Book Review: Israel M. Ta-Shma, Ha-Nigle She-Banistar - The Halachic Residue in the Zohar; A Contribution to the Study of the Zohar, Tel Aviv 1995, 126 pp. [in Hebrew]

by Yehuda Liebes

This book is valuable so long as it confines itself to its title at face value. The author fulfils his promise and deals competently with the halakhic residue in the Zohar. He traces the sources of many customs mentioned there, emphasizing Ashkenazi sources for a number of them. But this book is very problematic when it exceeds these limits and does not refrain from passing judgment upon seminal issues such as a general characterization of the Zohar, where it was written and by whom. The author deals lightheadedly with issues like these, while ignoring, or disparaging, the immense work done on this subject by generations of researchers.

Ta-Shma treats the Zohar as a halakhic book, rather than kabbalistic. He claims that the Zohar highly appreciates the rabbinic establishment and the halakhic authorities, and identifies its heroes with them. As a proof Ta-Shma quotes and interprets only one passage (Zohar, III, 197b), but his interpretation is very wrong, as is demonstrated at length in the present article. On this ground Ta-Shma purports the Zohar to have originated in the circle of the great halakhic authorities Nahmanides and R. Jonah Gerondi in Toledo. The major reasoning for this is the inclination towards creativity and novelty which is a characteristic common to both the Zohar and Nahmanides. But this similarity does not really hold, because Nahmanides confines his creativity to the field of halakha, and his novellae on the Talmud are very different in character from the kabbalistic hiddushim of the Zohar. Moreover, in his attitude towards kabbala (which Ta-Shma ignores altogether) Nahmanides is an extreme traditionalist and esoteric who denies any creativity or novelty, and so is diametrically opposed to the spirit of the Zohar. Ta-Shma tries to uphold the linkage between the Zohar and the Nahmanides circle by invoking some halakhic parallels, but part of these are not true parallels, as shown here, and others are similar only in details but not in spirit, and are due only to literary influence. As for Toledo as the place where the Zohar was written, new manuscript evidence is produced in the present article to the effect that Zoharic customs did not prevail in that city.

For ascribing the Zohar to the Nahmanides circle, Ta-Shma severs all contacts between the Zohar and R. Moses de Leon. He does so rather offhandedly, and with a demonstrated ignoring of or ignorance of kabbala research, which abounds with evidences linking R. Moses to the composition of the Zohar. The same attitude, casual disregard towards kabbala research, is demonstrated in yet another new theory conjured up by Ta-Shma, concerning the whereabouts of the Zohar composition. Besides his theory that the Zohar was written in Toledo, Ta-Shma also thinks that the book could have been written in Greece. Ta-Shma himself admits that this second theory is groundless, but all the same he brings it forth. His sole evidence is a Zohar dictum to the effect that the Greeks 'are close to the ways of true faith'. Ta-Shma takes this to prove the Zohar's familiarity with Greek-Orthodox Christianity and mysticism, but in fact this dictum does not refer to Medieval Greece at all. It is a paraphrase of an old Midrash passage, which deals with Alexander the Great. The said Zoharic dictum has many parallels in the Hebrew writings of R. Moses de Leon which also prove that the Greeks who are meant here are philosophers of Antiquity who preceded Aristotle.

Répertoire bibliographique / Bibliographic Repertory