When I was motorcycling in Northern Spain I took a day out to visit Leon. I saw it on the map and thought “R. Moses de Leon”, and not having much internet at the time, I did not think to investigate further. I would have been better going to Ávila, where I would have found some memorials to the man who was perhaps the most influential of all Kabbalists. He gave to the world The Zohar, and I use my words carefully, because we still do not know how it was composed. Much has been written, and some hypotheses seem stronger than others.
One could do much worse than to read Scholem’s analysis in Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. For something more recent I would turn to Liebes, Studies in the Zohar, a book I have read and enjoyed several times, and where one can find an essay, How the Zohar was Written. There are no firm answers. It is always going to be a mystery, and mysteries are fun.
Part of the mystery of the Zohar is its size and erudition. It is huge. Not just large. Huge. Much of it is written in an artificial language that was intended to look like the Aramaic of Palestine, but a close analysis suggests that the writer was more familiar with documents written in Aramaic than with the living language. The size of the Zohar and its often impenetrable language has meant that modern students have not been well served by good modern editions. For details of editions and commentary I can confidently recommend Don Karr’s Notes on the Zohar in English.
The point of this article is to observe that the Pritzker edition of the Zohar is nearing completion with the publication of the final twelfth volume. As you can see in the photo above, I am going to have to throw out yet more lesser works to make space for it. I appreciate that many people will not have the space or the cash for a huge scholarly edition like this, but at least you know that it exists, and this is the one to go for.
Is it worth it? A book is like a time machine. No quantity of second or third hand material can ever substitute for encountering the Zohar at first hand. One enters the minds of medieval Jewish mystics. You may not like what you find, you may find it alien and intimidating, intense and overwhelmingly erudite, weirdly mythological and utterly unmodern. And yet it weaves a spell, for here is real art and real brilliance.