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Vol 4.1 (2006): 35-52

© 2006 Sage Publications (London, Thousand Oaks, CA, and New Delhi)
DOI: 10.1177/1477835106066034

Hebrew and Aramaic as Languages

of the Zohar*
(translated by Daphne Freedman and Ada Rapoport-Albert)
The Mandel Institute of Jewish Studies, Faculty of Humanities,
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Apart from a few Hebrew sections, most of the Zohar is written in a
unique language: an idiosyncratic Aramaic that cannot be classified
within the standard division of Aramaic dialects and which was never
a spoken language. On these grounds the scholarly literature has
labelled it ‘artificial’. The present article challenges this label, arguing
that the Aramaic of the Zohar is completely natural. Aramaic was
traditionally used for mystical purposes, and the Zohar’s preference
for this language as the best vehicle for advancing its own mystical
purpose has been vindicated by the work’s quality and lasting effect.

Keywords: Hebrew, Aramaic, Zohar, Kabbalah, mysticism

* This is the English version of a Hebrew lecture, delivered to the plenum of the
Israeli Academy of the Hebrew Language on 29 November 2004, and adapted from an
ealier seminar paper, originally presented by the author to the international Zohar research
group of the Institute of Advanced Studies in Jerusalem on 7 May 1999. It is due to be
published in the original Hebrew in the Records of the Academy of the Hebrew Language.
We are grateful to the author for allowing us to publish the English version of the lecture
in advance of its publication in Hebrew.
36 Aramaic Studies 4.1 (2006)

The words of Isaiah, ‘O Lord our God, other Lords but thee have been our
masters, but thee alone do we invoke by name’ (Isa. 26.13), were
interpreted by the Zohar (II, 9a) to mean that in exile the forces of evil
have dominion over the Jewish people and only a remembrance of God
remains with them, namely, the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew
alphabet,1 alluded to by the word thee.2 Language therefore comprises the
whole world of the Zohar and anyone who wishes to understand the
Zohar must begin by studying its language in depth.
Except for a few Hebrew pages, the Zohar is written in Aramaic.3
According to the previous generation of scholars, this Aramaic is artifi-
cial4 because it was not the author’s natural language or the language
spoken in his environment. This language was invented, they believed, in
order to create the impression that the Zohar was not written when
Aramaic was no longer a living language, in medieval Spain where the
author lived, but in Palestine at the time of the tannaim. However, the
evident artificiality of his Aramaic seemed to them to prove precisely the
opposite, namely, that the language of the Zohar was not part of the
organic development of Aramaic and did not conform to its standard
classification into Western and Eastern dialects; rather it was a product of
literary sources with a recognisable substrate of medieval Hebrew, includ-
ing, for example, the language of the Tibonite translators from Arabic,
and betrayed the influence of other languages spoken in Europe at that
time: Spanish and perhaps also Arabic.
I wish to dispute the characterisation of the Aramaic of the Zohar as
artificial. It is true that the Zohar was written in medieval Spain, where
Aramaic was no longer a living language, and that it is as innovative in its
language as in other respects.5 Nevertheless, in my opinion, zoharic
Aramaic was formed as part of the natural development of an entire

1. According to the sections of the Zohar known as the Idras, the twenty-two letters of
the Hebrew alphabet correspond to the restorations of the divine countenances, thirteen
restorations of the Ancient of Days and nine restorations of Zeir Anpin.
2. The Hebrew word đĈ, meaning ‘by thee’, has the numerical value of twenty-two.
3. These pages are found in the Midrash Hane’elam on Genesis (Zohar part 1 and
Zohar Hadash) and in the Zohar on Exodus, on which see below.
4. See Gershom G. Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (Jerusalem, 1941),
p. 163: ‘The Aramaic of the Zohar is a purely artificial affair’; Isaiah Tishby, The Wisdom
of the Zohar (London, 1994), I, p. 64; ‘Linguistic analysis and a comparison of the
language of the Zohar with known Aramaic sources show that this Aramaic is an artificial
language drawn from specific literary source material’.
5. On the creativity of the Zohar, in theory and practice, see Yehuda Liebes, ‘Zohar
and Eros’, Alpaim 9 (1994), pp. 67-119 (Hebrew).
LIEBES Hebrew and Aramaic as Languages of the Zohar 37

spiritual movement in medieval Judaism.6 In the Aramaic of the Zohar we

can detect a continuation of certain elements that existed in the spoken
language but were not transmitted through normative literary sources,
such as those found in the popular verse published by Yahalom and
Sokoloff,7 for example, the use of the root tkl, ‘to weigh’, in the meta-
phorical sense of to wed a woman.8 It may also be appropriate to mention
here the testimony of the earliest dictionary of zoharic Aramaic, attributed
in one manuscript to Yehuda ben David the Pious, who was one of the
last members of the zoharic movement. The author of the dictionary
introduces his explanation of the zoharic term butsina dekardinuta with
the words: ‘I heard from a certain Chaldean’.9
As a written language, Aramaic was still alive amongst the Spanish
Jews in the Middle Ages. Those who read the Aramaic of the Talmud and
the targumim did not refrain from also writing Aramaic. We find this both
in their legal works and in their poetry,10 but particularly in their esoteric
writings. The use of Aramaic for this purpose did not begin with the
Zohar. Numerous compositions and citations from the writings of the
earliest Kabbalists have been preserved in Aramaic,11 and certain ele-
ments and phrases in Aramaic were incorporated into the Hebrew of the
Bahir giving it its distinctive character. Magical literature was also
written in part in Aramaic, thereby preserving its ancient traditions, as can
be seen in the magical writings from the Cairo Genizah published by
Schäfer and Shaked,12 or the Great Magical Formulary (Sidrei de
Shimusha Raba), published by Scholem, who maintained that it too was
written in ‘artificial Aramaic’.13

6. See Yehuda Liebes, ‘How the Zohar was Written’, in idem, Studies in the Zohar
(Albany, 1993), pp. 85-138.
7. M. Sokoloff and J. Yahalom, Jewish Palestinian Poetry from Late Antiquity
(Jerusalem, 2004 [Hebrew]).
8. See Yehuda Liebes, Ars Poetica in Sefer Yetsira (Tel Aviv, 2001 [Hebrew]), p. 316
n. 50.
9. See Boaz Huss, ‘A Dictionary of Foreign Words in the Zohar’, Kabbalah 1 (1996),
p. 174 (Hebrew).
10. See, e.g., poem 84 in Dov Jarden (ed.), The Secular Poems of Solomon ben Judah
Ibn Gabirol (Jerusalem, 1975 [Hebrew]), pp. 155-59.
11. See Moshe Idel, ‘The Beginnings of the Kabbalah in North Africa? A Forgotten
Document of Rabbi Yehuda ben Nisim ibn Malka’, Peamim 43 (1990), pp. 4-5 n. 4
12. Peter Schäfer and Shaul Shaked, Magische Texte aus der Kairoer Geniza
(Tübingen, 1994–99).
13. Gerschom Scholem, Demons Spirits and Souls (ed. Esther Liebes; Jerusalem,
2004 [Hebrew]), pp. 116-44. On p. 122 n. 25 Scholem infers that the Aramaic of this
38 Aramaic Studies 4.1 (2006)

It is true that the language of the Zohar is not an organic development

of a single Aramaic dialect but absorbed elements from various sources.
In this the Zohar joins a long line of illustrious works, such as the epic
of Homer whose language was composed of various Greek dialects to
form the Homeric dialect. The Aramaic of the Zohar has its own dis-
tinctive linguistic traits, its own grammar14 and distinct lexical character-
Scholars have noted words that have been absorbed into the zoharic
literature through misunderstandings of literary sources, such as ćěĞČġ in
the sense of ‘lap’,16 ćġĕĎć, meaning ‘collection of books’,17 as well as
Aramaic words whose meaning was influenced by Hebrew, such as the
phrase ĖĐēĐĕ ġēġ ČċČěčČć, ‘they accompanied him for three miles’, in an
extension of the meaning of the Aramaic root Ěčć, which concerns the
lending of monies.18 Nevertheless, I do not consider this a sign of artifi-
ciality. Literature and culture (as well as misunderstandings) are among
the sources from which most languages draw, including the most ‘living’
of languages. This is certainly true of modern Hebrew, my mother tongue
and that of most of my colleagues (and who would say that we are
speaking an artificial language?). Even terms that belong to the grammati-
cal structure of the language are sometimes derived from mistaken
interpretations or incorrect spellings as, for example, the modern Hebrew
words ĐĒċ, meaning ‘the most’, or ġČğĕē, ‘in spite of’, no less so ordinary
words, such as Ďėęěē, ‘to decipher’, ĖČēĞĝ, ‘kit bag’, ĔĐďĘĐē, ‘robbers’,
ċėČġć, ‘Athens’, and many more.
The naturalness of a language is apparent from a synchronic descrip-
tion without taking its lineage into account. If a language is fluent and
better adapted to the needs of its speakers than any other language, it
should be considered completely natural. Everyday conversation is not

treatise is not genuine from the fact that the author uses the term ćġğĝęĊ ćĕČĐ to refer to the
eighth day of the Feast of Tabernacles rather than to Pentecost. However, in my opinion,
the author intended to refer to Pentecost. See the editor’s comments and references in the
same note.
14. See Menachem Zvi Kadari, A Grammar of Zoharic Aramaic (Jerusalem, 1971
15. See Yehuda Liebes, ‘Sections of the Zohar Lexicon’ (PhD thesis, Jerusalem, 1976
16. See Scholem, Major Trends, p. 389 n. 48.
17. See Yehuda Liebes, ‘The Use of Words in the Zohar’, in In Memory of Ephraim
Gottlieb (Jerusalem, 1975), pp. 17-18.
18. See Scholem, Major Trends, p. 388 n. 45a.
LIEBES Hebrew and Aramaic as Languages of the Zohar 39

the sole purpose of a natural language and it need not be the only ver-
nacular used by the speaker. A natural situation is one in which several
languages are used for different levels of education and culture. This was
indeed the case in medieval Europe, where the language of culture and
religion was Latin, which was not a spoken language, and a similar situa-
tion exists in many other cultures. The natural condition is a plurality of
languages where culture and religion are conducted in a separate tongue,
such as Sanskrit, Classical Arabic, Gez or Hebrew. In the Middle Ages
these were living, natural idioms which did not have to be acquired in a
conscious and methodical manner. At that time, we do not hear about
Hebrew language studies or of any particular praise for those who knew
Hebrew, as in the Jewish Diaspora today.
The number of languages employed together is not limited to two. One
may serve as the language spoken in the home, another as the language of
secular culture, yet another as the language of prayer and another as the
language of government, and so on. The Kabbalists of Spain did not con-
tent themselves with Spanish (or Arabic) and Hebrew but also added
The Aramaic of the Zohar represents a genuine linguistic need and is
not merely camouflage employed to give the illusion of the time and place
of Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai. This pretence was unlikely to succeed, not
least for the simple reason that in the time of the tanna Simeon bar Yohai,
Hebrew was the language spoken in Palestine, not Aramaic, and the
words of Simeon bar Yohai are quoted in the Mishna and the Talmud in
Hebrew, the language of the tannaim. In my studies on Simeon bar Yohai
and his companions in the Zohar, I attempted to demonstrate that the
‘narrative framework’, as it is customarily called, does not simply serve
to transpose the work from its actual time and place but has a profound
significance in the spiritual world of the Zohar in its own right. 19 So too
the Aramaic language: the Zohar is written in Aramaic because the nature
of the work demands it. Aramaic is the natural idiom of the Zohar. This
can be concluded both from the explicit remarks made by the Kabbalists,
which reveal their attitudes to Hebrew and Aramaic, and from the
function that Aramaic effectively fulfils in the Zohar.
The Aramaic of the Zohar flows naturally and in several places it
seems that the words should be spoken out loud to appreciate the
profundity of the passage. In Hebrew translation, the Zohar sounds less

19. See Yehuda Liebes, ‘The Messiah of the Zohar—On Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai as a
Messianic Figure’, in idem, Studies in the Zohar, pp. 1-84.
40 Aramaic Studies 4.1 (2006)

assured, less natural, and a comparison of zoharic Aramaic with the

Hebrew passages of the Zohar does not grant the Hebrew any advantage
of naturalness. On the contrary, the Hebrew sounds less fluent and it is
difficult and more awkward than the Aramaic, as can be seen, for exam-
ple, from the unwieldy expression ĔĐĈćġ ĔĐğĐĠ, ‘desiring songs’, meaning
creatures that desire to sing.20 The language of the Hebrew sections of the
Zohar does not in the least resemble the Hebrew of Moses de Leon,
whom many consider to be the author of the Zohar. Nor does the Aramaic
of the Zohar give the impression that it is a translation of de Leon’s
Hebrew. This can be verified from a section of the Zohar which contains
an Aramaic version of a passage written in Hebrew by Moses de Leon,
which is very different from the Aramaic of the Zohar.21
Aramaic, therefore, is natural to the Zohar. In this connection, it is
worth remembering the beautiful lines written by Haim Nachman Bialik
in his essay, ‘The Hebrew Book’:
Even at night, her [Aramaic’s] heart did not sleep nor was her light extin-
guished. The classic book of the Kabbalah, this nocturnal vision of the Hebrew
nation, was created in her language and her spirit. The wonder of it is that in
the days of the Zohar the Aramaic language was already completely dead in
the speech of the Jewish people. Perhaps for this reason it was appropriate for
the mysterious, like the pale light of the dead moon for the dreamer. 22

Bialik’s words complement the Zohar’s own perception of Aramaic,

which continues a long tradition that accords the Aramaic language a
dialectical role in relation to Hebrew. Bialik goes on to compare the
relation between Hebrew and Aramaic to the bond between Naomi and
Ruth the Moabite, who left her foreign gods to follow Naomi and remain
with her (Ruth 1.16). Through savants such as Bialik this ‘daughter-in-
law’ continued to accompany even modern Hebrew and influence it with
its unique qualities.23 Even before the Zohar, Aramaic was accorded an
intermediary status between Hebrew, the holy tongue, and all other

20. Zohar Hadash 5d, Midrash Hane’elam on Genesis. On this expression, see
Liebes, Ars Poetica, p. 123 nn. 20 and 21, and p. 182 n. 35.
21. See Zohar I, 186b-87a. These pages contain additions printed in brackets whose
origin is in the writings of Moses de Leon, e.g., The Mystery of Levirate Marriage ( ĊČĘ
ĔČĈĐċ), which was printed at the end of his The Wise Soul (ċĕĒĎċ Ġěėċ) (Basel, 1608), §13,
f. 1.
22. Haim Nahman Bialik, On Literature (ġČğěĘ ĐğĈĊ) (Tel Aviv, 1959), p. 47. Dr
Melila Hellner-Eshed directed my attention to this.
23. See Moshe bar Asher, ‘The Role of Aramaic in Modern Hebrew’, in The Develop-
ment and Renewal of the Hebrew Language (Jerusalem, 1996), pp. 14-74 (Hebrew).
LIEBES Hebrew and Aramaic as Languages of the Zohar 41

languages. Some considered Aramaic to be the first human language after

the fall of the first man.24 Others noted vital Aramaic elements in the holy
tongue.25 The warnings of the Babylonian Geonim against the tendency to
stop using the Aramaic translation of the Bible, considered to have been
handed down at Sinai,26 which had acquired a ritual status and given its
name to the language that from then on was known as ‘the language of
the translation’, are well-known.
At times, Aramaic was considered holy in the degree that was deemed
appropriate for the time of exile, a time when the name of God was in-
complete. This view can be found in the works of the first Kabbalists and
even earlier. In their opinion, the kadish is recited in Aramaic in order to
restore the name of God to completion. The honour of the deity is not
well served by the fact that its defect is recognised in Hebrew, a language
that is known to the angels (on which see below). According to one
source, even the Tetragrammaton is at the present time written in
Aramaic, since in Aramaic the verb ‘to be’ takes the form ċČċ not ċĐċ as it
does in Hebrew,27 and for this reason it is not revealed and cannot be
pronounced28 (I recollect that my teacher, the late Professor Ezekiel
Kutscher, interpreted in this way the fact that in biblical Aramaic only in
this root was the letter lamed found instead of the letter yod amongst the
auxiliary letters used to form the future prefixes). The Hebrew equivalent
of the Aramaic form of the Tetragrammaton is ċĐċĐ. This is a complete
name whose pronunciation is not forbidden and which will be used in the

24. See b. Sanh. 38b: ‘The first man spoke Aramaic’; Abraham ibn Ezra, Safah
Brurah (ed. G.H. Lipman; Fuerth, 1839), p. 2: ‘Many have claimed that the Aramaic
language is primordial’. See also Midrash Peliah (Warsaw, 1895), 76b, §166; Moshe Idel,
‘The Infant Experiment: the Search for the First Language’, in Alison P. Coudert (ed.),
The Language of Adam (Wolfenbütteler Forschungen, 84; Wiesbaden, 1999), pp. 59-62;
Milka Levy-Rubin ‘The Language of Creation or the Primordial Language: A Case of
Cultural Polemics in Antiquity’, JJS 49.2 (1988), pp. 306-33.
25. Particularly Rabbi Yehuda ibn Koreish in his Risala (ed. Dan Becker; Tel Aviv,
26. Thus, for instance, in Sefer Mitsvot Gadol, positive commandment 19, in the name
of Rav Amram and Rav Natronai. This can be compared to Philo’s view of the status of
the Septuagint.
27. The four-letter name of God is composed of the letters used to form the verb ‘to
be’ in Hebrew, and the Aramaic form more closely resembles the spelling used in the
28. See Sefer Hapardes, attributed to Rashi (ed. Haim Jehuda Ehrenreich; Budapest,
1924), p. 323.
42 Aramaic Studies 4.1 (2006)

messianic future, as it is written in Zech 14.9, ‘On that day the Lord and
his name shall be (ċĐċĐ) one’.29
In truth, the views of the Zohar on this question are not unequivocal.
There appear to have been rival tendencies or factions within the Zohar
circle, one in favour of Hebrew, the other of Aramaic. Evidence for this
can be deduced from the testimony of Isaac of Acre in his famous letter
on the composition of the Zohar that relates the warning he was given not
to accept as genuine Hebrew sections of the Zohar since the authentic
Zohar was written entirely in Aramaic.30 An echo of this struggle can
perhaps be discerned in the words of the editors printed in the Zohar at
the beginning of pericope vayehi, before a passage whose style attests that
it does not belong to the main body of the Zohar:
Said the editors, It is clear from the language, as light is visible from darkness,
that this is not from the Zohar. It is our opinion that this is from the Midrash
Hane’elam and it was written in the holy tongue, and the devious boasters
changed the language of truth and obscured the meaning and intention of the
author for they did not understand it and did not know how to construe the
language properly. (Zohar I, 211b)

The movement to and fro between these languages can also be gauged
from the Zohar passages which appear in both. This is particularly notice-
able in the section on Exodus, written partly in Hebrew and partly in
Aramaic, where the relation between the two languages differs in the vari-
ous printed editions and manuscripts. Some of the passages that are in
Aramaic in the standard editions, which follow the Mantua edition (1558–
60), appear in Hebrew in the Cremona edition (1559–60) and in subse-
quent editions. In these passages, the Hebrew appears to be the original
version which was later translated into Aramaic.31 On the other hand, we
also have quite a few Hebrew versions of passages originally written in
Aramaic that were translated by members of the Zohar circle, such as the
writings of David ben Jehuda the Pious and the Zohar passages that were
included in Israel al Nakawa’s The Lamp of the Tabernacle. 32

29. On the other hand, Rabbi Joseph Caro thinks that the Kadish is recited in Aramaic
to show that in future Aramaic will be equal to Hebrew. Joseph Caro, Maggid Mesharim
(Jerusalem, 1960), p. 21.
30. See the letter reprinted in Isaiah Tishby, The Wisdom of the Zohar, I (London,
1994), p. 13.
31. This is also the opinion of Ronit Meroz who has devoted a detailed study, as yet
unpublished, to this question.
32. Israel al Nakawa (d. 1391), Menorat Hama’or (ed. E. Enelow; 4 vols.; New York,
LIEBES Hebrew and Aramaic as Languages of the Zohar 43

All this should be attributed to the dialectical relation that exists

between Aramaic and Hebrew, according to religious sensibility of the
Zohar. This relation is attested long before the Zohar and emerges from
the famous Talmudic statement that features prominently in the Zohar:
The ministering angels do not respond to anyone who requests his needs in
Aramaic for they do not recognise Aramaic.33

This statement would appear to negate the mystic status of Aramaic by

distancing it from the angels, but this is not the whole truth. Although the
angels do not understand Aramaic, the Shekinah, the divine presence,
does. This emerges from the continuation of the passage in the Talmud
which justifies the actions of one who prays for a sick person in Aramaic:
‘An invalid is different because the divine presence is with him’. What is
the difference between the Shekinah and the angels? The angels are
apparently formalistic masters of ceremony who only use the official
language. However, the Shekinah has a more intimate side for which
Aramaic is more appropriate and it is precisely this intimate side that is
needed in the case of illness. This we learn from other places in the
Talmud, such as the tale about Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai who, it is
reported, asked Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa to intercede for him when his son
fell ill: ‘His wife said to him, Is Hanina greater than you are? No, he
replied, but he is like a servant to the king and I am like a minister to the
king.’34 When an intimate servant will be more effective than a minister, it
is preferable to use Aramaic.
Like the Shekinah, the bat kol, the voice from heaven, is also fond of
Aramaic. This can be learnt from a parallel passage in the Talmud (b. SoÓ.
33a) which sets out the above-mentioned principle that, ‘The ministering
angels do not respond to anyone who requests his needs in Aramaic
because they do not recognise that language’ (b. Sanh. 99a) and then
appears to challenge it: ‘But we have learned that Rabbi Johanan, the
High Priest, heard a heavenly voice issue from the Holy of Holies
announcing, “The young men who went to wage war against Antioch
have been victorious”, and it spoke in Aramaic!’ The answer given is, ‘A
voice from heaven is different’. The celestial voice differs from the angels
in that it also understands Aramaic.

33. See t. Shab. 12b, and see Joseph Yahalom, ‘Angels Don’t Understand Aramaic’,
JJS 47 (1996), pp. 33-44.
34. See b. Ber. 43b: ċĕČĊ ćČċ ćēć ,Čćē :ċē ğĕć ?đĕĕ ēČĊĉ ćėĐėĎ ĐĒČ :ČġĠć Čē ċğĕć’
‘đēĕċ Đėěē ğĠĒ ċĕČĊ ĐėćČ ,đēĕċ Đėěē ĊĈęĒ.
44 Aramaic Studies 4.1 (2006)

Elsewhere in the Talmud and in the Hekhalot literature, the voice from
heaven speaks in Aramaic, sometimes even with the inclusion of a
specific reference to the fact that the words were spoken in Aramaic. On a
few occasions, the celestial voice deals with the impending day of judg-
ment, a subject which it is more appropriate to speak about in Aramaic,
the language the angels do not understand, since we have learned, ‘What
is meant by “the day of vengeance is in my heart”?35 Rabbi Johanan said,
I have revealed it to my heart, but not to my external limbs. Rabbi Simeon
ben Lakish said, I revealed it to my heart but not to the ministering
angels’,36 and according to a parallel statement: ‘the heart does not reveal
to the mouth’.37 The heavenly voice or the Shekinah, which understands
Aramaic, is identified, therefore, with God’s heart. It appears that this
heart, which does not reveal that which is concealed in its depths, either
to the mouth or the limbs, resembles the divine subconscious, a suitable
place to nurture feelings of vengeance. The angels, on the other hand,
represent the conscious mind, or the limbs, or the mouth and they might
object to vengeance on rational grounds,38 or, conversely, rush too
precipitately to execute the imprecations.
The heavenly voice also speaks Aramaic when it proclaims the abilities
of the mystic, probably because, in this, man is superior to the angels and
may arouse their jealousy, as in Hekhalot Zutarti:
Rabbi Akiva said, When I ascended to the Chariot a heavenly voice issued
from beneath the Throne of Glory speaking Aramaic. What did it say? Before
God created the heavens and the earth, a ladder39 was erected to the heavens to
ascend and descend.40

Heralds and heavenly voices are often heard in the Zohar, and here too
they speak Aramaic. Perhaps these voices also influenced the language of
the human speakers, since, in the Zohar, the close association between the
heavenly voice and the conscious and even the sub-conscious of the
author is evident. For here, the heavenly voice is not only identified with

35. Isa. 63.4.

36. See b. Sanh. 99a: ĐĈğ .ĐġĐēĉ ćē ĐĐğĈćē ,ĐġĐēĐĉ ĐĈēē :ĖėĎČĐ ĐĈğ ğĕć ?ĐĈēĈ ĔĞė ĔČĐ Đćĕ’
‘ĐġĐēĉ ćē ġğĠċ ĐĒćēĕē ,ĐġĐēĉ ĐĈēē :ğĕć ĠĐĞē ĖĈ ĖČęĕĠ.
37. Eccl. R. §12.10.
38. On the rationality of angels, see Yehuda Liebes, ‘De Natura Dei: On the
Development of the Jewish Myth’, in Studies in Jewish Myth and Jewish Messianism
(Albany, 1993), pp. 1-64.
39. The reading ‘ladder’ is conjectural, based on the editor’s note. See n. 40 below.
40. Hekhalot Zutarti (ed. Rachel Elior; Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought
supplement, 1; 1982 [Hebrew]), p. 23.
LIEBES Hebrew and Aramaic as Languages of the Zohar 45

the Shekinah, but also, to some extent, with the protagonist of the Zohar,
Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai, both during his life and after his death.
In one passage,41 Simeon bar Yohai’s son heard a voice coming from
his cave saying: ‘Two young deer gave me pleasure fulfilling my desire’.
I have devoted a long and detailed study to this statement, in which I
attempted to explain its meaning and as far as possible to determine the
identity of the speaker.42 In another incident, a celestial voice emerged
from behind the curtain in the house of Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai and
quoted his precise words (also on the subject of the gazelles and the harts
in the Song of Songs). Interestingly, the words of the heavenly voice are
in Aramaic while Rabbi Simeon’s statement is in Hebrew:43
Flee my love, like a gazelle or a hart.44 All the longing of Israel is for the
Lord,45 for Rabbi Simeon said, ‘Israel longs for the Lord neither to leave nor
to distance himself but to flee like a gazelle or a hart’.

The celestial voice is so comfortable speaking Aramaic that it sometimes

rewrites biblical verses in Aramaic, as in a passage in the matnitin (the
name given in the Zohar to anonymous passages, full of pathos, some-
times put in the mouths of celestial heralds): ‘Listen to me all who seek
justice’.46 However, in a parallel passage spoken by a human, we find:
‘Rabi Eleazar said, “Listen to me all who seek justice”’,47 in the Hebrew
words of the verse (Isa. 51.1). In another passage we even find a biblical
verse that Aramaic has conquered half of: ‘As it is written, “All the
herdsmen used to gather there and roll away the stone”’. The italicised
section of the verse appears in the Zohar in Aramaic48 even though the
biblical verse was originally written in Hebrew.49

41. Zohar III, 55b: ‘Đē ćĎĐėĊ ćġČęğ ĐćĕĞ ČĊĈęĐ ćġēĐĐćĊ ĖĐēčČę Đğġ ğĕćĊ ćēĞ ćČċċ ČęĕĠ’.
42. See Yehuda Liebes ‘ “Two Young Roes of a Doe”: The Secret Sermon of Isaac
Luria Before his Death’, in Yehuda Liebes and Rachel Elior (eds.), Lurianic Kabbalah,
Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought 10 (1992), pp. 113-69.
43. It is possible that an earlier Hebrew version was integrated into the exegesis in the
Zohar (this is the opinion of Ronit Meroz in her study mentioned in n. 31 above).
44. Song 8.14.
45. Zohar II, 14a: ēćğĠĐ ČěĐĘĒĊ ćěČĘĒ ēĒ ,ĔĐēĐćċ ğěČęē Čć ĐĈĝē đē ċĕĊČ ĐĊČĊ ĎğĈí
ĎğČĈ ćēć ĞĎğġĕ ćēČ đēČċ ćē ċ"ĈĞċ ċĐċĐĠ ēćğĠĐ ēĠ ĔġČćġ Ġ"ğćĊ ćČċ ćČċ đĐğĈ ćĠĊČĞĕ
ëĔĐēĐćċ ğěČęĒ Čć ĐĈĝĒ.
46. Zohar II, 12b: ‘ČęĕĠ ČĈĐğĞ…ďČĠĞ ĐěĊğĊ ĖČėĐć’.
47. Zohar I, 151b: ‘ĞĊĝ ĐěĊČğ Đēć ČęĕĠ ğĕć ğčęēć ĐĈğ’.
48. Zohar II, 13a: ‘ĖĈćċ ġć ČĈĐĠċČ ćĐĐğĊę ēĒ Ėĕġ ĐĠėĒġĕ ĊĒ :ĈĐġĒ ćċČ’.
49. Gen. 29.3: ČĈĐĠċČ Ėćĝċ ġć ČĞĠċČ ğćĈċ Đě ēęĕ ĖĈćċ ġć ČēēĉČ ĔĐğĊęċ ēĒ ċĕĠ ČěĘćėČ’
‘ċĕĞĕē ğćĈċ Đě ēę ĖĈćċ ġć.
46 Aramaic Studies 4.1 (2006)

Aramaic is also a more appropriate language for the Zohar than Hebrew
because of the nature of its doctrines. The Zohar displays an awareness of
this, as can be seen from its discussion of the sin of the builders of the
Tower of Babel, which is couched in ornate Aramaic and ascribes their
transgression specifically to the use of Hebrew:
This generation spoke in the holy tongue known to the ministering angels and
in no other language. For this reason, the verse50 says: ‘now nothing will be
beyond their reach’. For if they had spoken another language that the celestial
angels did not know, the acts they intended would have been diminished, since
the actions of demons are momentary, lasting long enough to be seen by man
and no longer. The language of scripture ‘[all the world spoke a single lan-
guage] and used the same words’,51 indicates that they knew each supernal
level thoroughly and did not confuse them. For this reason they took evil
counsel, the counsel of wisdom.52

This passage is a commentary on the verse: ‘All the world spoke one
language and used the same words’.53 The verse, which in the Bible
serves as background and as an introduction to the sin of the generation of
Babel, here describes the nature of the transgression. I do not know the
exact meaning of the opening words kumtura dehormana, but it seems to
me that they allude to the obduracy of that generation, which insisted on
speaking Hebrew, the language understood by the angels, rather than
Aramaic. This they did in order to establish their world, the world of evil,
on a particularly firm foundation, which is specific to the realm of the
holy. For, in fact, it is Aramaic that is the language of the forces of evil,
as we will see. The ‘one language’ that they wished to speak was Hebrew,
possibly also because the numerical value of the letters of ġĎć ċěĠ, ‘one
language’, equals that of ĠĊĞċ ĖČĠē, ‘the holy tongue’, a gematria dis-
covered and calculated by the medieval German Pietists.54 However, the
Zohar’s principal innovation is found in its interpretation of the phrase

50. Gen. 11.6.

51. Gen. 11.11.
52. Zohar I, 72a (Sitrei Torah): ĖęĊČĕġĠć Ġ"ċĕĊ ĠĊĞċ ĖČĠēĈ Ėēēĕĕ 'ėĕğċĊ ćğČďĕČĞ’
ĖĠĐēĈ ĖćęġĠĕ ĐēĕēćĊ ,'ČĉČ Ĕċĕ ğĝĈĐ ćē ċġęČ ĈĐġĒ đĒ ĖĐĉĈć ğĎć ĖĠĐēĈ ĖĐēēĕĕ ČČċ ćēČ ċĐĈ
ĖĐĊĠĊ ćĊĈČęĊ ĖĐĉĈ ĊĈęĕē ĖĐĈĠĎ ĖČėĐćĊ ČĈĐĠĎ ęğĉ ċĐĈ ĖęĊČĕġĠć ČČċ ćē Đćēę ĐĒćēĕĊ 'ğĎć
ĊĎ ēĒ ĖĐćēę ĖĐĉğĊ ĖĐęĊĐ ČČċĊ ĔĐĊĎć ĔĐğĈĊČ .ğĐġĐ ćēČ ćĠėć ĐėĈ ČčĎē ćĊĎ 'ęĉğĈ ćēć ČċĐć Čćē
ćĠĐĈ ćďĐęĈ ČďęĐġć đĒ ĖĐĉĈČ ĔĐĊĎć ĔĐğĈĊČ ĈĐġĒ đĒ ĖĐĉĈČ ćĉğĊ Čċē ĚēĎġć ćēČ ċĐĐğČĈ ēę ĊĎČ
‘ćġĕĒĎĊ ćďĐę.
53. Gen. 11.1.
54. This gematria is cited in the commentary of Jacob ben Asher on Gen. 11.1.
However, the claim that the generation of the Tower of Babel spoke Hebrew first is also
found elsewhere, e.g., in Midrash Tanhuma on Gen. 19.
LIEBES Hebrew and Aramaic as Languages of the Zohar 47

‘the same words’ to refer to the stages or the sefirot which were ‘the
same’, that is to say, that each word had a specific kabbalistic inter-
pretation, on a ratio of one to one, something that is only possible in
Hebrew. This property of Hebrew conceals a power which can be used
not only to establish the holy realm, but also for magical purposes, to
construct an evil counterpart.
Particularly surprising is the juxtaposition at the end of the passage:
‘evil consel, counsel of wisdom’. Wisdom here, as in many other places
in the zoharic literature, refers to the doctrine of the Kabbalah, to the
sefirot, and it appears that this doctrine can also be employed as a counsel
of evil. The punishment meted out to the builders of the Tower of Babel
was directed specifically against this transgression: God confused their
language and also altered the names of the angels with whose help they
had attempted to act. Interestingly, Moses de Leon also speaks of the
‘great wisdom’ possessed by that generation, but he, writing in Hebrew,
does not connect this to their language.55
The Zohar takes a different approach and does not heed the evil coun-
sel of the builders of the Tower of Babel. ‘Knowledge is power’ as we
say today, and before the Kabbalah, which professes to know the secrets
of the upper realm, lies the danger of hubris: insolence against heaven and
the elevation of man above God. The Aramaic language serves as a
remedy against this danger, for with its help, the personal and creative
elements find expression in the Zohar. The Kabbalah of the Zohar is not
rigidly systematic, nor is it a fixed doctrine, but develops and alters,
throwing out sparks in every direction, as I attempted to demonstrate
elsewhere,56 without, at that time, indicating the role that Aramaic plays in
this process.
In contrast to the generation of the tower of Babel who attempted to
establish an evil world by means of the holy tongue, the Zohar took the
opposite tack and established a holy world with the aid of Aramaic, which
it called targum, the language of the Aramaic translation of the Bible,
even though it considered Aramaic the language of evil.57 The later Kab-
balists followed the Zohar, and precisely because of the association
between the Aramaic translation and the forces of evil, they increasingly

55. See de Leon, The Mystery of Levirate Marriage §13, F. 1 (Hebrew).

56. Yehuda Liebes, ‘Zohar and Eros’, Alpayim 9 (1994), pp. 67-119 (Hebrew).
57. See Zohar II, 129b. The association between ĔČĉğġ, ‘translation’, and the forces of
evil may receive support from the Arabic term for the devil, al sitan al rajim, that is, ‘the
stoned or accursed devil’, derived from the same root rgm, Ĕĉğ.
48 Aramaic Studies 4.1 (2006)

emphasised the importance of the ritual public readings of the Aramaic

translation that served to assimilate the forces of evil known as kelipat
nogah, the aspect of evil that is closest to the holy, into the realm of the
holy.58 Rabbi Nahman of Braslav also adds that Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai
had sanctified the language of the translation that is as essential to the
establishment of the realm of the holy as sleep is for consciousness when
one is awake, for surely the word ĔČĉğġ, ‘translation’, in gematria
equals ċĕĊğġ, ‘sleep’.59 This dialectical stance is understandable in light
of the Zohar’s attitude to evil. The term used by the Zohar to refer to the
realm of evil, ćğĎć ćğďĘ, ‘the other side’, indicates a dualistic element.
The world is divided into two warring factions. However, unlike other
dualistic systems, the Zohar does not always take this conflict with
unbridled seriousness. He who knows the other side well, as does Rabbi
Simeon in the Zohar, can devise stratagems which render it much less
menacing and even disposed to display pleasing and amusing traits.60
Precisely because Aramaic is the language of the ‘other side’ it is able
to serve certain religious purposes. In this language, prophecy rests on
anyone who is worthy of it, even if he is uncircumcised. Consequently,
before Abraham was circumcised, it was said of him: ‘The word of the
Lord came to Abraham in a vision’ (Gen. 15.1). A vision, ċčĎĕ, not a
revelation, ċćğĕ, the Zohar emphasises. The word for a ‘vision’ used in
this verse is, in the opinion of the Zohar, the equivalent Aramaic form of
the Hebrew word ‘revelation’, since the root ċčĎ is common in Aramaic in
the sense of ‘to see’.61 (Rabbi Yehuda ibn Koreish also adduces this as an
example of an Aramaic element in Hebrew.62)

58. Meir ibn Gabbai, The Worm Jacob (ĈĞęĐ ġęēČġ) (Jerusalem, 1967), p. 23 c;
Menahem Azria of Fano, The Wings of the Dove (ċėČĐ ĐěėĒ), part 3 § 7 (Lemberg, 1884),
p. 64d;. Isaiah Horowitz, The Two Tablets of the Covenant (ġĐğĈċ ġČĎČē ĐėĠ) tractate
Shabbat (Frankfurt a. Oder, 1717), p. 138a (the latter work discusses the merit of the
targum at length).
59. See Likutei Moharan part 1 §19; Sihot Haran §109 (Jerusalem, 1978), p. 78;
Nathan of Nemirov, Collected Prayers (Likutei Tefilot), part 1, prayer 19 (ed. Bnei Brak;
1975), p. 63. Apparently Rav Kook objected to this and considered the numerological
association between the Aramaic translation and sleep inappropriate. See Orot Hakodesh,
I, §93 (Jerusalem, 1963), p. 108.
60. See Liebes, ‘Zohar and Eros’, pp. 80-85.
61. Zohar I, 88b: ēĒĊ ćĉğĊ ČčĐĎ ćČċċĈ ćēć ċčĎĕĈ Đćĕ ğĕćē ċčĎĕĈ ĔğĈć ēć íĐĐ ğĈĊ ċĐċ’
‘ċĐĈ ĖĐĐčĎġć ĖĐėĞČĐĊ [‘The word of the Lord came to Abraham in a vision, saying’. What does
‘vision’ mean? (It means) in that revelation, a rung on which all images appear].
62. See Koreish, Risala, p. 153.
LIEBES Hebrew and Aramaic as Languages of the Zohar 49

The combination of Aramaic and Hebrew is essential, according to the

Zohar, for the stability of the world, which requires harmony between the
opposing elements. Confirmation of this the Zohar finds in the word ĈĐĝĐ,
‘stable’, in the phrase ‘true and stable’ in the Morning Prayer, which it
considers an Aramaic word.63 Interestingly, the Hebrew word ċĈĝĕ,
‘monument’, from the same root which carries a suggestion of Aramaic,
is retranslated into Aramaic in the Zohar as ČēĐġĠ.64 The Zohar65 discovers
another example of this kind of combination in the Hebrew word for
‘these’, ċēć, at the end of the Aramaic verse interpolated into the Hebrew
text of Jeremiah: ‘The gods who did not make heaven and earth shall
perish from the earth and from under these heavens’.66
Aramaic is, as the language of the other side, the most degraded of
languages and at the same time the most elevated, for in it we address the
deity in a personal and intimate way. In this it is more elevated not only
than the angels, as we have seen, but also above the sefirot. With the help
of Aramaic it is possible to destroy in one moment the entire kabbalistic
edifice, or as the Zohar calls it, ‘the locks and seals’. For this reason,
according to one view, the kadish prayer was instituted in Aramaic, since
its purpose is to raise the great name of god67 above all blessings.68
The main objective in dealings with ‘the other side’ is to avoid
arousing its envy, that is to say, the evil eye. Complete disregard for evil
is also hubris, and according to the Zohar this was the fault of Job, who
was otherwise free from sin. Precisely because he withdrew from evil
completely (Job 1.1, 8; 2.3) and had nothing at all to do with the ‘the
other side’, he drew the evil eye upon himself.69 This feature is easily
discerned in the sin of the builders of the tower of Babel who wished to
make a name for themselves70 and conducted all their activities in the holy
tongue. Not only ‘the other side’ but also the angels are known for their
envy of humans, as is well-known from numerous statements in rabbinic
sources and the literature of the Second Temple period.71 For this reason,

63. See Zohar Hadash 42a.

64. See Liebes, ‘Sections of the Zohar Lexicon’, pp. 372-73.
65. Zohar I, 9a-b.
66. Jer. 10.11: ġČĎġ ĖĕČ ćęğćĕ ČĊĈćĐ ČĊĈę ćē ćĞğćČ ćĐĕĠ ĐĊ ćĐċēć ĔČċē ĖČğĕćġ ċėĊĒ’
‘ċēć ćĐĕĠ.
67. ćĈğ ċĐĕĠ.
68. See Zohar II, 129b: ‘ćğĎć ćĎĈĠĕ ğĐġĐ’.
69. See, Zohar II, 32b-34a, and Liebes, ‘Zohar and Eros’, pp. 80-85.
70. Gen. 11.4: ‘Come let us build ourselves a city…and make a name for ourselves’.
71. Much has been written on this topic. See, e.g., Peter Schäfer, Rivalität Zwischen
Engeln und Menschen (Berlin and New York, 1975).
50 Aramaic Studies 4.1 (2006)

too, Aramaic, the language they do not employ, is to be preferred. At

times it is advisable, according to the Zohar, to forgo the mediation of the
angels so that they will not have access to man’s words and will not envy
At times it seems that the Zohar was written in Aramaic precisely for
this reason, as appears from the discussion on the nature of kabbalistic
innovation found in the introduction to the work.73 This discussion
revolves around the verse: ‘I put my words in your mouth and sheltered
you under my hand to fix the heavens in place and establish the earth’
(Isa. 51.16). The exposition of the Kabbalist indeed creates and estab-
lishes a world, a new earth and new heavens, and an ability such as this in
the hands of man naturally invites the envy of the angels and must be
concealed, in the words of the scripture, ‘I sheltered you’. Admittedly the
Zohar does not explicitly mention Aramaic in this context and the con-
cealment it advocates may well also allude to zoharic pseudepigraphy.
Nor are those who envy man understood solely as angels, though cer-
tainly they include human detractors, from whom the Zohar must be
sheltered until it has fulfilled its messianic destiny and created a new earth
and a new heaven.
The envy of the angels as the reason for the use of Aramaic in the
Zohar was also discussed by a contemporary witness, Isaac of Acre, the
author of the famous letter on the composition of the Zohar mentioned
above. This is what he wrote in his Otsar Hayim, which remains in
Said the young Isaac of Acre, I saw what I believe to be a good reason for
calling the Greek empire evil, not wicked, and the Roman empire wicked, as
they say, ‘the evil empire of the Greeks’, 75 ‘the wicked empire of the
Romans’.76 This reason is known to the erudite from the kadish, the sublime
mystery of whose action is to hasten the rise of our allies and the downfall of
our enemies, which was introduced in the Aramaic of the Bible translation,

72. See Zohar I, 9b; Zohar Hadash on the Song of Songs, 69c.
73. See Zohar I, 5a, and Liebes, ‘The Messiah of the Zohar’, pp. 182-87.
74. MS Moscow, Ginzburg 775, 94b.-95a. Dr Boaz Huss brought this to my attention.
75. For example in the prayer ĔĐĘėċ ēę [For the Miracles], where ‘evil’ derived from
the Hebrew root ęĠğ.
76. ‘Wicked’ derived from the corresponding Aramaic root ĈĐĎ. I have not been able
to find this precise formulation, but ‘Rome the wicked’ (in a Hebrew context) occurs in
Mekilta, bahodesh §9. On the other hand, ‘Rome the evil’ does occur, see the next note. It
is also possible that Isaac of Acre had before him different readings, as these terms were
always liable to be emended by internal or external censorship.
LIEBES Hebrew and Aramaic as Languages of the Zohar 51

that is, Jerusalem Aramaic, not the holy tongue. For God concealed the trans-
lation, that is, Aramaic, from the ministering angels, who are man’s accusers,
and when the kadish is recited in a language [Aramaic] that they do not
understand, they will not be roused to denounce us. The archangel of Greece
has already fallen while the archangel of Rome is continually on the ascendant
until he and his nation shall reign under the heavens for nine months.77
Therefore the rabbis were unconcerned about denigrating the Greek empire in
Hebrew, because they were not anxious or afraid of the Greek archangel and
his nation, but now they fear to disparage the Roman Empire in the holy
tongue which is understood by her archangel and the accusers, and use only
Aramaic, which they do not understand, because they are concerned about the
birds in the sky and the winged messengers who may repeat their words.78
And I maintain that because Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai clearly recognised that
the spiritual powers above bitterly envy those engaged in studying the account
of the creation, which is the science of the natural world, and the account of
the chariot, which is the science of the deity,79 he and his son Rabbi Eleazar
and ten others who were with him in the cave80 sat and wrote the whole Zohar
in Jerusalem Aramaic, not in the holy tongue but in the language of the
Aramaic Bible translation, and Jerusalem Aramaic is further removed from
Hebrew than Aramaic.

The archangel of Rome mentioned above may be understood not only as a

celestial ruler. It is possible that the term, which literally means and could
refer to any ‘ruler’, alludes also to the Pope and his cardinals, who may
have acquired some knowledge of Hebrew to study the scriptures, but
certainly had no knowledge of Aramaic. Perhaps, because of this lack of
knowledge, they might have interpreted the phrase ‘Rome the wicked’ in
a positive sense, as may be indicated by the Hebrew root ĈĐĎ, not in the
sense of ‘iniquitous’ as in Aramaic. This may be another reason for using
this ambivalent phrase in reference to them.
Isaac of Acre distinguishes here between the indigenous Jerusalem
Aramaic which is the language of the Zohar and Aramaic proper. The

77. See, b. Yoma 10a: ‘The son of David will not come until the evil kingdom of
Rome has extended its dominion over the whole world for nine months’.
78. After Eccl. 10.20.
79. This is Maimonides’ definition in The Guide for the Perplexed part I, Introduction,
which equates the two accounts with Aristotelian physics and metaphysics. Isaac of Acre
probably considers the envy of the angels to be the reason for the prohibition of studying
the mysteries of creation and Ezekiel’s chariot. See m. Hagiga 2.1.
80. This is a reference to the Idra Raba, Zohar III, 127b, where R. Simeon bar Yohai
taught nine companions, although this took place not in a cave but in a field amongst the
trees. Isaac of Acre probably identifies this incident with R. Simeon’s sojourn in the cave
mentioned in b. Shab. 33b. These motifs are first associated in Zohar Hadash, pericope Ki
Tavo, 59c-60a (a passage which probably derives from the school of Joseph Angelit).
52 Aramaic Studies 4.1 (2006)

designation ‘Jerusalem’ applied to the Zohar is based on the work’s

perception of itself.81 At a later period (in the Book of the Responding
Angel), the claim was reversed and the Zohar was said to have been
written specifically in Babylonian Aramaic in order to conceal its secrets
from the masses in Palestine.82 We also find the opposite view, namely,
that the Aramaic of the Zohar was intended to bring these secrets closer
to the masses who were not proficient in the holy tongue. This opinion
was current particularly amongst the Sabbateans, who adopted an exoteric
stance, an ideology which encouraged the revelation of secrets, and even
translated the Zohar into other languages such as Yiddish.83 This type of
ideology is far removed from that of the Zohar. Although the Zohar does,
at times, display a certain democratic tendency, this is not intended to
encourage ignorance but rather to acknowledge that sometimes a man
who appears at first glance to be an ignoramus is later discovered to be a
scholar. In the words of the Zohar itself, ‘Sometimes a pearl can be found
in a poor man’s bag’.84

81. See Yehuda Liebes, ‘The Zohar’s Relation to the Land of Israel’, in Z. Harvey et
al. (eds.), Zion and Zionism amongst the Jews of Spain and the Orient (Jerusalem, 2002),
pp. 42-44 (Hebrew).
82. See Gershom Scholem, ‘The Maggid of Rabbi Joseph Taitazak’, Sefunot 14 (Sefer
Yavan 1), 1968 (1978), pp. 77-78 (Hebrew); Moshe Idel, ‘Neglected Works of the Author
of the Kaf Haktoret’, Peamim 53 (1993), p. 80 (Hebrew). A good and complete version,
drawn to my attention by Dr Boaz Huss, can be found in MS British Museum 776, pp.
83. See Boaz Huss, ‘Sabbateanism and the Reception of the Zohar’, in The Sabbatean
Movement and its Aftermath: Messianism, Sabbatianism and Frankism (= Rachel Elior
[ed.], Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought 16, vol. I), pp. 53-71 (Hebrew).
84. See, for instance, Zohar III, 157b.