Sunday 13 August 2023

441) Could the Zohar Chadash have engaged in a contemporary polemic with Chassidei Ashkenaz?


This article, based extensively on the research by Dr Jonatan Benarroch,[1] explores the question of whether Zohar, could possibly have engaged in a polemic, or religious debate, with the Chassidei Ashkenaz (the German Pietists of the Rhineland). The problem is that the Zohar is traditionally believed to have been authored by R. Shimon bar Yochai, a second-century Tanna, or Mishnaic rabbi while Chassidei Ashkenaz was a twelfth and thirteenth-century mystical movement in Germany. This places the Zohar a thousand years before the advent of Chassidei Askenaz. 

However, there is much debate in both traditional rabbinic, as well as academic sources, over the age of the Zohar.[2] Not all rabbis believe the Zohar was written by R. Shimon bar Yochai during the second century. Whichever position one chooses to adopt, the fact is that the earliest version of the Zohar was only first produced around 1290. This creates a fascinating dynamic because now the emergence of the Zohar (however old it is) first occurs at around the same time as the emergence of Chassidei Ashkenaz. Both emerged simultaneously around the thirteenth century. 

Against this background, Benarroch suggests the possibility of an unlikely polemic stemming from a mystical and literary cultural divide between the Spanish Zohar and the German Pietists of Chassidei Ashkenaz. The alleged polemic revolves around three famous words that are appended to the Shema prayer. 

The 245 words of the Shema become 248

The Shema is projected by the mystics as the prayer that can heal the body. The problem is that the Shema contains only 245 words. To link 245 to 248 which is the said number of limbs in the human body which better fits the mystical notion that the recitation of the Shema can heal requires the addition of three extra words. 

In the mystical tradition of German Ashkenaz, the custom was to add the three words E-l Melech Ne’eman (G-d, faithful king) at the beginning of the Shema. However, in the mystical traditions of Zoharic Spain, the custom was to add, either Ani haShem Elokeichem (I am haShem, your God) or haShem Elokeichem Emet (Hashem, your God, truth) after the Shema. Either way, these extra three words brought the total from 245 to 248 (=Ramach) words in the Shema corresponding to the number of limbs in the body. 

Let us now turn to the actual text in the Zohar to see how this apparent polemic is said to play out: 

The Shema in the text of the Zohar

The figure of the Yanuka (a wonderchild) features in the Zohar as inextricably connected to the genre known as “Secrets of the Shema.  The following extract is from the Zohar Chadash Midrash Rut (77b–78a). It is interesting to note that, as Benarroch (2013:233) points out, while R. Shimon bar Yochai is the “central protagonist” in most Zoharic literature, R. Bun is the main figure in the Zohar Chadash Midrash Rut where the polemic is suggested to have taken place. 

R. Bun and the Yanuka meet by coincidence and then decide to go on a journey together: 

Rabbi Bun set out one day on the path and encountered a Yanuka. He [the Yanuka][3] said to him, “Rabbi, should I accompany you on your way and serve before you on this journey?” He replied, “Come.” He [the Yanuka] went behind him.   

Off the two go on their journey with the Yanuka trailing behind. Then they happen to encounter two other rabbis, R. Chiya and R. Yehuda: 

While travelling, he [R. Bun] happened upon Rabbi Hiyya son of Abba and Rabbi Yehudah son of Rabbi Yose. They said to him, “You’re by yourself, with no one goading behind you.” He answered, “There is a child following me.” Rabbi Hiyya [not yet seeing the Yanuka who was trailing behind] said, “You’ve invited harm to yourself, as you have no one with whom to engage in words of Torah!” They sat down in a field under a tree. 

All three are now sitting under the tree, as the Yanuka had not yet caught up. After R. Chiyah had rebuked R. Bun for travelling ‘alone,’ the other rabbi, R. Yehuda begins to speak, quoting R. Nehorai (who is not present): 

Rabbi Yehudah opened, saying: “It shall be healing to your body [and strength to your bones. [Proverbs 3:8] 

The Torah is medicinal for a person—body and bones—in this world and in the world that is coming, as Rabbi Nehemiah taught in the name of Rabbi Nehorai: 

What is a daily tonic for people in this world? Recital of the Shema according to its requirements. Rabbi Nehorai said further: The recital of Shema contains 248 words corresponding to 248 limbs in a person’s body. One who recites Shema as required—each and every one of his limbs takes a word for itself, and is healed by it. This is the meaning of “healing to your body, and strength to your bones”! [Proverbs 3:8] 

R. Yehuda thus quoted R. Nehorai who taught that the 248 words in the Shema correspond to the 248 limbs in a human body and serve as a means of healing the body. But we know that the Shema only has 245 words! At that moment the Yanuka catches up with the group and enters the conversation: 

Meanwhile, the Yanuka arrived, wearied from the journey, and he sat before them. He heard these teachings and rose to his feet, saying, “But in the Shema, there are only 245 words!” Rabbi Hiyya replied: “Sit down, my son, sit.” He sat down. He [Rabbi Hiyya] continued, “My son, have you heard something about this?” He [the Yanuka] said to him, “This is what I have learned from my father. In the Shema there are 245 words, three words short of the number of limbs in a person’s body. How is this resolved? The rabbis established that the prayer leader should repeat three words. What are they? ‘I am YHVH, your God’ [or, according to another version, ‘YHVH, your God, true’].”[4] 

This way, the Yanuka taught the rabbis something he had heard from his father, about the addition of three extra words either Ani haShem Elokeichem or Hashem Elokeichem Emet (depending on the version of the text) making up a total of 248 words that correctly correspond to the perceived number of limbs in a human being. 

The apparent polemic with Chassidei Ashkenaz

Leaving aside, the issue of a ‘gap’ of about a thousand years between the Tannaic (Mishnaic) rabbis mentioned in these texts of the Zohar, and the rabbis of Chassidei Ashkenaz (depending on how one chooses to date the Zohar, which as mentioned only first appeared around 1290, the same time as Chassidei Ashkenaz flourished) there seems to be mystical argument or polemic around the ‘correct’ three words to use to complete the number 248. 

Chassidei Ashkenaz had dealt with the very same issue of the Shema falling three words short of 248 and had suggested its own version of adding the extra words of E-l Melech Ne’eman (G-d, faithful king) to the beginning of the Shema. 

From a Halachic point of view, the Catalan (Spanish) rabbi, Nachmanides (Ramban 1194-1270), known as the father of Jewish mysticism, had argued against the inclusion of  E-l Melech Ne’eman as suggested by the German mystical group of Chassidei Ashkenaz. He objected to extra words added to the beginning of the Shema as he maintained they interfered with the preceding blessings of the Shema. Ramban had passed away just twenty years before the Zohar was first published. Is it possible that the Zohar was defending the position of Ramban? Of course, if the Zohar was indeed written in the second century then this question would be anachronistic. 

Still, there are indications that some form of mystical polemic was taking place, because, as Israel Ta-Shma[5] points out, the addition of haShem Elokeichem Emet at the end of the Shema (over E-l Melech Ne’eman of Chassidei Askenaz, at the beginning) was a “Zoharic innovation.”[6] The Zohar clearly favoured the insertions of the extra three words at the end of the Shema, over the Chassidei Askenaz who favoured the insertion at the beginning. 

Secondly, there is a veiled reference in the Zohar to some unnamed group of “early pious ones” (which may, or may not, reflect the polemic between the Zohar and Chassidei Askenaz, the German Pietists): 

In the meantime, Rabbi Yehudah son of Rabbi Pinhas came and sat among them. He said to them, “What topic are you discussing?” They said to him, “The words of the Shema, and here is what this Yanuka said….” He replied, “Certainly so!” And thus said Rabbi Yohanan son of Nuri in the name of Rabbi Yose son of Durmaskit, citing Rabbi Akiva: “Early pious ones established the recital of Shema to correspond to the Ten Commandments, as well as to the number of limbs in a person’s body.” 

Essentially, this extract from the Zohar mentions that an anonymous group of “early pious ones” were the first to connect the Shema with the notion of 245/8 words corresponding to the limbs of a person. 

Ta-Shma even suggests that Chassidei Ashkenaz specifically inserted E-l Melech Ne’eman at the beginning of the Shema in defiance of the restriction imposed by Ramban. 

It is also significant that R. Moshe de León (1240-1305), whom some credit as being the main author, or at least publisher, of the Zohar around 1290, was similarly against the tradition of Chassidei Ashkenaz who recited E-l Melech Ne’eman at the beginning of the Shema. Moshe de León writes in his Maskiot Kesef, that the insertion of E-l Melech Ne’eman is a ‘mistaken tradition.’ 


There has always been rivalry amongst the various groups of mystics, with each claiming some basis in a more authoritative mystical tradition. While a polemic over when to insert three Hebrew words all giving praise to the same Jewish G-d, may seem like a trivial matter, it takes on a different dimension when viewed within the context of the times. The Shema was a central, if not the central Jewish prayer acting as the keystone of the prayer services. By controlling the narrative and determining when and where to allow extraneous additions to the most important authorised section of the liturgy, it showed dominance and authority. If there was a polemic between the Spanish Zoharic mystics and the German mystics of Chassidei Ashkenaz, then a debate over where to insert these innovations into the Shema would be the most appropriate and powerful backdrop to that polemic. 

The Zohar, perhaps showing support for the view of the insertions of either Ani haShem Elokeichem or haShem Elokeichem Emet at the end of the Shema, concludes its stories about the Yanuka by stating that the Sages ‘kissed the Yanuka’ for contributing his innovations to the Shema. This imagery again enhances the authority of the Spanish Zoharists. 

It must be pointed out that the section of the Zohar we are dealing with is from the Zohar Chadash which is often regarded as a later stratum of Zoharic literature. Nevertheless, it still frames its discussions as having taken place during second-century Tannaic (Mishnaic) times.

The burning question is: Was this an independent contribution of the Yanuka made in the second century or was it a loaded and tendentious reference by Spanish mystics opposing the customs of their Ashkenazi counterparts a thousand years later? 

[1] Benarroch. M., 2013, ‘“The Mystery of Unity”: Poetic and Mystical aspects of a unique Zoharic Shema Mystery’, AJS Review 37:2, 231–256.

[3] Square brackets are mine. Translation is by Benarroch.

[4] Texts from fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Spain indicate that the custom was to recite “Ani haShem Elokeichem.”

[5] Ta-Shma, I.M., 1969, ‘El melekh ne’eman: gilgulo shel minhag (Terumah le-heker ha-Zohar)’, Tarbiz, 39,184–194; and also Ta-Shma, I.M., 1970, ‘Tikkunim ve-hosafot le-ma’amar “El melekh ne’eman”’, Tarbiz, 40, 105-6.

[6] See Kaf haChaim on the Shulchan Aruch 61:10:

י) [סעיף ג'] בק"ש יש רמ"ה תיבות וכדי להשלים רמ"ח כנגד איבריו של אדם מסיים ש"ץ ה' אלהיכם אמת וחוזר ואומר וכו'  ומי שאינו נוהג כן אין ראוי להכריחו שיחזור רא"ם ח"א סי' א' כנה"ג בהגב"י, מ"א סק"א. אמנם בזוהר חדש במדרש רות דצ"ה ע"א החמיר מאד בזה שכתב וז"ל וכל האומר ק"ש שלא עם הצבור אינו משלים איבריו מפני שחסר השלשה תיבות שש"ץ חוזר מאי תקנתיה יכוין בט"ו ווי"ן לאמת ויציב. ועם כל דא היה קורא עליו אבא מעוות לא יוכל לתקן וכו' עכ"ל

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