Rabbi Yits’hak Luria, also called “The Ari”, was born in Jerusalem in 1534, about 40 years after the Jews’ expulsion from Spain. His mother came from Spain and his father came from Russia but passed away shortly after he was born. After his father’s death, his mother decided to immigrate to Cairo, Egypt. There, she lived with her brother who served as the Chief of Custom. He was a very wealthy man and under his auspices, the Ari was educated by the greatest teachers of that time including RADBAZ (Rabbi David Ben Zimra). It is widely known that the Ari was a great scholar who loved to learn and always get to the root of everything he was interested in. In the archives in Cairo, there is evidence of the Ari’s occupation – merchandising spices. Also, it is believed that one day, accidentally, he found a copy of the Zohar and he started to learn Kabbalah.
As described in many stories, his great interest and study of Kabbalah led to the revelation of the spirit of Elijah, the prophet to him. Elijah taught him all of the secrets of Kabbalah. In 1570, he also told him he should leave Egypt and go to Israel to the city of Tsefat (Safed) in the Galilee, Israel where he would meet a man named Rabbi Haim Vital. Elijah the prophet told him that he needed to teach Rabbi Haim Vital all of the secrets of Kabbalah and that this was his life mission and the reason for his coming to this world.
It is important to understand that during these times, all of the greatest Kabbalists in the world moved to Tsefat and every one of them had his own study group. They each had their own hierarchical system and each one had their own area of expertise. The Ari, on the other hand, arrived from Egypt and no one knew him. He didn’t belong to any of the study groups. This became a big regret ex post facto, since the Ari passed away two years after his arrival.
For many months, the Ari tried to convince Rabbi Haim Vital to study with him but he failed to do so. In fact, he even tried reaching him through revelations in Rabbi Haim Vital’s dreams. However, eventually, Rabbi Haim Vital did listen to him and they did indeed start to study together. Not long after this began, Rabbi Haim Vital was so excited about their study that he spread the word about the Ari so more people would come and join them. Throughout this time, Rabbi Haim Vital could not understand why it was that this study was meant for him when there were so many sages in his generation that he felt were much greater and more powerful than him.
Despite the great number of sages in Tsefat, the Ari became so famous and popular that shortly after he started to teach Rabbi Haim Vital, he became the leader of Tsefat and all of the world’s Kabbalists. He was nicknamed “The Divine” while he wsa still alive which proves how powerful he truly was back then.
It is important to realize that very few people had the chance to study with the Ari. This disappointed many but it is due to the fact that all of the Ari’s desire was to teach only Rabbi Haim Vital.
The study left from the Ari was the one only written by Rabbi Haim Vital – “Shemona Shearim” (Eight Gates). There are writings written by other students of the Ari’s but they are not as significant. Kabbalistic tradition believes that only Rabbi Haim Vital was able to access the exact words and their meanings from the Ari.
Some say that the Ari was a spark of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai’s soul (Nitsots Neshama) and Rabbi Haim Vital was a spark of Rabbi Abba’s soul, who wrote the Zohar directly from Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai.
Some say that until the time of the Ari, anyone who studied Kabbalah was studying blindly. The Ari’s lessons brought the world a method that never existed before in terms of order, detail, and accuracy through his words on the Zohar, the Talmud, the Bible and the Midrash. The Ari’s study revealed a detailed picture of every aspect of reality, its structure and the rules it is based on, while interweaving all of its details to the Torah, the Mishna, the Talmud, the Midrash and the Halakha.
As mentioned above, the study left from the Ari is the Shemona Shearim, a 600 page work written by Rabbi Haim Vital. After the Ari’s untimely death in 1572 at the young age of 38, there was great demand for his writings. However, Rabbi Haim Vital felt that the time to publish them had not yet come and so he decided to hide them. But when Raibbi Haim Vital was ill, some people decided to take advantage of the situation and bribed the keeper of the writings to allow them to copy it. They did and subsequently distributed the Ari’s method/doctrine. Afterwards, Rabbi Haim Vital’s son edited the writings and published them.
The Ari’s method has had a fundamental influence on the Kabbalistic world and how it evolved until today. The Ari’s Kabbalah, also known as Lurianic Kabbalah, is the basis to the Sephardic Kabbalah, which was mainly distributed in Italy, North Africa, Israel, the Balkans (Bulgaria, Greece and parts of Turkey), and Syria. Later on, it also spread to Europe where it became the basis of the Hassidic teachings, with the main emphasis on the early introduction of the Ari’s writings. Furthermore, the Ari’s study also influenced other important aspects of the Jewish world including the text of many prayers, traditions and the Halakha (Jewish Law).
In his prologue to “Ets Haim” (The Tree of Life), Rabbi Haim vital writes the following about the Ari: It is not in every generation that such a unique person comes along in which the Holy spirit dwells within him and to whom Elijah the Prophet reveals and teaches all of the Kabbalistic wisdom. A knowledge that includes the Torah, the Mishna, the Talmud, the Midrash, the Haggada, the rules of the universe as well as the language of trees, birds and angels. A man who knows how to read people’s minds – what they have done and what they will do. It is not in every generation that a man comes along who knows the souls of the greatest sages and is able to speak to and study with them. And even though he was so divine, he still behaved with righteousness; simplicity and holy purity – that is what lead him to meet Eliyahu Ha’Navi (Elija the Prophet).
The Ari passed away in 1572 and he is buried in the old cemetery of Tsefat in a burial plot along with the great sages of Tsefat.
For additional lessons on the Ari and to hear an audio lecture:
The Ari – Life & Legacy – wma mp3
Introduction to The Tree of Life – wma mp3
Introduction to The Gate of Reincarnations – wma mp3
Introduction to The Gate of Holy Spirit – wma mp3
For additional lessons on The Legacy of the Great Sages, please go to the University of Live Kabbalah