Decades Later, Translation Of Jewish Text Will Open Zohar's Gates To English Speakers

Feb 26, 2017
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now we'd like to tell you about an important Jewish text that will finally be available in English. In May, publishers will release the final volume of the first authoritative English translation of "The Zohar." Judy Silber from member station KALW in San Francisco tells us about the significance of this text and about the scholar who's dedicated nearly two decades to revealing its secrets.

DANIEL MATT: (Speaking Aramaic).

JUDY SILBER, BYLINE: This is "The Zohar."

MATT: (Speaking Aramaic).

SILBER: The writings form the bedrock of a Jewish mystical tradition called Kabbalah. The Aramaic here is being read by Berkeley scholar Daniel Matt. As a young professor, he translated what he says were about 2 percent of the full writings.

MATT: And ever since then, people said to me, well, when are you going to do the other 98 percent? And I would say, well, I don't want to spend the rest of my life translating "The Zohar."

SILBER: "The Zohar's" origins date back to 13th-century Spain when a man named Moses de Leon claimed to have found a collection of ancient manuscripts, but scholars believe he was actually the author.

MATT: So he was composing it in Aramaic and trying to make the Aramaic look ancient, but also inventing words sometimes turning a Hebrew word into a new-fangled Aramaic word.

SILBER: So Matt knew the translation wouldn't be easy. He also worried that intensive study of the mystical writings would exhaust him spiritually. But then in 1995, he got a phone call. A woman named Margot Pritzker was interested in paying for the full translation. Her family owns the Hyatt Hotels. Matt wasn't interested, but agreed to meet with Pritzker and her rabbi. She asked how long it would take.

MATT: And I said 12 to 15 years. And Margot said to me, you're not scaring me. And at that moment, I turned a corner, and I basically said, OK, I'll do it.

SILBER: Matt would eventually translate and annotate nine of "The Zohar's" 12 volumes. Rabbi Aubrey Glazer is an early adopter of the new translation. He uses it in weekly Shabbat study sessions.

AUBREY GLAZER: So "The Zohar" is probably one of the most magical and intricate books on the Jewish bookshelf, but also on the bookshelf of spiritual-seekers at large.

SILBER: He says the new translation is meticulous and poetic. Here's Glazer reading "The Zohar's" imagining of how God created the universe.

GLAZER: From the head of infinity, a cluster of vapor forming in formlessness thrusts in a ring, not white, not black, not red, not green, no color at all.

SILBER: Glazer says "The Zohar" is meant to be less literal than provocative.

GLAZER: What was it like at that moment just before the millisecond before creation and the world came into being? That's part of what "The Zohar" in its own unique way is trying to capture.

SILBER: "The Zohar's" teachings are integral to Hasidic Judaism and also to the Kabbalah Center made famous by Madonna. However, most American Jews don't know much about it. But with this new translation, that's starting to change.

Inside a well-kept cardboard box carefully wrapped in tissue paper is a thick book bound in royal red. It's a gift from Margot Pritzker. With reverence, translator Daniel Matt runs his fingers over the dark, black ink.

MATT: OK. This is a first edition of "The Zohar." It was published in Italy in 1558. This is really one of the rarest Jewish books in the world.

SILBER: He points to a drawing on the title page of this first printed edition.

MATT: It's called in Hebrew the Sha'ar or the Gateway. And it's actually an image of the gate opening "The Zohar" making it available to the world printing it for the first time.

SILBER: For the English-speaking world, "The Zohar's" gates are now opening even wider thanks to the translation and devotion of Daniel Matt. For NPR News, I'm Judy Silber in Berkeley. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.