comprehensive’ if not ‘conflicting’ theology opened the way for the inclusion of some radical mystical practices and ideology within the bourgeoning Jewish mystical movement. While claiming to reject idolatry outright, this mysticism broke with Rambam’s definition of a Judaism that completely rejected theurgical practices and beliefs no matter how they were sanitised or presented.

Yisraeli suggests that this is why the Zohar rejected some of more traditional views that Jewish mysticism was given at Sinai, and claimed it was given to Adam.[11] By adopting this approach, the Zohar could show that there was a universal aspect to Kabbalah and cover itself for the instances where there appeared to be some overlap with other mystical traditions.

According to Yisraeli:

The affinities between the world of the Zohar and foreign—and even idolatrous—worlds around it appear to have troubled its authors, and they sought a fitting response. These are the circumstances, it seems, that form the background to the emergence of the zoharic traditions according to which the Kabbalah originated with Adam.

[This][12]…helped the zoharic authors explain the close affinities between their own views and ideas in the non-Jewish world around them…

This framework provides both a concrete explanation of the dissemination of kabbalisticlike concepts in foreign garb and a pagan environment and acknowledges the universal birthright of the Jewish kabbalists who, according to this narrative, alone received the ‘‘holy heritage of faith’’ from Abraham as Isaac’s descendants…

Receiving the kabbalistic doctrine from Adam, Abraham was thus the teacher and patriarch who held this ancient universalistic teaching, dividing it between his sons by giving the lesser versions to non-Jewish ‘‘Abrahamic’’ streams and the pure and clean version of historical Jewish Kabbalah to Isaac.


This way, the Zohar was able to join the anti-Maimonidean camp and offer an alternative theology to that where magic had no place in Judaism. Now it did have a place because these teaching were indeed given to all humanity through Adam. And later Avraham disseminated the more radical aspects of these belief systems amongst the “inhabitants of the East”. While, as the Zohar says, these magical systems and “ritual acts of star worship” were “close to words of Torah”- although to be shunned - the ‘purer’ forms of mysticism were handed down to Yitzchak.


By emphasising that the origin of these “Eastern” magical ideas originated with Avraham, it opened the door for some of these mystical concepts to be reflected in a ‘holy’ form within the emerging Jewish mystical movement. This new radical mysticism served as a counterweight to the equally radical rationalism of Rambam who emphatically denied the permissibility of any such magical or theurgical notions within a monotheistic Judaism. [See The ‘Lost Religion’ of Maimonides.]

Rambam tried to stem the tide of belief in the supernatural and magic while the Zohar came and opened the floodgates by permitting a partial form of supernatural belief.

This fantastic divergence of opinion offers us a cross-sectional view into the theological tensions which went on to shape and define much of post-13th-century Jewish thinking, Hashkafa and worldview.


If Yisraeli is correct in his reasoning that the Zohar needed to find a way to permit aspects of mysticism that were practiced in the “East”, one might add one more point to his argument:

In the same Rambam quoted above (Moreh Nevuchim III:29), Rambam writes that after Avraham rejected the occultism of the Sabians, their religion eventually vanished and most of the civilised world followed Avraham’s lead in one way or another by rejecting idolatry:

[W]e see today, in the consensus of the greater part of the population of the earth [that they acknowledge and glorify Avraham for rejecting the Sabians][13]…so that even those who do not belong to his progeny pretend to descend from him.

No one is antagonistic to him or ignorant of his greatness except the remnants of this [Sabian] religious community that has perished, remnants that survive in the extremities of the earth, as for instance the infidels among the Turks in the extreme North...

You should know from the texts of the Torah...that the first intention of the Law as a whole is to put an end to idolatry, to wipe out its traces and all that is bound up with it, even its memory...and to warn us against doing anything at all similar to their works and, all the more, against repeating the latter. It is explicitly stated in the text of the Torah that everything that was regarded by them as worship of their gods and as a way of coming near to them, is hateful and odious to God.

It strikes one as rather astounding, then, that later in history - after most of mankind rejected Sabian idolatry on Rambam’s view - some of the real progeny of Avraham would try to find a way to somehow incorporate and revive aspects of this eradicated mysticism by regarding it as “close to words of Torah” although essentially forbidden except for certain aspects which were transmitted to Yitzchak and finally manifesting in the mystical writings of the 13th century.

Such was the nature of the ferocity of the Maimonidean Controversies.

[1] Jewish Medieval Traditions concerning the Origins of the Kabbalah, by Oded Yisraeli. The reader is urged to see the previous post as this article is a continuation of the same theme.

[2] Guide of the Perplexed, trans. S. Pines (Chicago, 1963), 3:29.

[3] The term ‘hermetic’ is derived from Hermes Trismegistus, a legendary author of magical, astrological and alchemical works. It was said he created a magical seal to keep vessels airtight. In our context, the term is used to refer to the practices of the occult.

[4] See Gen. 29:1 and 25:6 as well as 28:10.

[5] Guide of the Perplexed, trans. S. Pines (Chicago, 1963), 3:29.

[6] Parenthesis mine.

[7] Zohar, I, 99b–100b, Pritzker ed.

[8] The Zohar had an earlier rabbinic basis for this idea that Avraham gave the mysteries of “the unhallowed arts’’ to the sons of the concubines. The Gemara speaks about the “gifts” which Avraham gave to the sons of the concubines:

What gifts [did he give them]? — R. Jeremiah b. Abba said: This teaches that he imparted to them [the secrets of] the unhallowed arts. (bSan. 91a)

Yisraeli acknowledges this Gemara as a possible support for this zoharic idea, but while he believes it influenced the Zohar, he insists that:

[W]e must also address the issue of its concrete historical context.

According to Yisraeli, the Zohar was referring specifically to the Sabian hermetic literature of the Haranites which Rambam regarded as the antithesis to Judaism.

[9] Guide of the Perplexed, trans. S. Pines (Chicago, 1963), 3:29.

[10] Guide 1:63.

[11] As we saw in the previous post, there were three early and contemporaneous views which the kabbalists used to explain the origins of Jewish mysticism at the time of the emergence of the Zohar in 1290:

1) The first (and probably the earliest) position claims that Kabbalah was given to the Children of Israel at Sinai as part of the Revelation and Oral Tradition. [R. Ezra of Gerona and Ramban.]

2) The second approach claims that Kabbalah stemmed from an original revelation of mysticism by the prophet Eliyahu haNavi to the Ra’avad’s father, beginning only around the 12th century and then held exclusively within the first Kabbalistic groups particularly in Provence and the later in Gerona. [R. Menachem Recanati.]

3) The third school maintains that Kabbalah was revealed to the first man, Adam, and hence has not just Jewish but universal relevance and significance. [R. Moshe de León and the Zohar.]

[12] Parenthesis mine.

[13] Parentheses mine.

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