The Zohar (Hebrew: זֹהַר, Zōhar, lit. "Splendor" or "Radiance") is a foundational work in the literature of Jewish mystical thought known as Kabbalah. It is a group of books including commentary on the mystical aspects of the Torah (the five books of Moses) and scriptural interpretations as well as material on mysticism, mythical cosmogony, and mystical psychology. The Zohar contains discussions of the nature of God, the origin and structure of the universe, the nature of souls, redemption, the relationship of Ego to Darkness and the "true self" to "The Light of God."
The Zohar was first publicized by Moses de León (c. 1240 – 1305 CE), who claimed it was a Tannaitic work recording the teachings of Simeon ben Yochai (c. 100 CE). This claim is universally rejected by modern scholars, most of whom believe de León, also an infamous forger of Geonic material wrote the book himself between 1280 and 1286. Some scholars argue that the Zohar is the work of multiple medieval authors and/or contains a small amount of genuinely antique novel material. Later additions to the Zohar, including the Tikunei Zohar and the Ra'ya Mehimna, were composed by a 14th-century imitator.
The Zohar can be divided into 21 types of content, of which the first 18 are the work of the original author (probably de Leon) and the final 3 are the work of a later imitator. Most of the material in the book is comprised of commentaries on passages from the Torah, including allegorical and mystical interpretations of Torah passages.
The Greater Assembly section provides an explanation of the oracular hints in the previous section. Ben Yochai's friends gather together to discuss the secrets of Kabbalah. After the opening of the discussion by ben Yochai, the sages rise, one after the other, and lecture on the secret of Divinity, while ben Yochai adds to and responds to their words. The sages become steadily more ecstatic until three of them die. Scholem calls this part "architecturally perfect."
Other parts are even more esoteric, discussing the mysticism of prayer and the seven palaces of light, which are perceived by the devout in death. The Secretum Secretorum deals with physiognomy and chiromancy.
There are three elaborate narratives, given by an old man, a child, and the head of the celestial academy, each discussing aspects of the Kabbalah from their own perspective.
The largest section of the Zohar, The Faithful Shepherd, is a Kabbalistic commentary on Moses' teachings revealed to ben Yochai and his friends. Moshe Cordovero said, "Know that this book, which is called Ra'aya Meheimna, which ben Yochai made with the tzadikim who are in Gan Eden, was a repair of the Shekhinah, and an aid and support for it in the exile, for there is no aid or support for the Shekhinah besides the secrets of the Torah... And everything that he says here of the secrets and the concepts—it is all with the intention of unifying the Shekhinah and aiding it during the exile.
Rectifications of the Zohar
Tikunei Zohar, which was printed as a separate book, includes seventy commentaries called "Tikunim" (lit. Repairs) and an additional eleven Tikkunim. In some editions, Tikunim are printed that were already printed in the Zohar, which in their content and style also pertain to Tikunei Zohar.
Each of the seventy Tikunim of Tikunei Zohar begins by explaining the word "Bereishit" (בראשית), and continues by explaining other verses, mainly in parashat Bereishit, and also from the rest of Tanakh. And all this is in the way of Sod, in commentaries that reveal the hidden and mystical aspects of the Torah.
Influence in Judaism
On the one hand, the Zohar was lauded by many rabbis because it opposed religious formalism, stimulated one's imagination and emotions, and for many people helped reinvigorate the experience of prayer. In many places, prayer had become merely an external religious exercise, while prayer was supposed to be a means of transcending earthly affairs and placing oneself in union with God.
Many classical rabbis, especially Maimonides, viewed belief in angels, demons, and other spirits as a violation of Judaic principles of faith. Its mystic mode of explaining some commandments was applied by its commentators to all religious observances, and produced a strong tendency to substitute mystic Judaism in the place of traditional rabbinic Judaism. For example, Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, began to be looked upon as the embodiment of God in temporal life, and every ceremony performed on that day was considered to have an influence upon the superior world.
Elements of the Zohar crept into the liturgy of the 16th and 17th centuries, and the religious poets not only used the symbolism of the Zohar in their compositions, but even adopted its style. Thus, in the language of some Jewish poets, the beloved one's curls indicate the mysteries of the Deity; sensuous pleasures, and especially intoxication, typify the highest degree of divine love as ecstatic contemplation; while the wine-room represents merely the state through which the human qualities merge or are exalted into those of God.
Influence in Christian mysticism
The enthusiasm felt for the Zohar was shared by many Christian authors, such as Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and Johann Reuchlin, who believed the book contained proof of the truth of Christianity. They were led to this belief by the analogies existing between some of the teachings of the Zohar and certain Christian dogmas, such as the fall and redemption of man, and the dogma of the Trinity, which seems to be expressed in the Zohar.
Johann Reuchlin included significant amounts of material from the Zohar in his own book of ritual magic, De Arte Cabbalistica.
The Zohar's influence over occult rituals and practices remain significant. Many of the tenants of Solomonic magic, and ritual magic in general originated with the philosophies found in this book. Nearly every grimoire from the Medieval Period drew some of its information from the Zohar, and the attempt by European magicians to syncretize Christian and Jewish mysticism sprang from the principles of the Zohar.