The Zohar is composed of many separate parables, or stories, that together form the core of Kabbalah’s religious teachings. The “Essence of Torah” parable tells the story of a man who journeys from the mountains to the city. In the mountains, the man grows wheat and eats it raw. In the city, he tries bread for the first time and enjoys it very much. Next he tries cakes, which he likes, and then pastries, which he loves. When he learns that the pastries are made from wheat, he begins to gloat. He describes himself to the city people as a master of bread, cakes, and pastries, because he eats their essence raw—whole grains of wheat.
In this parable, wheat, bread, cakes, and pastries symbolize four different levels of religious knowledge, and specifically knowledge of the Torah. Wheat is the simplest level. At this level, one knows the stories and laws in the Torah. Bread, cakes, and pastries represent the three higher stages of understanding. Bread represents homiletical, or moral, understanding. Cakes represent allegorical, or spiritual, understanding. Pastries symbolize mystical understanding, the highest level of understanding, at which readers of the Torah feel a close understanding of God’s presence.
The man from the mountain in this parable believes that because he has mastered wheat, the most basic level, he has also mastered the more delicious and enticing products of wheat, like pastries. But he is mistaken. The process of understanding works gradually and cannot be mastered in one stroke. Kabbalah teaches that the only way to attain the highest level of understanding is through extensive study, deep meditation, and extremely thorough readings of religious texts.
“The Creation of God” describes the very origins of the universe. Dense and contradictory, the story describes how a “spark of impenetrable darkness” flashed within Ein Sof the moment before it created the universe. Colors streamed out, and a ring of vapor formed around that spark. Ein Sof then “split and did not split,” which caused a single light to shine. For followers of Kabbalah, this moment marks the beginning of the universe and the crux of their concept of God as a force that exists nowhere (“not split”) and everywhere (“split”) at the same time.
Out of a dark void of nothingness, Ein Sof flashed a light that was so bright that it could not be seen. With that begins the central paradox of Kabbalah: God is everywhere and nowhere, blindingly bright yet invisible at once. This spark, the first act of Ein Sof, is understood to be the source of all the energy in the universe, the source that powers Ein Sof and all of Kabbalah. The ring of vapor that forms around the spark has been commonly interpreted as the first sefirah, called Keter, which means “crown.” The colors that form around Keter are believed to be the nine other sefirot, which together compose the ten “emanations,” or aspects, of God.
Though the origins of the universe as depicted here leave many questions unanswered, such as the creation of the universe out of nothingness, Kabbalah as a religion thrives on the unknowable. Just as God is unknowable yet everywhere at once, followers of Kabbalah consider the paradox of creation a source of inspiration. They use the parable of the “Creation of God” to fuel their mystical meditation, rather than dismiss it as an insufficient theory about the origins of the universe.
In “The Old Man and the Ravishing Maiden” parable, Rabbi Hiyya and Rabbi Yose, two companions of a man named Simeon, run into one another at the Tower of Tyre. Rabbi Yose says an old donkey driver pestered him with riddles en route to the Tower and tells Rabbi Hiyya some of the riddles. When Rabbi Hiyya hears the intelligence of the riddles, he sets out with Rabbi Yose to find the donkey driver, who Rabbi Hiyya considers a wise man.
The two rabbis sit with the donkey driver, and he tells them a story of a ravishing maiden hidden deep within a palace. The maiden has one lover who passes the gate of the palace every day, hoping for a glimpse of the maiden—the two have never met face to face. Out of love for the lover, the maiden shows her face at a window and then quickly withdraws from it. The donkey driver compares this to the Torah, who tempts her readers with one glimpse and then withdraws. Astonished, the two rabbis sit in silence. The donkey driver then reveals that he is Yeiva Sava, or Yeiva the elder, a renowned wise man.
The Kabbalah teaches that wisdom can lurk in unlikely places. The riddles that the donkey driver tells Rabbi Yose should have alerted him to the donkey driver’s wisdom, but the old man’s shabby appearance blinded Rabbi Yose to his wisdom. Only once they sit and listen to the old man with respect do they receive his wisdom. The lesson Rabbi Yose learns is the fundamental teaching of Kabbalah: most of what is worth knowing is shrouded in mysteries that must be unraveled through respectful contemplation.
The story that the wise man tells also relates closely to the core teachings of Kabbalah. The readers of works like the Zohar and the Torah relate to these texts like long-distance lovers: they long to see and experience the objects of their devotion, but those objects always remain somewhat out of reach. Like a quick visit shared by long-distance lovers, the Torah and the Zohar reveal flashes of understanding that only serve to inflame the longing and curiosity of the reader.
The varying levels of textual interpretation are very important to kabbalistic thought. Reading the text at its most basic level is like the first glimpse of the face of a lover. Those who truly love knowledge must wait and study, reading deeper and deeper into the text. The donkey driver uses the stages of the lover patiently courting the maiden to illustrate the process by which followers of Kabbalah can gradually come to know texts like the Torah.