Isaac Luria - the Holy Ari (1534-1572)
By Eli Vinokur
Within a mere year and half, Isaac Luria (the Holy Ari) revolutionized Kabbalah and made it accessible to all. Since his time, his “Lurianic Kabbalah” has become the predominant approach to the study of Kabbalah
Rabbi Isaac Luria (The Holy Ari) was the greatest Kabbalist in 16th century Zephath, a city in northern Israel famed for its Kabbalist population. He was also one of the most influential individuals in the history and evolution of the wisdom of Kabbalah.
The Ari’s life was shrouded in mystery and legends. One such legend is that when he was born, his father was told that his son was destined for greatness. The Ari’s sudden demise at age thirty-eight, when he was in his prime, remains a mystery even today.
The Ari was born in Jerusalem in 1534. At the age of eight, he lost his father, and his family was left destitute. Driven by despair, his mother decided to send young Isaac to live with his uncle in Egypt, where he spent many years until his arrival in Zephath.
As a young boy, the Ari would confine himself to his room for hours or even days at a time. He would immerse himself in The Book of Zohar, the most important book of Kabbalah, trying to understand its subtleties. Many a folktale describes how the Ari was awarded “the revelation of Elijah” (a unique spiritual revelation), and that he studied The Zohar “from him.” To the Ari, The Book of Zohar was the whole world.
As Zephath was the capital of Kabbalist studies in the 16th century, it attracted many practitioners from near and far. Additionally, Zephath is located not far from Mt. Meron, the burial place of Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yochai, author of The Book of Zohar.
The year the Ari left Egypt and went to Zephath, a harsh winter struck Egypt. Torrential rains created massive flash floods, gale force winds tore rooftops off buildings, and the Nile spilled over its banks, inundating whole villages under a deluge of mud and water.
One legend has it that on one of the stormiest nights of this dreadful winter, Prophet Elijah was revealed to the Ari. Elijah, as the legend claims, told the Ari, “Your end is near. Go, leave here; take your family and go to the town of Zephath, where you are eagerly awaited. There, in Zephath, you will find your disciple, Chaim Vital. You will convey your wisdom to him, anoint him after you, and he will take your place.” Elijah also revealed to the Ari: “You did not come into this world but to correct the soul of Rabbi Chaim, for he is a precious soul.”
Thus, in the year 1570, in the dead of winter, the Ari went to Zephath, in the land of Israel. He was thirty-six at the time, and he had two years left to live.
We know today that all of the writings of the Ari were actually written by Rabbi Chaim Vital, who wrote down everything he had learned from the Ari during the mere eighteen months they were together in Zephath.
A Revolutionary and a Kabbalist
Kabbalists kept the wisdom of Kabbalah hidden for 1,500 years prior to the Ari. They would rise at midnight, light a candle and shut the windows so their voices wouldn’t be heard outside. Then they would reverently open the Kabbalah books and delve into them, striving to grasp hidden truths. In those days, Kabbalah was a secret study, taught behind closed doors. Kabbalists were reluctant to publicize their work because they feared it would be misinterpreted. “The generation,” they said, “is not yet ready.”
Humanity had been waiting for many centuries for the right guide to open the gates of the wisdom of Kabbalah to the public. Finally, with the arrival of the Ari in Zephath and the public’s subsequent exposure to The Book of Zohar, it appeared that it was now time to introduce the secrets of Kabbalah to the masses.
It is difficult to overstate the Ari’s importance and stature. Within merely eighteen months, he had left a huge mark on the history of Kabbalistic thought. Moreover, he made that mark without writing a single word himself, as his entire Kabbalistic teaching was revealed only through the writings of his student, Rabbi Chaim Vital.
While Chaim Vital, the Ari’s prime student and sole successor, wrote all of the Ari’s teachings, he was unable to publish all his writings in his lifetime. This work was carried forward by Vital’s kin and students over the following centuries.
Among the foremost writings Rabbi Vital did publish was the book, Etz Chaim (The Tree of Life). In this book, Rabbi Vital presents the Ari’s Kabbalistic teachings in a clear and simple style. Another notable publication is Eight Gates, a series of eight books describing—among other things—the concept of reincarnation. Many more invaluable books were prepared from the Ari’s short time in Zephath, but it is beyond the scope of this paper to describe them.
When the Ari arrived in Zephath, he organized a group of Kabbalists who became known as the “The Ari Cubs.” Among its members were some of the most illustrious Kabbalists of the time. Rabbi Shlomo Elkabetz, composer of the famous song, Lecha Doddi (Go, My Beloved), and the great Kabbalist Rabbi Moshe Kordovero (the Ramak) are but two of them.
The Ramak is also regarded as the first to recognize the Ari’s greatness; he was both the Ari’s student and his friend. Shortly before his passing, the Ramak said to his students, “Know, that there is one man, who is sitting here, who will rise after me and enlighten the eyes of the generation with the wisdom of Kabbalah. …in my days, the channels were blocked… and in his days the channels will be revealed. …and know that he is a great man, a spark of the Rashbi [Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yochai].” It appears that the Ramak destined the Ari to succeed him, and instructed his students to accept him as their teacher.
The Ari passed away at age 38 after falling ill from an epidemic that broke out in the summer of 1572. His appearance was a forerunner to a whole new era of human and spiritual stage. He was not only among the greatest Kabbalists, but also among the first to be given “permission from Above” to disclose the wisdom of Kabbalah to the masses. His ability to transform Kabbalah from a method for a chosen few to a method for everyone, made him a spiritual giant for the ages. Today, many more souls are ready for spiritual elevation, and they need his method—the Lurianic Kabbalah, the method that Rabbi Isaac Luria, the Holy Ari, devised.