Sunday 14 April 2024

469) Examining an unpublished manuscript of the Zohar

 Part 2


A hitherto unknown manuscript of the Zohar was found in the Vatican Library. It tells the story of R. Yosi and R Aba going on a journey. R. Yosi reprimands R. Aba for not discussing Torah and keeping silent while travelling. R. Aba responds and eventually convinces R. Yosi that silence is a better path to follow. This would have been no minor matter, because the standard practice amongst the characters represented in the Zohar was indeed to travel and speak Torah words. It offered protection and rectification along the way. R. Aba’s path of silence, however, which was based on the importance of silent  Kavanah (concentration) and the fact that he then initiated R. Yosi into that unconventional path of silent Kavanah was seen as a subversive mystical theology. More importantly, R. Aba’s path of silent Kavanah may have represented a counter and threatening spiritualist movement of Kabbalists who opposed the dominating, standard and relatively conservative mystical school of the Zohar, where practice, words and sounds had to be appended to the Kavanah. These politics of theological subtleties may explain why this short manuscript text never made its way into the printed editions of the Zohar. 


This article based extensively on the research by Professor Ronit Meroz[1] deals with a newly discovered short manuscript text of Zohar found in the Vatican Library, that somehow evaded the printed editions. At the date of Meroz’s article, about six hundred new samples of textual material belonging to the corpus of the Zohar had been identified. This particular text is most fascinating because while at first glance it seems typical and rather benign, it exhibits a theological, if not political subversiveness that may explain why it landed outside of the official Zoharic canon. 

The debate

It seems that two schools of Kabbalists were active at the time of the Zohar: One was the mainstream and conservative school of mystical thought, where Kavanah (mystical intent) had to be accompanied by its physical manifestation and materialisation in the form of words, deeds and mitzvot (commandments). The other school was of a radical spiritualist nature, where the materialisation was somewhat downplayed. These two schools seem to be represented as going head-to-head in this seemingly simple narrative of the manuscript text. 

The debate revolves around the role of Kavanah (concentration, thought and intent) and its relationship to the mitzvot (commandments). The conservative mystics believed in the core importance of Kavanah, but that Kavanah was not an end in itself. It had to be appended to the actual and practical fulfilment of the mitzvot. The more radical spiritual Kabbalists, however, felt that in certain instances Kavanah could be considered a worthy end in itself.[2] 

The early process of copying Zoharic texts

The early process of copying and distributing Zoharic texts involved the dissemination of separate quires, or folded and bound segments of paper: 

“The copiers who handled different types of texts combined and edited them in various ways, each copier on the basis of his own considerations. Moreover, pages were lost or got mixed up, which led to a situation where there are hundreds of Zohar manuscripts, none of them complete, and not two of them identical. It is no wonder, therefore, that in all this confusion there still remain Zohar texts that have never been published” (Meroz 2008:319-20). 

If this was the case, then it seems unnecessary to see subversiveness in our manuscript because it may simply have been one of these many texts that just never got published simply because there were so many of them. But Meroz points out that inherent in this loosely controlled system of dissemination was the ease at which certain challenging texts could have been edited, censored or even eliminated: 

“There is a strong basis for the view that occasionally particular texts were deliberately removed from the Zohar literature due to censorship, probably executed by editors or copyists” (Meroz 2008:320). 

As we shall see, this may have been the case in the manuscript text, ms. Vatican 206. 

How to find Deveikut

Our text is essentially a debate about how spiritual and mystical seekers reach the state of Deveikut (communion with, or clinging to, G-d). Our text arrives at a conclusion that differs drastically from the predominant view on Deveikut as found in the printed Zohar, and this may be why this text was excluded.

The story in the text

I shall summarise the story as succinctly as I can to make it easier to follow. This summary follows in bold italics and is indented. The numbers in square brackets indicate the corresponding lines in the manuscript. Explanations in normal font are then interspersed between these summarised units so that the text reads in its fuller and more likely context. 

The story is essentially about a choice that has to be made in the service of G-d. How does one achieve Deveikut, the communion with G-d? Is it to be a focus on the practical fulfilment of mitzvot, the meticulous pronunciation of specific words, and the constant discussion of Torah or is it more a process of the concentrated mindfulness, experientialism and intent of Kavanah? 

R. Yosi starts by asserting the former, which is the traditional mystical position, with an emphasis on physical deeds and Torah study combined with Kavanah as well, but not to the essential and extreme extent that R. Aba understood the spiritualist role of Kavana. However, ultimately, R. Yosi is completely converted from the mystical approach to the spiritualist approach of R. Aba. The summary of the text follows:

R. Aba and R. Yosi are walking on the way. [1] 

R. Yosi (angrily) asks R. Aba why he was not speaking words of Torah (a practice commonly adopted in the travelling themes of the Zohar).

R. Yosi said that the way was still long and there was much time to discuss Torah. By discussing Torah they would be joined in communion with G-d. [2-5] 

1) Many stories in the Zohar concern travelling themes where the participants walk and discuss lofty ideas. Torah cleanses the air, creates Tikun (rectifications) of reality, and offers protection during the dangerous process of journeying. This common Zoharic view is expressed in one story as: 

אנא ואתון נזיל ונתעסק באורייתא וכל חד יימא מלין דחכמתא לאנהרא אורחא 

“Let each one of us say words of wisdom to illuminate the way” (Zohar I, 6a). 

2) In a second story, R Yosi similarly complained to another rabbi, R. Chiya, and said: 

אמאי את שתיק? הא אורחא לא אתתקן אלא במלי דאורייתא 

Why are you silent? For surely the journey can only be amended by words of Torah” (Zohar II, 36a). 

But no fixing or protection was happening here in our text, because R. Aba remained silent. R. Yosi believed that R. Aba was going against convention and may even be endangering the two of them. 

3) In a third story, R. Yosi was travelling with R. Acha bar Yakov. In this case, it is the narrator who criticises the lack of Torah study which led to a dangerous encounter: 

Rabbi Yosi set off on a journey and R. Acha bar Yakov was walking with him. As they were walking R. Yosi became silent and thought of worldly matters while R. Acha bar Yakov only thought about the words of the Torah” (Zohar II, 17b). 

The narrator tells us that R. Yosi was so distracted by his thoughts that he never saw a snake on the path and it bit him. As for R. Acha bar Yakov, he never even saw the snake. This all happened because both travellers were amiss and did not discuss Torah together on the way. 

Back to our text: R. Aba is aware of all these traditional Zoharic views but he opts for an even more ancient approach where words (and actions) were not so primary to achieve spiritual communion with G-d. In ancient times, this was done in the mind, with Kavanah. 

R. Aba responded that times had changed. In earlier periods the people were proficient in Torah and even women were scholars. [6-7] 

R. Aba goes into an extremely complicated, unusual and elaborate explanation supporting his view of returning to more ancient wisdom. The example he brings is the mystical and spiritual explanation of Yibum. Yibum in the levirate marriage (Levir is Latin for brother-in-law). The biblical Yibum is performed when a man dies childless, and his widow marries his surviving brother, to perpetuate the memory of the deceased brother. But according to the Zohar, it is far more than just perpetuating the memory and name of the brother. Instead, the brother comes ‘alive again’ or is reincarnated into the child born of the new union between the widowed wife and the surviving brother. 

In this sense, the Zohar goes so far as to Kabbalistically explain that the widow, in her new marriage to the brother,  becomes the אתתיה אמיה, or ‘wife-mother’ of her late husband who gets born again from the second union. 

His [the deceased brother’s] wife became his mother and his brother became his father” (Zohar III, 100b): 

Before we get too lost in this complicated Zoharic explanation, for our purposes of trying to understand this text as simply as possible, the important thing is the following: The great wonder of bringing down a soul, and in the case of Yibum, bringing down the departed soul again, is only possible through Kavanah, a conscious and mindful awareness of what one is trying to achieve. This is why the brother who marries the widow is called, הַגֹּאֵ֤ל, the redeemer (see Ruth 4:1) because he ‘redeems’ his deceased brother in more ways than one and not just to restore the family name. In the Zoharic depiction, the brother is brought back to life again. 

The bottom line is that it is not the deed nor legal technicalities of the Yibum that automatically restore the late husband’s soul – it is Kavanah. Without Kavana in the process of Yibum, one has no control over which soul is brought down. 

The deed and action are of course necessary, but Kavanah is what gives it transcendence and personal, individual meaning. 

R. Aba explains the reason for his choice of silence, by expounding on the biblical requirement for Yibum. 

The deeper (Zoharic) meaning of the Yibum (learned from the story of Ruth and Naomi)  is that when a child is eventually produced by the widow marrying her brother-in-law, that child is a reincarnation of her first husband who died. The husband essentially comes alive again in the form of the child. And the widowed wife becomes his “wife-mother.” In the case of Ruth, the child produced by the Yibum with Boaz, was called Oved. [8-11] 

In this formulation, the name Oved or עובד, is connected to עבד, which means “to do.” It is the Kavanah that ‘does’ or ‘affects’ the correct manifestation, not the deed, act, or even the mitzva. 

The play on the name Oved continues because, Naomi’s sons, Mahlon and Chilion, themselves had no sons (and therefore incurred 'punishment'). If not for the option of Yibum their souls would have descended to the lowest place in Hell, called Avadon (=Oved), a place so deep that there can be no redemption.[3] 

From this episode, we learn that the Yibum restores the soul of the deceased first husband. And now, what had been lost (i.e., the soul of the first husband) has been found and restored through the Yibum. [12-15] 

R. Aba continues: The deep and hidden lesson of the Yibum (known even to women in biblical times) is, however, not known even in this generation of R. Shimon bar Yochai, and even by men. This wisdom will now certainly be lost to future generations as well. [6-18] 

After hearing this explanation of Yibum (where Kavanah, intent – not just the physical act of Yibum) is the essential mechanism to cause the soul to be reincarnated, R Yosi said “Happy is the portion of Israel for they have the holy Torah to understand higher secrets.”  [23-24] 

These are 'standard' Zoharic views

Interestingly enough, these very intricate interpretations and formulations were not the invention or imagination of R. Aba. They are quite ‘standard’ for the Zohar

a) For example, consider the following Zoharic extract. Bold font emphasises the key role Kavanah, described as heart, will and thought have in the mystical process: 

“The wife of the dead man shall not be married outside [the family] but her husband’s brother shall go in to her” (Deuteronomy 25:5). And here thought and will must be applied, because through thought and will the necessary deeds are affected, and the consequences obtained and the dead man’s name shall not perish in the world. The mystery of this is seen in “If he sets his heart upon him he will gather to him his spirit and his soul” ( Job 34:14). For, to be sure, will and thought have consequences and [they, therefore][4] perform deeds in whichever area is necessary” (Zohar III, 1402–3). 

b) Another Zoharic source proclaims:

כל מלין דעלמא אזלין בתר מחשבה והרהורא

“All the matters of this world depend on thought and contemplation (=Kavanah)” (Zohar I, 155a). 

Kavanah is thus conceptualised, not only in our unpublished text but even in the standard edition of the Zohar, as being a prime mover, more important than deeds. Kavanah trumps deeds. Our text is, therefore, not so outrageous to suggest that silent Kavanah trumps the reciting of Torah on a journey. 

R. Yosi is able to accept these 'standard' views

What this means is that R. Aba’s views in our text, are not all that untraditional. This may be why R. Yosi is comfortable to buy into R. Aba’s position on the primary role of Kavanah over word and deed. At this point, R. Yosi accepts the argument of R. Aba and is no longer angry at him for not discussing Torah, because he now knows that silent Kavanah is a superior mode of spiritual service and surpasses mystical service where deeds dominate. 

R. Yosi was glad to agree with R. Aba: R. Yosi said: “Surely the matter is so.” [23] 

R. Aba continued: And if this is true (that Kavanah can cause the soul to be reborn among humans as in Yibum) then how much more so (does Kavanah help) to draw man close to G-d. This shows the power and importance of Kavanah (even over deeds and mitzvot). 

R. Aba continued: And the same applies to those who “perform an act from Sabbath to Sabbath” (i.e., sexual relations), they concentrate their heart and will [in a way] that they shall draw towards themselves that which they wish. 

Kavana draws down souls but is also the root of every form of Deveikut

Again, in the case not only of Yibum, but also in normal childbirth, our text emphasises that Kavanah, not the act, is what draws down the type of soul the parents want for their child. 

This is the meaning of the verse: “But you who did cleave unto the Lord your G-d are alive every one of you this day” [Deut. 4:14], because only by cleaving (Deveikim=Deveikut) through thought, intent and Kavanah, does life (in the form of a child, or, in our context, even a relationship with G-d) ensure. 

This shows that the Kavanah is the essential tool to draw down souls and how much more so to cleave to G-d in general. 

It is not the acts, nor the words, that are required but Kavanah. [25-26] 


Meroz suggest that this text may have been censored and therefore remained in manuscript form and was never published. The text seems to have been ‘objectionable’ for a number of reasons. 

Firstly, it condemns the generation of R. Shimon bar Yochai as an inferior generation that no longer understands the importance of Kavanah. It is insulting in that it depicts the men of that generation as not understanding the importance of Kavanah, which was something that even ordinary women understood in the story of Ruth. 

Secondly, even though Zoharic precedent has been found for similar ideas on the primary importance of Kavanah, as we have seen, it still remained a point of contention at the time this manuscript was produced. This could only have been for political reasons and, seemingly, there were two competing schools of thought the conservative mystic Kabbalists and the radical spiritual Kabbalists. 

There was a perceived threat from the spiritual Kabbalists who may have been interpreted as undermining the practical and Halachic importance of performing mitzvot. By focusing too much on Kavanah (with all the justification and textual precedents in the mystical world), it threatened the more conservative and traditional approach where performance, deed, oral recitation, and verbal study had to be centre-stage. The radical spiritual Kabbalists were promoting Kavanah, while the traditional Kabbalists were promoting word and deed: 

“Our story revives the debate that was current in the first half of the thirteenth century between the kabbalists and the spiritualists. The former were conservative, holding fast to the established prayer rites and the vocal expression of the words of the prayers; the latter were innovators who had been influenced by similar trends outside Judaism (especially that of Ibn Sina), and preferred a silent ‘service of the heart’” (Meroz 2008:333). 

Our text not only represents the radical view of R. Aba who remained silent on the journey because the focus had to be primarily on Kavanah but it shows how R. Yosi was influenced by, and succumbed to, his views. The threat from the spiritual Kabbalists with their ‘Path of Silence,’ was growing and gaining momentum. Therefore, it seems that the more traditional and conservative Kabbalists (or editors) made sure this manuscript text was never mainstreamed.

Note: Meroz uses this manuscript to support the thesis that the Zohar was produced by multiple authors (and Kabbalistic schools) between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries. Yehuda Liebes takes this position too.

On the other hand, scholars like Joseph Dan, Boaz Huss, Avi Harel and others follow the single author model and ascribe authorship of the Zohar to the thirteenth century R. Moshe de Leon. 

[1] Meroz, R., 2008, ‘The Path of Silence: An Unknown Story from a Zohar Manuscript’, European Journal of Jewish Studies, 319-342. 

[2] I use the words “in some instances” because had they suggested the rejection of the commandments that would have clearly put them out of the pale of normative Judaism.

[3] Zohar Chadash, Midrash haNehelam, Ki Tetse, 59, col. a.

[4] Square brackets are mine.

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