Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Zohar on the rope tied to the high priest's ankle

Title Page of First Edition of the Zohar
Mantua, 1558
Library of Congress
(Image from Wikipedia)

As a follow-up to yesterday's post, I decided to find The Zohar online and post the actual passage stating the fabled practice of tying a rope to the priest's ankle.

I found the passage even though the numbering in the online version was different from that given by Arden on the Ioudaios List (but this could be a different edition): The Zohar: Volume 15, Acharei Mot, Section 32, Number 198:
198. Afterwards, he [i.e., the high priest] washes his body and sanctifies his hands to enter into another holy service. Then he aims to enter another most holy, lofty place; NAMELY, THE HOLY OF HOLIES. Three rows surround THE HIGH PRIEST -- his colleague priests, Levite and the rest of the people. THEY REPRESENT THE THREE COLUMNS, PRIEST AND LEVITE REPRESENT RIGHT AND LEFT AND YISRAEL REPRESENT THE SECRET OF THE CENTRAL COLUMN. They raise their hands towards him in prayer. A knot OF ROPE of gold hangs from his leg, FROM FEAR PERHAPS HE WOULD DIE IN THE HOLY OF HOLIES, AND THEY WOULD NEED TO PULL HIM OUT WITH THIS ROPE.
The original text is in Aramaic and can be seen online at the link. The translation -- as one will have noted -- presents some phrases and clauses in upper-case letters. I presume that the translators think that these serve as commentary upon the phrases and clauses written in lower-case letters. The Aramaic, of course, makes no such distinction between upper and lower case.

I know very little about The Zohar, but the passage above would purport to describe part of the high priest's actions on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, a day for the ritual forgiveness of the sins of the Israelites, which can be read about in Leviticus 16. The above passage seems connected with the washing of the high priest's body mentioned in verse 4 of Leviticus but has a lot more detail added, presumably from other sources.

The website for the online version of The Zohar makes some extravagant claims for the origins of such details:
Zohar is a Hebrew word that means splendor. In its simplest form, the Zohar is a commentary on the Bible, structured as conversations among a group of friends, scholars, and spiritual masters. Although the wisdom available in its pages is older than Creation itself, the text of the Zohar was composed approximately 2000 years ago. It was then that the great Kabbalist Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai revealed the Zohar to his student, Rabbi Abba who transcribed it in the ancient language of Aramaic. In the centuries that followed, the Zohar was often suppressed by religious and secular authorities who feared its power to transform the lives of those who gained access to the sacred writings. The sages of Kabbalah, too, realized that the Zohar must wait until humankind was ready to receive it.
Scholars such as Gershom Scholem, however, hold less extravagant views:
[T]he Zohar with its various strata was without doubt composed in the years that immediately preceded its publication, since it is impossible to uncover any section that was written before 1270. (Gershom Scholem, "Zohar," Encyclopaedia Judaica)
Scholem analyzes The Zohar carefully and argues that it was composed "by the Spanish kabbalist Moses b. Shem Tov de Leon, who died in 1305."

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