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Melila Hellner-Eshed: Hermeneutical Dynamics In The Zohar

Cover of Dr. Melila Hellner-Eshed’s Book:

‘ A River Flow From Eden’,

Stanford University Press-2009


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of Via-HYGEIA is an excerpt from Dr. Melila Hellner-Eshed’s ground-braking study, ‘A River Flow From Eden, The Language of Mystical Experience in the Zohar‘, originally published in Hebrew in 2005 and then in 2009 by Princeton University Press with an English translation by Nathan Wolski. “A fascinating and richly textured work that combines linguistic and literary acumen with a historian of religion’s interest in the phenomenology of mysticism and a poet’s sensitivity to language. Simply put, this is one of the most exciting works of scholarship I have encountered in recent years. . . . This is the rare book that should matter equally to specialists in the field and to serious lay readers and students.“—Elliot K. Ginsburg, University of Michigan. Excerpts are from page 190 to 193.


Chapter 9-Part 1-Hermeneutical Dynamics

‘…When the Zohar’s protagonists assemble to penetrate the depths of the Bible’s verses and to expose within them a chapter of the grand divine story and to reveal its secrets, they do so without these words losing their original simple meaning. This is the secret of the zoharic homily’s power. The steps on which we stood at the start of the homiletical journey—moving from the simple reading of the verse to the rabbinic interpretation, and from there to the kabbalistic secret—remain in place also at the end of the journey. For the zoharic kabbalists, the interpretation of Torah is “level upon level, concealed and revealed”: each concealed level that is revealed exposes yet another concealed level above or within itself, and so on to infinity. 3

The zoharic reading of the biblical text is not truly allegorical. An allegorical reading of Scripture assumes that the verse signifies another specific, univocal reality, which constitutes the “true” content of the verse, while the verse itself merely points to this reality. Such a reading sometimes leaves the source text entirely devoid of its primary meaning; as the Rabbis might say, “it never existed, it is all a parable.”4

The Zohar, in contrast, views the source text as a symbol. In essence, it is dynamic, multivocal, and connected with that which symbolizes, namely, the different dimensions of the world of divinity that are constantly in motion. The power of the symbol lies in its ability to direct the expounder and the reader to the multiplicity of meanings hidden within itself. 5 Moreover, zoharic language invites its readers to embark on a journey within the words, to a reality characterized by continuous movement. We readers are invited not merely as passive contemplators, but rather as necessary partners in the journey of decoding. It is only through our own endeavors that we are able to align ourselves with the interpreting circle within the composition, and to become active contemplators—or perhaps even to heed the call to enter the circle of expounders and experience something of their experience. As Rabbi Moses Cordovero (the kabbalist and zoharic commentator of the sixteenth century) said: “Those who engage in the sweet Kabbalah, like the secrets expounded in the Zohar, should enter within them and thus add to them, like them, for room has been granted to us.”6

The Zohar loves reflexivity and so usually, at each stage in the homiletical journey, we hear the voice of one of the Companions, the heroes of the composition, or even Rabbi Shim’on himself, offering a reflexive evaluation on the path already traversed. Within the world of the zoharic homily, the Companions expend great effort in attuning themselves to the process of exposing the world of mystery, and the creative use of this world. They do so in order to generate union between the human and the divine, as well as between the masculine and feminine within divinity. This act of reading and expounding is, therefore, a continuous search for a chapter of the grand divine story hidden within the interpreted text. Let us compare the zoharic homily with the classical rabbinic interpretive mode known as the petihta. In the successful petihta, the element that arouses admiration is the artistic and complex manner in which the speaker strings the words of the “distant verse” (taken from the Prophets or the Writings, and cited at the beginning of his exposition) with the verse from the Torah portion that he is expounding. The art of rabbinic midrash reaches its pinnacle when the intersection of the distant and close verses is surprising and bears a new idea or message. The motive of the speaker and the manner in which he finds a way to express his new idea are the yardstick for evaluating the rabbinic homily. 7

While the zoharic homily does indeed make broad use of rabbinic tools of interpretation, we readers find ourselves before a dynamic, complex, and often erotic divine story, which emerges and bursts forth from the Bible’s words—which (on the surface at least) seem innocent of the meaning found within them. At its peak, the zoharic homily evokes in us a sense of wonder or mystical awakening, even preventing us from seeing the verse’s earlier meaning, at least temporarily. 8 In terms of the details of the mythic and mystical narrative, the divine story that emerges is not new. Yet the way in which it is carved from the verse, as from a treasure-mine, and the way in which it is constructed arouse deep wonder.

An array of hermeneutical tools serves this endeavor of drawing forth from the Bible’s verses a chapter of the infinite, dynamic story of the world of divinity and humanity. Moshe Idel has defined a number of these exegetical tools. First and foremost among them is the interpretive method that he describes as the “dynamization of verses”: the kabbalistic expounder transforms simple, syntactical verses into a dynamic drama of the divine world. 9 So, for example, “Lift your eyes on high and see who created these” (Isaiah 40:26) means, in the biblical context, look up to the sky to contemplate the wonder of creation. In the Zohar, the words are interpreted as describing the ongoing process of the emanation of the name of God, Elohim, through the emanation from the sefirah Binah, represented by the word “who” (mi), through the seven sefirot beneath her, represented by the word “these” (eleh), to produce the name Elohim, made up of mi and eleh. 10 Another example is the Zohar’s interpretation of “Elohim, You are my God, I search for You” (Psalms 63:2), where the Zohar finds within the words Elohim, “my God,” and “You” references to different rungs that make up the world of divinity, as well as the manner in which the human being is connected to it. 11

Idel also defines a particular kind of homily as “telescopic”—that is, it focuses on a verse or a story as through a telescope that captures the general structure of things while deliberately ignoring their details. 12 The Zohar’s midrash on the Book of Ruth, for example, can be seen in this way as a “hyper-extensive” reading of the text. According to this reading, the story of Ruth and its heroes—from Elimelech to David—describes the process of the emanation of the divine worlds from their subtle source (unable to be materialized in differentiated reality, and symbolized by the name Elimelech) to the sefirah Malkhut and the reality of the everyday world (symbolized by the birth of David). 13

Idel describes other homilies as “microscopic”; these ignore the word’s context in the verse and, to borrow a term from photography, “zoom in” on an isolated word or letter, through which some kind of supernal secret is then exposed. The array of homilies on the tetragrammaton as describing all the divine worlds, for example, is of this kind. Similarly, in the Zohar’s homily on the word yimtsau’neni (will find me) in “And those who seek Me will find Me” (Proverbs 8:17), the odd duplication of the letter nun is interpreted as indicating two divine worlds, the world of the “black” light of the sefirah Malkhut and the world of the “illuminating” light of the sefirah Tiferet. The latter is promised only to those who lovingly labor in the mystical service of Malkhut at dawn. 14

I would like to suggest here yet another exegetical device employed by the Zohar that is absolutely central to the composition. It is the emotional attitude of the speaker himself. This attitude is at once an exegetical tool, a precondition for the act of interpretation, and a precondition for the experience that the exegesis seeks to awaken. 15 This hermeneutical tool involves the softening of conventional consciousness (the self-evident, or the consciousness of common sense). In order to create a broader, more expansive experiential and exegetical field, which will enable the concealed qualities of the biblical text to be exposed, the zoharic expounders forgo the confines of common sense and the conventional reading, so as to create space for other meanings. So, for example, in the Zohar’s homily on “The heavens declare (mesapperim) the glory of God” (Psalms 19:2), the word mesapperim is interpreted not according to its simple meaning, namely, as connected to the word sippur (story), but rather to the more unlikely referent sappir (sapphire). The verse thereby exposes the way in which the divine masculine (“the heavens”) illuminates and irradiates his partner, the feminine aspect of the divine (“the glory of God”).’ …/…



3. Zohar 3:73a.

4. BT Bava Batra 15a. We also find this idea in Maimonides’ allegorical interpretation of the story of the Garden of Eden (Guide of the Perplexed 2:30). There are, however, allegorical texts where parts of the biblical text stand for parts of another system without reducing the original text to a simple schema and without transforming the nimshal (referent) to an excessively detailed language no longer resonant with the original; for example in the allegories of the Church Fathers to the Song of Songs, and in the allegories of Philo of Alexandria.

5. Idel, Kabbalah: New Perspectives, pp. 200–249.

6. Cordovero, Pardes rimmonim, sha’ar ha-oti’ot 1.

7. On the structures of classical rabbinic homilies, see Heinemann, Darkhei Ha-Aggadah, pp. 1–62; Frankel, Midrash ve-aggadah; Mack, Midrash ha-aggadah, pp. 50–59.

8. On the kabbalistic homily, see Gruenwald, “Ha-metsi’ut ha-midrashit,” pp. 255–98.

9. Idel, Kabbalah: New Perspectives, pp. 222–34.

10. Zohar 1:1b.

11. Zohar 2:140a.

12. Idel, “He’arot rishoniot,” p. 775.

13. Zohar H. adash 85b.

14. Zohar 2:140a. See above, p. 54.

15. Eitan Fishbane, “Tears of Disclosure,” pp. 25–47.


Dr. Melila Hellner-Eshed, has been a Professor of Jewish Studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and is Senior Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. She is the author of A River Flows from Eden: The Language of Mystical Experience in the Zohar (Stanford, 2009).


About Dr. Melila Hellner-Eshed: 🌿 About the book and the editor: 🌿Aryeh Kaplan gives an example of these practices in his ‘Kabbalah and Meditation’, Samuel Weiser, 1982. From pages 87 to 92, he quotes the ‘Light of the Intellect’:
Melila Hellner-Eshed: Hermeneutical Dynamics In The Zohar

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