I am going to occasionally blog on the Zohar in conjunction with the Zohar Haburah I am running here in Boston. If you are interested in joining the group, feel free to reach out to me. Text available here, pages 1:1a and 1:15a.
The Zohar first begins with the Hakdama and then begins again with Bereshit. How do we compare the initial themes of the two “beginnings” of the Zohar?
The easiest way to understand the two beginnings is to understand that the Torah itself has two beginnings, as Rashi famously tells us in Bereshit. First we have Bereshit and then Hachodesh. So the Torah needs something like a universalist idea (God creates everything) and a particular idea (this is the law, this is the calendrical system etc.). There is also the beginning of the Torah for Jews, who are part of the system of Law, and everyone else, who isn’t. This is why Kiddush Hachodesh ultimately devolves on us, the Jews, doing it. And Bereshit ultimately devolves on God sort of telling the nations whats what.
The difference between the two beginnings of Zohar is a way of amplifying this dichotomy of beginnings into something metaphysical and technically Kabbalistic. The beginning of the Zohar in the Hakdama begins with Knesset Yisrael—the lowest Sefirah, and with colors, red and white. The second beginning of the Zohar begins with the first command or potency of the King, beyond and prior to the Sefirotic pleroma. Furthermore, it has no color at all.
The beginning of the Zohar is also about Jewish practice. We actually learn the Halakha of how to hold the cup on Shabbat from the piece of Zohar. The Reish Hormenuta piece doesn’t give us anything like that, rather it culminates in one small point which is considered to be the terminus ad quem of human knowledge and the terminus a quo of the universe (funny how it’s the same point). Basically, there is no connection to the Jewish world of practice. We couldn’t be farther away from Kiddush.
If we think for a moment about the imagery of the two pieces, the contrast becomes even more marked. In the Hakdamah piece we have a rose. The rose is not a contrivance or an imaginary construct, it’s a rose, as we are sometimes reminded. Contrast this with the “black flame” and “concealed point” of the Reish Hormenuta piece. The imagery of Knesset Yisrael is meant to be comprehensible and relatable. Not so the imagery of Reish Hormenuta which has about it an inscrutability characteristic of a place we aren’t really able to describe.
So the open question is, how does the Zohar begin and what is it about? Is it Issarusa deLitata—human (Jewish) ways of rising to the divine? Or is it Issarusa deLielah—starting with some inscrutable if quite picaresque spark of dark which then sort of filters down to us. The beauty of having the literary convention of a Hakdamah available is that we don’t have to choose, or at least not yet.