The Zohar’s Bereishit: A Commentary

Frontispiece of the 1559 Cremona Zohar

Note: This is a revised version of an essay I wrote in early 2019. All Zohar citations are sourced from Daniel Matt’s 2003 “Pritzker Edition” translation published by Stanford University Press.

Few texts in the history of Jewish thought are as complex, perplexing, and extraordinarily beautiful as Sefer Ha’Zohar — the Book of Radiance. Composed, or perhaps revealed, in the Kingdom of Castile sometime in the late thirteenth century, the Zohar is as confounding as it is inspiring, as impenetrable as it revealing, and has by virtue of these contradictions remained a persistent object of interpretation in both religious and secular spheres of inquiry for the past eight centuries, with only a superficial dip in interest following the pseudo-messianic crises of the seventeenth century. Amongst the most fascinating sections of this text is its exegetical treatment of Parashat Bereishit (Zohar 1:15a), the opening verse of Genesis. Here, the author(s) of the Zohar work to subtly integrate centuries of Jewish mystical symbolism and myth into the opening words of Torah by looking deep within this passage, far beyond its literal or even halakhic meanings, to find the Sod (“secret”): the hidden, mystical essence of the text. In reading this portion we as contemporary readers bear witness to an exemplary case of kabbalistic hermeneutics in action–the fruits of which, as we will see, are astonishing.

But what exactly is this thing called Zohar, and how does the section in question fit into it? The answer to this question is appropriately uncertain given that the Zohar’s perhaps intentionally cryptic nature. Gershom Scholem, the twentieth-century scholar credited with reaffirming Kabbalah’s place in academic discourse, audaciously referred to the work as a “mystical novel” (Major Trends, 157). It is true, certainly, that the work has episodic and even novelistic elements, but what is even more interesting is how these episodes connect seamlessly to sections of deep biblical exegesis. It is through the frame narrative concerning a group of rabbis — namely, the great Mishnaic tanna Shimon bar Yohai and his students — that we are introduced to these sites of intense interpretation. The hermeneutical method present in these moments is, to put it mildly, quite staggering, particularly when one considers the sheer volume of meaning that these authors are able to extract from only three words of the original written Torah. In the exegetical text itself, even, it seems that no word means just one thing; it is helpful, therefore, to think of the many concepts orbiting around this exegesis as “symbol-clusters,” to borrow the language of Arthur Green, each with their own universe of meaning. Thus I contend it is only appropriate that this text be considered and commented on line by line, similarly to how the authors of this text treated the Torah. Before commencing this commentary, then, I’ll end this prologue by leaving you with the query which I understand to be the central driving concern of the interpretation at hand; simply: “What created God?”.

Below is the text in full for reference:

Zohar 1:15: At the head of potency of the King, He engraved engravings in luster on high. A spark of impenetrable darkness flashed within the concealed of the concealed, from the head of Infinity — a cluster of vapor forming in formlessness, thrust in a ring, not white, not black, not red, not green, no color at all. As a cord surveyed, it yielded radiant colors. Deep within the spark gushed a flow, splaying colors below, concealed within the concealed of the mystery of Ein Sof. It split and did not split its aura, was not known at all, until under the impact of splitting, a single, concealed, supernal point shone. Beyond that point, nothing is known, so it is called ראשית (Reshit), Beginning, first command of all.

זהר (Zohar), Radiance! Concealed of concealed struck its aura, which touched and did not touch this point. Then this beginning expanded, building itself a palace worthy of glorious praise. There it sowed seed to give birth, availing worlds. The secret is: Her stock is seed of holiness (Isaiah 6:13). זהר (Zohar), Radiance! Sowing seed for its glory, like the seed of fine purple silk wrapping itself within, weaving itself a palace, constituting its praise, availing all. With this beginning, the unknown concealed one created the palace. The palace is called אלהים (Elohim), God. The secret is: בראשית ברא אלהים (Be-reshit bara Elohim), With beginning, created God (Genesis 1:1).

At the head of the potency of the King: We begin this text by encountering a virile and regal phrase– hurmanuta de-malka–which Matt interprets as “potency of the King” while quickly conceding in a footnote that “authority” might be a more literal translation over “potency.” The intention of his liberal translation should not be lost on us; Matt is utilizing the second meaning of potency in English as the masculine ability to reproduce (compare with “impotence”) in an effort to remind us that in medieval science the male “head” (specifically the brain) was conceived of as the source and headwater of semen, that vital and self-reproducing substance. Understood through this lens the “head” of the King’s (God’s) being signifies the germ or “seed” of all subsequent emanation. The semi-corporeal dual meaning of this portrayal is not to be lost on us: “head” in this manner is read as referring both to the commencement of the King’s stirring of desire to create — the supra-temporal reishit, “beginning” — and as the topmost feature of the divine body.

He engraved engravings in luster on high: As Matt’s footnote elucidates, these “engravings” will ultimately be made manifest as the ten sefirot. It is worth asking, then — why this word choice? Certainly, it wasn’t lost on Matt that the word “engravings” will unmistakably echo the second commandment–thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image–to any reader even peripherally familiar with Jewish law. The translator is playing with this association in order to encourage us as readers to consider this action (the engraving of the engravings) as not only a purely creative process but as one involving the creation of a divine form. In other words, this action is similar (though not identical) to the forbidden creation of idols in that an “image” of God (as we might describe, though not without plenty of caveats, the sefirot) is, effectively, the product of this “engraving” gesture. We can thus see the extent to which the Zohar is, like all Jewish text, an essentially intertextual document. The “luster on high” mentioned at the end of this sentence is symbolic of the first sefirah, Keter. As aforementioned, Keter is the topmost sefirah. In keeping with the corporeal symbolism surrounding divinity, Keter is usually translated literally as “crown,” which corresponds appropriately with the often monarchical language used to describe the divine body (as we have seen above). Understood more precisely, Keter — like all the sefirot — is the first emanation of Ein Sof, representative of a primordial, pre-conscious desire towards creation.

A spark of impenetrable darkness flashed: How can this paradox of “sparking darkness” be explained? While the forms described in this passage are not to be understood qualitatively, this language effectively connotes the sense that it is extreme in a way that is unconditional, unmediated, and transcendent of formal qualities as they are typically understood. The contradictory and paradoxical nature of this description is, I believe, a symbolic representation of this transcendent extremity. (One can compare this symbolization of extremity to the concept of “limit-experience” explored by continental philosophers in the twentieth century.) within the concealed of the concealed, from the head of Infinity: Here, “concealed of the concealed” refers to Keter, while “Infinity” is a translation of Ein-Sof (literally meaning “without-end”), the preconscious endlessness from which all sefirot emanate.

– a cluster of vapor forming in formlessness, thrust in a ring: Another (granted, paradoxical) way of understanding the emanation of Keter out of Ein-Sof is as form (Keter) emerging out of a vast “formlessness” (Ein-Sof). Something that is “vaporous” has a certain form — it is, in other words, something — and yet it is (as we shall see) colorless, and thus invisible. The author may have been influenced by the exegetical and especially mystical medieval tradition of using “air” as a stand-in for various spiritual media, especially the Holy Spirit. This form, Keter, does nonetheless take a shape: that of a ring, a reference to the sefirot’s spherical nature (a concept which deserves its own essay). not white, not black, not red, not green, no color at all: Keter is thus understood as being distinct from four of the other more colorful sefirot (namely: Hesed, Shekhinah, Gevurah, and Tif’eret) in that it is transparent. See Moshe Cordovero’s commentary on Zohar for more on the colors of the sefirot.

A diagram of the sefirot with names in English and transliterated Hebrew. Ein-sof, the primordial infinite nothingness grounding all divinity, is not pictured — imagine it if you’d like as the white of the background. This portion of Zohar deals with only the upper three (“intellectual”) sefirot: Keter through Binah.

[…] Deep within the spark gushed a flow, splaying colors below: It’s important to note the two types of symbols that are being used here to describe the kind of substance that exists within the realm of Keter: light (spark) and water (a “gushing,” “flowing” material). These symbolic forms are quite native to Jewish text; they both appear, in fact, within the first verse of the very book in question, Genesis. Our tradition tells us that in the beginning there was “a wind from God sweeping over the water” before God issued his first command, “let there be light” (1:2–3). Within kabbalistic literature these forms are elevated to a divine level; this is to say that they are (again, paradoxically) represented as a combined substance–that is, a kind of liquid-light–used metaphorically to describe the very substance of divinity: this liquid-light is the fluid substance of God itself. This metaphor may have been influenced by Maimonides’ consideration of light as a symbol of divinity. concealed within the concealed of the mystery of Ein-Sof: We are here being instructed to remember that nothing yet has been made manifest; instead, this action is happening within the subterranean ineffability of Ein-Sof. In other words, this has all thus far taken place only on the stage of the vast nothingness of Infinity’s unconscious: nothing has happened, in a very active sense.

It split and did not split its aura,: “It” here refers to Ein Sof, “aura” to Keter. Indeed, “aura” seems particularly useful among the repertoire of euphemisms which have been used to describe Keter’s relationship to Ein-Sof–that is, most basically, something’s relationship to nothing. “Split and did not split” is another charming example of the contradictory and paradoxical language employed throughout the textual tradition of Kabbalah (see Scholem, 167). The message of this particular contradiction seems to be that some kind of ineffable rupture occurred to the aforementioned divine substance via Keter that will ultimately allow for the subsequent sefirot (Hokhmah, Binah, etc.) to emanate. This gesture anticipates the Lurianic concept of tsimtsum, through which the infinite God contracts himself to accommodate the creation of finite forms (i.e., the world). was not known at all, until under the impact of splitting, a single, concealed, supernal point shone: Through this splitting gesture the second sefirah is created, described here through the language of light and finitude: a shining, celestial point (in which “point” implies the existence of formal boundaries of some kind). Beyond that point, nothing is known, so it is called ראשית, Beginning, first command of all: Thus, a distinction is made between Keter and the second sefirah, here identified as Reishit but known more commonly as Hokhmah, “wisdom”. The distinction is one of comprehensibility. Hokhmah is understood here as the first aspect of divinity that can be known (“tasted,” even) by its creations, whereas everything “beyond” or “above” Hokhmah (a category that includes only Keter and, in a certain sense, Ein Sof) is beyond finite comprehension. This is perhaps in contrast to later conceptions of the sefirot which cast Binah as the first knowable sefirah.

זֹהַר, Radiance! Concealed of concealed struck its aura, which touched and did not touch this point: A string of metaphors in which “concealed of concealed” refers to Ein Sof, “aura” to Keter, and “point” to Hokhma. What does it mean, then, for Keter to “touch and not touch” Hokhmah, the point of wisdom? Here we find a similar kind of paradoxical and ineffable contact to the aforementioned splitting. Indeed, it is a series quite common in narratives of the sefirot’s creation, in which a subsequent sefirah is first created as a kind of vessel and then filled with the emanation of the preceding sefirah in a series of influential ratios. Here, Keter has created (though this is an unsatisfactory verb) Hokhmah through the ineffable splitting gesture and is now transmitting its emanation — it’s spark of divine impulse — into Hokhmah.

Then this beginning expanded, building itself a palace worthy of glorious praise: The same cosmological process as discussed above, only here Hokhma is creating (through, it seems, some method of self-expansion) Binah: “understanding,” the third of the sefirot. There it sowed seed to give birth, availing worlds: This is a supremely erotic passage. In a manner similar to the way in which Keter transmitted to Hokhma its emanation of divine impulse, Hokhmah now fills Binah, the palace, with its creative seed and thus the latter is able to give birth, as it were, to the seven succeeding sefirot and thus to the entirety of creation. It is because of this fertile relationship that Hokhmah and Binah are considered one of two divine couplings among the sefirot, wherein they represent the masculine and feminine (even abba and imma: father and mother) counterparts of divinity. The secret is: Her stock is the seed of holiness (Isaiah 6:13): A citation from Isaiah, that remarkably mystical prophet, reinforces the emphasis placed on cosmological fertility expounded earlier in the passage while reminding us that this action is mirrored on a terrestrial level in human reproduction.

[…] With this beginning, the unknown concealed one created the palace. This palace is called Elohim, God. The secret is: Be-reshit bara Elohim, With beginning, ­­­­_______ created God (Genesis 1:1): Finally, we are given the punchline, as it were, to this entire exegetical endeavor. This is done not only through a new interpretation of the meaning of the passage in question but, indeed, through a radical re(or: mis)reading of the words themselves. In this manner, the be- pronoun of Be-reshit is interpreted as meaning “with” rather than “in,” thus transforming the word from “in [the] beginning” into “with beginning” (i.e., through the means of beginning), wherein “beginning” (reshit) stands in for Hokhmah, the sefirah of wisdom. The sentence, if understood in the order the words appear (rather than in the order they ought to be grammatically read in), now reads as: “With [reshit/Hokhmah], [__] created God.” With “God” as the object of this sentence, though, we have a problem. What was it, through the use of Hokhmah, that created God? It is in a truly kabbalistic fashion that this problem is solved: an invisible word, a subject, is read into the text. What is this subject? Appropriately, it is the Ineffable One, the Ancient of Days, the God beyond comprehension, likely conceived as either Ein-Sof, Keter, or some coeternal combination of the two. In this configuration the last word of the phrase is now read as Binah, the third sefirah. Dizzyingly, the phrase now reads as “With [reshit/Hokhmah], [the ineffable God/Ein-Sof/Keter] created [Binah].” Hence, incredibly, the authors of this text have read the creation of the first sefirot — and, thus, the creation of God out of God through the use of God — into the first three words of Torah.

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