Jewish Commentators — Their Lives and Works
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Hebrew Name(s): יצחק בן שלמה לוריא אשכנזי
Other Names: Arizal, Rabbi Isaac Luria, Ha Ari, Ha Ari Hakadosh, Ari, The Holy Lion, Isaac Luria
Period: Acharonim — 16th Century
Location: Egypt and Safed, Israel
Isaac Luria is considered the founder of contemporary Kabbalah. His teachings are referred to a Lurianic Kabbalah. Luria was born in Jerusalem in 1534. His father is believed to be a Jew of northern European origin [reflected in the name, Ashkenazi. Some sources attribute a Sephardic heritage to his mother.] Following his father's death, Luria went to Egypt when he was supported in the home of his maternal uncle, Mordechai Frances. Isaac married a cousin, probably the daughter of his uncle Mordechai.
Luria studied under the scholar, David ibn Zimra and later with Zimra's pupil Bezalel Ashkenazi, a renowned Talmudic scholar with great authority in the Orient. Luria’s teacher in rabbinic and halakhic studies, David ibn Zimra provided him a firm grounding in traditional scholarship and although he [ibn Zimra] obviously had an interest in kabbalah and published several mystical works1 there is no unambiguous evidence to suggest that Luria studied kabbalah under him although it very possible that ibn Zimra influenced Luria especially with regard to doctrine of the trans-migration of souls.
Isaac Luria’s scholarship was such that he became part of David ibn Zimra’s inner circle in Cairo. At the age of 23 years (in 1557) his signature appears as one of nine signatories to a haskamah (formal agreement) made between members of an important rabbinic circle of Egypt—disciples of David ibn Zimra. The interpersonal concerns expressed in the document are reminiscent of the guidance Luria provided for his own disciples in Safed in later years.
Another signatory to the document was Bezalel Ashkenazi who succeeded ibn Zimra as the head of the Egyptian Rabbinate. A noted Talmudist and halakhist Luria worked collaboratively with him in compiling the novella of the Geonim and Rishonim of the Babylonian Talmud—material which was the basis of Ashkenazi’s most important work Asefat Zeqenim (better known as Shitah Mequbbetset). Luria’s collaboration was in the section on Tractate Zevachim.
It appears that Isaac Luria was an active contributor in rabbinic activities during his years in Cairo. Benjamin Motel, in his Introduction to Rabbi Tam ibn Yahya’s Sefer Yummay Yesharim, says he has a copy of Alfasi’s Code which was proof read by “two great luminaries, the eminent rabbi Bezalel Ashkenazi…and the ‘divine’ rabbi Isaac Luria.” Yet another collaboration took place when the two endorsed a halakhic decision together with Simeon Castellazzo in 1558. These evidences show that Luria was well versed in rabbinic and halakhic studies.
During this period of Luria’s scholarly activity it is apparent from documents recovered from the Cairo geniza that Luria was also an active merchant and was involved in business from the 1550s. Bills of Sale dated 1554 indicate he was known as both Isaac Luria and Isaac Ashkenazi. Documentation indicates that Luria continued in business until his death, trading in commodities such as fresh vegetables (peppers and cucumbers), pepper, leather and silk.
Although it is difficult to document the exact period, it appears that Luria retreated for a period into solitude—tradition holds he emerged on the Sabbath to join his family and only conversed with them in Hebrew. The presence of documentary evidence of his business and scholarly activities in the 1550s and the relative absence of this evidence in the 1560s suggests that his seclusion period occurred during the 1560s. Tradition recounts that it was during this time that Luria studied the Zohar and deepened his mystical understanding through Moses Cordovero’s writings and other kabbalistic works and it appears that Luria engaged in commentary on the Zohar at this time.
It was during his initial period of mystical studies that Luria wrote his single published work, a commentary on Sifra di-Ẓeni'uta (Book of Concealment), a section of the Zohar. Luria’s commentaries were later incorporated into Hayyim Vital’s records of Luria’s teaching (e.g. Sha'ar Ma'amrei Rashbi) after Luria’s death and reflect the influence of Cordovero. It is most probable that Luria’s time in solitude provided the foundation of the profound teachings of his later days in Safed—teachings which defined the nature of Lurianic Kabbalah. Luria’s disciples believed he was inspired by heaven.
Luria’s years and activities in Egypt—as a student and later as an actual member of Ashkenazi’s halakhic circle, and as a businessman—do not indicate an extensive period of studying kabbalah despite ibn Zimra’s obvious interest. It appears that Luria’s withdrawal into seclusion while in Egypt and his subsequent study of kabbalah and associated personal mystical experiences provided the energy behind his influence and the fame which later developed around him in Safed.
Isaac Luria settled permanently in Safed sometime in 1569 or 1570. Several records of his presence in Jerusalem before this date suggest he may have visited there or spent a short period in that city.
Safed, before Luria’s arrival, was already an established Jewish community in which both traditional schools and kabbalistic schools flourished. Indeed the 16th Century saw many centers around the Mediterranean and Ottoman world which, enjoying a period of relative peace for Jews, developed renewed interest in Kabbalah and enjoyed a period of renewal and development.
Although Jews had been living in Safed for centuries [a large settlement being recorded there in the 11th Century] the popularity of kabbalah and the close proximity of the graves of sages especially Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai and other saintly Jews contributed to the development of Safed’s influence as a center for kabbalah. During the period following the Ottoman conquest the Jewish population of Safed grew from 200-300 households to 1800 households in 1567-68 supporting themselves in trade: textiles, silk, and perishables. It was during this period that many scholars and sages were attracted to Safed, among them, Solomon Alkabetz (1505–76) reputed author of Lekha Dodi, Moses Cordovero (1522–70), Joseph Karo (1488–1575), Jacob Berab (c. 1474–1541), Moses Trani (1500–80), David ibn Zimra (Luria teacher from Egypt), Abraham Shalom (d. c. 1557) and Israel di Curiel (c. 1502–after 1571). The diversity of scholars and scholarship present in Safed is testimony to the fact that the city was host to both traditional rabbinic scholarship as well as kabbalists. Indeed Joseph ben Abraham (David ibn Zimra’s teacher) was a signatory of a letter sent from Safed to the Jerusalem rabbinate (in 1504) protesting that weight be given in decision making to “the fledgling sheep of the holy community of Safed that is in Upper Galilee” for “we are not men of no account.”
At the time of Isaac Luria’s arrival in Safed there already existed a kabbalistic culture with cultivated mystical practices. Luria appears to have been a charismatic figure who, although he lived in Safed for only two years before his death in a plague, gathered about himself a large group of devout disciples and it is through these disciples that most of Luria’s teachings were recorded and made known. Luria was regarded as “angelic” by his contemporaries, a saintly figure who communicated with the souls of the tzaddikim (righteous ones) and who composed mystical poems.
Lurianic Kabbalah is so called because of its major focus and development of particular themes found in the later part of the Zohar, particular that of the Creation of the world through the three part process of Tzimtzum (contraction), Shevirah (breakage) and Tikkun (repair). The notion of Tikkun is developed in Lurianic kabbalah as tikkun olam (repairing the world) effected by mitzvot—a notion extended today into acts of righteousness and loving kindness and often referred to as the primary purpose of Jewish life.
Lurianic kabbalah is also noted for its focus on kavanot—prayer with specific intentionality and associated with the particular aspects of the Divine in order to bring about redemption. Focusing with specific intentionality in prayer with a higher purpose — redemption of the world — is considered as participating in the restructuring and repairing of the fabric of the universe. Praying with such intentionality means that every word, indeed every letter of every word has a directed and precise effect in repairing creation. Kabbalat HaAri is complicated and often inaccessible. Its language is difficult to understand without extensive study. Very little is available in English translation.
On the other hand Lurianic Kabbalah has introduced kabbalistic practices into Jewish thought and practice including the notion of tikkun olam and kabbalat Shabbat.
Scholem, Gershom, and Moshe Idel. "Luria, Isaac ben Solomon." Encyclopaedia Judaica. Ed. Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik. 2nd ed. Vol. 13. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007. 262-267
Fine, Lawrence, Physician of the Soul, Healer of the Cosmos: Isaac Luria and his Kabbalistic Fellowship, California: Stanford University Press, 2003
Kabbalah.com, Isaac Luria: Saintly Innovator of Kabbalah.
Gersh, H., Kabbalah, NJ; Behrman House, 1989.
[1.] David ibn Zimra, Isaac Luria’s teacher in Cairo, wrote kabbalistic works. Magen David, a mystical explanation of the Hebrew Letters; Metsudat David, on the meaning of the shape of the Hebrew letters (1556); and Migdal David on the Song of Songs (1560).
Tractate Zevachim in Bezalel Ashkenazi's Shitah Mequbbetset; Kabbalistic Teachings published posthumously by disciples.
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