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Comments from "Higher Criticism"

Arguments of the Skeptics

Arguments of the Skeptics

Arguments of the Skeptics
Comments from "Higher Criticism"

Among the academics, Professors Gershom Scholem and Isaiah Tishby both dismiss the testimony of Rabbi Moshe's widow and daughter as unreliable third-hand evidence. Scholem (Major Trends p. 192) also dismisses Graetz's conclusions, based on the above, that Moshe de Leon was "a base and despicable swindler who tried to parade a fake profundity of thought…" as "pure fantasy" on the part of Graetz. Scholem continues: "There is nothing in the character of the Zohar and of Moshe de Leon's Hebrew writings which justifies this view… Nor is there anything in them that might predispose one to regard the alleged cynical remark to his wife as authentic; on the contrary, the manner in which this remark is related rather suggests that it owes its origin to the spite of persons ill-disposed towards the author." (Major Trends, ibid.) (Scholem and Tishby, however, both attribute the authorship of the Zohar to Moshe de Leon for other reasons that will be discussed below).

The bulk of the arguments against Rashbi as the author of the Zohar focus on the following areas:

Topographical deceptions and errors: According to Profs. Gershom Scholem (ad loc) and Isaiah Tishby (Mishnat HaZohar (English) p. 63 ff.), an analysis of the names of places mentioned in the Zohar reveals that its author used spurious place names, since several of the places mentioned "are not mentioned in the Mishna or the Beraita or any other place known to me!" (Scholem, ad loc) From this he concludes that "the author had never so much as set foot in Palestine and that his knowledge of the country was derived entirely from literary sources. Localities which owe their existence in literature to the misreading of mediaeval Talmudic manuscripts are selected as the stage of mystical revelations. Whole villages are set up on the authority of some Talmudic passage the meaning of which has eluded the author." Scholem brings as his prime proof a place called in the Zohar "Kapotkia, which for the author is not the province of Kappadocia in Asia Minor, but a village, apparently in the Lower Galilee, frequently visited by the adepts on their journeys." (Major Themes, ibid.) We will examine this claim and show Kapotkia is mentioned numerous times in Targum Onkelos, Targum Yonatan, Mishna, Beraita, Jerusalem Talmud, Babylonian Talmud and Midrashim. We will also look at the other places Scholem finds questionable.

Language and Grammar: "The Aramaic of the Zohar is a purely artificial affair, a literary language employed by a writer who obviously knew no other Aramaic than that of certain Jewish literary documents and who fashioned his own style in accordance with definite subjective criteria…. Throughout these writings the spirit of mediaeval Hebrew, specifically the Hebrew of the thirteenth century, is transparent…. "1 Although I am not a scholar of early Aramaic grammar, I will show that many of the same word forms are also used in Targum Onkelos, Targum Yonatan, Mishna, Beraita, Jerusalem Talmud, Babylonian Talmud and Midrashim, and are not exclusive to the Zohar.

Vocabulary and phraseology: "One frequently encounters mediaeval Hebrew expression, particularly from the language of the philosophers, in Aramaic disguise." (Major Themes p. 165) According to the academics the author also misunderstood certain expressions that he found in his literary sources, and "stretches the meaning of ancient words in an entirely arbitrary fashion and frequently employs them for the purpose of paraphrasing termini technici." (Major Themes p. 165.) We will again examine the list of words with which Scholem and Tzvi Kedari provide us and compare them with words used in Targum Onkelos, Targum Yonatan, Mishna, Beraita, Jerusalem Talmud, Babylonian Talmud and Midrashim.

Medieval concepts found in the Zohar: We will again examine whether these concepts are exclusive to the Zohar, or whether they are also found in other ancient sources.

Biographical and chronological errors: "The contradictions and the chronological inexactitudes which appear in connection with the rabbis mentioned in the Zohar are the most obvious indications of its pseudo-epigraphic character… The earliest Tannaim and the latest Amoriam are put together, even as members of the same band of scholars…." (Mishnat HaZohar p. 58-9) There are also "chronological contradictions and mistakes in nomenclature…" (Mishnat HaZohar, ibid) We will deal with this criticism by making a general observation regarding the format of Talmudic literature.

Finally, we will examine writings of kabbalists and other sources preceding Moshe de Leon who have clearly used concepts found in the Zohar in their writings, proving that they had access to these documents long before Moshe de Leon came on the scene. We will also present some modern academic views ideas as to the authorship of the Zohar.

The next article in this series: Responses to the Claims of the Skeptics.

Major Themes p. 163. See also Isaiah Tishby's Mishnat HaZohar p. 54 (English version).
Rabbi Moshe Miller was born in South Africa and received his yeshivah education in Israel and America. He is a prolific author and translator, with some twenty books to his name on a wide variety of topics, including an authoritative, annotated translation of the Zohar. He has developed a coaching-type approach to dealing with life's issues based on Chassidism and Kabbalah—a tool for dealing with normal issues that everyone faces as well as issues psychologists usually address, often ineffectively. He also gives free live classes over the Internet.
The Zohar is a basic work of Kabbalah authored by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his students (2nd century CE). English translation of annotated selections by Rabbi Moshe Miller (Morristown, N.J.: Fiftieth Gate Publications, 2000) includes a detailed introduction covering the history and basic concepts of Kabbalah. Volume 1 (36 pp.) covers the first half of the first of the original’s three volumes. It is available online from our store, KabbalaOnline Shop.
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Benayahu February 5, 2015

What about Mitpachas Seforim? with all my respect, very smart to present here the arguments of inexperienced people like Scholem or Tishby and not the 300 questions raised about the Zohar by the Yaabetz in Mitpachas Seforim which no one has yet responded. Reply

yehoshua March 18, 2013

please help me L'cvod Rav Miller,
Thank you for your articles on the zohar.
I must admit that i still have a couple concerns which prevent me from appreciating the Zohar : Firstly, i am aware of numerous mistakes in geneology, and in verses and laws, (the "two loaves" on Shavuot are burnt. the Omer is from flour) as well as some weak/wrong interpretations. I am aware that they could have been put in by copiests, etc. but if then how much was added by these unreliable hands that were not blatant subissions (sic), and if the text is riddled with a hodge-podge of editors how can i rely on any of it, or be exact? Reply

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