A Shining Example of Accessible Scholarship

By Jeffrey A. Spitzer

The Zohar, Pritzker Edition, Volumes 1 and 2
Translation and commentary by Daniel C. Matt
960 pages. Stanford University Press. $90.

The study of Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition, has expanded into popular and celebrity culture. Until now, much of that study has been derivative and tendentious since most of the new devotees have lacked accessible translations, reliable texts, and useful commentaries. The Pritzker edition of the Zohar by Daniel Matt has begun to redress this lack.

The Zohar, or the Book of Radiance, is Judaism's primary work of Kabbalah. Loosely structured as a commentary on the five books of the Torah, the Zohar also presents itself as the speculations and explorations of a group of second century rabbinic sages surrounding Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who traveled and studied in the north of Israel. Produced in thirteenth century Spain by Moses de Leon (or perhaps by a group of mystical scholars including de Leon), the Zohar is written in an Aramaic that was no longer a spoken language, with a lyrical and poetic sense that valued innovation in style and language while trying to create an appearance of authenticity and tradition.

The Zohar reinterprets earlier rabbinic Judaism through the lens of a complex system of imagery describing the different aspects of God's emanations known as the sefirot. While the Zohar is deeply traditional in its reliance on earlier rabbinic traditions, its striking and frequently erotic recasting of those traditions is often confusing. Traditionally, Kabbalah (which literally means "received tradition") was transmitted from master to student. For this new generation of students of Kabbalah, Matt will serve as the master.

Unlike the earlier English translation of the Zohar which frequently paraphrased and simplified the text and had no useful commentary, Matt has created a translation which reflects the complexity of the original. This more complex text is balanced with a clear commentary which provides ample references, not only to rabbinic texts but also to the full gamut of ancient literature. Consider the following text describing Torah study:

"All those Companions initiated into the bridal palace need—on that night when the Bride is destined the next day to be under the canopy with Her Husband—to be with Her all night, delighting with Her in Her adornments in which She is arrayed..." (Zohar, 1:8a, Pritzker edition, page 51-2).

On this passage, Matt explains that this refers to the holiday of Shavuot and the mystical, all-night study session known as the Tikkun. The image of Husband and Bride represent both the conjunction of Tif'eret (one of the sefirotic emanations) with the Shekhinah (the feminine aspect of God) as well as the unification of the Written Torah and the Oral (rabbinic) Torah which "together...convey revelation." His commentary on this passage includes references to standard rabbinic texts as well as to the writings of Philo, the Book of Acts and Revelation in the Christian Testament, and modern academic writings.

The Pritzker edition of the Zohar is a massive and significant undertaking. Translating and explaining the text is no mean feat, and Matt estimates that the entire work could take fifteen years.

In order to produce this translation, Matt recognized that the manuscript tradition of the Zohar often preserved readings far superior to the standard, printed edition. Underlying the Pritzker edition is Matt's newly-constructed, eclectic text of the Zohar, freely available for educational use from the publisher's website.

Matt's work, when complete, will stand as one of the triumphs of modern Jewish scholarship; two analogues come to mind. The first is Saul Lieberman's Tosefta Kifshutah, which demonstrated like no other work before it, the interplay of careful textual study with different layers of commentary which explain both how the text works and how the text relates to the rest of the rabbinic canon; Matt's work in establishing an accurate text of the Zohar is no less remarkable, and his commentary emulates Lieberman's both in its clarity and in its depth.

The second analogue is Adin Steinsaltz's modern Hebrew edition of the Talmud. Like the Steinsaltz Talmud, the Pritzker Zohar makes accessible in a modern language an extremely complex text without succumbing to the temptation of simplification. Also, like Steinsaltz, the text is simply beautiful, deftly using Hebrew text (along with transliteration and translation) throughout the text and the commentary.

Although Matt provides wonderful guidance, most will find even this edition of the Zohar daunting. Arthur Green's A Guide to the Zohar (published in conjunction with the Pritzker Zohar) and Matt's earlier work, The Essential Kabbalah, may be useful introductions for the novice.  Before investing in the Pritzker Zohar, interested readers might explore the valuable excerpts available on the publisher's website, www.sup.org/zohar. Matt's "Translator's Introduction," Green's "Introduction to the Kabbalah," Margot Pritzker's foreword, a Q&A with Daniel Matt, and sample pages are available for download (along with the aforementioned Aramaic text).

The Pritzker Zohar is not yet complete; Matt's journey will be long and complex like that of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in the Zohar. We hope it remains as productive, inventive, and satisfying both for the translator, and for those who learn from it.