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Book of Radiance

Social Science, Philosophy and Religion Department, Central Library,
book cover graphic of The Zohar

The Zohar (aka Sefer Ha-Zohar, or "Book of Radiance") is considered the key religious text of Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism. It is a collection of commentaries on the esoteric aspects of the Torah, from Genesis to Deuteronomy, plus additional Midrash and Zoharic essays and compositions, written in a combination of Aramaic and Hebrew. The Zohar first appeared in printed form in thirteenth-century Spain, published by a Jewish writer named Moses ben Shem-Tov de Leon. He attributed the Zohar to writings by a second century by a rabbi named Simeon ben Yohai, but many scholars believe that de Leon wrote it himself. There is the possibility that de Leon incorporated older extant works into the Zohar. Regardless of authorship, within a few decades after de Leon published the Zohar many Kabbalists were convinced of its authenticity and sacredness.

In June 2017, the twelfth and final volume of the Pritzker edition of the Zohar was published by Stanford University Press. This marked the culmination of two decades of work by Professor Daniel C. Matt in shepherding this critical English text translation and commentary of the Zohar to fruition. Thanks to generous funding from the Spielberg Righteous Persons Foundation, the Social Science, Philosophy & Religion Department recently purchased two sets of this critically acclaimed, twelve-volume edition of the Zohar. One set is available to check out. The other set is reference and for in-library use only. To place a hold on a specific circulating volume, please call the Social Science, Philosophy & Religion Department at (213)228-7300. Have your library card ready if you would like a volume transferred to a branch library for pickup.

Book cover of the Zohar text

Stanford University's Pritzker edition of the Zohar or Book of Radiance

Early in his career, Professor Daniel C. Matt had translated a small portion of the Zohar but wasn't interested in taking on the daunting task of translating the entire work. Philanthropist Margot Pritzker was interested in producing a full translation and met with Dr. Matt to discuss the scope of the project. Although Dr. Matt was initially hesitant after their meeting, he was ultimately convinced by her commitment and financial support to begin work on the project. In the early stages of the project, Dr. Matt reviewed the various translations of the Zohar in existence in English and other Western languages to determine which source text he would work from. All translations of the Zohar rely on two main editions from the sixteenth century. Dr. Matt compared these editions to the original manuscripts in Hebrew and Aramaic dating from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries and discovered that many of the original manuscripts contained fewer editorial revisions and thus were more authentic than the later translations. From there, Dr. Matt spent considerable time reviewing and evaluating manuscripts held in various academic collections around the world in order to create the source text from which he and his team of scholars would work.

The resulting twelve volumes of the Pritzker edition of the Zohar contain the new English translation plus a running commentary to provide a further understanding of the text. Further information on the project, including sample English pages of the Zohar or the source Aramaic text, and descriptions of each volume, is available.

Those interested in researching the broader subject of Kabbalah in the Los Angeles Public Library’s collection may be aware of the varied transliterations, i.e. kabbalah, cabala, qabalah. In turn, these three basic transliterations have multiple spellings. The “K” and “C” spellings are the most accepted spellings, while the “Q” spelling can usually be found in esoteric or occult literature. The “K” spelling is most closely associated with the concept of Jewish mysticism. The term cabala originated in the early to mid-fifteenth century when Italian scholars assimilated Kabbalistic writings and translated them into Latin. Qabalah or its variations were popularized during the nineteenth century by occultists such as Eliphas Levi and Aleister Crowley for the Hermetic Qabalah tradition (Elia, p. 12-14). In contemporary popular usage, the terms kabbalah and cabala are used interchangeably to refer to Jewish mysticism. The library uses the Library of Congress’ subject heading of cabala for all books on the topic. Use the library catalog’s keyword search option to search for books that contain a specific variant spelling.