The Zohar: Pritzker Edition, Vol. 1
translated by Daniel C. Matt
Stanford University Press, 584 pages, $49.95.

DANIEL MATT’S LANDMARK translation of the Zohar from the original tongues into English is a tour de force of scholarship and linguistic imagination”in the service of heaven. It is also the necessary step to bring into plain view a text whose meanings have been hidden even from those equipped to sound out the words.

Sefer ha-Zohar- variously known as the Zohar , the Book of Radiance , or the Book of Splendor -is the central text of Jewish Kabbalah. Written by Moses de Leon (1250-1305), a Castilian Jew and member of a circle of Spanish kabbalists, the manuscript appeared and circulated piecemeal over the last two decades of the thirteenth century. When Ferdinand and Isabella expelled all unconverted Jews from their reconquered Spain in 1492, the kabbalists carried the Zohar with them to refuges in North Africa, Turkey, Babylon, and Palestine.

The Zohar is an enigmatic text. Moses de Leon wrote his book in a literary Aramaic that was never spoken in any part of Arabic or Roman Spain, which he mixed with biblical Hebrew. The text is a commentary on the Five Books of Moses, but the commentary is not intended to lay bare the meaning of the text, as does, say, the French medieval rabbinic commentary by Rashi. Rather, it records an oral tradition of the inner meanings (the “Divine Chariot”) of the Torah taught by Moses to the elders in the wilderness and transmitted through Joshua and the judges to the prophets and down to the sages of the great assembly.

The last generation of the sages was martyred by the Romans in the middle of the second century in the suppression of the Bar Kokhba rebellion. Faced with the prospective annihilation of the oral tradition, Rabbi Yehuda ha-Nasi compiled and edited the Talmud so that the evolved wisdom of Israel would be preserved. All is not settled in the Talmud, which teaches method as well as matter, and its unfinished business provides topics and models for discussion to this day.

Nor did all the sages of the great assembly perish like Rabbi Akiba, flayed alive with the Shema (“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one”) on his lips. Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai and his son Rabbi Elazar concealed themselves for ten years in a cave. After they emerged, a circle of companions dedicated to discussion of the Torah formed around them. The Zohar is Moses de Leon’s record of their commentary, or midrash.

By the middle of the thirteenth century, this other oral tradition was in danger. The teaching handed down from Rabbi Shimon and his company of scholars to the kabbalists of Castile, Andalusia, and Catalonia (along with a library of mystical texts that are known only because the Zohar alludes to them) was now caught between the struggles of Latin Catholicism and Arabic Islam.

One century before, Moses Maimonides wrote his introduction to the Talmud in Arabic, the language of philosophy and governance, for the cultured populations of all faiths.

The earlier Hebrew poets of Moorish Spain also composed their prose works in Arabic, like Jehudah Halevi’s defense of Judaism, al-Kuzari , or the philosophical treatises of Solomon ibn Gabirol. Moses de Leon, however, wrote in a literary Aramaic unknown to southern Spain. The artificial dialect conceals its meaning in plain sight: To read the original is to be confounded. Even to be introduced, the Zohar must be coaxed from its linguistic cave.

Such translators and expounders have a long history. Sefad, a village located on the Sea of Galilee, was home in the sixteenth century to a circle of influential kabbalists. Chief among them was Rabbi Isaac Luria, though he taught there only for two years before his early death at thirty-eight. Luria was the first man in nearly three centuries inspired and confident enough to extract the kernel from the Zohar’s Aramaic husk.

Luria left no writings, only disciples. As transmitted by his chief disciple, Hayyim Vital, Lurianic Kabbalah found in the Zohar, among other things, a key to unlock the coming of Moshiach and the Jews’ deliverance. Luria’s teachings guided Nathan of Gaza, a scholar of the mid-seventeenth century, eminent as a healer of sick souls. When the disturbed Sabbatai Sevi approached Rabbi Nathan for relief from his messianic delusions, Nathan instead played Elijah and proclaimed Sevi the messiah. The kabbalist justified every strange act of his messiah’s career, up to and including Sevi’s conversion to Islam.

The significant portion of Eastern European Jewry that embraced this messiah over orthodox rabbinic opposition could not, however, follow him into apostasy. From the embers of their disappointment, Hasidic Judaism was born. The pious retained the habits of the kabbalistic circle directed by an inspired teacher, with the Zohar as a central text.

Only in the past fifty years or so have the peculiar gifts of the Hasidic communities and their stories of the Baal Shem-Tov been appreciated in the West. Nineteenth-century enlightened Jewry, as exemplified by Heinrich Graetz’s six-volume standard History of the Jews, dismissed Kabbalah as shtetl superstition inimical to modern thought, unacceptable even to the philosophical Talmudism derived from Maimonides. In other words, Kabbalah was an embarrassment to those who would assimilate, to live in the present and the world.

But in the early 1920s, the German scholar Gershom Scholem emigrated to Palestine, where he pursued his study of Jewish mysticism until his death in 1989. Facing down the received condescension of reasonable Judaism, Scholem wrote a number of volumes that restored intellectual respectability to Jewish mystical literature. Scholem’s Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah , published in Hebrew in 1957 and in English in the early 1970s, placed the Zohar, Lurianic Kabbalah, and messianic longing in historical and intellectual context. Scholem’s pioneering scholarship was also the departure point for a new generation of kabbalists, speculative and practical. Some, like Moshe Idel, have explored the origins and experience of Jewish mysticism. Others have parsed and translated the text.

Sefer ha- Zohar knocked around in manuscript for two centuries before it was first published in book form, in Italy around 1559. The Torah commentary ran to three volumes; other, fragmentary commentaries were collected in separate editions. Because Moses de Leon’s work emerged episodically, and the author never had an opportunity to redact his own manuscript, the order of presentation has been a subject of dispute.

The first translation of the Zohar into English, by Harry Sperling and Maurice Simon, was published in 1934. The translators’ professed desire to render the Zohar intelligible led them to omit passages and to organize the apparent jumble typographically and paragraphically. Their prose, they wrote, attempts a faithful account of every word in some of those “highly enigmatical” parts where “in the absence of an authentic tradition their true meaning is a matter of conjecture.” It reads like the work of well-educated Englishmen wishing not to sound over-abrupt.

Another edition available to the English reader is the 1989 translation of Isaiah Tishby’s three-volume The Wisdom of the Zohar: An Anthology of Texts . Tishby first translated the Zohar into Hebrew, then arranged the midrash thematically rather than in scriptural order. Tishby comments extensively on the Zoharic passages. His book clarifies in a way that the Soncino Zohar does not. It is Jerusalem-centered rather than London-based. But for all its welcome illumination, Tishby’s Zohar comes to us at the third remove: from Aramaic through Hebrew into English.

Tishby is not alone. Of the twenty-six (by my count) translations of the Zohar into modern languages, seven are into Hebrew. There are two German translations, one French, and the rest are in English; all are twen-tieth century. Michael Berg’s twenty-three-volume translation is an English version of Rabbi Yehudah Ashlag’s mid-twentieth-century He-brew translation and commentary. The sole “older” translation of the Zohar is the 1684 Kabbala Denudata , in Latin. So modern Jews (like their medieval European counterparts wishing to acquaint themselves with Maimonides’ The Guide of the Perplexed ) have had to wait for the Zohar to be translated into Hebrew.

Unlike most books, the Zohar treats language like a thing, a material condensation or emanation of the Divine. For Moses de Leon, the spoken word was the creative instrument. Letters of the Hebrew alphabet themselves possess numerical and visual-formal properties. Their numerical and pictorial relations constitute an atomic or genetic structure, an invisible dimension active in the making of this world”and the other world, as well.

Daniel Matt’s translation opens with a diagram of the ten Sefirot : the schema that represents the crowns or emanations of the Divine, the attributes and body parts, the male and female of both this world and the world to come. Every work about the Zohar begins with a discussion of this figure, which is an overdetermined and vastly more complex predecessor of the European Renaissance’s white-magical astrological Vitruvian man. It summarizes the universe in a glyph.

Supplementing this bewildering diagram of kabbalist wisdom, Matt offers the bedrock acoustic of speech itself. His writing insists on its status as living language, even as it hides behind the appeal to tradition or its profession as a translation. He has invented an English Zohar that sounds like literary Aramaic in the same way that Ezra Pound invented an English poetry that sounds like Chinese. Both midrash and poetry are ancient novelties.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell midrash from a poem. For example: “Rabbi Elazar said, ?When the blessed Holy One created the world, it was on condition: “When Israel appears, if they accept the Torah, fine; if not, I will reduce you back to chaos.” The world was not firmly established until Israel stood at Mount Sinai and accepted Torah; then the world stood firm. Ever since that day, the blessed Holy One has been creating worlds. What are they? Human couplings, for since then the blessed Holy One has been matchmaking, proclaiming: “The daughter of so”and-so for so”and-so!” These are the worlds He creates.’” This English literary Aramaic uses concrete language and figures of speech that will strike the ear as odd”but that’s because odd is what’s going on. Despite its advanced learning, the voice retains its tribal accent.

In place of assumptions about the Talmudic, mathematical, and hermeneutic sophistication of readers, Matt offers an exhaustive commentary and apparatus in his footnotes. The dialogue between the text and notes generates the real music of this work. Sometimes the notes expand the gnomic text; sometimes the notes connect the narrative and descriptive events of the text with the schematic cosmological plan or the hermeneutics of interpretation. Sometimes a story told in the text is answered with another story in the footnotes.

Typographically, the text of this English Zohar rides above the translator’s commentary, like the upper world above the lower, or the world we live in and the world to come. Every time a fundamental principle is invoked in the text, the note cites the principle explicitly and points forward and backward to other appearances. So certain notes recur, such as “If one comes to defile himself, he is provided an opening; if one comes to purify himself, he is assisted,” or “The world on high needs the arousal of the world below.”

It is not easy to believe that the life one has is the life one chooses. Understanding how the world to come is always present and how the creative source depends on and responds to us is a still-harder stretch.

But reading the Zohar affords even a nonobservant, speculative Jew the opportunity to participate in an act of divine imagination. Moses de Leon does more than tell stories through old rabbis, though the stories do smile, and Torah glints like a gem in a sunny streambed. His writing is a ladder between the here and the hereafter, between longing and fulfillment, between the head and the heart.

Laurance Wieder teaches in the Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies program at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.