The Holy Ari
By D. Friedman
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
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.
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
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
Among those who joined him was Rabbi Shlomo Luria, whose wife
gave birth to a son not long after their arrival in Eretz Yisrael.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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."
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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."
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."
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
"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
"He was perfect in his fear of Hashem,
love of Hashem, fear of sin, humility and character traits.
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.
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
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.
[Source: Excerpted and adapted from an article on www.yadyosef.com]
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