Sunday 7 April 2024

468) Possible implications of common themed textual layering within the Zohar

 Part 1


Based on the analysis of divergent concepts and theosophies evident within the Zohar in addition to the discovery of Zoharic texts hitherto unknown it is apparent that within the same topics and genres, a number of variants and diverse textual layers exist. These diverse layers indicate the possibility of not just multiple authorship but an extended timeline over which the Zohar, as we now know it, emerged as ‘comprehensive’ literature. This observation adds a new dimension to the once-binary debate over whether the second-century R. Shimon bar Yochai, or the thirteenth-century R. Moshe de León, authored the Zohar, as there are now numerous other considerations to factor into the discussion. 


This article based extensively on the research by Professor Ronit Meroz[1] deals with the old question of who authored the Zohar, in a new way by examining different textual layers on repeated and common themes within the Zohar. These layers indicate that the Zohar was not produced by one individual but by several authors and editors and over an extended period of time. The time frame, however, still appears to be much closer to the thirteenth century than to the second century.

The classical debate

In general, the classical debate over the authorship of the Zohar revolved around the question of whether there was a single author or multiple authors. 

a) Single-author

For those who held to the single-author model, the question was whether the second-century R. Shimon bar Yochai, or the thirteenth-century R. Moshe de León produced the Zohar. The first view, ascribing the authorship to R. Shimon bar Yochai, was and remains the traditional view although most scholars, including some rabbis, were more inclined to the second view with the attribution of the Zohar to the later Spanish Kabbalist, Moshe de León. 

b) Multiple authors

Meroz (2016:X), while sticking to the multiple authors model, originally held the view that the Zohar was authored by multiple authors during the “relatively short period from the end of the thirteenth century to the beginning of the fourteenth.” This was around the time of Moshe de León (c.1240 – 1305). As a result of her groundbreaking research, however, she now maintains that the period was “more protracted, stretching from the eleventh century to approximately the third decade of the fourteenth.” This widens the window to a period of about three hundred years. 

This change of position might not seem to be very significant but it is. By showing that the Zohar might have been produced over many generations, besides changing the widely held perception that Moshe de León was the single author of the entire work, more importantly, it also questions the extent of his contribution to the Zohar. 

Meroz's hypothesis is also noteworthy because it now seems that there were: 

“probably small and hitherto unknown – centres of kabbalistic creativity, which were engaged in the production and transmission of zoharic texts over a long period. This constitutes a major change in our understanding of the historical development of Kabbalah and indeed of the history of medieval Judaism in general. It points to a new understanding of the nature of the Zohar, which should now be viewed as a reservoir of traditions developed and transmitted by generations of authors, evolving as a work…” (Meroz: 2016:XI). 

It also negates the rather common perception held by many scholars and some rabbis that the Zohar was the result of the fraudulent activity of Moshe de León [see the earlier article Kotzk Blog: 087) MYSTERIES BEHIND THE ORIGINS OF THE ZOHAR:]. 

Either way, the Zohar as we know it, was only published and popularly known for the first time, from around 1290. 

When it comes to core and fundamental mystical and Zoharic concepts, especially theosophy, one would expect a degree of consistency throughout the work. But Meroz brings two examples of a process of revision within the Zoharic texts themselves, where uniformity is not evident: 

Example 1) ‘The Rose and its Scent

Mysticism often speaks of three energies, a thesis and antithesis in a state of tension only to be relieved and reconciled in a third state of rest or synthesis. In one variation on this theme, which Meroz labels as ‘The Rose and its Scent,’ we see that Din (Judgement) is described as the thesis. Then its antithesis, or polar opposite, is depicted as Rachamin (Compassion). These two entities are then synthesised and merged into an equilibrium called Chesed (Mercy).[2] This may be represented diagrammatically as:  

Din (Judgement)…….. Rachamin (Compassion)

Chesed (Mercy)

This formulation seems to have been the original or proto-kabbalistic model of these three energies. 

However, the second and third textual variations on this same theme depict a different model entirely and one which was to emerge as the standard Zoharic model: The thesis remains Din (Judgement), but the antithesis now becomes Chesed (Mercy), followed by the synthesis of Rachamin (Compassion).


Din (Judgement)……..Chesed (Mercy)

Rachamin (Compassion)


Additionally, the second version[3] expands and enriches the narrative elements, which the first version had limited; and the third version[4] changed the language of the teaching from Hebrew to a more ‘original’ and ‘older’ Aramaic (which would have been spoken around the time of R. Shimon bar Yoichai). 

Example 2) ‘Yisrael Sava

The textual unit known as ‘Yisrael Sava’ also appears in three versions.[5] This is a significant unit because it sheds light on the development of the concept of the Sefirot (spiritual spheres). 

The first two (and earlier) versions of this theme seem surprisingly unaware of the theosophical concept of Sefirot (which was later to become so central to Kabbalistic theosophy), and their conceptualisation of the energies within the heavenly realms revolves, not around Sefirot, but around angels and angelology. It is only in the third (and later) version of this textual unit that the angelic beings are substituted by Sefirot. This indicates that the conceptualisation of the ‘spiritual mechanics’ of the heavenly realm comprising Sefirot, was a later development, surpassing and replacing the earlier notion of angelic energies. 

Additionally, the Hebrew sections of the third version are also now translated into Aramaic. This may have been an attempt at ‘ageing’ these teachings to better match the era of R. Shimon bar Yochai, giving them more of a sense of authority. The narrative element is also “expanded to enhance the growing stature of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai” (Meroz 2016:XII). 

Textual variants as support for Meroz

We have touched on just two examples of Meroz’s methodology of identification of disparate units of Zoharic texts all dealing with the same topic. These seem to support the notion that the Zohar was produced by multiple authors (hypothesised to belong to small Kabbalistic circles between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries).  There are dozens of such parallel textual units that display significant variations. As of 2016, Meroz had studied and analysed thirty-two such textual units found in the printed Zohar, including manuscript versions of the Zohar. This opens up a fascinating field of what Meroz calls the “archaeology” of the Zohar. This area of study also involves the: 

“search for hitherto unknown manuscript versions of texts belonging to the corpus, and the identification and comparison of apparently discrete textual units which may turn out to be adaptations of each other or of the same core text” (Meroz 2016:XIII). 

These texts show how variants of the same subject matter began to change as the texts often adapted and adopted new material. Although they were dealing with the same themes, the details and narration differ and they show evidence of: 

“literary enhancements, such as the introduction of framing narratives, stylistic embellishments, or psychological insights designed to flesh out the relations among the Zohar’s protagonists” (Meroz 2016:XI). 


What is most interesting about the study of the textual layering of the Zohar, is that all these ‘elaborations’ and ‘modifications’ found in the corresponding and common themes, seem to support the argument that only a process involving some considerable time could have allowed for such an evolution of these texts. 

It does not seem that Zohar was the work of a single author, nor that it was produced over a short and particular period of Jewish history – neither corresponding to the confined time frames of R. Shimon bar Yochai, nor those of R. Moshe de León. One or two changes to the core notion of the text would not require much time, but “[s]o many changes could only have occurred over a long period” (Meroz 2016:XI).

Note: For the sake of completion, I should just mention that one my mentors, Dr Avi Harel, while agreeing that this methodology of textual comparisons is interesting, brings support from Boaz Huss and Joseph Dan and argues that if there were groups of Zoharic authors extending over a matter of centuries, we would have somehow heard about them. These scholars still tend towards the identification of Moshe de León as the primary author of the Zohar.

[See: B. Huss, B., 2001, 'The Early Dissemination of Sefer ha-Zohar' [Hebrew], in Tarbitz 70, 507-542; and Liebes, Y., כיצד נתחבר ספר הזוהר.  [Hebrew], 1-91].

Further Reading

Rabbi Yakov Emden presented more than 300 arguments in favour of the Zohar being of later provenance than the second century: 

מטפחת_עם_תוספות.pdf ( (Hebrew)

[1] Meroz, R., 2016, ‘The Archaeology of the Zohar Sifra Ditseniʽuta as a Sample Text’, in DAAT: A Journal of Jewish Philosophy & Kabbalah, vol. 82, IX-LXXXV.

[2] Cremona edition of the Zohar (1559), II, col. 9-10

[3] Cremona edition of the Zohar (1559), II, col. 33.

[4] Standard printed edition of the Zohar II, 20a-b.

[5] The first and earliest text is not found in standard editions of the Zohar. The second is found in Zohar II, 4b, and the third is found in Zohar II, 4a.

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