The Is Transcribed

Moses de León compiled one of the most central texts of Judaism, the Zohar, a written collection of the corpus of mystical Jewish thought known as the Kaballah. The text also has had far-reaching effects on other forms of spirituality, including paganism and religious practice based on the magical.

Summary of Event

Religions are inclined to incorporate two basic viewpoints. One, emphasizing common sense or reason, tends to observe life, attempts to explain it, and endeavors to provide mechanisms to live it in a rewarding and satisfying manner; this view plays down the mysteries of life or attempts to rationalize them. The other outlook prefers a mystical vision that concentrates on the mysteries of reality and seeks answers and guidance in difficult human situations through recourse to trust in the reliability of emotions, often leading to reliance on the occult. [kw]Zohar Is Transcribed, The (c. 1275)
Zohar (Moses de León)
Moses de León
Spain;c. 1275: The Zohar Is Transcribed[2530]
Religion;c. 1275: The Zohar Is Transcribed[2530]
Philosophy;c. 1275: The Zohar Is Transcribed[2530]
Literature;c. 1275: The Zohar Is Transcribed[2530]
Moses de León
Ibn Gabirol
Isaac ben Solomon Luria

Judaism Judaism is no stranger to this schism. Its corpus of mystical thought is known as the Kabbalah Kabbalah (also Kaballa or Cabala), meaning “tradition,” and probably its greatest book is the Zohar. On the whole, the Kabbalah was transmitted orally, and its message was secretly guarded by those who were trusted with its esoteric mysteries. Only with the passing of time were its contents committed to writing. While the Kabbalah in its generally accepted meaning was an immediate product of medieval mystical Judaism, its roots are actually deeply embedded in the very beginnings of Jewish religious history. The Mishnah, the Talmud, and parts of the Bible, especially sections of Ezekiel and Daniel and other prophets, all in a sense may be seen as antecedents of the kind of thought that characterizes the Kabbalah. These passages and other mystic epigraphical works of the intertestamental period all profess knowledge of the means necessary to bridge the gulf between God and the world and to facilitate the passage of the human soul to the Deity. In fact, mystics Mysticism;Judaism assigned esoteric interpretations to passages that could support their cause. Even Philo, the great Alexandrian philosopher of the first century, came to exert a significant, if indirect, influence on the development of the Kabbalah. Particularly attractive was his view of God as a transcendent being, outside and above the world, so far removed that intermediate forces were necessary to relate to him. These intermediate potencies, or logoi, identified with the “ideas” of Plato, were conceived of as personalities and identified with the angels of Scripture.

As the Kabbalah developed slowly and informally over a period of centuries, few authors were aware that they were making contributions to the growing corpus of Jewish mystical thought. One medieval pioneer was Ibn Gabirol Ibn Gabirol in the mid-eleventh century, an honored Jewish poet, whose works emphasized God’s glory and grandeur contrasted with humankind’s weakness and insignificance. Naḥmanides Naḥmanides , another early mystic a century later, contested the great authority of Moses Maimonides and other rationalists who held that Judaism was an open book devoid of hidden meanings. He insisted that it was replete with mysteries above the comprehension of human reason. While Naḥmanides never succeeded in developing a fully fledged system of thought, he did establish a basic intellectual framework for later mysticism. Solomon ibn-Adret Ibn-Adret, Solomon (1235-1310) proved to be a moderating force in the development of the early Kabbalah; though naturally inclined toward mysticism, he sought to keep in bounds hysterical manifestations emanating from overstimulated imaginations of visionaries.

If one person can be singled out as the compiler of the Kabbalah, Moses de León is that man. Up to this time, this mysterious lore was considered suitable only for scholars and the elect initiate; moreover, it was still preserved only as an oral tradition. However, just as in the past there had been times when the Bible, the Mishnah, and the Talmud were ripe for compilation, so the time came for the oral tradition of the Kabbalah to be collated. This work of collection Moses de León carried on over a period of time, producing what later came to be called the Zohar or the Book of Splendor. While some scholars believe that de León himself composed the commentaries on the Bible that basically make up the Zohar, its unsystematic composition as well as its variegated content indicate that it represents the work of many different people over several generations.

The fundamental conception of the Zohar is that there is nothing trivial in the Bible, that the commandments as well as the narratives have higher mysterious meanings and purposes that constitute the essence of Scripture. Its conception of God identifies the Supreme Being with the emanations proceeding from him, a view leading to such a gross anthropomorphism that it permitted reference to God’s eyes, his nose, his beard, and the crown of his head. It also presented vivid details of Purgatory and Hell, where the souls of the wicked were tortured by evil demons before they were purified to return to heaven.

The expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492 triggered a new period of creativity among the Jewish mystics. Their center became Safed in Palestine, which at the time of Isaac ben Solomon Luria Luria, Isaac ben Solomon reached its fullest development. The Kabbalah scholar Gershom Scholem feels that the Kabbalah underwent a complete transformation following the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, and that it found its new expression best in the teachings of Luria and his school, which emphasized a mystical interpretation of exile and redemption.

The printing of the Zohar in 1558 allowed Luria to provide a practical, living mysticism for more than a mere elite. The concept of emanation from the Infinite, the basic principle in the Kabbalah, by this time had so far developed that God could now be conceived of as willing to contract himself into finiteness and then adjust himself to contact with humans. To receive their share of the divine indwelling, individual souls must be purified by entering more refined bodies in order to shed their imperfections. This ascent is implemented by certain practices and ceremonies in which each word and deed is directed toward the end of returning the soul to its source in God.

By its composite nature, the Zohar presented a confusing picture to those who tried to plumb its depths. To make the Kabbalah in general more practical and serviceable, Moses Cordovera Cordovera, Moses (1522-1570) prepared his Garden of Pomegranates, a systematic and philosophical presentation of older Kabbalistic teachings. He also sought to find some unity among the great number of themes discussed in earlier mystical writings.


The whole of the Zohar is permeated with stories of struggle between good and evil, holiness and profanity, a combat willed by God himself. All these ideas served the needs of the common people who hungered for supernatural visions and an opportunity to identify themselves in some way with the cosmic process itself. To such persons estranged from the goods of the world, the secrets of the Kabbalah provided new avenues of participation in a more true reality. Moses de León’s compilation of the Zohar has resulted in centuries of intrigue—both positive and negative—for Kabbalistic thought.

Further Reading

  • Anidjar, Gil. “Our Place in al-Andalus”: Kabbalah, Philosophy, Literature in Arab Jewish Letters. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2002. Analyzes the history of the Kabbalah, the Zohar, and Judaism in Andalusian Spain, also during the time of de León’s compilation of the Zohar.
  • Berg, Rav Philip S. The Essential Zohar: The Source of Kabbalistic Wisdom. New York: Bell Tower, 2002. A practical, contemporary interpretation of the Zohar by a well-known Kabbalist, written for the general reader.
  • Blau, Joseph L. The Christian Interpretation of the Cabala in the Renaissance. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1965. The thesis of this work maintains that the Christian use of the Kabbalah was of no deep or lasting value.
  • Bokser, Ben Zion. The Maharal: The Mystical Philosophy of Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague. Northvale, N.J.: Jason Aronson, 1994. First published in 1954 as From the World of the Cabbalah, this book discusses the philosophy of Rabbi Judah Loew, a sixteenth century exponent of the Kabbalah’s wisdom.
  • Scholem, Gershom G. Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. New York: Schocken Books, 1995. Written by an outstanding scholar of the Kabbalah whose knowledge of basic source materials has revolutionized the study of Jewish mysticism. The author traces the development of Jewish mysticism from the time of the second Temple through the nineteenth century.
  • Scholem, Gershom G. On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism. Translated by Ralph Manheim. New York: Schocken Books, 1996. A further elaboration of the author’s earlier work on the Kabbalah.
  • Werblowsky, R. J. Zwi. Joseph Karo, Lawyer and Mystic. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1977. The author presents Joseph Karo as the author of an important Kabbalistic diary describing much of the Kabbalism of the mid-seventeenth century.