The Forlorn Young Woman: Analysis, Interpretation, and Commentary

A Recently Discovered Fragment of the Zohar

Analysis and Interpretation by Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Heschel, the Zinkover Rebbe (1770-1855)

Commentary by Henry Rasof

Copyright ©1818 by Yitzchak Meir Heschel Commentary copyright © 2017 by Henry Rasof

When Rabbi Shimon walked over to the fig tree, followed by the companion rabbis, he saw the kabbalistic tree in his mind’s eye. Instead of seeing the other rabbis and the mule driver, he saw the tree of life emanating the divine attributes―the sefirot―among them hohkmah―wisdomon the right side of the tree (from our perspective). He sought the highest sefirot but was able to connect only with the lower ones, represented by the mules. All human beings, or most, want to connect with a higher power or with the more developed parts of themselves, but, even for a Rabbi Shimon, this is challenging, so we often do not succeed.

The woman who walked by at that moment was the Shekhinah―the feminine presence of God, and malkhut, the lowest sefira―manifesting momentarily in the guise of the matriarch Rachel, then disappearing. Rabbi Isaac, suddenly overwhelmed by the lovingly kind aura of the Shekhinah and by his own lovingkindness toward her, caught a glimpse of the ancient, primordial, eternal nature of God and asked his colleagues what he was experiencing. When we ourselves try to connect with that higher place, something wonderful happens: Even if just for a moment, we experience a strong manifestation of lovingkindness in the form of divine feminine energy. And, when we connect with that source, we also connect with the eternal, transcendent, merciful God.

Here also we have the holy triad of chesed, tiferet, and gevurah―lovingkindness, beauty, and strength. “Rachel” is the sefira chesed (normally in sefirotic language, lovingkindness would not be her sefira, but it is in this piece of Zohar), Rabbi Isaac is gevurah (strength), and God is tiferet. The rabbis prayed for the unification of these three qualities so that the world might be redeemed. Directed prayer is able to affect the universe in such a way as to unite different aspects of Creation and of God. On the personal level, praying for the unification of these qualities in ourselves brings a supernal sense of harmony and balance―God is our center, from which emanates our lovingkindness, tempered by restraint.

Such unification requires wisdom and understanding. However, these qualities are mysterious and fleeting, often disguised, even invisible, and as such were not perceived even by Rabbi Shimon and his companions. These two qualities now appeared but were unrecognized, disguised as qualities of the lowly mule driver, who actually was the mysterious Rav Hamnuna Sava, famous for his brilliant Torah interpretations and who frequently visited from the other world to teach Torah on Earth. As in many of his manifestations, and like those of the Holy One, he was recognized only after appearing and disappearing, and at this point, he was yet to be recognized by the rabbis. Our highest qualities, wisdom and understanding, often show up unexpectedly, may be transient, and might be disguised, so that we miss their appearance. These qualities also may show up in places we normally wouldn’t associate with higher qualities.

The source of the mule driver‘s wisdom was his strong grounding in the upper and lower worlds and his ability to dig in the high realms of the lower world in order to explore the depths of the upper world. He looked tired and ragged to the rabbis because, as Rav Hamnuna Sava, he was exhausted from raising so many sparks―elevating lower souls and reclaiming lost Torah knowledge. What was he there to teach this time? That one who is so grounded receives an outpouring of wisdom and understanding. Wisdom comes not just from a high place but from a low place as well; true wisdom comes from both places, from a place of balance.

From the description of “Rachel’s” response to the heavy rain, we can construct an interpretation built around the sefirot, the divine energies, of which there are ten total: When the upper and lower sefirot are fused, the divine nature of God―tiferet―will emerge. Furthermore, the energies of the sefirot can influence (“interrupt”) one another. For example, chesed (lovingkindness) can influence chokhmah (wisdom) when the other upper sefirot are allowed to modestly reveal themselves: The Torah has levels of meaning, arrayed in layers like garments―the garments of Torah. When they are allowed to flutter modestly “in the wind,” the holy spirit―the blessed Holy One―descends to earth in the form of chesed―pure lovingkindness, which is the essential essence of God. All wisdom, all experience, all people, all of life’s mysteries, everything under the sun―everything has layers of meaning and significance; when allowed to reveal their “spirit,” they open the way for the revelation of God’s purest nature, namely, chesed, or lovingkindness.

When Rabbi Abba said to “call the woman,” he was not being flip or disrespectful or demeaning. He was saying, in code, “Let us pray for chesed―lovingkindness―so that we can have a direct experience of God.” For him to attain this state, however, more Torah study (“food”) was necessary, and of the firey kind. Additionally, balance was required, lest he become supersaturated with lovingkindness and lose his self boundaries. Thus the desire for warmth, but the necessity for limits, symbolized by the woman’s throwing her wet jacket over her left shoulder (gevurah, limits=left side).

As the woman does this, she gazes at “some children.” What or who are these children? The daughter letters of the Hebrew mother letters aleph, mem, and shin, representing the three main constituents of matter: air (aleph, the first letter of avir, Hebrew for “air”), water (mem, the first letter of mayim, Hebrew for “water”), and fire (shin, the primary sound of aish, Hebrew for “fire”). They also represent the transcendent, infinite God, Ein-sof, which has no qualities we are able to detect or describe. Although the concept of daughter letters appears nowhere else in the Zohar and is obscure, we can surmise that since during the Creation when Ein-sof emanated the universe through the vehicle of the Hebrew letters, the three mother letters constituting the Ein-sof gave birth to three daughter letters from which the rest of Creation could proceed. What does this teach us? That that which appears simple on the surface sometimes is actually very complicated.

After “Rachel” left, Rabbi Eleazar attempted to penetrate the surface of chesed, thinking he could attain communion with God through the PRDS, the four levels of biblical interpretation (peshat, plain/literal; derash, metaphorical; remez, hinted or symbolic; sod, secret). In sighing, long and short, the mule driver was referring to the sefirotic emanations described in Tikkunei ha-Zohar, one of the components of the holy Zohar, which are chesed (lovingkindness; long) and din (judgment; short) at the extremes and rachamim (mercy) in the middle.1 The mule driver signaled only the two extremes, meant to send a wakeup call to the faithful, just as the long and short blasts of the shofar are meant to wake the faithful during the Days of Awe. He was attempting to awaken the rabbis to a more solid, holistic reality so that they could experience the unobscured, harmonious light of rachamim (mercy).

The sighs also represented creation and formation, the two lowest of the kabbalistic “four worlds”―and the lowest parts of the soul. The sighs, based on exhaled air rather than on words, also suggest a connection with the ruach hakodesh (the Holy Spirit)―in Hebrew, ruach means both wind and spirit, and it is also one of the levels of the soul, or if you wish, the third of our souls. The mule driver is suggesting that through listening to their breath the rabbis could come to a profound understanding of their souls.

With these sighs, the mule driver nonverbally transmitted two profound teachings, without using any fancy hermeneutic tools, the way all good teachers transmit teachings to their students―for example, Zen teachers, who transmit their teachings and anoint successor teachers nonverbally. We can wake up and receive profound teachings too by just following our breath, like a practitioner of vipassana meditation/mindfulness practice. There is nothing secret or complicated here: We simply need to pay attention to the signs all around us, directing us to balance our extreme qualities in order to be merciful toward ourselves and toward others, and also to experience the most basic levels of our soul. Once we do this we can soar in our highest soul to connect with God.

When the mule driver admonished the rabbis for being in their heads too much, he was continuing his theme of taking a grounded approach to Torah study. He first told the illustrious rabbis not to ignore “surface” meaning, because sometimes the surface meaning is the higher meaning, and sometimes that is all there is. Then he said to build a Torah interpretation from the ground up―actually, starting below-ground: As an interpretation grows increasingly complex, it will be sturdy and survive counter-interpretations and challenges. Additionally, all interpretations must center in the heart, considered the seat of the mind, since the heart represents balance, and a beautiful, sound interpretation must balance many considerations.

We often look for something in the wrong place, thinking it hidden, when actually it is in the open, under our noses. Seeing the obvious does not always come naturally, however; we may have to turn our world upsidedown, but when we do, we still need to stay close to the Source. In sefirotic terms this might mean inverting the tree so that the shefa (the divine flow) moves from the lowest sefira, yesod (foundation), to malkhut (the Shekhinah), to the middle sefira, tiferet (harmony), to two of the upper sefirot, chokhmah (wisdom) and binah (understanding), and finally to the highest sefira, keter (divine will), which some commentators do not believe is a sefira. All but three sefirot are engaged in this process.

The end of Rabbi Eleazar’s remarkably rich delivery on everything from “Rachel’s” wig to the apex of Jewish mystical experience drew further comments from the mule driver, who was responding in particular to Rabbi Eleazar’s florid, somewhat grandiose statement about riding the chariot (a central feature of merkavah mysticism―merkavah is Hebrew for “chariot”―inspired by Ezek. 1) to the seventh heavenly hall. The seventh heavenly hall that he referred to is the “holy of holies―the highest of the hekhalot (heavenly halls or palaces described in early Jewish mystical literature and also elsewhere in the Zohar), the one inhabited by Ein-sof, the transcendent God, the God without qualities.2 The mule driver advised him and the other rabbis to come down to Earth.

When we, seeking to connect with the transcendent God, become too removed from ourselves, from our deepest self, from Mother Nature, from our bodies, from the ground under our feet, we risk losing touch with reality and losing our minds. This is why traditionally Jews were not allowed to study kabbalah and the Zohar until they were forty years old, after they had a family, gainful employment, a through knowledge of the Torah, the Talmud, and Jewish ethics and law, as well as some life experience, for these would keep them grounded while exploring kabbalah, which could take the person into outer space: If you are an astronaut working outside the Space Station, you always are tethered to the Space Station so that you don’t drift off and become a casualty of deep space.

When after chastising the rabbis for “chasing heavenly halls,” out of the blue the mule driver threw a curveball question about the opening of the Torah―which contains one of the deepest puzzles of the Torah―why the text says Elohim, “gods”―he meant to challenge both tradition and conventional thinking. Achieving the deepest understanding of the Torah requires no less a challenge. We may have studied something before, perhaps what we have studied has come from our enlightened predecessors, but to arrive at our own complete and true wisdom we have to question everything we have learned so far, or else our knowledge is not really our own.

Furthermore, we need to ask questions from a holistic place, not a dualistic one: By standing back from the appearance of differences, we can come to realize, using our innate wisdom (chokhmah), that our intelligent, probing, seemingly off-beat questions come as well from a place of unity and harmony, regardless of what other people may think of them. In other words, though a cliché, we need to trust in our selves―not necessarily throwing out the baby with the bathwater, just not accepting everything we are told, without asking questions and testing whether what we are told is indeed true. The result is the connection that Rabbi Yose asked about.

Rabbi Shimon thought the mule driver meant sefirot when he said “gods” because he thought that he and Rav Hamnuna Sava were playing the same game, that is, thinking in terms of sefirot. Although the Zohar uses sefirotic language only sparingly, this section contains one of the important instances of its usage. Although an obvious observation, we need to be careful not to assume anything without looking deeper and to choose our language carefully, else we misunderstand or be misunderstood.

When Rabbi Shimon asked the mule driver, almost as an aside, “What can you add to this?,” he wanted to know whether the latter knew the deepest meaning of the Creation story that opens the Torah, and the secret of Creation itself, namely, the details of how God created the universe from the Torah blueprint and on a lower level how God utilized water to create life on earth. This is maaseh bereshit, the Work of Creation described in early Jewish texts and in the twelfth century by Moses Maimonides in his Guide of the Perplexed. Going with Maimonides’ take on these concepts: Whereas maaseh merkavah, the Work of the Chariot (the same chariot Rabbi Eleazar referred to), describes the philosophical and mystical fabric of the universe, maaseh bereshit describes the physical, scientific fabric. Where do we come from, where are we going, who are we, what is the meaning of life? These are the big questions, whether we are Rabbi Shimon, scientists, philosophers, mystics, theologians, writers, children, or “ordinary” people. Even if we think we know the answer to a profound question, we need to probe more, because these questions have no final, conclusive answers. As the saying goes: Those who say they know, do not know, and those who know, do not say.

However, the mule driver was more interested in Elohim than in the details of Creation, which he did not provide. He said, no, Elohim had nothing to do with the sefirot; rather, Elohim meant “gods,” literally. He said that throughout the Torah many usages have no secondary or deeper meaning―for example, instances of plurals used in place of singulars, and so the take on Freud’s famous statement about cigars―”Sometimes a plural is just a plural.” Hence Elohim (“gods”) may have no special meaning. Additionally, this question, like all seemingly deep questions, may not be so special after all. Again, we need to be careful not to take anything at face value or assume everything has a deeper significance. People who do this risk forgetting to smell the flowers and listen to the birds and simply be present with these sensory experiences. We need to ask questions and probe deeply for answers, but again, we need to stay alert for the unexpected, not privilege any experience or concept, and remember to take some things with a grain of salt.

Curiously, this is the opposite of what the mule driver said earlier, that beneath simplicity often lies complexity. However, these two concepts do not really contradict each other; they simply illustrate that we cannot really take anything at face value and make assumptions about its true nature. Some phenomena appear simple but are actually quite complex, and some complex phenomena are actually quite simple. Just as we need to be careful not to make mountains out of molehills, so too we need to be careful not to minimize or downplay the significance of something just because it appears simple.

When Rabbi Yose and the mule driver went back on forth on the nature of Elohim, Rabbi Yose brought in angels, since one of the traditional explanations of God’s plurality in the name Elohim is that when the Torah says, “Let us make man in our own image” (Gen. 1:26), God is consulting with angels. However, not only did the mule driver insist that Elohim means “gods,” plural, but he said there are seven gods and then, correcting himself, ten. Curiously, this sounds as if he is talking about sefirot, first as a group of seven, then as a totality of ten, including the godhead itself (possibly keter).

He then used the analogy of the chanukiah to argue that whether Elohim signifies God or gods was a matter of perspective, as with lights in a chanukiah: From one angle Elohim appears to be many gods, but from another Elohim is just one God. “Gods,” plural, is an illusion. The apparent argument about how many gods there were “In the Beginning” is thus irrelevant, since perspective is what matters, regardless of whether the number of lights is three, or seven, or eight, or ten, since from another perspective there may appear to be just one light.

When asked about the shamash, the light on the chanukiah that is supposed to be higher than the other lights, he said the shamash indeed has a special purpose, but when a chanukiah is viewed from a certain angle, all the lights, now including the shamash, appear to be one. We can draw a parallel with human society: Some members (like Rabbi Shimon) are indeed “higher” in spiritual or intellectual or physical status―they have special abilities and other people cannot do. However, they are still part of humankind at large; from that perspective, all the lights are one, or manifestations of one light. The reasoning in our Zohar passage resembles to some extent a section of the Idra Zuta, one of the Zohar texts: [A]ll the lights draw their light from the supernal light. . . . And all the lights and all the luminaries draw their light from the Atika Kadisha, . . . the supernal light.”3

Likewise, ourselves as individuals: We have many lights within ourselves, but one is higher, or should be: our chief feature as an individual human being, which makes us individually special. This might be our reasoning skills, or our kindness and generosity, or our spirituality, or our physical strength, or our ability to make peace or lead an army, or raise children, or play music or create art. Or, it might just be that we are human, made in the image of God, since we are special even if we don’t shine in any of these ways, which are really just talents or abilities. Yet, within our selves, despite the appearance of many parts, we are really just one soul, undivided, indivisible.

Of course, when viewed against all the other lights around us―the rest of humanity―our seemingly unique soul is one with the whole. And, from the final perspective, this soul is one with the universe, and with God: Everything is part of God, there is no difference between us and God, even using this language of differentiation is false, God lights all the lamps, He is the holiest of lamps, and yet God too is not higher than any one of us, since viewed from that special perspective there is but one lamp. And this is why Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai was called the Holy Lamp: He realized all of this.

In spite of the mule driver’s explanations, Rabbi Shimon, although understanding what the mule driver said, was still unclear why the mule driver said what he said, specifically, “many gods created the heavens and the earth.” Although Rabbi Yose suspected trickery, Rabbi Eleazar gave him the benefit of the doubt: “I think he is trying to tell us something.” Likewise, when confronted by someone who says something that appears confusing or is too complicated for us to grasp, rather than reacting as if a trick is involved, we need to ask, “What is the message?” Obviously, not everything has a message, as the mule driver has pointed out, and of course sometimes confusion and complication are unnecessary or even harmful―deliberate obfuscation is crazy-making if we do not hold on to our center, to our own highest guiding light, and to our connection with the highest light―God.

In this case, of course, Rabbi Shimon sensed the wisdom in the mule driver’s words, and so he intuitively knew there was something deep in what he was saying, a special message or teaching he was bringing, and thus agreed with his son, Rabbi Eleazar, that the mule driver was trying to tell the rabbis something.

To make sure he understood the mule driver, Rabbi Shimon then summarized the essence of the mule driver’s teaching on perspective, to which the mule driver responded by asserting that both terms―”gods” and “sefirot“―were meaningless. Although he never directly said, “I used the word gods because . . . ,” the reason he asked the question was to get the rabbis, including Rabbi Shimon, to see beyond appearances and linguistic constructs like Elohim and sefirot and words in general and to experience the unity of all existence.

In the metaphysical realm we need to remember that things and their descriptions are not the same; words go just so far. If we are caught up in the fine points of constructs, we will forget that constructs are just that: constructs. Objects have a more basic reality than the way they are described, for instance. In Hinduism this quality might be called sat-chit-ananda―”truth, consciousness, bliss,” an epithet and description for the subjective experience of Brahman, the ultimate, unchanging reality. The later Western philosophers also were aware of these different levels of perception. All descriptions of reality are equivalent―none is better than another, more accurate. Mistaking these descriptions for the subject of the descriptions is illusion.

Rabbi Abba then astutely asked: What, then, is the purpose of the sefirot? If they have no reality of their own, how did they come to be? Are they just a figment of someone’s imagination? And, even more astutely, If God is just One and indivisible, how explain the diversity and multiplicity of creation? This last question has challenged philosophers, metaphysicians, and mystics, Jewish and non-Jewish, for at least two thousand years.

Rabbi Abba answered his own question, saying the sefirot are needed to explain the diversity and multiplicity of Creation and that God emanated the sefirot, which in turn propagated the diversity and multiplicity we see in the world.

For the mule driver, however, there was no problem, since distinctions between God and His creation are illusory, and the sefirot are not needed to explain life’s deepest mysteries: They are a construct useful to understanding the blessed Holy One and the universe but do not reflect their actual natures. We will always be puzzled if we do not see the unity of all creation and understand that words are simply imperfect descriptions of what is.

The illuminating words of the mule driver created an aha! experience for the rabbis, which is why they were speechless. There is some indication that this experience led them directly to that seventh heavenly hall that the mule driver, somewhat ironically in retrospect, warned the rabbis about earlier on, since no sound is heard in this hall, wherein dwells the Shekhinah, the divine presence.4 Many of us, confronted with a profound revelation that we intuitively know is a reflection of one of life’s truths, or even a recognition on a lower level of something we aren’t aware of―like a secret that a good friend has been hiding for years―may respond similarly, becoming temporarily mute and perhaps even experiencing our jaw dropping, as we momentarily connect with the supernal Source of Life, seemingly distant and invisible, now immanent, close to us.

Rabbi Eleazar then eloquently summarized all the mule driver said: Because the nature of reality has been explained many times, just as the question posed by Rabbi Hamnuna Sava has been posed many times, it can be said that in the next world an even deeper meaning will be revealed, namely, that this world is actually just how it appears, with nothing special or mysterious about it. And this highest meaning will manifest from the one God, the lovingly kind God, as does everything in Creation. The primordial origin of the universe is in fact lovingkindness. This seems to be maaseh bereshit, the Work of Creation, its ultimate secret. Using the metaphor of the candelabra, lovingkindness is the shamash that lights the other sefirot. However, it is both the highest light and just another light―it’s all a matter of perspective.

“Amen!” everyone responded, a recognition of faith in God’s oneness―the sefirot are only a construct―”amen” is related to emunah, faith―and a response to those Jewish critics who attacked kabbalists as being worse than Christians for propagating the belief that God is not just three but many, defaming the shema, the central proclamation of the Jewish faith that God is One.

By saying “The mule driver is onto something,” Rabbi Isaac was partially acknowledging that the mule driver had some wisdom that the rabbis didn’t have, and admitting his own limitations. However, because he stereotypes people, even though he knows “the mule driver is onto something,” he still is unable to fully acknowledge that the mule driver has some wisdom, asking, almost snidely, “But, who is he anyway?” It is likewise with us: To use a cliché, we often judge a book by its cover. How often to we do this with other people and also with ourselves: We have more wisdom than we want to admit, inner wisdom, intuitive understanding, and might discount this wisdom because it is not coming from a PhD or an MD or someone who is educated in a way that we are not: “How could so and so possibly know that? She never went to college.” Or: “I couldn’t possibly do that. I don’t know enough. I’m terrible at numbers.”

After Rabbi Eleazar spoke, the rabbis looked to the right, in the direction of “Rachel,” chesed, lovingkindness. She had moved farther away because she thought the rabbis also had moved away: Even though they seemed to be “getting it”―that is, what the mule driver had said and their own native wisdom―she sensed resistance to the teachings. When we realize that chesed is the hub of the wheel of the universe, we also may become afraid that we will lose ourselves, so we may pull back from the realization and revert to our former, less enlightened selves.

After “Rachel” moved away, the mule driver disappeared. Along the way he had helped guide the rabbis, especially toward understanding the importance of perspective in seeing past illusory constructs and dualities.

Whether everyone needs such an external guide to help in his or her spiritual maturation is an individual decision. From this text, however, it would seem that a guide could help steer us toward a fuller understanding of ourselves, of the world, of the relationship between the two, and of the various methods or anti-methods of achieving this understanding. At some point, however, the guide may be unnecessary: When the lenses of perception are cleansed of dualities of the kind being discussed, our human qualities will take care of themselves, without a guide. And, since an immanent God is not needed, God becomes transcendent. We may feel lost at first, like Rabbi Yose, who no longer had his whipping boy in the form of the mule driver. Rabbi Yose now needs to let go his narrow-mindedness and insecurities, but eventually he will be better off. He will need to depend on his own smarts, which automatically will be in tune with God’s. We too will be better off if we let go our prejudices and projections and no longer let them guide us.

However, even if we let go an outer guide or let it disappear, we still will need some way to control and direct our lives, else things get out of hand. This control needs to come from the highest place, not from any intermediary place. And this highest place is Ein-sof, the God that cannot be seen, felt, heard, touched, or described, but perhaps glimpsed in rare moments―the Holy Ancient One alluded to earlier in this Zohar text when Rabbi Abba asked the identity of the young woman. Control also comes from feeding our lower qualities the discards: They would not survive on higher qualities. For example, if we are hungry, we need physical food, not spiritual food. If we need physical affection, all the wisdom in the world won’t make a dent in that need. In addition, these lower qualities will happily feed off the husks, leaving the oat kernels to be fed on by higher qualities.

Inspired by the enigmatic, disappearing mule driver and his out-of-control mules, Rabbi Shimon finally figured out who the mule driver was: Rav Hamnuna Sava, described earlier. Likewise, when we figure out which part of us is the wisest and most brilliant, we are free to savor what we can learn from it, in this case not to mistake husks for oats.

There now was total agreement on Rav Hamnuna’s teaching, meaning that Rav Hamnuna had been freed of any taint of duality, bonding him to his teaching, allowing him to return to the Other World. Likewise, when our own qualities light up at the same time, indicating harmony, we are free to merge with God, or to realize there was no difference in the first place. Any perceived difference is illusion, just like the concept that God is plural.

In the flow of the river, the ancient flow of Torah wisdom, too, echoed this realization, and although the mystery of Creation seemed solved―at least for the time being―the mystery of the chariot remained unsolved, leaving a seeming conundrum and new mystery: If chesed―lovingkindness―explains the physical creation of the universe―one would think this would be the metaphysical basis of Creation―then what does maaseh merkavah―the Work of the Chariot, the metaphysical reality―explain or do?

A clue perhaps resides with the river. Could this be one of the rivers in the Garden of Eden? Perhaps the mystery is there. Or maybe it suggests Hagigah 14b-15b, the famous passage in the Babylonian Talmud, in which Rabbi Akiva says, “When you reach the shining marble stone, do not cry out ‘Water, Water.'” Some commentators connect this with “theories of Creation which assume water to be the original element.5” However, our Zohar text does not explore this angle.

We may figure something out that we think is important and end up thinking if we can figure that out, we can figure out anything and everything, including maaseh bereshit and maaseh merkavah. This does not always happen: Sometimes the expected answer is the unexpected one, leaving us back where we started or forcing us to regroup. And sometimes no one knows the answer, or there is no answer, or the person we think has the answer either doesn’t or doesn’t want to tell us. If even Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, the wisest of the wise, illuminator of the deepest of mysteries, didn’t know the secret of Creation or why the Torah was written the way it was, what about the rest of us? Even the wise mule driver, who turned out to be the greatest of the ancient Torah scholars, didn’t have all the answers. And, no one even noticed the apparent problem created in saying the physical universe came from a metaphysical source, if indeed it was a contradiction.

And so, even though the Torah flows with lovingkindness and its revelations depend on the lovingkindness of the Holy One, Torah will always be refreshed, will always refresh those who embody lovingkindness, and surprise us with her eternal mysteries.


The reader may notice that in the analysis, interpretation, and commentary―especially the beginning―and most especially in the endnotes to the original text―names, terms, and phrases are interpreted using the sefirot, often on a one-to-one correspondence: Rabbi Shimon = binah (understanding), Rachel = chesed (lovingkindness), and so on.

The observant reader then will notice that sefirotic language is mostly dropped in favor of ordinary terms like “lovingkindness.” As Rav Hamnuna Sava says repeatedly, don’t mistake words for what they stand for. He also says the sefirot are a useful paradigm for understanding the world but are only a construct: Although the sefirot are not needed to understand the nature of Creation, this language is still helpful in understanding the text. It also makes the text familiar to those readers familiar with this type of interpretation. On this seemingly opaque and contradictory note, I leave you to uncover and navigate the truths embodied in this recently discovered piece of the Holy Zohar, the Book of Splendor.


The Wisdom of the Zohar: An Anthology of Texts. Three volumes. Oxford and Portland, OR: Oxford University Press, 1989. Systematically arranged and rendered into Hebrew by Fischel Lachower (vols. 1 & 2) and Isaiah Tishby (vols. 1-3), with extensive introductions and explanations by Isaiah Tishby. English translation by David Goldstein.

Meron and Safed, Israel

February 2017

1 The Wisdom of the Zohar, vol. 1, p. 260.

2 The Wisdom of the Zohar, vol. 1, p. 241.

3 The Wisdom of the Zohar, vol. 1, p. 246.

4 The Wisdom of the Zohar, vol. 1, p. 246.

5“Ma’aseh Bereshit; Ma’aseh Merkabah,” Jewish Encyclopedia ( See the article for more on water as the primordial element of Creation.