Isaac Luria Ashkenazi (Also known as “The Ari Hakdasoh”, “הארי הקדוש” in Hebrew) was one of the most popular of the rabbi mystic teachers in the community of Safed which is in Galilee and in the Palestine. He is actually considered to be one of the most important figures in the origin of the Kabballah. In Hebrew the man was called Yitzhak Ben Sh’lomo Lurya Ashkenazi. Indeed his involvement in writing at the Kabbalistic school of Safed was very little but his fame as a spiritual man led to many becoming aware of the teachings of the Kabballah and therefore he is one of the people that can be said to be responsible for the authority that the teachings gained over many people in the region. It is his disciples that actually put down his teachings into writing. Each and every detail about the teachings of Isaac was carefully considered before being accepted; however most were accepted even if they were against the past practices.
Isaac passed away at Safed in the famous Ottoman Empire which was under the Land of Israel in July1572. He was then laid to rest at the Old Cemetery of Safed.
Isaac Luria’s Early Life
Luria was born in the year 1534 in Jerusalem which is today known as Old Yishuv Court Museum. His father was an Ashkenazi who was married to a Sephardic woman.
According to Sefer HaKavanot U’Ma’aseh Nissim, Luria’s father was one day in Beth kneset all by himself while studying and all of a sudden Eliyahu HaNavi was revealed to him. At that moment Eliyahu said “I have been directed to come to you by the Almighty and to bring you a report that your holy wife shall surely conceive and bear an offspring. You should see to it tha you call the young one Yitzchak. Th lad will start to deliver Israel from the Klipot [powers of evil]. Because of him, many souls will get their tikkun. He is also destined to make known many hidden mysteries in the Torah and to shed light on the Zohar. His popularity will spread all over the world. Be careful therefore that you do not circumcise him before I come to be the Sandak [the one that holds the baby during the Brit Milah ceremony].”
Isaac Luria’s male parent passed away while he was still tender of age and therefore was brought up by his father’s brother who was a very wealthy person. Luria’s uncle was called Mordechai Frances. He was a tax-farmer from Cairo. Luria’s uncle was a very caring person and for that reason he decided to give him the best possible education.
Among those who were recorded as being Isaac’s teachers include the scholar called David ibn Zimra who was also a rabbi. Isaac had a very sound mind and could therefore get a hold of all that he was taught easily and quickly. He was also under the care of another one of his father’s brothers (Rabbi Bezalel Ashkenazi). Isaac Luria became very excellent in the branch of teachings that involved the shittah mekubetzet.
When Luria reached the age of 15, he got married to one of his cousins. While it may be noted that he got married at a very young age, he had very little problems because his financial needs were taken care of by his uncle. Isaac Luria was very keen on business in his early life but later on turned his attention to asceticism and mysticism.
By the time he was twenty and two years of age, he was basically very passionate about learning more on the Zohar teachings. Zohar teachings were of course a part of the Kabballah work. Isaac afterward separated himself from the outside world as he retreated to a very lonely place in the banks of the river Nile for about seven years. This was done specifically for the sake of meditation. Luria only visited his family on a few occasions. While at home, he was basically very quiet and would not speak a word to anyone, not even his close relatives, however when he had to say something, he would do it in the most minimal of words. These words he did speak only in Hebrew. There are some who believe that Isaac was also taught by Elijah while he was away in solitude.
Fellowship, Leadership and Discipleship
Luria moved back to Ottoman Palestine in 1569 and had a brief tour of the region where he accomplished a lot with his kabalistic teachings. He later on decided to stay at Safed.
Safed had over the past couple of years been a very instrumental point for Kabbalistic studies. Here, Luria became a part of a group of kabbalists who were headed by Rabbi Moses Cordovero who was also a leader of a weakly joined together group of disciples. Some of the most notable of his disciples included, Abraham Galante, Moses Galante, Mordechai Dato, Abraham ben Eliezer ha-Levi Berukhim, Eleazer Azikiri, Hayyim Vital, Samuel Gallico.
There is also some information which indicates that Moses Cordovero may have been Isaac’s teacher. Luria must have reached the region of Cordovero in early 1570 while Cordovero passed away in June of that same year. The leadership void that was left by Cordovero needed to be filled and that is why Luria became instrumental at that time.
After a short stay in Palestine, Isaac acquired two small groups of people who listened and obeyed his teachings. the first group was novices to whom he taught much more about the elementary matters of the kabbalah and the second group was initiates who were the beneficiaries of the secrets that he knew about.
Rabbi Hayyim Vital who had a soul that had not been tainted by the sin of Adam, according to his master, was one of his students. Luria and Rabbi Hayyim went to see the grave of the Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, they also went to graves of other respected teachers. These graves are believed to have had no clear identities but by the guidance of Elijah, each and every one of the graves was correctly recognized. Luria’s kabalistic group expanded further and grew into a whole new group. His teachings became very important and in some instances supreme in the gatherings. His teachings also had a very big impact on almost all religious ceremonies.
Most of the Jews who had been in exile from Spain due to the decree of Expulsion were of the opinion that they lived in the times when they would face many tribulations that were prophesied to come before the Messiah would be revealed to them. Those who had travelled to Palestine greatly found peace and solace in the teachings of Luria because of the elements of teachings that touched on what they were currently undergoing. Most of the teachings of Isaac Luria were put down in writing by his followers and by the year 1650 his ideas were very common among Jews in Europe.
Isaac Luria was accustomed to teaching through verbal means and very seldom did he write. He of course only wrote a few poems in Aramaic. The man involved in most of the accomplishments that were known by most people was Chaim Vital. This is because he collected all the important recordings that Isaac’s disciples had made. One of the most notable accomplishments that he produced was the Etz Chayim which is also known as ‘Tree of Life’. Every one of Isaac’s disciples vowed that no copy of the Etz Chayim would be developed for a foreign country and if any of them failed to keep their pledge, they would then get kicked out of the congregation. It is however important to note that after quite some time, one of the copies found its way to Europe and was published at Zolkiev in 1772 by Isaac Satanow.
Read more about the Lurianic Kabbalah.