What do scholars say about the Zohar?

Many rabbis, even those who do not claim to be mystics, are convinced that the Zohar is a holy book and quote from it in their sermons. They think that the Zohar was composed by Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai around the year 130 CE. However, scholars recognize that Moses d’ Leon, a Spaniard living in Granada, wrote it around 1286, that parts of the book were added by others after his death, and that the work is a pious forgery.

Zohar means “luminous” and alludes to the notion that God illuminates people through mysticism. But while ostensibly dealing with enlightenment, the Zohar is usually very difficult to understand and many of its ideas are not rational.

The Zohar’s basic teaching is the doctrine of the Sefirot, “numbers,” ten divine entities each of which functions in different ways. The lowest entity is shekhinah, also called malkhut, which the Zohar sees as the anthropomorphic feminine part of God that interacts with humans.

The Zohar contends that the ten parts of God are not combined together and that humans have a duty to help God become one with all the ten disjointed parts reassembled, like putting Humpty Dumpty together again. When this is done, the messianic age will arrive. The Zohar insists that the divine disassociated parts, each working separately, is not a parable, but an actuality. They say that God is incapable of assembling the ten parts and needs help from men who can do so by sympathetic magic, doing acts of combining parts on earth that cause a similar joining in heaven.

Scholars have assembled a host of proofs showing that the Zohar was not an ancient document. The following are some of hundreds of proofs.

  1. The famous mystic Rabbi Jacob Emden (born 1697) recorded 280 contradictions, anachronisms and incorrect statements and concluded that the book is a forgery of the thirteenth-century with some later additions.
  2. A renowned person visited Moses d’ Leon to see the ancient documents that d’ Leon claimed he used to copy the Zohar. Moses d’ Leon kept putting him off and later asserted that the documents had strangely disappeared. After his death, d’ Leon’s wife admitted that the documents never existed.
  3. The ideas in the Zohar are a later development of earlier mystical notions, showing that they were composed after these earlier works, and not in 130, as d’ Leon claimed.
  4. The rabbis knew nothing about the Zohar until d’ Leon introduced it.
  5. Moses d’ Leon had no sense of history; he describes the alleged second century author conversing with people that lived long after his death.
  6. The Zohar author knew of the existence of vowels and accent marks used in the Torah books and gave them mystical interpretations. However, these items were not invented until the ninth century, seven centuries after the alleged composition date.
  7. The terms “master of dikduk [grammar]” and “tenuah gedola” (long vowel) are used in the Zohar even though they were not coined until the tenth and eleventh centuries, respectively.
  8. The author inserted terms from Jewish philosophy of the Middle Ages.
  9. The book contains ideas copied from the eleventh-century Kuzari of Yehudah Halevi.
  10. The author introduces Maimonides’ twelfth-century concept about physics.
  11. The volume mentions putting on two pairs of tefillin, a practice that arose in the twelfth century.
  12. The Zohar discusses the Kol Nidre prayer of Yom Kippur, a ceremony that began in the eleventh century.
  13. The language of the Zohar is later than its alleged date of composition.
  14. There are many incorrect quotations from the Bible and the Talmud. The latter did not exist in 130.
  15. Prophecies in the volume inform the reader that the Zohar will be revealed around 1300 C.E., a blatant attempt to justify its late appearance.
  16. There are parallel passages between the Zohar and other books that were indisputably composed by Moses d’ Leon, including mistakes in the original books that d’ Leon copied into his Zohar.
  17. There is no mention in the Talmud or Midrashim that the alleged author of the Zohar, Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai, was interested in mysticism. Thus, d’ Leon took the wrong hero for his work.

In summary, the Zohar is the most prominent book of Jewish mysticism and is considered holy by many people. It contains the majority of the most important notions of modern Jewish mysticism. However, scholars maintain that the book is not what it claims to be, its ideas are at best obscure and incomprehensible, its concept of God is curious and polytheistic, it gives people wrong ideas about Judaism, and it encourages a passivity that stifles people from intellectual and emotional growth.

About the Author
Dr. Israel Drazin served for 31 years in the US military and attained the rank of brigadier general. He is an attorney and a rabbi, with master’s degrees in both psychology and Hebrew literature and a PhD in Judaic studies. As a lawyer, he developed the legal strategy that saved the military chaplaincy when its constitutionality was attacked in court, and he received the Legion of Merit for his service. Dr. Drazin is the author of more than 50 books on the Bible, philosophy, and other subjects.