When Berkeley professor Daniel Matt was approached to translate the Zohar, he was more than a little hesitant. By all accounts, Matt had every intention of rejecting philanthropist Margot Pritzker’s offer to sponsor a translation. “He tried it for a month, and then he flew to Chicago to tell me basically that I was crazy, and didn’t I know that this was impossible, that this would take a lifetime?” Pritzker says. “And I said to him, ‘You know, you’re not scaring me.’” Matt recalls his peers’ response: “I remember people saying to me, ‘When are you going to do the rest?’ And I would say, ‘I don’t want to spend my whole life translating the Zohar.’”
After two decades, the 12-volume translation of the Zohar is complete. The final volume, translated by Matt, came out this summer. The full translation now stands as a masterpiece of Jewish mystical tradition.
“Daniel Matt’s accomplishment is monumental,” says the Rabbi Yehiel Poupko, a Judaic scholar at the Jewish United Fund of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago and co-chair of the academic committee for the translation of the Zohar. “One of the ingredients that went into this monumental accomplishment is his humility. Unlike others, whom you have surely read about, who encounter Kabbalah and then march into town square to announce it, cheapen it, to act like hucksters, Daniel Matt is a profoundly humble person.”
To say the Zohar, an ancient Jewish mystical work offering commentary on the Torah, is a complicated text would be an understatement. The text first appeared in 13th-century Spain, where it was presented as an ancient work by Moses de Leon, a Kabbalist living at that time. However, de Leon claimed that he was copying it from an ancient manuscript written by Rabbi Shimon, a famous teacher that lived in the second century CE. Modern scholars now believe that de Leon was attempting to present his own work as authentic by claiming it was written by an ancient scholar, when in fact de Leon wrote the majority of the text himself. As a result, the text is a combination of a strange, artificial Aramaic, deemed by scholars to be de Leon’s attempt to write in a language other than his native language of Hebrew.
And not only was de Leon writing in his second language, he was also experimenting in the genre of fiction. The text traces the travels of a circle of rabbis, and Rabbi Shimon is presented as the hero and teacher. The rabbis are sometimes bombarded with strange characters—like a donkey driver and a little boy who turn out to have profound insights to share—so the Zohar reads like a long-winded tale of travelers with many digressions. In addition to the morality tales, the text is full of colorful symbolism. Flowers and colors come to represent parts of God and even the Hebrew alphabet itself can become symbolic in the text. Any translator would have the particularly difficult task of replicating the text’s complex rhythm in another language.
The 12-volume translation was set into motion in 1989 when Rabbi Poupko and Pritzker met and decided to study the Zohar. Although both were well-versed in Hebrew, the text was written in ancient Aramaic. The English editions available were inadequate, failing to capture the poetry of the text and shying away from its more radical passages. Frustrated with the resources available, Pritzker and Poupko discussed the possibility of funding a full translation and decided to consult Poupko’s colleagues to find the best person to bring the spirit of the Zohar to life. They came across one name over and over again: Daniel Matt.
Matt first came across the Zohar as a university student at the age of 19. He had spent his junior year abroad in Jerusalem at the Hebrew University, where he took both beginning and advanced Zohar courses. “The advanced Zohar was pretty difficult, but that didn’t matter so much because the beginning Zohar was also difficult, because it’s a very challenging text,” Matt says. “But I really fell in love with it that year.” For his graduate dissertation at Brandeis University, he focused on the first-ever translation of Zohar. He edited the translation, which had been converted from Aramaic to Hebrew in the 14th-century by a Kabbalist, which helped him understand the complex text. Later he went on to teach it, and in the late 1970s he even created an anthology of selected translations—which Matt says covered only two percent of the Zohar.
But Matt tackled the project, first translating the Zohar’s Aramaic text, but also in his own words, “reconstruct[ing] the text of the Zohar based on original manuscripts, which are today found in various libraries all over Europe.” For two decades, he spent mornings translating and writing commentary and his afternoons preparing the Aramaic text for the next day. And over the years, he fell in love with the text. “I try to balance a spiritual and academic approach,” he says. “I think that ultimately the value of the Zohar is how it deepens one’s own spiritual life, and it certainly has done that for me. But I think there’s a lot to gain also from learning what was going on in Spain at the time, what was Jewish society like then, what text the author or authors of the Zohar might have had before them, how they built on earlier traditions.”
Matt’s work has made it possible for anyone to study the Zohar in English for the first time, although Matt, Pritzker and Poupko all caution that some readers might be lost without some knowledge of midrash and Torah. And the project has not only allowed for the Zohar to be made available to scholars globally, but it has also given life to other valuable literary projects.
“What needs to be appreciated here,” Poupko says, “is that Margot Pritzker set out with a vision for one book and it turned into four books. One book is the translation, the second book is Daniel Matt’s running commentary, the third book is a critical edition of the Aramaic text of the Zohar from all available manuscripts and the fourth book, also to be posted in a few months on Stanford University Press website, is a veritable Fort Knox for scholars: namely, all the variants in all the manuscripts available of the Zohar. Four books. Translation, commentary, critical Aramaic edition and the variants of all manuscripts. It is an astonishing accomplishment in Western intellectual history that Margo has made possible. Visionary and monumental—that doesn’t often happen.”