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|(Hebrew, "Splendor") The most important of all Cabalistic books, the Zohar is more a collection than a single treatise, comprising a series of separate tractates that fills five volumes in the standard printed editions. It presents itself as the recorded discussions of Simeon bar Yochai, an important Jewish mystical teacher of the second century C.E., with his companions and friends. This attribution was accepted by most Cabalists up to recent times, and by the sixteenth century the legend had grown up that the Zohar as it now exists was a fragment of the original work, which had once been forty camel loads in size.
Linguistic and literary evidence, however, shows the Zohar to be a much more recent work, and all modern scholars agree that it was actually written by Moses de Leon (died 1305), a Jewish Cabalist who lived for most of his life in the small town of Guadalajara in Spain. It was composed in stages between 1270 and 1300, and most of it was in circulation by the time of its author’s death.
Vast, rambling, and diffuse, the Zohar is impossible to summarize and nearly as difficult to interpret. It assumes a very substantial background in Old Testament lore as well as Jewish legal, theological, philosophical, and mystical thought. Much of it consists of commentaries on scriptural verses, but these are interwoven with expositions on various parts of Cabalistic doctrine, narratives about the activities of Simeon bar Yochai and his companions, legendary stories, and a range of other material. Most of the themes and ideas of the traditional Jewish Cabala are covered in the course of the text.