The Zohar is known as the primary text of the Kabbala. Its pre-eminent place in Jewish mysticism does not derive solely from its antiquity or its authorship. Other basic works of the Kabbala, like Sefer Yetzira and Sefer Habahir, are of earlier origin. Rabbi Shimon himself apparently wrote some of the Zohar…while hiding in a cave from the Roman authorities… The Zohar's importance must rather be attributed to its comprehensiveness, becoming the source for practically all the later authoritative Kabbalistic teachings of the school of R. Yitzchak Luria and others. Shalshelet HaKabbala (pg. 31b) holds that the Zohar currently in our possession is a mere fraction of the original work and maintains that the entire work of the Zohar was so large that it would constitute an entire camel-load.

Who Wrote the Zohar?

The Zohar itself attributes its disclosure of the Torah's mysteries to R. Shimon bar Yochai (known by the acronym "Rashbi"), the second-century Tanna who is the central master in the Zohar, and his disciples ("Chevraya" in Hebrew), including his son R. Elazar, his scribe R. Abba, R. Yehuda, R. Yossi ben Yaakov, R. Yitzchak, R. Chizkiyah, R. Chiya, R. Yossi, and R. Yaakov bar Idi. (Tikunei Zohar 1a; Zohar Chadash, Tikunim, 93d) Rabbi Shimon himself apparently wrote some of the Zohar, described as "the First Mishna," (Chabura Kadmaa mentioned in Zohar III, p. 219a ) while hiding in a cave from the Roman authorities who wanted to execute him. The Zohar affirms that one of Rashbi's foremost disciples, Rabbi Abba, recorded the bulk of his teachings (Zohar II, 123b. See also ibid. III, 287b and 296b ). In addition, early sources state that the composition of the Zohar extended over the period of Rashbi, his disciples and their disciples, who recorded many of the teachings passed on orally from Rabbi Shimon to his close associates and disciples.1

Thus its authorship spanned several generations.

Read: The Zohar's Mysterious Origins

How Was the Zohar Revealed?

The present form of the Zohar, in order of the parshiyot of the Torah, is of a much later date, most likely from the period of the Geonim, and there are some interpolations from these late editors.2

The Zohar…hastens the redemption and draws forth divine effluence…

The Zohar was concealed for many centuries, as the study of the Kabbala was restricted to a select few qualified individuals. It became revealed only in the thirteenth century and was published by one of the leading kabbalists living in Spain, Rabbi Moshe de Leon. Some believed that the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman c. 1194-1270 CE), himself a renowned Kabbalist, had sent the Zohar from Israel by ship to his son in Catalonia, but the ship had been diverted and the texts ended up in the hands of Rabbi Moshe de Leon (Shem HaGedolim, Chida Sefarim, Zayin, 8). Others explained that these manuscripts had been hidden in a vault for a thousand years and had been discovered by an Arabian king who sent them to Toledo to be deciphered. Some maintained that Spanish conquistadors had discovered the manuscripts of the Zohar among many others in an academy in Heidelberg (Shem HaGedolim, ibid.). Other explanations have also been offered. The mystics ascribe special potency to the study of the Zohar: it effects a nullification of evil decrees, eases the travails of exile, hastens the redemption, and draws forth divine effluence and blessings (See R. Abraham Azulai, Foreword to Or Hachamah, p. 2d). There is great merit even in the mere recitation of the sacred texts of the Zohar, even though one does not understand them (R. Chaim David Azulai, Moreh Be'etzba II:43).

Translations of the Zohar

Ideally an effort is to be made to understand and comprehend the texts.3

The language of the Zohar, however, is abstruse, aside from the difficulty of its mystical principles and ideas. The greater part of the Zohar is written in Aramaic. This led to various attempts to translate the Zohar into Hebrew. There were several old translations, such as one by the renowned R. Israel ibn Al-Nakavah in the fourteenth century4 and by one R. Berachiel, apparently around the sixteenth century. R. Chaim Vital, the principal disciple of R. Isaac Luria, refers to a Hebrew translation (Derech Emet on Zohar I, 34b) that may possibly be one of these two.

In the past century, Rabbi Yehuda Rosenberg composed a Hebrew translation of a selection of texts, as did Rabbi Shemuel Kipnis at a later date. Both of these rearranged the contents of the Zohar in order of the Scriptural verses and omitted the more difficult mystical passages, thus leaving the greater part of the Zohar untranslated. Most recently, there is an excellent Hebrew translation by Rabbi Yehudah Ashlag. [Click here for a series of English translations of his work, following the complete text of the Zohar, with the insertion of his own commentary.5 There is also an English translation published by the Soncino Press, however it is not only incomplete but also oftentimes incorrect.]

The Structure of the Zohar

Although the Zohar is generally referred to as a single multi-volume work, comprising Zohar, Tikunei Zohar and Zohar Chadash, it is actually a compilation of several smaller treatises or sub-sections - approximately twenty main sections. These are:

- The main bulk of the Zohar, sometimes also called Midrash HaZohar, written as commentary on sections and passages of the Torah.

- Sifra d'Tzniuta, or "Book of Concealed Matters". This is a commentary on Bereishit, the first parasha of the book of Genesis (Zohar II, 176b-179a).

- Idra Rabba, or "Greater Assembly". In it Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai reveals the mysteries of the extremely recondite passages of the Sifra d'Tzniuta to his disciples (Zohar III, 127b-145a).

- Idra Zuta, or "Lesser Assembly". Here are described the passing of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and the teachings which he revealed just prior to his death. The methodology of the Zohar's redaction is also described briefly (Zohar III, 287b-296b).

- Idra de-bei Mishkana, the "Assembly of the Tabernacle", in which the section of the Torah dealing with the Tabernacle is discussed (Zohar II, 127ab-146b).

- Razin d'Razin, the "Secret of Secrets," or "Mystery of Mysteries" discusses chochmat ha-partzuf (the "wisdom of the countenance") and chochmat ha-yad (palmistry) (Zohar II, 70a-78a; Zohar Chadash 35b-37c).

- Heichalot, "Chambers", a description of the seven chambers of light perceived by the mystic during prayer, or by a righteous person as his soul passes away from this world and ascends on high (Zohar I, 38a-45b and Zohar II, 244b-268b).

- Matnitin and Tosefta, are brief statements of Kabbalistic principles which are explained more fully in the sections which follow them. (These are spread throughout all three volumes of the Zohar and are also found in several places in the Zohar Chadash).

- Raya Mehemna, "the Faithful Shepherd," a Kabbalistic exposition of the commandments and prohibitions of the Torah (scattered throughout vols. 2 and 3. The bulk of the Raya Mehemna can be found in Zohar II, 114a-1121a, III 97-104, 108b-112a, 121b-126a, 215a-259b, 270b-283a).

- Sitrei Torah, "Secrets of the Torah," a mystical interpretation of certain passages of the Torah (found in Zohar I, 74a-75b, 76b-80b, 88a-90a, 97a-102a, 108a-111a, 146b-149b. According to some, the section of Zohar I, 15a-22b is the Sitrei Torah on Genesis).

- Midrash HaNe'elam, "Hidden Midrash," on various sections of the Torah (Zohar Chadash 2b-30b; Zohar I 97a-140a; Zohar II, 4a-5b, 14a-22a) and on Song of Songs.

- Saba d'Mishpatim, the wisdom of an old man who reveals the secrets of reincarnation and transmigration contained in the section of the Torah dealing with the laws governing the Hebrew slave (Zohar II, 94b-114a). [For more dicussion of the Saba click here.]

- Yenuka, "The Child." The discourse of a young child who reveals mysteries of the Torah (Zohar III, 186a-192a).

- Rav Metivta, a description of a journey through the Garden of Eden, and a discourse on the destiny of souls (Zohar III, 161b-174a).

- Zohar on Shir HaShirim, a Kabbalistic exposition of the Song of Songs (Zohar Chadash 61d-75a).

- Kav HaMiddah, "The Measuring Rod." Mystical insights into the Shema Yisrael prayer (Zohar Chadash 56d-58d).

- Sitrei Otiot, "Mysteries of the Letters." An exposition of the secrets of the Hebrew alphabet (Zohar Chadash 1-9).

- Tikunei Zohar and addenda. Discussing seventy permutations of the first word of the Torah, "Bereishit", and commentaries on various other sections of Scripture.

- Zohar Chadash, commentary on the Torah and on Song of Songs, Ruth, and Lamentations. The section on Song of Songs is actually part of the Midrash HaNe'elam.

[Adapted from "Zohar", Introduction by Rabbi Moshe Miller; and Foreword to Zohar, by Rabbi Immanuel Schochet.]