Filed under: Ar"i, insanity, Intro to Kabbalah of the Ar"i, introduction, Introduction to Kabballah, learning, Rabbi Chym Vital Calabrese, Rabbi Yitzchak Loria, The Holy Ar"i | Tags: -Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai, End Of Days, Etz Hayyim, halakhic obligation, Hayyei Ada, Kabbalah, m, Maimonides', PaRDeS, R. Hayyim Vital, R. Isaac Luria, Rabbi Chym Vital Calabrese, Rabbi Kook, rationalism, the Ari
UPDATED APRIL 28 2015
Rabbi Yitzchak Luria ben Shlomo Ashkenaz’s father was related to the famous Maharshal, was born in the Old City of Jerusalem in 5294 (1534) in what is now the Old Yishuv Court Museum, and passed away on the 5th of Av 5332 (1572.
Rabbi Yitzchak Luria known as the Ar”i, a acronym standing for Eloki Rabbi Yitzchak, “the G‑dly Rabbi Isaac”; Ar”i is also the Hebrew word for “lion.” No other master or sage ever had this extra letter aleph, an abbreviation for Eloki (G‑dly), prefixed to his name. This was a sign of the esteem in which his contemporaries held him. Later generations, fearful that this appellation might be misunderstood, explained the aleph as standing for Ashkenazi, indicating that his family had originated in Germany, as indeed it had. Alternatively, some explain that the aleph stands for adoneinu, “our master.” To this day, among Kabbalists, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria is referred to as “Rabbeinu HaAri” , “HaAri HaKadosh” (the holy Ari), “the Ari,” or “the Arizal”.
The following story is told about the birth of the Arizal:
Rabbi Shlomo Luria lived in Israel…One day in the study hall alone learning Elijah the Prophet appeared to him and said, “I have been sent to you by the Almighty to bring you tidings that your wife shall conceive and bear a child, and that you must call him Yitzchak (Isaac). He shall begin to deliver Israel from the kelipot (“husks,” forces of evil). Through him, numerous souls will receive their tikkun (rectification). He is also destined to reveal many hidden mysteries in the Torah, and to expound on the Zohar. His fame will spread throughout the world. Take care, therefore, that you not circumcise him before I come to be the sandek (the one who holds the child during the circumcision ceremony).”
He finished speaking and disappeared. Rabbi Shlomo Luria went home, but did not reveal this secret to anyone, even to his wife. When the Ari was born, the house was filled with light, and on the eighth day he was brought to the synagogue to be circumcised. His father searched everywhere to see if Elijah had come as promised, but he did not see him. Everyone was urging the father to proceed, but he replied that not all the guests had yet arrived.
An hour went by, but Elijah still did not come.
An hour went by, but Elijah still did not come. Then he thought bitterly to himself: My sins must have prevented him from fulfilling his promise. But as he was crying, Elijah appeared and said, “Do not cry, servant of God. Draw near unto the altar and offer your son as a pure sacrifice dedicated entirely to Heaven. Sit on my chair, and I shall sit upon you.” Whereupon, invisible to everyone present except Rabbi Shlomo, Elijah sat on his lap, received the child with both hands, and held him during the entire circumcision. Neither the mohel nor those assembled saw anything but the father holding his baby. After the circumcision, he again promised Rabbi Shlomo that the child would bring great light to the entire world, and then he disappeared.
Rabbi Shlomo passed away when the Ari was still a child. In 1541, unable to support the family, the Ari’s mother traveled to Egypt with her children, where they lived with her brother, Mordechai Francis, a wealthy tax collector. The boy’s brilliance continued to shine in pilpul (Talmudic dialectic) and logic. Rabbi David ibn Zimra (the Radbaz) taught the Ari both the revealed and the concealed aspects of the Torah. The Ari also studied under Rabbi Betzalel Ashkenazi, the author of Shitah Mekubetzet.
By the time the Ari was fifteen, his expertise in Talmud had equaled or surpassed that of all the sages in Egypt. At this age he married his uncle’s daughter, and then spent the next six years in intensive study with Rabbi Betzalel Ashkenazi. It was around this time that a copy of one volume of the Zohar came into his hands. He studied the Zohar in seclusion for another six years. He then isolated himself completely in a house near the Nile for another two years. He remained alone, not speaking to any human being throughout the week. He would return home on the eve of Shabbat, just before dark. But even at home, he would not utter a word, even to his wife. When it was absolutely necessary for him to say something, he would say it in the least possible number of words, and then only in the holy language —-Hebrew. The Ari and his wife had a number of children, including a son named Moshe, who passed away at a young age, and a daughter, who married the son of Rabbi Yosef Caro. Details are sketchy regarding his other children.
He continued to progress in this manner until he was worthy of divine inspiration (ruach hakodesh). On numerous occasions Elijah the Prophet revealed himself and taught the Ari the mysteries of the Torah. Every night his soul ascended into the heavenly realms. Troops of angels would greet him to safeguard his way, bringing him to the heavenly academies. These angels would ask him which academy he chose to visit. Sometimes it would be that of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, and other times he would visit the heavenly academies of Rabbi Akiva or Rabbi Eliezer the Great. On occasion he would also visit the heavenly academies of the ancient prophets.
Elijah told him the time had come to move to Safed…
In 5330 (1570), after he had attained an extremely exalted rung of holiness in Egypt, Elijah told him the time had come to move to Safed, a city in the Galilee in the north of Israel. There he would meet Rabbi Chaim Vital, the man to whom he was destined to transmit the keys to the ancient knowledge.
When he first arrived in Safed, the Ari joined the circle of students who studied Kabbalah under Rabbi Moshe Cordovero (Ramak). His discipleship was short-lived, for the Ramak passed on soon afterwards.
After the passing of the Ramak, the Ari began teaching Kabbalah. The Radbaz, who had also settled in Safed, warned him not to teach Kabbalah in public. However, later the Radbaz recanted after receiving a sign from heaven that he had erred in his ruling. (Some say that Elijah the Prophet himself visited the Radbaz and revealed to him that he had erred.) Soon a group of the leading Kabbalists in Safed gathered around him, among them Rabbi Chaim Vital, who became his chief disciple.
Rabbi Chaim Vital writes in the introduction to his Shaar HaHakdamot:
The Ari overflowed with Torah. He was thoroughly expert in Scripture, Mishnah, Talmud, pilpul, Midrash, aggadah (the non-legal portions of the Talmud), maaseh bereishit and maaseh merkavah (esoteric disciplines). 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. 2, 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, and 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. 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 with, and from, these departed souls, he studied the true mysteries.
From a person’s scent, he was able to know all that he had done. (See Zohar, vol. 3, p. 188a.) It was as if the answers to all these mysteries lay 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 Kabbalistic texts. He then increased his piety, asceticism, purity and holiness until he reached a level where Elijah would constantly reveal himself to him, speaking to him “mouth to mouth,” teaching him these secrets.
The Ari’s Writings
The Arizal himself wrote relatively little. From his own hand we have novellae on two Talmudic tractates. These have been included in his teacher’s Shitah Mekubetzet. His writings in Kabbalah were included in Rabbi Chaim Vital’s Eitz Chaim, and are marked by Rabbi Chaim with the preface, “Found written in manuscript.” There is also a commentary on a small section of the Zohar, and a few hymns for the Sabbath, from the master himself. The bulk of his teachings were recorded by his disciples in numerous works, primarily by Rabbi Chaim Vital. His disciples also recorded his customs in a work known as Shulchan Aruch HaAri, published in Venice in 5440 (1680).
Every custom of the Ari was scrutinized, and many were accepted…
The teachings of the Ari were afforded the status of a rishon (primary authority). Every custom of the Ari was scrutinized, and many were accepted, even against previous practice. The Magen Avraham (Rabbi Avraham Gombiner, 5395–5443 (1635–1683)) accepts many of the Ari’s customs as legally binding. In deciding disputes that had remained unresolved for centuries, he often cites the Ari’s custom as the final authority.
Included among the main students of the Ari are Rabbi Chaim Vital (Calabrese), Rabbi Yisrael Sarug, Rabbi Shmuel de Uceda (author of Midrash Shmuel), Rabbi Yitzchak Cohen, Rabbi Masoud HaMaaravi, and Rabbi Gedalia. Even among these select few, only Rabbi Chaim Vital was permitted in his master’s lifetime to write down the Ari’s teachings.
After Chyim Vital died, Rabbi Avraham Azulai and Rabbi Yaakov Semach dug up the notes Chyim had took from learning from the Ar”i which he asked to be buried with. after permission was given from Heaven in a dream.
WHO WAS THE SPIRITUAL MASTER THEY CALL THE HOLY AR”I (LION) WELL HERE IS WHAT IS MOST WELL KNOW STUDENT HAD TO SAY ABOUT HIM :
A few times that I was walking in the field with my teacher, the Holy Ar”i, may his memory be for a blessing, and he said to me: Behold, there was a certain person, named so-and-so, who was a tzadik and a Torah scholar, but because he committed such-and-such a sin during his lifetime, he is now incarnated into this stone, or this plant, or animal. My teacher, of blessed memory, never knew these people, and we ,his students would investigate the history of these departed souls, and we would find that the facts about the deceaced person to be in accordance with his words. I am not going to go into this at length, because I could never recount all the times this happened. Other times he would gaze at a grave five hundred cubits away, amongst twenty-thousand other graves, and he would see the soul of the person buried there standing on the grave. He would tell us that so-and-so is buried in that grave, and he is undergoing such-and-such a punishment for having committed such and such a sin. We would inquire after this person, and always find it to be as my teacher said. We were witness to many amazing things like this.
The Ar”i said that every commandment is associated with one of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and that when someone performs a commandment, the letter associated with that commandment shines on his forehead, replacing the letter shining on his forehead from the previous commandment he performed. But If he performs the commandment of charity, the letter associated with it does not disappear as fast as the letters associated with other commandments, but rather continues to shine on his forehead the whole week.
I rarely copy other peoples work,
but this is something special,
Great merit from this to the Government of Israel for
publishing this teaching.
Studying the literature of the Kabbalah and turning to the teachings of mysticism and the Zohar puts off many excellent people. This distrust is quite understandable, in light of the generation and particularly the academic society in which we live, where rationalism and a scientific approach predicated upon the five senses prevail; hence anyone who delves into another dimension is viewed askance.,
In addition to this point there are other arguments to justify the negation of the Kabbalah. Below I shall present the major ones, along with the counter-arguments that justify the study of Kabbalah in our time.
The first argument asks, “Why Kabbalah?” Is there any halakhic obligation to study the mystical?
Rabbi Moses Cordovero (Remak), in Or Ne’erav (p. 17ff.) bases this halakhic obligation on Maimonides’ understanding of the mitzvah implicit in the First Commandment, “I, the Lord, am your G-d.” These are Cordovero’s words:
One of the things commanded by the Torah is that a person apprehend his Maker to the best of his intellectual ability, as it is said, “I, the Lord, am your G-d…” (Ex. 20:2). Maimonides explains this commandment at the beginning of his book [Mishne Torah, Book of Knowledge, I, 1] as follows: “The foundation of foundations and firmest pillar of wisdom is to know that there is a First Being, that He caused all beings to be.” Maimonides undoubtedly meant that this commandment includes apprehending the order of the beings that stem from Him… And so he included this in his concise language: “to know that there exists a first cause and that He brings into being all else that exists.” Thus he meant to include in this commandment the need to know also how He causes all things to be.
Remak maintains that the commandment means actual knowledge and apprehension of the Deity to the extent that one’s subjective intellectual ability allows, for otherwise how are we to interpret Maimonides’ words “to know” and the positive obligation that follows from the commandment, “I, the Lord, am your G-d”? It turns out, however, that one need not go so far. In the opinion of R. Hayyim Vital, in his introduction to his work, Etz Hayyim, the obligation to study Kabbalah stems from the commandment to study Torah:
In the plain sense of the Torah [peshat], its narratives, laws and commandments as plainly written, there is no recognition of any obligation to apprehend their Creator, may He be blessed. Moreover, there are commandments and injunctions that the intellect cannot countenance … and nearly most of the Torah’s commandments, especially their detailed laws, the rational mind does not tolerate; so, wherein lies the glory of the Torah, its beauty and greatness?
Elsewhere (Sha’ar ha-Gilgulim, preface 11), R. Hayyim Vital says quite clearly and explicitly: “‘Studying Torah counterbalances them all,’ and it has four interpretations, their anagram being PaRDeS: peshat, the plain sense; remez, allusion; derash, homiletical interpretation; and sod, the mystical; all of them must be studied,… and if one of these four is lacking to the best of a person’s ability, his soul will transmigrate on account of this.”
These words are perhaps based on the particular way the Zohar views the Torah in its entirety. The Zohar (Be-Ha’alotkha 152) perceives the Torah on several levels, just as one could see and relate to a person only superficially, on the level of his clothes, or one could look deeper at the person’s body, or even deeper at his character, into his soul. With the Torah, the superficial vision, of the clothes alone, is the narrative aspect. Looking deeper, at the body, reveals the commandments and precepts. Looking deeper still, one reaches the soul-the mystical. Thus studying the mystical is an integral part of studying Torah, hence the basis for this obligation and its importance.
The second argument is: Danger, Kabbalah!
The Sages were notedly dubious about studying Kabbalah, saying among other things, ” ‘Do not delve into that which is too wondrous for you’ (Ben Sira)– You have no business dealing with hidden secrets” (Hagigah 13a).
Rabbi Isaac De Latash responds to this argument in his preface to the Zohar (pp. 1-4):
To resolve this difficulty, let me inform you that there is no contradiction in what has been said. For the kabbalistic study of the Torah is the quest for true knowledge of the Creator, known through his deeds, and the knowledge of how He created the world through His glory-and this is the study of the ten spheres [sefirot], except that we have no business looking into the highest sphere, the supreme crown (keter) and that which is above it, which is the highest of high, called the En Sof … but investigating the other spheres, … that which has been revealed to us of Him, … is for us and our offspring, … for here contemplation and education were permitted.
In other words, “that which is too wondrous for you”-the essence of the Creator-is not for us to investigate, but His actions-His impact on the world through the angels and the sefirot-are permissible, indeed are our duty to study and try to understand.
The third argument is: Kabbalah, only after all else! It has been ruled on the basis of the words of the Sages (Hayyei Adam, 10.12; Rema, Yore De’ah 246.4), that a person should not study Kabbalah until he has filled himself with the study of gemara and the posekim, as Rema said: “Until he has filled himself with meat and wine … prohibitions and waivers, and the laws on the commandments.” In addition, Kabbalists wrote that one should not study Kabbalah until one has reached the age of forty, for it says, “By age forty one acquires wisdom” (Ethics of the Fathers 5, 21).
These contentions, as well, can reasonably be rebutted. To begin with, R. Hayyim Vital (in his preface to Etz Hayyim) cited the Ari, R. Isaac Luria, to the effect that one should not learn from or rely on kabbalistic works written after the time of Nahmanides (except for: Etz Hayyim, Mavo She’arim, and Shemona She’arim), which apparently include the source prohibiting the study of Kabbalah before age forty. Furthermore, the Ari, the greatest of all Kabbalists, did not impose such a restriction nor did he set any time limit or quota on studying Kabbalah. With regard to the argument about “filling oneself with the study of gemara” before entering the world of Kabbalah, we cite the response of Rabbi Yitzhak Isaac of Ziditchov, (mentioned in the essay, “Kol Omer Kera” by R. Isaiah Zelig Margalit):
Did not the Sages say (Kiddushin 30a), “A person should always divide his years in three, one third to Bible, one third to Mishnah, and one third to Talmud?” The gemara raises the question, “But does a person know how many years he will live?” … Therefore, it appears that this should be interpreted as applying to one’s days, dividing one’s time each day in three. This is what we do when we study Kabbalah: each day we fill ourselves with Mishnah and posekim, and then we devote ourselves to Kabbalah. For if one has to wait until one is filled with Mishnah and posekim, who knows if one will live that long? Thus it can mean nothing other than each day, individually, as interpreted by Tosafot (Gittin 9).
In other words, each day one is to fill oneself with Mishnah and posekim, in a relative, not absolute, way. This seems quite reasonable, in my humble opinion, since the definition of “filling oneself” is not quantifiable; and even if so, that is only for the very privileged few. It is inconceivable that such a considerable portion of the Torah–the mystical side– of which it is said, “Let all who wish come and partake” (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai 19,2), should be reserved only for the few and not for the entire people.
The fourth argument is: Kabbalah is only for the genius! The Kabbalah deals with things that are beyond the intellectual capabilities of the average person, and any attempt to study it can only lead to error and heresy.
The first part of this argument stems from ignorance, for anyone who has hasome exposure to Kabbalah knows that one need not be a genius in order to have the intellectual level required to understand it. Quite the contrary, studying gemara, and especially understanding its logic, is far more difficult and demands greater analytical ability and power of concentration.
As for the danger of mistaken perceptions, Hida (Hayyim Joseph David Azulai) wrote (Etzba Moreh 44): “Studying the Zohar is the most elevated of studies, even when one does not comprehend what it says and even if one reads it wrong.” This is apparently based on the Zohar (3.85), freely translated as follows: “A person who wishes to study Torah and has found no one to teach him, yet nevertheless studies Torah out of love for the Torah but mumbles it for lack of knowledge-each and every word of his ascends on high, and the Holy One, blessed be He rejoices in each word … and they are called arvei nahal [lit. willows; a pun on arev, meaning pleasing” (cf. Remak [R. Moses Cordovero], Be-Or Ne’erav, p. 14, for further explanation).
The fifth argument is: Why Kabbalah in our generation? Our parents and grandparents managed without Kabbalah, so who are we in an era that is based primarily on material achievement to enter the deep spiritual dimension of the Torah?
That is precisely the reason. Many of the things said in the Zohar and in kabbalistic literature stress that precisely as the messianic era approaches one has more need of studying Kabbalah, and that only this study will “hasten the redemption of Israel.” The best known are the words of the prophet Elijah to R. Simeon bar Yohai (cited in Tikkunei ha-Zohar, at the end of the sixth tikkun): “How many people will be nurtured from your work, when it becomes clear in the last generation at the End of Days; and by virtue of it ‘you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land’ (Lev. 25:10).” Liberty, or Redemption, will come about in the land by virtue of the Zohar.
A broad explanation of this approach is provided by the words of Tel Aviv’s former Chief Rabbi, R. Hayyim David Halevi (in his preface to his work, Maftehot ha-Zohar ve-Ra’ayonotav):
Apparently ideas based on plain sense and exegesis will not suffice to nurture “the last generation” [based on Deut.29:21] and occupy their minds… Precisely this last generation, that will reach the greatest heights in its scientific education, soaring to the heavens in its wisdom, is likely to become giddy and lose its spiritual balance… In a time when the plain sense of the Torah and its commandments do not suffice, then the secrets of the Torah will come to nurture one’s thoughts. If one thinks that one’s ostensibly “great” intelligence cannot fathom the commandments of levirate marriage and halizah in their plain sense, then the teachings of the mystical will come and disclose before him mysterious worlds, remote and obscure realms, that no living person will ever be able to comprehend without these disclosures… and hidden inner worlds within one’s own soul, vast spiritual resources that include the living and the dead, and only then one will understand.
In the light of this we can now understand the words of Rabbi Kook (Orot ha-Kodesh, I, p. 141):
Revealing the mystical in “the last generations” to purify the hearts and occupy the minds with sublime thoughts whose origins are in the secrets of the Torah, will become, in the last generation, utterly essential to the preservation of Judaism. The descent of the generation, which led to the necessity of employing this lofty means, is itself the ascent.