Archive for December 11th, 2009

An early Hanukkah present

Friday, December 11th, 2009
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I received an early Hanukkah present yesterday when I returned from a late lunch:  Volume 5 of Daniel Matt’s translation of The Zohar was on zoharIV_covermy chair.  A bit of Castilian magic has entered my holiday season with that enigmatic work, whose provenance remains controversial (I’ve written about it here).  Its purveyor, the late 13th century Spanish Jew named Moses ben Shem Tov de León, claimed it was a second century work from Galilee.  However, the ornate and exalted version of Aramaic, unlike anything that exists anywhere else, suggests the author was Moses de León himself.

Geoffrey Burn, director of Stanford University Press, offered the most definitive comment about its origins: “The work stands on its own. It’s a work of revelation—its provenance is less important. I don’t care if it was written yesterday by Carlos Castaneda.”

In any case, the work has certainly been influential: it fostered the Kabbalah craze that has drawn in Madonna, Dolly Parton, and others.  Take heed: The Zohar is said to prepare the unprepared reader mad.

This unprepared reader is warned, but nevertheless likes its weird but contemplative prose, which works if you empty your mind and let its strange passages roll over you.  Like this one, picked more or less at random, and in an odd way in keeping with the season — make of it what you will:

“When the blessed Holy One wanted to establish the world, He threw a stone into the waters, engraved in the mystery of seventy-two letters, and from there the stone began to move and found nowhere to be established other than the Holy Land.  Water flowed after it until that stone reached the spot beneath the altar, where it sank, and there the whole world was established.

“Now, you might say, ‘If it is so that life dwells in that place, then why wasn’t the Temple built there to give life to its inhabitants?’ Well, here in this place, existence endures because of one letter hovering over it.  In the Temple all of the letters abide, and by them it alone was created, resembling the whole world.

“Furthermore, the Holy Land gives life and atonement to her inhabitants in that world, while this place is not so, giving life to that place in this world and not for the world that is coming.  The Temple is the opposite, for Israel has a share in that world and not in this world; so the Temple exists to atone for sins and render Israel worthy of the world that is coming.”     (p. 386)