Here's how the Zohar, the bible of Jewish mysticism, opens its discussion of Genesis 1:1, the story of creation: "A spark of impenetrable darkness flashed within the concealed of the concealed, from the head of Infinity--a cluster of vapor forming in formlessness, thrust in a ring, not white, not black, not red, not green, no color at all. As a cord surveyed, it yielded radiant colors. Deep within the spark gushed a flow, splaying colors below, concealed within the concealed of the mystery of Ein Sof."

Any questions?

If you think you understand, you definitely don't. It's simply impossible for the non-expert to make much sense of kabbalistic symbolism, which is recondite beyond measure. Yet in his new, three-volume translation of the Zohar, the primary kabbalistic text, scholar Daniel Matt has done an amazing job of making kabbalah as accessible as it can be.

Matt, who taught theology in Berkeley, Calif. until taking on the Zohar project for Stanford University Press, retains a claim to authenticity that is not common in the pop version of kabbalah. For many who claim to understand kabbalah, the "cluster of vapor forming in formlessness" has yielded not a concealed mystery but a product line: "Kabbalah Cures: Headache Relief Ointment," made with "pure Kabbalah Water & Essential Oils"; red Kabbalah strings for $26 each, as worn on the left wrist by Madonna and other stars; and all manner of other Kabbalah "gear" on sale from the website of the Kabbalah Centre based in Los Angeles.

But turning from Britney Spears on the cover of Entertainment Weekly wearing a bustier and red string to Matt's monumentally serious and austere Zohar translation, you breathe an entirely different kind of air.

What is the Zohar, exactly? In three volumes that stretch altogether to encyclopedic length, it is, in theory, a commentary on the first five books of the Bible. Some of it reads not entirely unlike any of the ancient Jewish books of midrash. In these works, the ancient rabbis comment and expand upon the terse Biblical text, which is understood to conceal layer upon layer of secret, hidden meanings.

Other parts of the Zohar read like an odd peripatetic novel, as a group of 2nd-century Jewish sages, led by Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai, travel about the Galilee in northern Israel, discussing the Torah. Still other parts have no narrative framework and expound, without pretending to be a commentary, on the interrelationship among Ein Sof and the ten sefirot.

The expression Ein Sof, meaning "without end" in Hebrew, is the mystic designation of the unnamable source of all being. Ein Sof is not God, exactly--rather, "it" is "God" as he relates to us humans, somehow emerging into our universe in stages called sefirot, derived from Ein Sof.

When the Zohar is in its more conventionally midrashic mode, it's possible, thanks to Matt's substantial footnotes, to have some vague notion of what the book is getting at. There are some very interesting and haunting images. When I was working on a biography of the patriarch Abraham, for example, I came across the ancient tradition, originating in the Zohar, that the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron is somehow a portal to paradise--the Garden of Eden.

This is a hard idea to accept today, when Hebron, on Israel's West Bank, is one of the most violently disputed spots on earth, with the focus of bloody contentiousness centered on the Machpelah tomb complex. There, Abraham and Sarah, and Adam and Eve, are buried--along with the other biblical patriarchs, Isaac and Jacob, and their wives. The Zohar explains how Abraham decided to establish the patriarchal burial place on this spot.

Rabbi Yehudah, one of Rabbi Shimon's companions, tells how Abraham "recognized a sign in that cave, and there his heart's desire focused--for previously he had entered and seen Adam and Eve buried there. How did he know it was them? Because as he gazed upon his image, an opening to the Garden of Eden appeared, and that same image was standing nearby."

What does that mean? Matt cites a passage from another midrashic source explaining that when angels came to announce to Abraham the birth of his son Isaac, the patriarch ran to fetch a calf (Gen. 18:7) that he wanted to cook for the angels to eat. With Abraham following, the calf ran into a cave, which turned out to be Adam and Eve's tomb. He saw them "lying on their beds asleep, with lamps burning above them and a fragrant aroma around them." Another note says that seeing Adam's image would be, for every mortal except Abraham, a sign of his own impending death.

Such comprehensible passages, however, make up only a part of the entire text. The remainder is beautiful--again, thanks to Matt's vigorous, poetic translation from the original Aramaic--but utterly opaque.

Here, for example, is how the Zohar's own Introduction begins:

"Rabbi Hizkiyah opened, 'Like a rose among thorns, so is my beloved among the maidens [a quotation from the Bible's Song of Songs 2:2].' Who is a rose? Assembly of Israel. For there is a rose, and then there is a rose! Just as a rose among thorns is colored red and white, so Assembly of Israel includes judgment and compassion. Just as a rose has thirteen petals, so Assembly of Israel has thirteen qualities of compassion surrounding Her on every side."

Clear enough, right?

Reading along, you get the strong impression that either this stuff is meaningless rubbish, or it was not meant for popular consumption but rather conveys ideas too profound to be understood by amateurs, in language that is appropriately obscure given the unfathomable depth of the subject matter. The latter is the view that Jews who know something about Judaism have historically taken.

It's like brain surgery. Someone who tells you he wants to start cracking open skulls to fix the brains inside but who hasn't yet cracked open a book of anatomy is, obviously, either a lunatic or a fool. So when these obscure secrets are seemingly readily available to all who are willing to shell out the 26 bucks for a red string without investing themselves in the basics of Judaism, namely learning and practicing Torah and its commandments, it's obvious this version of Kabbalah lacks authenticity.

To be sure, there are those in the academic world who would dismiss the Zohar itself as a hoax. It purports to be a record of the conversations of Rabbi Shimon and his disciples, yet the book "emerged mysteriously" (in Daniel Matt's diplomatic phrase) more than a thousand years after they lived, in Spain at the close of the 13th century. The venerated 20th-century scholar Gershom Scholem ruled that the work was entirely the product of the imagination and the pen of Rabbi Moses de Leon, who composed it sometime in the decade of the 1280s.

In his fascinating, lucid introduction to the Matt translation, Professor Arthur Green writes that just because the Zohar is "a work of sacred fantasy," that's no reason "to impugn the truth of its insights or the religious profundity of its teachings." But if the Zohar is a hoax, common sense would suggest that that is a very good reason to impugn its truth and profundity. If Shimon ben Yohai did not conceive these teachings on the basis of earlier traditions, if they were just made up by a guy with a lot of imagination, then they are mere opinions, without any special authority.

What seems undeniable is that the Zohar is a mystery. The rest of Moses de Leon's writings are pale, dry, lifeless, where the Zohar is as brilliantly colorful as it is impenetrably obscure. Some later kabbalists offered the view that de Leon was a reincarnation of Shimon ben Yohai. That would explain why, when the spirit of the ancient sage moved him, he could write in Shimon's name without it being a "fantasy" at all.

It is certainly true that kabbalah is a rigorous, demanding discipline that offers its joys only upon the expenditure of significant effort. While Daniel Matt has done an outstanding service in rendering an exceptionally difficult text into English that's as comprehensible as it could be, kabbalah by definition isn't going to be grasped in a translation. Nor, however, will it necessarily be understood by someone who acquires technical expertise in Aramaic and reads the same work in its original language.

Experiencing authentic Jewish mysticism doesn't come about simply by studying the Zohar, anymore than experiencing Judaism itself comes about simply by studying the Talmud and the Torah. The rabbis taught from earliest times that doing things, performing the commmandments, was more important than studying-- that, in fact, studying was futile in the absence of practicing the mitzvot. The two are symbiotic. Doing makes genuine understanding possible.

It's like reading about falling in love. You would never understand if all you did was read about it. The traditional kabbalists knew this; hopefully Matt's new translation is a step toward genuine understanding for modern-day dabblers as well.

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