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I've read arguments and counter arguments for the origins of the Zohar and I'm perplexed.

I personally accept the truths in kabbalah and chassidut, but I didn't realize how the Zohar sort of just "appeared" one day in 13th/14th century. Le-havdil, this sounds like how other religions start; with one man claiming to have found an ancient text he won't let anyone else see.

For sure, there are traditional arguments - and even secular academic ones - that paint a better picture of events and present other possibilities for the provenance of the texts of the Zohar.

My question is: With such a shaky story, do we say that Zohar is accepted based on the truth it contains (i.e. regardless of where it is actually stems from) rather than the mesorah (since it apparently doesn't have one)?

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  • I find it both fascinating and perplexing that no one seems to have even some degree of understanding of why the great Torah scholars who originally accepted the Zohar? The implications of there being no valid (or even semi-valid) הוא אמינא for so many great Rabbis/Torah scholars are so great that it should make every G-d fearing Jew shudder at the thought. A glance at the pro-Zohar answers to this post should be enought to show anyone just how difficult this problem is, with big names, like the Arizal and the Vilna Gaon. What are we supposed to think about all of this? – Joshua Pearl Jun 25 at 20:30
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According to the haqdamah of the Mishneh Torah, it seems that any book(s) or commentary(s) which may have arisen after the hhatimath ha-talmudh ("the sealing of the Talmudh") - such as the writings of the geonim or even the Rambam's own book - are measured by their faithfulness to the halakhic and aggadic literature bequeathed to us by Hazal and their students (i.e. Mishnah, Tosefta, Mekhiltoth, Sifra, Sifre, Bavli, Yerushalmi, and the Tannaitic midrashim/baraytoth). Much like the prophets were tested against the collective mesorah up until their time, and by abrogation of it they themselves were rejected, so also are books composed since the close of the Talmudic age in need of such "testing."

Now, granted that there are two types of potential errors in such books:

  1. Unintentional errors of interpretation or logical understanding, etc. - In other words, a certain talmidh hakhamim codifies the halakhah as he sees it and explains hashqafah as he understands it from Tanakh and Hazal, but perhaps the halakhah is not like him and perhaps he misunderstands such issues as the nature of suffering or the function of sekhar wa-`onesh (or similar issues). These types of potential "mistakes" do not necessarily disqualify the author, rather we see that to attempt to understand Torah is a process where have to accept that different views of Torah from the sources is not only possible but probable.
  2. Departures from mesorah or attempts to replace it/abrogate it - Should a new book or treatise be written that stands in opposition to the halakhah or hashqafah as expressed by Tanakh and Hazal - especially that which seeks not to understand but to supplant - is to be rejected. Examples are "new revelations" that, rather than seek to understand the statements of Hazal in aggregate, attempt to make the case for "secret teachings" or "hidden meanings" that are in contradiction to established mesorah - such books and their authors are to be rejected.

[NOTE: I am aware that the above are fairly general and that it could be discussed in more detail, such as when to set aside midrashim in favor of peshat or outdated "scientific" ideas in order to incorporate new ones. However, for now these definitions should suffice for this answer.]

Certainly each of the above has limitations. For example, and perhaps most importantly, there are ideas about which different views are not acceptable and cannot be tolerated, such as the nature of the yihhudh HaShem, or the fact of a physical, bodily resurrection, or the permanence and immutability of the Torah. Such things (and those like them) define apiqorsim and minim (cf. Hilkhoth Teshuvah 3:14-17f) , and the Rambam - drawing on the text of the Mishnah and logical monotheism - composed his 13 Foundations of Jewish faith to show us where our speculation may go before it is undone and where we are not allowed to budge in our basic religious ideas and ideals.

Many books have come on the scene - both pre-Talmudic and post - claiming to be authentic to our mesorah, or to extend it, or to replace it. Examples include the "New Testament," the "Qur'aan," the "Kebra Nagast," the books of the Shabbateans (followers of Shabbetai Tzvi, yimahh shemo wa-zikhro, and many others. Many of them were accepted by great people. If Shelomoh HaMelekh could worship idols, if Elisha` ben Avuyah ("Ahher") could accept the idea of ribbui reshayoth from the books of the dualists, if Yohhanan Kohen Gadhol could become a Ssaduqi at the end of his life, if the Hakham Ssvi z"l could accept Shabbetai Tzvi (yimahh shemo) as the mashiyyahh, and if the Hafess Hhayyim z"l could be led to accept the blatantly forged (supposedly lost) Seder Qodhashin of the Talmudh Yerushalmi (and even changing his halakhic practices based on the forgery), then the fact that the Zohar was accepted by many great scholars when it first published should neither surprise us nor become the sure basis for its acceptance.

As an aside, one of the most common misconceptions is the equating of qabbalah with the Zohar literature; if the latter is rejected, it is thought, then the former ceases to exist. Such an idea is patently false, but nevertheless demonstrates how entrenched in the minds of contemporary Judaism is the idea that all authentic spirituality or "mysticism" in Judaism is inextricably linked to the ideas expressed in the Zohar. The fact is that the bodies of knowledge known as ma'aseh merqavah ("Workings of the Chariot" - i.e. metaphysics) and ma'aseh bereshith ("Workings of the Creation" - i.e. physics) - as mentioned in the Mishnah, masekhet Hhaghighah - preceded the 13th century publication of the Zohar by [possibly] thousands of years, as did the Sefer Yessirah. The Sefer Yessirah is referred to and expounded by the Kuzari and Sa'adyah Gaon, among others. The Rambam himself makes veiled references to these ideas in his Moreh HaNevokhim, expounding (where possible) mystical and philosophical concepts related to both ma'aseh bereshith and ma'aseh merqavah.

But this leads to another fact that is often overlooked in the history of the Zohar - many qabbalists at the time of its publication (and afterward) rejected it as being authentic. Rabbi Avraham Zacuto, in his Sefer HaYuhhasin, relates the extant portion of an account written by the well-known qabbalist Rabbi Yisshhaq De-Akko (a talmidh of the Ramban) who traveled to the home of Mosheh De Leon and offered to purchase the original manuscripts of the Zohar from his widow, whereupon she confessed to him that there were no original manuscripts and that her late husband had forged it and attributed it to Shimon ben Yohhai in an effort to gain acclaim and a higher purchase price. Other well-known qabbalists who rejected the Zohar as an authentic book of mesorah were Rabbi Ya'aqov Emden and the Hhathem Sofer (who was the student of the famed and intense mystic, Rabbi Nathan Adler). Their use of language is strong against the Zohar, using words like "forgery" and "lies" to describe it. All the while, however, these men and others maintained a highly-developed mystical system based on earlier literature.

The facts are clear to all who are willing to take an honest look: the Zohar contradicts a great many things which came before it in both the realm of halakhah and hashqafah - even surround such things as are "off limits" such as the nature of the yihhudh HaShem. And these things are well-known, they are not my invention nor the invention of secular scholars seeking to defame religion. They have been discussed and wrestled with for hundreds of years by rabbis and scholars in every area of Jewish literature. It has been proven that the Zohar borrows and incorporates sections of Rashi, Tosafoth, the Rambam, and other works which preceded it. It also contains a vast amount of original material, much of which is controversial when compared to works containing established mesorah from Hazal. This being the case, it is true that there are genuinely positive statements and spiritual truths expressed in the Zohar, however it is also true that there are severe statements of polytheism and dualism expressed there as well. So, the operating principle (it seems) is that anything good in the Zohar may already be found in uncontested and authentic works that preceded it, and anything questionable is of it's own invention. Such an observation makes the Zohar superfluous and the attempt to incorporate it into the corpus of Jewish literature as being more trouble that it is worth. The continuous heretical movements which base themselves upon it (e.g. the Shabbateans) and the seemingly endless stream of charlatans offering miracle cures, instant wealth, and superpowers of protection to those who embrace the Zoharic qabbalistic system are a proof that giving Zohar a prime place in Judaism has proven almost disastrous. The fact is that much of the good brought by hasidism could have been brought without the aid of Zoharic literature.

The historical Jewish response to the Zohar can be divided into three basic approaches:

  1. Full acceptance - The full acceptance of the Zohar and its attendant literature as being 100% authentic is most aptly characterized by the Hasidic movement(s) and the North African Sefaradim. These adherents hold it as the holiest text in Judaism and should be used to "correct" all other texts - especially those which came before it - which are viewed as being "ignorant" or "unaware" of the secret tradition that it holds.
  2. Modified acceptance - This approach, most commonly associated with the Gr"a and his talmidhim, is to effectively accept the Zohar, but to reject its commentaries. In other words, the Gr"a took great liberties to "re-read" the text of the Zohar in order to make it fit into the established mesorah. By doing so, he rejected many of the ideas of Lurianic qabbalah, and sought new readings (many of which are either based on his own emendations of the text or forced readings of the plain meaning of the Aramaic) to remove conflict and controversy. However, in doing so, the Gr"a also "re-reads" the text of the gemara in certain places and in some cases reverses generations of clear and uncontested pesaq halakhah from the gemara to accommodate the clear ruling of the Zohar to the contrary (one example of this is the wearing of tefillin on Hholo shel mo'edh).
  3. Full rejection - Characterized most aptly by the 19th-century Dor De'ah movement in Yemen led by Rav Yihhyah Qafihh z"l. Rav Qafihh authored a book entitled Milhhamoth HaShem ("The Wars of HaShem") wherein he effectively demonstrates (like other hakhamim before him) that the Zohar simply cannot be a product of Hazal and their students, is subsequently not an authentic work of mesorah, and therefore must be rejected. This and other groups rely instead on the works of previous and established authors for spirituality, such as the Rambam (Moreh HaNevokhim), Rabbi Yehudhah HaLewi (Kuzari), Rabbi Bahhyah ibn Pequdha (Hhovoth HaLevavoth), Sa'adyah Gaon (Pirush 'al Sefer HaYessirah and HaNivhhar Emunoth Wa-De'oth), and others.

We have a principle of "lo ba-shamayim hi", i.e. that the Torah is not "in heaven" and therefore we do not base our belief in any certain book or teacher based on purported "miracles" or claims of special "revelation" or "prophecy." Instead, we are charged with being faithful to the texts and the mesorah that we have to judge all that comes after it. This is why the latter two approaches (i.e. any approach beyond blind acceptance) take measures to study the relevant sources in order to formulate their opinions, rather than seeking a sign or relying on the fact that the likes of the Arizal gave it their approbation.

To answer your question directly, the Zohar has been accepted - and continues to be so - based on "mob rule" so to speak. In other words, since it has been read and used by a lot of Jews for a long time, we assume that it is true. In reality, however, there is no basis for its acceptance, but rather to the contrary. And as has been shown, there is nothing on the part of its supporters to substantiate their claims other than dogmas and the attribution of "special powers" or "revelations" or mystical "prophecy" on the part of those famed historical figures who did accept it, while attributing error and arrogance to those scholars who argued against it. It is exactly as you said, it is no different than the many false religious movements that have arisen in world history; they begin with charismatic and bold claims based essentially on nothing and demand blind obedience from all with whom they speak. But in the end, their claims are empty and their reasoning is circular.

Have you ever wondered why those who merely question the authenticity of the Zohar are threatened with excommunication and charges of heresy, while those who propose that a section of the gemara should be emended (and other such normal acts of Torah scholarship) are met with none of these? Le-`aniyuth Da'ati, it seems that those without truly substantive arguments have nothing left but threats of Divine judgment and ad hominem attacks. Sound familiar?

And PLEASE do not take my word for it - go and see for yourself. Investigate the matter thoroughly and with an open mind. If you come thereby to another conclusion, then you will have no threats and suffer no humiliation from me. And I certainly will not threaten you with a charge of "arrogance" for not seeing things the way that this or that scholar has.

I hope that this helps. Kol tuv.

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    But why did the "mob" start reading it and using it? – Double AA Jul 10 '15 at 16:37
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    I don't know. Why did the "mob" worship Baal in the time of Yermiyahu or accept Shabbetai Tzvi (yimahh shemo) or do anything that the "mob" does? It's why the same pasuq from which we derive the necessity to follow a majority rule in beth din also tells us that we are forbidden from following the crowd to commit evil, I.e. just because alot of people do something doesn't make it right. But you know this already, so what are you really asking? Kol tuv. – user3342 Jul 10 '15 at 16:56
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    He's asking because he wants you to answer the question, if I know @DoubleAA at all! The question asked "With such a shaky story, do we say that Zohar is accepted based on the truth it contains (i.e. regardless of where it is actually stems from) rather than the mesorah (since it apparently doesn't have one)? " Did you answer that? – Baby Seal Jun 28 '16 at 21:26
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    The Chochom Tzvi was not a Sabbatean, just for the record. He and his son both were strong opponents of that movement and entered into machloket with followers of Shabbatai Sbi who were accepted within their communities. – Noach MiFrankfurt Jun 28 '16 at 21:42
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    @Maimonist source for the claim in your previous comment? – mevaqesh Sep 11 '16 at 12:51
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Another point mentioned by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan here:

Around three years ago, someone came to me and asked me to translate parts of a manuscript of Rabbi Yitzchok deMin Acco, known as Otzar HaChaim. There is only one complete copy of this manuscript in the world, and this is in the Guenzberg Collection in the Lenin Library in Moscow. This person got me a complete photocopy of the manuscript and asked me to translate certain sections. I stated that the only condition I would translate the manuscript is if I get to keep the copy. This is how I got my hands on this very rare and important manuscript.

Of course, like every other sefer in my house, it had to be read. It took a while to decipher the handwriting, since it is an ancient script. One of the first things I discovered was that it was written some 20 years after Rabbi Yitzchok investigated the Zohar. He openly, and clearly and unambiguously states that the Zohar was written by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. This is something not known to historians, and this is the first time I am discussing it in a public forum. But the fact is that the one person who is historically known to have investigated the authenticity of the Zohar at the time it was first published, unambiguously came to the conclusion that it was an ancient work written by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.

He writes in the footnote

One can view this manuscript today on micro film at YU or Brandeis University (http://library.brandeis.edu/specialcollections/collections/mancoll3.html).

However the link no longer works.

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    How does this answer the question? Are you suggesting that people accepted it because of his research, and then we all lost the research? Do you have any evidence of this? – Double AA Jun 28 '16 at 20:50
  • @DoubleAA Yes. People accepted it because of his research and once it was accepted there was no need to continue to prove it. – Y K Jun 28 '16 at 20:55
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    But you are just making this theory up. Why should we believe you? You haven't provided any evidence for your claim – Double AA Jun 28 '16 at 21:20
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    I think you are confused. Even if the link says what R Kaplan says it says, that is not evidence that RYdMA is the reason it became accepted. It just implies that for some reason RYdMA accepted it (or that he didn't mind pseudepigraphical attributions). – Double AA Jun 28 '16 at 22:34
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    I don't understand your comment. What main investigation? The question wasn't about if the Zohar was accepted (by those who accept it). You seem confused about what you are trying to say and how it answers the question. This is not just a place to post any information about the Zohar. – Double AA Jun 29 '16 at 13:50
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See Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan's Inner Space chapter 1 (through page 7) along with footnotes. His basic argument is that all of Jewish mysticism (works like Sefer Yetzeira, Bahir, Heichalot material, Zohar, etc.) were transmitted to Moshe at Sinai and were orally transmitted after that. Throughout the time of prophecy this knowledge was guarded and only really accessible to those who had attained prophecy (note: as indicated in Tanach, there were schools of prophecy and there were many thousands who achieved this spiritual level, only prophecy which was relevant to all generations was recorded for posterity). After the destruction of the temple and the cessation of prophecy these oral traditions were in danger of being forgotten. Various "schools" coalesced around spiritual giants such as Rabbi Akiva (who transmitted the secrets of the Merkava) and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai who transmitted (orally) the main material of the Zohar. These transmissions were an amalgamation of oral tradition and divine or semi-prophetic revelation (via the prophet Elijah). Over time in order that this wisdom not be forgotten students began to write it down. The compilation of several such works became canonized as the Zohar.

He also refers to Rabbi David Luria's Kadmut Sefer HaZohar 5:2. In footnote 30 he states:

...In the case of Rabbi Shimon's school, the Zohar consisted of volumes of notes in manuscript form which were hidden away in a vault and not uncovered until the 13th century. After limited circulation in the 1270's and 1280's, these notes came into the hands of R. Moshe de Leon (1238-1305) who finally edited and published them in the 1290's...

So, to answer your question in short, the material in question was not deemed appropriate for public consumption and was therefore transmitted orally to only select individuals for many hundreds of years (Judaism is not the only example of this type of secret oral transmission). It was finally gathered and published at the end of the 13th century but certainly didn't simply pop up out of nowhere. If it had (I'm editorializing here, Rabbi Kaplan does not say this) I cannot imagine it gaining such immediate and widespread acceptance.

  • I would appreciate if downvoters could leave a comment explaining what they feel is lacking in the answer. This would help me improve it. – rikitikitembo Aug 19 '15 at 1:46
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    You don't explain why the Zohar was accepted as being true, you just asset that it is. Somebody published it and said it had been in a vault for a millennium. Why did anyone believe that? Would you believe me if I said that about something I found today (but wouldn't show you the original of)? Maybe that's what's lacking in this answer – Double AA Jun 28 '16 at 21:26
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    I don't even know what Mesorah you think there was. Are you saying that the secret mesorah (so secret most rishonim didn't know of it and no one ever hinted at it) was that there was a document hidden in a secret vault authored by Rashbi for 1500 years with such-and-such content? That seems absurd. Even if there was a Mesorah from Moshe about the Sefirot or whatever, why would anyone believe the Zohar was real? Did they know where the vault was? Did they know why it was put in a vault? How did it stay safe in the vault? So how does this answer the question? – Double AA Jul 1 '16 at 2:07
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    Most of what you just said is irrelevant; I don't know why you said it. You seem to be mixing up a few stories here. You can't at the same time hold that the Zohar was found in a vault and that it was passed down orally until being written down by various students in the 13th century. Also, claiming that there were secret traditions is different from claiming this is that tradition. You have no evidence for the latter claim. To see that note I can still claim that along with the secret tradition of Kabbalah there was a secret tradition that Moshe was a girl, and I'm only now revealing it etc. – Double AA Jul 28 '16 at 1:37
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    So when someone came along and said "this is the secret tradition", why did anyone believe him? Was it because of a Mesorah or because of its contents? Clearly many people were not in on this secret tradition (R Saadya Gaon, Rambam, etc.) – Double AA Jul 28 '16 at 1:42
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The answer in my opinion is that it was accepted because it had the backing of highly influential Rabbis such as the Arizal who reputedly had hasagas (spiritual powers/clairvoyance) almost like the neviim (prophets). (As evidence for these powers see the book Shivchei Arizal for some amazing accounts.) I assume he used these powers to verify the book's authenticity.

See this footnote from http://ohr.edu/1395 :

The Zohar was hidden for over a thousand years until R. Moshe de Leon purportedly found it. Although originally there was some doubt as to its authenticity, once the master Kabbalist R. Yitzchak Luria (the Arizal) unequivocally attributed the Zohar to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, this became the accepted opinion.

here's a quote from Rabbi Chaim Vital claiming that his teacher, the Arizal was in contact with Elijah the Prophet (Pri Etz Chaim).:

אמר הצעיר והזעיר הרח"ו בראותי תשוקת החרדים אל דבר ה' ראיתי לחבר הס' הזה ולהאיר עיניה' בקצת הקדמות שקבלתי ממורי זלה"ה כאשר אבאר ומהם תוכל לאחוז ולקחת מעץ חיים כאשר תראה בעז"ה דברי בנוים על הקדמו' נעלמות שנתגלו למורי זלה"ה ברוה"ק עפ"י אליהו ז"ל"

http://www.kab.co.il/heb/content/view/frame/29819?/heb/content/view/full/29819&main

another quote from the Ramchal in his book Adir B'Marom (intro): "I have been given permission (from upstairs) to ask and understand in any and all matters of the holy Torah even the most difficult passages in the Zohar.."

Another quote from Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, the famed disciple of the highly influential Vilna Gaon, considered the greatest of all of Lithuanian Jewry which implies the Vilna Gaon also backed the zohar's authenticity. from here: http://www.chareidi.org/archives5763/VSH63features.htm

Pay attention to his introduction to the commentary of his great rov to the Safro Detzni'uso, his great and awesome revelations. Inter alia, he relates wonderful expositions that he heard from his rov the Vilna Gaon zt"l and on one occasion [his rov darshened] when [the soul of] R. Shimon bar Yochai sat on his right side and the Arizal on his left

the Vilna Gaon also reputedly had great hasagas as reported here and here

Likewise Rav Yosef Karo, one of the most influential Rabbis since the Zohar's appearance cited the Zohar in his sources at the introduction to the Beit Yosef. According to this source, he also weighed the halakhic value of Zoharic prescriptions and later integrated them into the Shulchan Aruch.

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    I'm surprised by your answer for it seems circular: imagine the Ari saying "I am the greatest master of this field of study which is true because I said so." Shouldn't we be looking for independent verification? I mean, no one who thinks the Zohar is false will believe the "prophecy" of the man they think is a charlatan. You should try and find a prophet who's prophecy isn't solely dependent on the truth of the Zohar. (As a parallel consider John Smith's being a prophet is dependent solely on the truth of the Book of Mormon. See how it's circular?) – Double AA Jan 7 '15 at 18:52
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    How do you know that? (See how it's circular?) – Double AA Jan 7 '15 at 18:57
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    But how do you know it was Torah wisdom or even wisdom at all? (See how it's circular?) – Double AA Jan 7 '15 at 19:01
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    -1 because this is silly and not a real answer. prophecy ended long ago. anyone who claims to have any kind of prophecy is truly a liar and a deceiver. if the sanhadreen would be around they would surely execute this person for blasphemy and treason. – MoriDowidhYa3aqov Jan 8 '15 at 21:30
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    @ray yea...no there is no such thing. anyone claiming such thing are in it for something other than torah and those who believe in such thing are delusional – MoriDowidhYa3aqov Jan 8 '15 at 21:48
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the zohar was overwhelmingly backed by great torah scholars who quote it in their works such as

Rav Yosef Karo

the Arizal

the Ramchal

Baal HaTanya

Vilna Gaon

Ben Ish Chai

Leshem

Chafetz Chaim

all of whom quote it in their books.

the list goes on and on. those who did not back it are a tiny minority in comparison and it is doubtful they would still say so today given all who backed it over time.

as to how all these great men knew, it is not up for us to judge. "God shares His secrets with those who fear Him" (Tehillim 25:14)

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    Besides for some other problems with this answer, most importantly, it does not answer the question of why the Zohar was accepted so broadly. It just claims that the Zohar was accepted very broadly. The question is why. Consider revising. – mevaqesh Sep 11 '16 at 14:17
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    If that is the basis for your answer then edit it in (expect downvotes because that argument has already been presented on this page and been dealt with extensively.) – mevaqesh Sep 11 '16 at 14:31
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    How do you reconcile your Catholic-esque implications of rabbinic infallibility with your acknowledgement that rabbis stood on both sides of the issue? Or with massekhet Horayot? – mevaqesh Sep 11 '16 at 14:45
  • Source for Rav Yosef Karo please – Shmuel Brin Sep 11 '16 at 19:46

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