Monday, January 03, 2011

Considering one defense of the Zohar's authenticity, regarding Esnoga

Now that we have the Esnoga proof up in an accessible format, we can consider some responses to it. Here is a spirited defense by Rabbi Michael Shelomo Bar-Ron, of Beith Midrash Ohel Moshe. He begins with the following request:
(I request that anyone who desires to fully understand my opinion on this subject read the entire composition carefully and not make assumptions.)
It is quite a lengthy piece, and so I will not repost it is full, but you can read the full article by following the link. Though I could respond to each of his points in turn, I am going to restrict myself to just those which touch upon Esnoga.
What is considered the most convincing, damning evidence against the Zohar is the use of a 13th century-Spanish word “esnoga” for synagogue.  How would Shim’on ben YoHai use such a word?  To me, this very point might be evidence for the integrity of the work:  Why on earth would Rav De Leon, writing a work intended to fool the Torah giants of the world, put a contemporary Spanish word and misquotes in Shim’on ben YoHai’s mouth?  In short, this is the same faulty assumption that Bible critics use to attack the authenticity of the Humashlehavdil.  They assume such a stupidity on the part of the author; as if the author himself was unaware of the ‘problems’ and contradictions.   It doesn’t take great a great linguist to know that “esnoga” is closely derived from “synagoga”, the Greek term from which the English word is derived.  Ever since the Hellenist era, nearly all non-Hebrew Torah literature is peppered with Greek and Roman words that crept into the lexicon.  Is it so hard to believe that a Spanish-Jewish copyist would prefer to write “esnoga” in place of “synagoga”?  
This is a common theme in the piece, to turn any strong question against the Zohar's authenticity into "Do you think Rabbi Moshe de Leon was an idiot?!" Yet one could readily explain this error of Rav Moshe de Leon's part without making him into a moron. Was he a great linguist? There is no evidence that he was. (Indeed, the Aramaic in the Zohar is not a correct Aramaic.) And while in modern times, we know about the development of languages -- that languages change over time, in terms of pronunciation, grammar, and lexicon -- this was not necessarily common knowledge at the time. For all he know, contemporary Spanish was the same Spanish that went back thousands of years. It might have well been one of the 70 languages known by Yosef.

Furthermore, it is the Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) word for shul. I've seen contemporary rabbis treat Yiddish as a holy tongue. It is not so farfetched that someone might treat Ladino in the same way, not know the Latin derivation of the word (or that it takes a very different form), and make an assumption that this Jewish word for a Jewish institution has an old and holy origin.

I'll repeat the end of the above quote from Rabbi Bar-Ron:
It doesn’t take great a great linguist to know that “esnoga” is closely derived from “synagoga”, the Greek term from which the English word is derived.  Ever since the Hellenist era, nearly all non-Hebrew Torah literature is peppered with Greek and Roman words that crept into the lexicon.  Is it so hard to believe that a Spanish-Jewish copyist would prefer to write “esnoga” in place of “synagoga”? 
This is why it is important to see the Zohar first-hand.

Once we do, we see that the Zohar immediately preceding was talking about Nogah (Venus/brightness) and Esh (fire), and so ends with a derasha and a pun, by noting that a shul is called Es(h) Nogah. So it is NOT simply the use of the word in passing. The word, in its particular form, is darshened. Go ahead. Try to substitute "synagoga" for Esh Noga at the end. Does the derasha work? Where do we get Esh, fire, from? Where do we got Noga from?

Rabbi Bar-Ron is not trying to pull the wool over your eyes. He just did not investigate this with due diligence before responding to all the kofrim out there.

Rabbi Bar-Ron continues:

Besides this, people are generally unaware of how words from much later periods can appear in the writings of the Sages from centuries ago.  Our tradition contains many secrets about future times.  HaRav Yonatan Dawid sent me an incredible source from HaRav Abarbanel (500 years ago), quoted by haRav Elbaz:

According to the words of R’ Don Yitzchak Abarbanel, in the future there will be something that will want to harm the world, which the Abarbanel refers to as אטומתא” (atomta), and this is the flame of black fire which will hang in the sky.

The Abarbanel apparently learns this from the Zohar:

In the year sixty-six the Messiah will appear in the land of Galilee. A star in the east will swallow seven stars in the north, and a flame of black fire will hang in the heaven for sixty days, and there shall be wars towards the north in which two kings shall perish. Then all the nations shall combine together against the daughter of Yaakov in order to drive her from the world. It is of that time that it is written: “And it is a time of trouble unto Yaakov, but out of it he shall be saved” (Jeremiah 30:7).  (Zohar, Wayyera 119a)

Should scholars 700 years from now assume the Abarbanel’s writings were written in our 58th century, the era of the atom bomb?  Now I haven’t personally seen this in the Abarbanel, and it should be investigated before believed, but if it’s there (and I assume it is), that puts the “esnoga” issue (which is perilously close to the Greek “synagoga”, which goes back 2,000 years) in a different light.
Oy. This is another instance on relying on someone else's account of a text, rather than seeing it inside. I also have been unable to find this Abravanel -- and would appreciate it if someone could point me to it. But here is another, fuller account of this, at Mystical Paths. It is part of a claim by Rabbi Reuven Elbaz, from July 2006, of impending apocalypse. I've read, and debunked, enough of these claims to know that they commonly misinterpret Rabbinic sources, either out of sheer amaratzus or out of overeager messianic fervor. Without actually seeing this Abarbanel inside and learning it carefully, I would not assume that it is there.

And if it is there, does this mean that it refers to an atom bomb? Why should an atom bomb be described as a flame of black fire? Why would it be suspended in the air for 60 days. Just because some overeager apocalyptic rabbi wants to envision end-of-world scenarios and retroject them to Abarbanel and Zohar does not mean that we have to, if the details do not fit.

Further, is atomta a word in modern Hebrew? In English? This is not the same as "atom bomb". And before associating its etymology to atom, why not see if there is an Aramaic word with which to associate it. For example, אטמתא, meaning a lump of flesh (as in Sanhedrin 59b, where two lumps of flesh descend from heaven), which is derived from אטמא, 'something solid'. Something which hangs for a long period in the heaven might well have substance. Again, we would need to see Abarbanel inside. But just because the unnamed tzaddik who came up with this was an am ha'aretz who did not understand  simple peshat in the Abrabanel does not mean that scholars would do the same, and assume that the Abarbanel was written in the Atomic Age.

Finally, the last point which tangentially touches on Zohar:
Loyal students of RaMBaM who champion the Ya`avetz’s perspective on forgeries of old books don’t realize how they shoot themselves in the foot:  Rav Emden“maintained that The Guide to the Perplexed could not have been written by Maimonides, as he could not imagine that a pious Jew would write a work accepting and promoting what Emden saw as a non-Jewish theology.”  The chief work that de-legitimizes the Zohar de-legitimizes the Guide for the Perplexed as well.
By "loyal students of RaMBaM," he is referring to himself and those who attend his fine institution. I am of a rationalist bent, and so was RaMBaM, but that does not mean that I have to agree 100% with everything Rambam ever said. Rambam said to "accept truth from whomever speaks it", and that would presumably include Rav Yaakov Emden, even if he accidentally insulted the Rambam in this way.

Further, a true rationalist does not nullify his daas and accept in its entirety everything that someone says. Where I follow Rambam, it is because he is correct, not (only) because he is the Rambam. So too with Rav Yaakov Emden. Rav Yaakov Emden was a kabbalist, not a rationalist. If I accept his critiques on the Zohar, does that mean that I have to agree with him about the authenticity of kabbalah in general? Of course not. And I accept his Esnoga proof not because I am a talmid of Rav Yaakov Emden, but because I think he is correct in this point. He might make other points which are incorrect. (For example, IIRC, he attempts to prove late authorship of the Zohar because it advances a Copernican theory of the universe. But it is far from clear that this is what the Zohar is saying.) Where Rav Yaakov Emden delegitimizes the Moreh Nevuchim, I would need to look through his proofs, and see if I find them convincing. I would also have to look at contrary evidence, and see if I find that convincing.


Maverick said...

If the Zohar was not written by Rav Shimon Bar Yochai (in all or in part) but decisors had believed it to be the case that it had, and it therefore exerted an outsize influence on their formulation of halachot, how do we treat those halachot in light of this?

thanbo said...

Um, are you sure you want to use Kabbalah Centre's text of the Zohar? There are other online texts of the Zohar, at, or, or (for a sulam), not to mention

joshwaxman said...

well, the person I've responding to here is of the position that there is no practical ramification, since we shouldn't pasken like Zohar anyway.

many halachists take the position of drawing a line between halachah and kabbalah. despite this line, indeed there are many cross-overs. consult your LOR.

while I obviously don't endorse the kabbalah center, their site is nice in that it is a near linear text, such that you can see an English translation alongside the original Aramaic. Do any of these others have this?


Anonymous said...

I went to the Ohel Moshe site and saw they had an article about Techailet and I thought that at least they were on target concerning that. Well I looked at the article and I found this

A Fresh, New, Orderly Presentation of the Facts. Establishing the Common Cuttlefish as the true Hilazon for tekheleth over Murex Trunculus, the source for the Bibilical color Argaman"

Oh well

Netanel Lasry said...

The logic of "how could he be this stupid" is incredibly faulty because while Rabbi De Leon was not stupid he most likely expected the people who bought into the Zohar to either be unfamiliar with the word (which would be true for anyone outside of Spain)or not pay enough attention to it (it is only one word after all)

Rabbi Moshe Miller said...

This question was raised originally by Rabbi Yaakov Emdin, and "adopted" by Gershon Shalom (I don't believe that he attributed the authorship). And by the way the word is Portuguese as far as I know. In any event, briefly, the answer to this question that I think is most plausible is this:

The Greek word for "shul" is synagōgḗ (synagogue), and was no doubt used prior to the time of the Rashbi (the Chanukah story against the Greeks took place during the Second Temple era, and Rashbi was after its destruction.) Similarly Latin for a shul is synagōga.
Now as we know Kabbalists just love making word plays. If you write the Greek or Latin out in Hebrew it would be spelled sin - nun - alef - gimmel - gimmel - hai. Now rearrange the (unique) letters and you have alef - shin (shin and sin are indistinguishable in unvowelled Hebrew texts) nun - gimmel - hai = aish nogah = א"ש נג"א

Now add to this the verse in Isaiah 4:5 "And G-d will create over every structure of Mount Zion... a cloud by day and ... a glow of flaming fire (nogah eish = נגה אש) by night" and you can understand why the Rashbi wanted to refer to a shul as eish nogah!


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