How much do you know about Rabbi Isaac Luria?
By: Menachem Posner
Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (1534-1572), known as the Arizal, was one of the most celebrated Kabbalists of all times, whose teachings and mode of living have left an indelible mark on Jewish mysticism and practice. Ready to learn more about this great man? Let’s go!
- His Name Is Unique
His Hebrew name was Yitzchak (Isaac) son of Shlomo, a scion to the prominent Ashkenazic Luria family.
Although secular scholars may refer to him simply as Luria, amongst Jews he is known as the ARI or the ARIZaL. In addition to meaning “lion,” ARI is an acronym for “Eloki (“G dly”) Rabbi Yitzchak”; ZaL is an acronym for zichrono liverachah, “[may] his memory [be] for blessing.” At times, he is also referred to as ARI Hakadosh, “the holy ARI” or ARIZaL Hachai, “the living ARIZaL.”
- He Was Only Half Ashkenazi
At times, the ARI is referred to as Rabbi Yitzchak Ashkenazi. His father, Shlomo Luria, was a descendant of Rashi and many other Ashkenazi rabbis. However he passed away when his son Yitzchak was eight years old, and the young boy was raised by his Sephardic maternal uncle, Rabbi Mordechai Francis of Alexandria. Throughout his life, many of his mentors, peers, and students were Ladino-speaking Sephardim, refugees from Christian persecution in the Iberian Peninsula and their descendants.
- He Studied Under the Great Sages of Egypt
In Egypt, he studied under Rabbi Betzalel Ashkenazi, the author of the Shita Mikubetzet, and Spanish-born Rabbi David ibn Zimra, known as the RaDBaZ. Yet, much of his learning was done alone, in solitude, on the banks of the Nile River.
- He Apparently Engaged in Business
Documents from his time in Egypt, which were fortuitously preserved in the Cairo Geniza, indicate that he engaged in business, dealing in spices and wheat (and perhaps other commodities as well). This is consistent with the dictum that a person should earn a living by “the labor of [his] hands,” rather than accepting a scholar’s stipend.
- He Fathered the Safed School of Mysticism
In 1570, upon returning to the Holy Land with his wife (who was the daughter of his uncle, Mordechai) and his two daughters, he settled in Safed, where a community of Spanish Torah sages had coalesced. There he studied briefly under the master Kabbalist, Rabbi Moshe of Cordovero, known as the RaMaK. After the passing of the RaMaK, his students accepted the ARI as their teacher and guide, in part because the Arizal was so spiritually attuned that he saw a pillar of fire following the RaMaK’s bier.
- We Have Few of His Writing
There are very few surviving writings by the ARI himself. That which has been preserved includes Aramaic hymns for each of the three Shabbat meals and a treatment of the laws of sacrifices. However, copious teachings of his were carefully transcribed by his faithful student, Rabbi Chaim Vital. These teachings, published under several titles, are collectively known (perhaps inaccurately) as Kitvei HaARIZaL, “the writings of the ARIZaL.”
- The Friday Night Service Can Be Traced to Him and His Students
Even before the arrival of the ARI, the Jews of Safed performed a special service to welcome the Sabbat late Friday afternoon. In fact, the Lecha Dodi hymn was composed by Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz, who lived in Safed at the same time as the ARI. Every week, the ARI and his students would leave the city, and, facing the setting sun, they recited the Psalms that have since become standard in nearly every synagogue around the world.
- He Lived in Safed for Just Two Years
The ARI lived in Safed for just two years, and the voluminous teachings we have from him were all communicated during that short period. Yet his influence was so strong that his name is inextricably linked to the city and her Kabbalistic traditions.
- Two Synagogues Bear His Name
In the Jewish quarter of Safed, there are two synagogues bearing his name, one of which follows Ashkenazic tradition, and the other following Sephardic custom.
Located in the heart of the quarter, the Ashkenazi synagogue (which was actually built by Sephardim) is said to be built on the very spot where the ARI and his students would welcome the Shabbat. It is known for its unique architecture, including a colorful and intricately carved Holy Ark.
The Sephardic synagogue predates the ARI, and was originally known as the Synagogue of Elijah the Prophet. It is believed to be where the great master actually studied and prayed. Located on the edge of Old Safed, it overlooks the historic cemetery.
Both synagogues were heavily damaged in the many earthquakes that rocked the area, and both have been extensively renovated.
- He Taught the Doctrine of the Hidden Sparks
Based on the Zohar and other ancient Kabbalistic works, the ARI exposed and provided language to describe inner workings of the universe, describing the process through which an Infinite G d creates space for and brings into being a finite and opaque existence.
According to the ARI, there is great purpose to our lives. Within every being lies a Divine spark waiting to be elevated through using that item for good. On the macro scale, as well, the universe is yearning to be uplifted and purified through humanity uniting it with its Divine source.
- He Revolutionized the Concept of Tzimtzum (Divine Contraction)
The idea that G d’s relationship with the world is mediated through some sort of self-contraction has a long history in Jewish thought, going all the way back to the Midrash. Nevertheless, the way the ARI explained this idea was unprecedented and revolutionary: The transition from divine infinitude to the possibility of a finite cosmos cannot happen gradually, in incremental steps, rather G d “contracted Himself and withdrew His abundant light … completely,” leaving “a place void and empty” in which the process of creation unfolds. The ARI’s strikingly visual, dramatic, and dynamic account of Tzimtzum turned it into one of the central ideas of modern Kabbalah, whose meaning has been studied, debated, and reinterpreted not only be rabbis and scholars, but also by philosophers, artists, and writers far beyond the confines of the Jewish community.
- He Exposed the Inner Rhythm of Jewish Practice and Scholarship
As taught by the ARI, based on the Zohar, every mitzvah, every word of prayer, and every line of Torah is rife with layer upon layer of significance. Every act, however mundane, has significance that we must discover, examine, and celebrate. In this way, mitzvah observance is an alive, vibrant, and spiritual experience.
- He Identified Many of the Graves in the Galilee
The Galilee region in Israel’s north, home to Safed, Tiberius, and various other ancient Jewish towns, is dotted with the resting places of many Talmudic sages. Many of these sites had been obscured by the sands of time, only to be rediscovered by the holy vision of the ARI.
- He Passed Away on 5 Av
The ARI passed away on the fifth day of the month of Av, 1572, at the age of 38. In his short life, he revolutionized Jewish life, catalyzing a spiritual revival that spurred the Chassidic movement and forever elevated Jewish life and spirituality.