The Zohar

Pritzker Edition: Volume Ten

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Editor(s): 
Nathan Wolski
Translator(s): 
Nathan Wolski
Zohar: The Pritzker Editions
  • Palo Alto, CA: 
    Stanford University Press
    , May
     2016.
     656 pages.
     $75.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780804788045.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The volume under review contains the surviving commentary of the Midrash ha-Ne’lam in proper sequence on the Torah.  The Midrash ha-Ne’lam, translated as “The Concealed Midrash” or “Midrash of the Concealed” is an important section of the Zohar, the central work of the medieval Jewish mystical tradition. The Zohar is not a unitary work, but consists of a core text of commentary on the Torah—Zohar—along with the addition of a number of larger and smaller treatises interspersed or added. The Midrash ha-Ne’lam is considered to be the earliest version or prototype of the work that ultimately became the Zohar. It is important to understand the development of many of the ideas and motifs found in the Zohar which characterize the medieval kabbalistic tradition. It is still a matter of scholarly discussion whether this text was a first attempt by the circle that produced the Zohar or if it was the work of an earlier author or authors who influenced the circle of the Zoharic authors.

The dominant intellectual influences in the Midrash ha-Ne’lam are medieval Neoplatonism and rabbinic midrash. The biblical stories of Genesis were reinterpreted as allegories of the soul and the body along with the descent of the soul into the body, its adventures on the earth, and its death and ultimate resurrection. The biblical characters are symbols of these various stages and situations. For example, Abraham and Sarah symbolize the soul and the body, while Isaac and Rebekah stand in for the soul in the resurrected body. Rabbinic midrashic stories also influence the narrative, and are interpreted in ways that are prototypical attempts to introduce the theosophical ideas that characterize the Zohar.

This duality continues in the language of the text. Parts are written in rabbinic Hebrew that is close to the style of midrashic texts, while other parts are in Aramaic. In addition to the biblical allegories, there are stories about rabbis from the Talmud and Midrash, some of who become central figures in the stories of the Zohar. The cast of characters in the Midrash ha-Ne’lam is much wider than that of the Zohar, almost as if the author(s) is “testing” various figures before deciding on Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai and his group of disciples as the cast of characters around whom to build the narrative structure of the Zohar. In addition, motifs and themes that play an important role in the Zohar are already found in the Midrash ha-Ne’lam. One example is the motif of rabbis discussing mystical teachings as they walk on from one place to another. The Midrash ha-Ne’lam is a window onto the processes that led to the creation of the Zohar.

A circle of Jewish mystics in northern Spain composed the Zohar at the end of the thirteenth century, but its present form is the result of decisions made by the editors and printers of the earliest printed editions in the middle of the sixteenth century. The standard editions of the Zohar are based on the first two editions of Mantua (1558-1560) and Cremona (1558). Additional Zoharic texts not included in the original editions were later published in a volume entitled Zohar Hadash (Salonika, 1598). The surviving sections of the Midrash ha-Ne’lam are divided between these works. The Zohar includes the Midrash ha-Ne’lam commentary on Genesis 18-32, Exodus 1-6, and a brief commentary on Deuteronomy 21-25. The Zohar Hadash includes commentary on Genesis 1-17, which is included in the present volume. Song of Songs, Ruth, and Lamentations  will appear in the next volume of this series. This volume also includes three addenda—Midrash ha-Ne’lam texts that remained in manuscript and were only published in the twentieth century.

The English translation of the text is clear and precise. The text is often symbolic and metaphorical, and is based on allusions to biblical and rabbinic texts. The commentary is informative and comprehensive, guiding the reader through the thicket of allusions and references to classical texts as well as medieval ideas and teachings. Editor Nathan Wolski’s translation and commentary meet the high standards of scholarship set by Daniel Matt, the founding editor of this series. It is an indispensable work for anyone interested in the Zoharic corpus. It is accessible to the non-specialist and an invaluable resource for the specialist.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Morris M. Faierstein is a Research Associate at the Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Maryland.

Date of Review: 
February 3, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Nathan Wolski is the Liberman Family Lecturer in Jewish Studies with the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation, Monash University, Australia. He is the author of A Journey into the Zohar: An Introduction to the Book of Radiance (2010), and translator of Melila Hellner-Eshed's seminal work, A River Flows From Eden: The Language of Mystical Experience in the Zohar(Stanford, 2009).

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