The Zohar is basically the basis on which the Jewish teachings of the Kabbalah were founded on. The Zohar is not a single book but a compilation of a number of different books. The Zohar is made up of the writings of Moses or the Torah, cosmogony, mystical psychology and some elements of mysticism. The Zohar is a book that has information about the genesis of life right from the place that God came from, the creation of the world or the Universe, the characteristics of the souls, salvation and the relationships that exist in the Universe. The book is written in a revered language (Aramaic) which was basically very common in Israel.
The First account of the Zohar in Spain was around the thirteenth century being made public by a man called Moses de Leon. The work that was contained in this book was believed to have been carried out by a man called Shimon bar Yochai who was himself a teacher of the Jews in the earlier years. It is believed that the teacher Shimon was concealed up in a cave for over thirteen years as he studied the Torah under the guidance of the prophet Elijah. After staying in the cave and learning, it is believed that the teacher wrote the Zohar which some sections believe is a revelation of the oral Torah.
There are many conflicting views over just who was responsible for the accounts that are contained in the Zohar with some sections contending that it was the work of God through his servants Moses and Abraham that was passed down to Shimon who then put it into writing. Other sections however believe that the actual writings were done by a man called De Leon. It is because of these divergent views that non-Orthodox Jews accept some parts of the Zohar while being cautious over other sections of the same book. They believe that some elements of the Zohar are very helpful to the current religion of Judaism. The New Evolutionary opinion related to the kabbalah speaks in support of the Zohar as being a very satisfactory way for people to give substance to their existence in life.
Right from the beginning, contention was rife as to who exactly authored the Zohar because there are a lot of accounts in the Zohar that relate to the post-Talmudic time while many claim that the Zohar was a book of a much earlier time. There are even some stories that talk of Moses de Leon as being the writer of the Zohar who did so as a means of gaining profit. The story goes ahead to say that at a certain time a man called Joseph who was from the region of Avila tried to purchase the original document from the widow of Moses but the widow admitted that there was no original copy because it was her husband who had written the Zohar. In the story, the man Joseph overlooked the confession of the widow because he chose to believe the words that he was told by two of Shimon bar Yochai’s followers who adamantly said that Shimon was the author.
The Zohar was nonetheless a very powerful book and that is why it gained acceptance relatively quickly in all regions. This was evident because just after a short while of its appearance in Spain, other regions were already also talking about its teachings and doctrines.
Late Middle Ages
The impact of the Zohar was already very strong in the fifteenth century as many Jews in the region acknowledged its sacredness. This was evident as many prominent people invoked its words during arguments and other reasoning that was related to religion. By this time, there were already some teachings and doctrines that were adopted and that were a part and parcel of religious ceremonies. Two of the most vocal people on this issue (Jacob and Broyde) were of the opinion that the Zohar was very popular among the people because it glorified men and taught of immortality coupled with some of the most respected ethical principles. In this case it is important to add that the Zohar taught that men were the rulers of creation and that their eternal life depended on their morals.
In another instance, a man called Elijah Delmedigo argues that the Zohar could not have been a work that was accomplished by the rabbi Shimon bar Yochai because if it were so, then the Talmud would have had an account of it. He also argues that if the Kabbalah was a true revelation, then it would not have brought about the division in view of the interpretation of the mystic teachings.
However those who held to the opinion that Shimon was responsible for the Zohar claimed that the accounts were not contained in the Talmud because Shimon never put them down in writing himself but rather it was his followers that were responsible for the written accounts. After some time of existence, the Zohar was accepted as an authentic writing that contained sound doctrines. Some of the most notable names that endorsed the Zohar include Jewish teachers like rabbi Moses Isserless, Yosef Karo and Solomon Luria.
As time went by, so did the debate on the exact truths go on through the years with new people picking up the issue and expounding on it at length. Leon of Modena took after the opinion of Delmedigo and pressed the position further in his criticism of the Zohar. The man was of the opinion that the Zohar had misquoted a lot of scripture and does not correctly translate the Talmud. In his evidence he even mentions that there are some terms (which were in Portuguese) that were used in the Zohar but that were not known to the people of the said region until later on.
The Zohar found its way into the regions of Yemen in the seventeenth century and gave rise to a movement that was known as the ‘Dor Daim’. Many of the believers of the movement were of the opinion that the teachings and Doctrines of Judaism were being vanquished in favour of mysticism of the kabbalah. This movement was very calm in the beginning but later on in the nineteenth century, it became a very powerful force. The movement claimed that those who were considered as kabbalists were irrational and anti-development. The movement stood up to oppose the Zohar and the impact that it had because it was a perversion to the Jewish life of those in Yemen. They also believed that they were fighting for a course to restore the right teachings and doctrines of Judaism as they were in the original sources.
Contemporary Religious Opinion
Basically many quarters of the Orthodox Jews are of the opinion that the teachings and doctrines of the kabbalah were passed on from one teacher to the next from the first generations until the time of Shimon who then captured them in writing. It is also true that most of these people believe that the kabbalah is indeed a revelation that is got from God. All that is contained in kabbalah teachings were real revelations that God gave to Abraham, Moses and many other men of God but were not made available until the time of Shimon.
There are a lot of sources of information in the modern world that can help in studying more about the beliefs of Orthodox Jews today. Some modern Libraries have small pieces of accounts of these things. The internet is however a more sophisticated and easy way to find a lot of information concerning the issue in question. It is however quite important to add that even in the modern world, beliefs are still as divergent as they were in the yester years with some believing the Zohar to be sacred while others are opposed to it.
Modern Criticism, Opinion of Authorship
In the twentieth century, a Jew by the name of Greshom Scholem put forward an argument that was aimed at finding the truth about the real writer of the Zohar. In his arguments, he gives evidence that point to suspicious use of the Aramaic grammar in which traces of the Spanish language could be found. The seemingly poor knowledge of Israel by the Zohar was also a matter of contention for him. In his arguments he therefore claimed that the most probable author of the Zohar was De Leon. There are however also others that endorse the opinion that De Leon was the main player in the Authorship but must have had some help from other people.
There are also those who believe that even if de Leon was the writer of the Zohar, not every part of it was a fraud. There are a few things that he wrote and that were actually true traditional practices and teachings of the old religion.