If you haven’t read Hebrew since the rite-of-passage ceremony known as the bar mitzvah, customarily conducted at the age of 13, then a willfully obscure text of ancient Jewish mysticism is probably not the best means to reacquaint yourself with the language of the Old Testament. Yet there I was in a Northern California synagogue, trying to remember my alefs and daleds, less out of the famous guilt of my tribe than a curiosity about that text—the Zohar—and, more specifically, about the man who has done more than any other alive today to unlock its secrets.Knowing Hebrew is of relatively little help for reading the Zohar in the original. The author does note later that it is written in the cognate language Aramaic. A particularly uncooperative medieval Aramaic, at that.
Each month, the scholar of Jewish mysticism Daniel Matt holds a study session on the Zohar, among the most beautiful yet impenetrable works of Jewish spirituality. Matt’s authority on the subject is unrivaled: He is the only person to have translated the entirety of the Zohar into English. The effort spanned two decades and ran to 12 volumes (he had help on the last three). When I visited him in May at his house in Berkeley, California, the last of these had just been published. “For the English-speaking world, the Zohar's gates are now opening even wider,” declared Judy Silber on NPR.I knew about the Daf Yomi Zohar study group (cf. here) on Facebook, but I didn't know about this group. It sounds fascinating.
The following is a great description of the content of the Zohar. But I would go easy on any comparisons to quantum physics.
The Zohar—central to the mystical strain of Judaism known as Kabbalah—is a 13th-century commentary primarily on the first five books of the Bible, known as the Torah. That might make it sound dull; it is anything but. Imagine the Old Testament as written by H.P. Lovecraft, Bible stories tripping on acid, rendered in difficult-to-decipher Aramaic, full of wisdom and beauty but shrouded in obscurity, a 1,900-page text written more than 700 years ago whose teachings have been embraced by celebrities like Madonna but not fully understood even by most scholars of Judaism.Again, read the whole article.
The Zohar serves as “the ur-text of the mystical Jewish imagination,” explains Shaul Magid, the Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein professor at Indiana University, where he teaches Jewish and religious studies. Magid calls it a “kind of ‘mystical Jewish Bible,’ refracting the Hebrew Bible through its particular cosmological lens,” which includes a complex schema of 10 dimensions, or sefirot, that constitute reality. Some have even compared the cosmology of the Zohar to the conception of the universe suggested by quantum physics, string theory in particular.
For background on the Zohar and on Daniel Matt's translation of it, start here (cf. here) and follow the many, many links. Or run the term "Zohar Watch" through the blog search engine.
Visit PaleoJudaica daily for the latest news on ancient Judaism and the biblical world.