Rabbi Isaac Luria

NEW! Insights for the Weekly Reading from the ARI HaKadosh - Rabbi Yitzchak Luria

 

The Holy Ari

By D. Friedman

 

There is something very special about the city of Tzfas (Safed). A ring of light seems to surround it, a pristine aura to pervade it. This uniqueness, though, does not stem only from the lofty mountains that encircle it, nor from its sun-drenched cobble-stoned streets.

Our sages teach that ancient sites or landmarks have the capacity to inspire awe and feelings of contentment, while sites where corrupt acts were committed can evoke impure thoughts. (See Shulchan Aruch, "The Laws of Prayer").

Tzfas is the city where many great kabbalists and Torah sages lived, including Rabbi Yosef Karo, author of the Shulchan Aruch; Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, the Ramak; Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz, author of Lecha Dodi; Rabbi Elozer Azkiri, the Chareidim; Rabbi Moshe Alshich: and, of course, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, the Holy Ari. It is no wonder that an atmosphere of kedusha pervades the city, and all who visit it are elevated.


Every 5th of Av, the holy Ari's yahrzeit, tens of thousands of Jews visit his grave. The Holy Ari was one of the Jewish people's greatest kabbala sages, illuminating the entire world with his profound approach to the mystical teachings of the Torah.

ILLUSTRIOUS BEGINNINGS

The Holy Ari was born in Jerusalem in 5294 (1534). He descended from an illustrious line of Torah scholars. His father, Rabbi Shlomo Luria Ashkenazi, is believed to have been a descendent of Rabbi Yechiel Luria, head of the rabbinical court of Brisk, and famed author of "Chochmas Shlomo" on the Talmud, and the equally well known "Yam Shel Shlomo."

The name Ashkenazi denotes Rabbi Shlomo Luria's affiliation with the very small Ashkenazic community that lived in Jerusalem about 450 years ago, and was led by the famed Rabbi Klonimus of Brisk.

Although Rabbi Klonimus had held a prestigious position in Brisk, serving as av beis din and rosh yeshiva, he longed to live in Eretz Yisrael, where he felt he would achieve ultimate closeness with G-d. When the Turkish emperor, Suliman the Magnificent, known for his compassionate attitude toward Jews, conquered Jerusalem, Rabbi Klonimus realized his dream and moved to Eretz Yisrael, settling in Jerusalem.

Among those who joined him was Rabbi Shlomo Luria, whose wife gave birth to a son not long after their arrival in Eretz Yisrael.

Rabbi Shlomo Luria spent most of his time studying in Rabbi Klonimus' beis medrash, taking his brilliant son, Yitzchak , along with him. But this idyllic situation did not last long. When Yitzchak was still a child, Rabbi Shlomo Luria passed away, leaving behind a bereft and distraught family.

But they were not alone. Rabbi Klonimus assumed responsibility for Yitzchak 's education, while Yitzchak 's maternal uncle, Rabbi Mordechai Francis of Egypt, supported the family financially.

Sadly, Rabbi Klominus died not long after Rabbi Shlomo, and the Luria family once again lost their source of succor and encouragement. However, the Ari's uncle, Reb Mordechai, came to their aid, and brought the entire family to Egypt, where he provided for them and attended to Yitzchak's education and spiritual needs, eventually taking him as his son-in-law.

BLOSSOMING IN EGYPT

Despite his vast wealth and prominence, Reb Mordechai's home was one of Torah and tzedaka, where outstanding scholars gathered. These scholars recognized Yitzchak 's potential, and urged his uncle to enroll him in the yeshiva of Rabbi Dovid Ben Zamra, the Radbaz.

The Radbaz was the author of such prestigious works as Yakar Tiferes on Zeraim, Klalei HaTalmud and Tshuvos HaRadbaz Hayeshanos V' hamechudashos. The standards at his yeshiva were very high. Among the eminent Torah scholars who studied there were Rabbi Yaakov Castro and Rabbi Betzalel Ashkenazi.

Yitzchak, who was only 14 at the time of his admission into this yeshiva, rapidly became one of the Radbaz's most beloved and closest students. Seeking to bring out the best in his exceptional student, the Radbaz asked Rabbi Betzalel Ashkenazi to serve as his mentor.

Rabbi Betzalel is famed for his two works, Shu't Rabbi Betzalel, a series of responses to questions posed to him in Egypt, and Shita Mekubetzes, in which he compiled and clarified all of the various Talmudic approaches of the Rishonim according to the order of the Talmud.

The young Rabbi Yitzchak studied with Rabbi Betzalel Ashkenazi for seven years, helping him prepare parts of the Shita Mekubetzes, and comments on the writings of the Rif, Rabbi Yitzchak Alfasi, and the Ran, Rabbenu Nissim. During that period, Rabbi Yitzchak delved into the Talmud and the commentaries. However, he longed to study kabbala, which he felt would increase his devotion to G-d.

THE ARI AND KABBALA

Kabbala involves the study of the hidden aspects of the Torah, and focuses mainly on the secrets of Divinity and Creation. At first, these secrets were transmitted orally from teacher to student, in order to prevent them from being studied by those unworthy of doing so. However, when the sages saw that very few people were suited for this form of study, they committed their essential teachings to writing, explaining the preparations one must make before approaching such pursuits.

The basic work of the kabbala is the Zohar, which was written by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son Rabbi Elazar. These two great sages had studied these secrets during their 13 years of confinement in a cave at the time of the Roman conquest. They recorded their teachings in notebooks, and after their deaths their students collected these notebooks and arranged them in the form of the Zohar, adding on other essential teachings they had heard from their mentors.

RIGID PREPARATIONS

The Ari did not launch into a study of the kabbala headfirst, but prepared himself for this study for a long time, under the guidance of the Radbaz. He devoted himself to in-depth and diligent study of Talmud and Law, acquiring the 21 virtues that result from such study, among them kedusha (holiness) and tahara (purity). Every night he would recite Tikkun Chatzos, lamenting the destruction of the Holy Temple. He would study Torah all day, wrapped in tefillin and a tallis. He would immerse himself in a mikveh frequently, and remain watchful of his own behavior.

After completing these preparations, the Ari decided to seclude himself in a remote area for seven years, returning to his home only on Shabbos. During this period, he studied the writings of the kabbalistic sages, committing many of his own thoughts to writing. Among the works he produced at that time was his commentary on Safra d'Tsniusa, an ancient kabbalistic work attributed to Yaakov Avinu.

At the end of those seven years of intense preparation, he sought to increase the level of his piety. He went to live in a hut on the banks of the Nile, once again returning home only on Shabbos, where he continued to maintain his ascetic practices. After Shabbos he would return to his hut on the banks of the Nile, in an area called Old Egypt while his family remained in New Egypt. While in that retreat, Eliyahu Hanavi divulged many secrets to him. This period also lasted for seven years.

During that period, he was supported by his father-in-law, who would send servants to the retreat with food, so that the Ari could devote himself solely to his studies. The Ari, completely immersed in his contemplations, would not exchange a single word with the servants. When at home on Shabbos, he also remained detached from his surroundings, while his father-in-law attended to his needs and even arranged a minyan for him.

At a later date, the Ari told his students that only Divine intervention enabled him to scale such lofty heights while on the banks of the Nile. "To receive this level of Heavenly help," he would say, "I would fast frequently, and shed copious tears in which I would beg the Almighty to help me achieve my aim."

It was only after all of these preparations that the gates of kabbalistic wisdom opened to him.

A TIME TO LEAVE

When the Ari was 36, the time for him to spread his teachings arrived. As is related in Shivchei HaAri and Rabbi Chaim Vital's introduction to Eitz Chaim, at that point Eliyahu Hanavi told the Ari, "Your days are numbered, and you must leave Egypt and settle in Tzfas, where you will reveal your Torah to all who seek G-d."

At first, the Ari was very reluctant to leave Egypt. He feared that imparting his teachings to others would be difficult for him, and that his need to pursue a livelihood in Tzfas would detract from his Torah studies.

However, Eliyahu Hanavi encouraged him, saying, "In Tzfas you will meet Rabbi Chaim Vital, who will both record and spread your teachings. Your entire purpose is coming down to this world is in order to transmit your teachings to Rabbi Chaim Vital. His soul is very precious. You will enable him to probe the depth of kabbala and to spread it throughout the world."

According to Shivchei HaAri, Eliyahu added that by leaving impure Egypt and dwelling in sacred Eretz Yisrael, the quality of the Ari's kabbalistic studies would be enhanced. That explanation gave him the impetus to leave Egypt and head to Tzfas.

TZFAS DURING THE TIME OF THE ARI

With the Ottoman conquest of Eretz Yisrael, many cities that had until then remained desolate began to flourish, and Tzfas became a vibrant Jewish community.

The Ari arrived in Tzfas with his wife and children and his mother. He found a city replete with Torah sages. He was reunited with the Radbaz, with whom he had studied in Egypt. But the Radbaz had no idea of the lofty heights the Ari had reached. For that matter, nor did anyone else, since the Ari was so unassuming and humble, and even engaged in an occupation to support his family.

The Ari first gained a name in Tzfas for his mystical poetry, which sang the praises of Shabbos. Soon he was grew friendly with other scholars, and formed a group that met each Friday to confess their sins to each other and to develop their character traits.

However, one person recognized the Ari's true greatness--the Ramak, Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, who studied with the Ari and earmarked him as his successor as the Rabbi of Tzfas and head of his yeshiva. The very same year that the Ari arrived in Tzfas, 5330, the Ramak, who had studied under the great kabbalists Rabbi Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz and Rabbi Yosef Karo, and had written such important works as the Paredess Rimonim and Tomer Devorah, passed away. The greatest sages in Tzfas had flocked to the Ramak to listen to his teachings. One of his outstanding students was Rabbi Chaim Vital.

When the Ramak was on his deathbed, he did not reveal his successor's name, but hinted to the manner in which he could be identified. "The man," he said, "who will see a cloud preceding my bier will be my successor."

At the funeral, many of Tzfas great scholars eulogized the Ramak. When the eulogies ended, one of the Ramak's students invited the Ari to speak. This aroused much surprise, and a bit of dismay, too. True, Reb Yitzchak Luria was a revered scholar, who had even studied with the Ramak. But he was a newcomer to Tzfas, and he was considerably younger than the other Torah scholars. Why had the Ramak's student selected the Ari for such an honor, when there were many other eminent scholars in the city who could have delivered eulogies?

At the end of the funeral, the student revealed his reason for having asked the Ari to speak. "While we were preparing a plot in the cemetery for the burial," he said, "Rabbi Yitzchak Luria told us that we had chosen the wrong place, and that the cloud hadn't stopped there, but further on. Then he pointed to a different site."

No more had to be said. The Ramak's students unequivocally accepted the Holy Ari as their spiritual mentor, drinking his words eagerly despite the fact that his approach to kabbala was different from the Ramak's. It looked as thought the time had finally arrived for the Ari to begin teaching the kabbala he had learned and developed over his many years of preparations.

ENCOUNTERING OPPOSITION

However, a number of Tzfas' sages, among them the Radbaz, doubted whether the Ari was worthy of teaching the hidden secrets of the Torah. Although the Radbaz thought highly of the Ari, he asked him to refrain from teaching kabbala to the Ramak's students. The Ari did not try to refute the Radbaz or argue with him.

Nonetheless, he felt constrained by the bidding of Eliyahu Hanavi and pressed by the knowledge that his days were numbered, and could not honor the Radbaz's request, which was actually based on a mistaken assumption.

Meanwhile, the Radbaz sent Reb Betzalel Ashkenazi--who had been the Ari's mentor--to listen to one of the Ari's discourses, asking him to cross-examine and even contradict him. Reb Betzalel Ashkenazi, however, returned to the Radbaz with nothing but praise for the Ari, and the Radbaz realized his mistake.

The Radbaz, however, was not alone in opposition to the Ari's approach to kabbala. Many of the Ramak's students also disapproved of the teaching. Some would come to his lessons to criticize him or to disprove his words, but in the end would realize his greatness and become his staunch supporters.

One student, though, remained particularly adamant in his opposition to the Ari's approach--the Ramak's most prominent student, Rabbi Chaim Vital. He was then living in Damascus, engaged in completing the Ramak 's commentary on the Zohar, when the Ari gained his prominent place among the sages of Tzfas. Rabbi Chaim Vital had not been present at the time when the Ramak had appointed the Ari as his successor. He also did not know that the Ari had identified the cloud that had followed the Ramak's bier. Upset by the fact that the Ari, whose approach was different from the Ramak's, had become the primary teacher of kabbala in Tzfas, he remained estranged from the Ari.

The Ari was equally upset by the situation. His sole purpose in leaving Egypt had been to impart his teachings to Rabbi Chaim Vital. However, the Ari did not summon Rabbi Chaim Vital to Tzfas. He felt his influence on the scholar would be greater if Rabbi Chaim Vital approached him on his own initiative.

Despite Rabbi Chaim Vital's reluctance to visit the Ari, he had many dreams that told him: humble yourself before the Ari. He dismissed these dreams as vanity.

One time, when he was stymied by a particular section of the Zohar, he had a new dream with another message: Only the Ari can explain that passage to you. Go to Tzfas and study under him.

This time, Rabbi Chaim Vital heeded the message, and set out to Tzfas to meet the Ari, resolving that if the Ari explained the difficult passage, he would become his devoted student. Rabbi Chaim Vital was so impressed by that encounter that he became the Ari's principal pupil and most dedicated follower, recording the Ari's teachings for posterity and spreading them throughout the world.

PRAISING THE ARI

In his introduction to Eitz Chaim, Rabbi Chaim Vital describes the multifaceted aspects of the Ari's knowledge of the kabbala: "He knew the secrets of Creation, the secret of Divinity, the language of birds and trees, the secrets revealed by fire as it interacts with coal, as well as the language of the angels.

"He conversed with reincarnated souls, knew each man's secret, the roots of souls and the events of people's past lives. He could communicate with dybbuks, rectify them and dislodge them from the people whose bodies they had entered.

"He spoke with the souls of the deceased tzaddikim, who would reveal the Torah's secrets to him. He could assess a person's character by studying his facial features, could read palms, interpret dreams and prescribe tikunim (soul-rectifications).

"He was perfect in his fear of Hashem, love of Hashem, fear of sin, humility and character traits.

"He achieved all this as a result of his supreme piety and asceticism, as well as by means of his total immersion in the study of our kabbalistic works. So great was his piety that Eliyahu Hanavi would reveal himself to him."

The Ari used these capacities to help others, and is credited with having helped many individuals rectify their souls. The Ari was selected to be one of the 10 sages responsible for the conduct of the members of the Tzfas community. He did not minister his supervision harshly, but rather with the compassion, benevolence, and deep understanding of human nature which were at the core of his character.

In addition to mending the souls of the living, the Ari identified the graves of the great Torah sages whose burial sites had not been known until then, and developed the prayers to be said at each one of these sites. He transmitted this list to his students. Rabbi Chaim Vital's son Shmuel copied it and printed the list at the end of Rabbi Chaim Vital's chapter Shaar Hagilgulim, from the Eitz Chaim. The list includes many figures from Tanach, such as Nachum HaElkoshi, Benayahu ben Yehodaya, Adino Haetzni, Shmuel Hanavi, and also various sages from the periods of the Mishna, the Talmud and the Early Authorities.

The Ari lived in Tzfas for less than three years, from 5330 until 5332 (1572). All of Tzfas' Torah sages recognized his greatness and submitted themselves to him. The Ari delivered his teachings in the fields or mountains and valleys surrounding Tzfas. Often he would expound on the mystical meaning of each of the Mitzvot. Sometimes, he would take his students to burial sites outside of Tzfas, and together they would pray for the welfare of the Jewish nation.

TORN FROM THE GRAVE

As predicted by Eliyahu Hanavi, the Holy Ari passed away not long after he had imparted his wisdom to Rabbi Chaim Vital. All of Tzfas' residents attended his funeral, and the city's sages ruled that even Kohanim could attend it.

The Holy Ari was buried beside the Ramak. As the Ari's coffin was being lowered into the freshly dug pit, Rabbi Chaim Vital jumped into it, clutched the body of his beloved mentor and refused to let go. Other students of the Ari barely managed to remove him from the pit.

Before the final closing of the pit, the head of the city's burial society begged the Ari's forgiveness. Then he said: "May his merit protect us and all Jews. May we be saved from calamity and affliction and shortly redeemed. May so be his will."

It is written (Proverbs), "Sod Hashem l'yireiav (the secret of G-d is revealed to those who fear him)" The Hebrew word "l'yireiav" contains all the letters of the name Luria. May the teachings of the Holy Ari, master of the kabbala, continue to inspire us.

 

[Excerpted and adapted from an article on www.yadyosef.com]

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