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August 4: Zohar, Hot Off the Press

Lawrence Bush
August 3, 2016

chap80nThe first print edition of the Zohar, the central book of Jewish mysticism, was published on this date in 1558, following the removal of a ninety-year rabbinical ban on its printing. Most sources hold this first printed Zohar to be a three-volume edition published in Mantua, Italy; other sources describe a one-volume edition published in Cremona. Whichever is correct, the rival editions were published within a year of one another, and put the 13th-century text in the hands of a much broader swath of literate Jews. The Zohar was written by Rabbi Moses de Leon of Spain, who ascribed the books to the 2nd-century Shimon bar Yokhai, who supposedly wrote the books while hiding in a cave (with his son) from the Romans for thirteen years (as recounted in the Babylonian Talmud [Shabbat 33b–34a]). “[A]ccording to popular tradition,” writes Ruth Schuster in Haaretz, “the prerequisites for delving into the ‘deeper learning’ of kabbalah include being older than 40, strictly observant, and married with children. Clearly that wasn’t the rule over the ages, as some great kabbalists, such as the Safed-based 16th-century luminary Isaac Luria (known as ‘the Ari’), didn’t even live to age 40. . . . Also clearly, the warnings that kabbalistic knowledge poured into unready minds can lead to insanity hasn’t deterred the modern masses.”

“A story tells that after the death of Moses de Leon, a rich man of Avila named Joseph offered Moses’ widow (who had been left without any means of supporting herself) a large sum of money for the original from which her husband had made the copy. She confessed that her husband himself was the author of the work. She had asked him several times, she said, why he had chosen to credit his own teachings to another, and he had always answered that doctrines put into the mouth of the miracle-working Shimon bar Yochai would be a rich source of profit. The story indicates that shortly after its appearance the work was believed by some to have been written by Moses de Leon.” --Jewish Encyclopedia, 1906

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.