Isaac Ben Solomon Luria


by Shira Schoenberg


The 16th century Kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac Ben Solomon Luria revolutionized the study of Jewish mysticism through Kabbalah. Luria, also known as Isaac Ashkenazi, attracted a large number of followers who gave him the title of "HaAri," The Lion, because of the initials of the phrase "haeloki Rabbi Yitzhak" – the divine Rabbi Yitzhak.

Luria was born in Jerusalem in 1534 to German parents. His father died when he was young, and Luria was brought up by his mother in the house of her brother, Mordecai Frances, a wealthy tax-farmer. In Egypt, Luria studied Jewish law and rabbinic literature under Rabbi David ben Solomon ibn Abi Zimra and Zimra's successor, Bezalel Ashkenazi. Luria's teachers considered him outstanding in non_mystical study and he collaborated with Ashkenazi on shitah mekubbetzet, a work on Jewish law based on Tractate Zevachim in the Talmud. In addition to study, Luria earned a living through commerce.

When Luria was 15 years old, he married his cousin. He spent approximately six years studying with Ashkenazi, then moved to Jazirat al-Rawda, a secluded island on the Nile that was owned by his father-in-law. He visited his family only on the Sabbath and the few words he spoke were always in Hebrew, directed solely to his wife. During this period, he concentrated his studies on the Zohar and the works of earlier Kabbalists. He was also particularly interested in his contemporary, Kabbalist Moses Cordovero. It was at this time that Luria wrote his commentary on the Sifra Di-Zenivta section of the Zohar. Luria believed that deceased teachers of the past spoke to him and that he had frequent interviews with Elijah the prophet.

In one of these "interviews," Luria believed that Elijah instructed him to move to the land of Israel, so, in 1569, he moved to Safed where he studied Kabbalah with Cordovero until Cordovero's death in 1570.

Luria originally won fame as a mystical poet. He later started teaching Kabbalah in an academy, and would occasionally speak in Ashkenazi synagogues. He was friendly with other Safed scholars, and formed a group of Kabbalists who met each Friday to confess their sins to each other. He revealed to his disciples the locations of graves of rabbis that he claimed to have discovered through spiritual revelations. He taught his students orally, teaching both theoretical Kabbalah and methods to communicate with the souls of tazddikim (righteous people). He felt that he could see people's sins by looking at their foreheads. On the Sabbath, he dressed in white and many followers considered him a saint. Some say he believed himself to be the Messiah, the son of Joseph.

Luria was known for his innovative ideas in understanding creation and various other metaphysical concepts. He created the idea of zimzum, the belief that God in a way "shrunk himself" to leave a void in which to create the world. He was conservative in interpreting Jewish law and believed that each commandment had a mystical meaning. He respected all strains of tradition and customs in Judaism and although he was of Ashkenazic descent, preferred Sephardic prayer liturgy. Lurianic Kabbalah refers often to Messianism and many say that his Messianic ideas paved the way for the false Messiah, Shabbetai Zvi.

"He was a charismatic preacher from the Galilee whose teachings challenged the regnant Jewish doctrines of his day and undermined rabbinical authority. He communed with the spirits of the living and the dead, performing miracles and restoring the lost souls of those who accepted his revolutionary teachings. An ascetic, messianic figure, he endured great, largely self- inflicted, suffering during his lifetime, for the sake of Redemption. To his despairing disciples he promised, at the hour of his death: 'If you are deserving, I shall come back to you.'"

That other preacher from Galilee
By Allan Nadler

The Ari overflowed with Torah. He was thoroughly expert in Scripture, Mishnah, Talmud, Pilpul, Midrash, Agadah, Ma'aseh Bereishit and Ma'aseh Merkavah. He was expert in the language of trees, the language of birds, and the speech of angels. He could read faces in the manner outlined in the Zohar (vol. II, p. 74b). He could discern all that any individual had done, and could see what they would do in the future. He could read people's thoughts, often before the thought even entered their mind. He knew future events, was aware of everything happening here on earth, and what was decreed in heaven.

He knew the mysteries of gilgul [reincarnation], who had been born previously, and who was here for the first time. He could look at a person and tell him how he was connected to higher spiritual levels, and his original root in Adam. He The Ari could read wondrous things [about people] in the light of a candle or in the flame of a fire. With his eyes he gazed and was able to see the souls of the righteous, both those who had died recently and those who had lived in ancient times. Together/from With these departed souls, he studied the true mysteries.

By From a person's scent, he was able to know all that he had done. (See Zohar, Yenuka vol. III p. 188a). It was as if the answers to all these mysteries were lyinglay dormant within him, waiting to be activated whenever he desired. He did not have to seclude himself to seek them out.

All this we saw with our own eyes. These are not things that we heard from others. They were wondrous things that had not been seen on earth since the time of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. None of this was attained through magic, heaven forbid. There is a strong prohibition against these arts. Instead, it came automatically, as a result of his saintliness and asceticism, after many years of study in both the ancient and the newer Kabbbalistic texts. He then increased his piety, asceticism, purity and holiness until he reached a level where Eliyahu/Elijah would constantly reveal himself to him, speaking to him "mouth to mouth," teaching him these mysteries and secrets.

Rabbi Chayim Chaim Vital writes in the Introduction to Shaar HaHakdamot

Luria died in an epidemic in the summer of 1572 and was buried in Safed. His teachings were recorded by his disciples, particularly Rabbi Chaim Vital. Books on his work include: Ez Hayyim, Shulhan Aruch Shel R. Yizhak Luria, Orhot Zaddikim and Patora de Abba.