Every once in a while, a unique and remarkable soul is sent into the world to renew mankind with a previously unrevealed light.
Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, known as the Arizal, was one such soul. During his brief two years in Tsfat five hundred years ago, he succeeded in revolutionizing the understanding of the Zohar, the classic work of kabbalah. The constellation of kabbalah, the Arizal and Tsfat, made redemption almost irresistibly imminent. Against the historical backdrop of the Spanish expulsion and widespread messianic expectation, everyone living in Tsfat at the time awaited the final redemption. The only problem was, at the last moment, it was suddenly rescheduled for some unspecified date in the future.
Today, much mystery and misconception surrounds Jewish mysticism, the wisdom of the kabbalah, as well as those who profess knowledge of its secrets. The Zohar, the most famous book of kabbalah, was authored by R’ Shimon bar Yochai, who lived two thousand years ago during the Second Temple era. According to Rebbe Nachman of Breslev, every word of the holy Zohar has but one theme: how the upper worlds connect with each other in order to draw down shefa, the “oil of abundant holiness” into the world. Shefa is the fundamental spirtual vitality upon which the entire physical world depends for its sustenance. In order to understand the significance of the Arizal’s time in Tsfat, we must understand a little about the true nature of kabbalah and the anatomy of redemption.
THE SOURCE OF THE KABBALAH
Many people think kabbalah is a mysterious book of magic used by Jewish wonderworkers. The truth is, kabbalah is an ancient body of wisdom that was primarily transmitted orally.
However, Sefer Yetzira, a kabbalistic work that predates even the Zohar, was attributed to the patriarch Abraham. Later, the wisdom of kabbalah was handed down directly from God to Moses on Mount Sinai as part and parcel of the Torah. It was then maintained as a secret oral tradition passed from teacher to student for generations under the strictest of guidelines for fear of its holy power being misused. This tradition took written form during the era of the Second Temple when R’ Shimon bar Yochai garbed its wisdom within the book called the Zohar, literally meaning the “Book of Splendor.” In so doing, he drew the holy light of kabbalah further down into the world. Some time later, the book disappeared and remained concealed until the late thirteen century when it was rediscovered by R’ Moses de Leon, and much controversy arose about its disappearance and reappearance. The Zohar itself was originally a collection of midrashim which was later organized according to the weekly parsha. Thus today, it is a detailed commentary on the Five Books of Moses and contains extensive discussion on the elements that comprise life in this world. It speaks about creation, the soul’s anatomy, the Messiah, suffering, the destruction of evil, reincarnation, tikkun, the Shechina, the system of ten sefirot, fulfillment of the 613 commandments, and Torah study. One of the benefits of learning Zohar is that it gives a person the desire to learn all parts of the Torah (Sichot HaRan 108). After the Zohar resurfaced, it became more widely available and thus more difficult to understand correctly for those lacking a high level of Torah knowledge. When the Arizal arrived in Tsfat for his brief sojourn, he introduced an entirely new system to understand the complexity of the Zohar, today know as “Lurianic Kabbalah”. He succeeded in condensing and systemizing the wisdom of the kabbalah even further, making it more accessible to a greater range of people. For this reason, the Arizal was considered the greatest kabbalist since the days of R’ Shimon bar Yochai.
R’ Yitchak Luria was given the appellation “Ari”, which means “lion” in Hebrew. The final three letters “zal” represent a Hebrew acronym, zichrono l’vrocha, “may his memory be a blessing”. “Ari” is also an acronym standing for “Eloki Rabbi Yitzchak”—the godly Rabbi Yitzchak. Concerned that this name might be taken out of context, later generations said that the Hebrew letter aleph at the beginning of the acronym stood for Ashkenazi, a reference to his family’s Germanic roots.
The Arizal was born in Jerusalem in 1534 and moved to Egypt in his early childhood. By the time he was eight years old, he was recognized as a prodigy, expert in all areas of the revealed Torah including the Bible, Mishnah, Talmud, Midrash, and Aggada. At the age of seventeen, he obtained a written manuscript of the Zohar and spent days, even weeks, engrossed in a single passage until he had grasped its deepest meaning.
In time, after tremendous exertion, he understood the conversations of both trees and birds, as well as the speech of angels. By looking at another’s face, and even by one’s odor, he could discern everything the individual had done and what they would do in the future. He knew people’s thoughts, often before the thought even entered their minds. He knew the future, and was aware of everything happening here on earth, as well as what was decreed in heaven. He knew the mysteries of reincarnation, who had lived previously, and who was here for the first time.
The life story of the Arizal took a intriguing turn when he made his appearance in the Holy City of Tsfat. It was here a relationship was forged between him and another fascinating individual that was meant to catalyze nothing less than the redemption of the world.
R’ CHAIM VITAL
Concealing his gifts completely, the Arizal moved to Tsfat from Egypt during the summer of 1570. He came with the express purpose of teaching a young scholar by the name of R’ Chaim Vital who, the Arizal knew, was to become his main student and disciple. It wasn’t until six months after the Arizal arrived in Tsfat that R’ Chaim Vital finally met him. R’ Chaim, an acknowledged master in kabbalah himself, later wrote that one reason it took so long to meet his master was because he initially thought his own knowledge of kabbalah surpassed that of the Arizal. R’ Chaim Vital was a most unusual individual, an esteemed Torah scholar and an outstanding expert in alchemy, astronomy, astrology, and kabbalah, even before he met the Arizal. At the time of their first meeting, R’ Chaim was only twenty-seven years old; the Arizal was thirty-six.
It is astounding that according to his own account, R’ Chaim was a disciple of the Arizal for less than eighteen months, yet during this brief period, he managed to gain an astonishing mastery of the Arizal’s kabbalistic system. Given their short-lived relationship, the amount of information that must have passed between them defies imagination. Like many great masters, the Arizal rarely, if ever, recorded his own teachings, instead entrusting the task to a close follower. In this case, R’ Chaim Vital. He was the great organizer of the Arizal’s system and spent decades writing, organizing, rewriting and reorganizing countless versions and editions. R’ Chaim’s writings comprise over a dozen large volumes, each intricately compiled and written in an extremely terse style. Known collectively as the Kitvey HaAri, the volumes include the Etz Chaim (Tree of Life) and Pri Etz Chaim (Fruit of the Tree of Life), as well as the Shemoneh Shaarim (Eight Gates), and deal with everything from Torah commentary to Divine inspiration and reincarnation. The sheer quantity of R’ Chaim’s writings is immense, and if not for him, little if any, of the Arizal’s teachings would have survived.
One of the biggest challenges posed to R’ Chaim, was that the Arizal would suddenly start revealing secrets to him with no introduction, or clear sequence. Since the key in learning kabbalah is knowing where and what is being discussed—which world, which construct—the Arizal’s revelations were a dizzying mass of cryptic unorganized material. R’ Chaim was the only one who was able to successfully present the entire system with proper introduction and sequence. Even so, he intentionally wove into the text stumbling blocks to prevent the uninitiated and unworthy from improper understanding.
Kabbalists are extremely careful to use only the writings of R’ Chaim Vital. A relatively contemporary kabbalist from Yemen, R’ Shalom Sharabi (known as the “RaShash”, d. 1777) was particularly strict, warning in extreme language to completely avoid anything other than the writings of R’ Chaim Vital, since among all the students of the Arizal, only he understood his master’s teachings properly.
THE RESCHEDULED REDEMPTION
Yet, the relationship between the Arizal and R’ Chaim Vital possessed an even deeper dimension. Sometimes, when two people unite in a relationship, one of them may experience a personal redemption. In some cases, both sides experience the same. There are also relationships which effect the redemption of a town, a people, or even a country. In the case of R’ Chaim Vital and the Arizal, their union was meant to catalyze the redemption of the entire world, the advent of the Messiah, and the ultimate perfection of mankind. It was all meant to happen in the city of Tsfat.
R’ Chaim Vital could be termed a “microcosmic man”. He was what the kabbalists call a neshama klalit, a general all-encompassing soul. Usually, a Jew is spiritually from one of the original twelve tribes, the sons of Jacob. But a neshama klalit, or all-inclusive soul, has the spiritual root of all twelve tribes encompassed within one soul. This is a specific quality found in certain souls, and it was true in the case of R’ Chaim Vital. The repair, or tikkun, of R’ Chaim’s soul would blaze a spiritual pathway back to God through which others would be perfected. In this way, the entire world could be drawn back unhindered to God in repentance, ushering in the Messianic era. He was the mysterious paradigm upon which all mankind depended, without anyone knowing. This was the secret to the world’s redemption during the time of the Arizal and the significance of the deep relationship between these two extraordinary individuals.
Since the Arizal had come into the world only to teach and perfect the soul of R’ Chaim, he repeatedly cautioned R’ Chaim not to reveal his teacher’s greatness to anyone. If the Arizal’s true greatness was revealed prematurely, it would prevent him from accomplishing what was needed with R’ Chaim. Untold damage would be caused not only to him and R’ Chaim, but to the entire world. Yet feelings of unworthiness persisted within the heart of R’ Chaim. He felt compelled to reveal his teacher’s sublime level to the great leaders in Tsfat at the time, who were older than he, including R’ Moshe Alshich, R’ Moshe Cordovero (the Ramak) and R’ Yosef Karo, author of the Shulchan Aruch.
As the Arizal’s fame quickly spread, he was sought by those far and wide for the wonders he performed and spiritual guidance he provided. Others were seeking rectification for their souls. Because of the Arizal’s humility he refused no one.
The Arizal continued to plead with him to be more discreet, even revealing awesome secrets about R’ Chaim’s soul in an attempt to convince him that their relationship served a unique purpose in the world, but to no avail. R’ Chaim was unable to overcome his feelings of inadequacy and continued to publicize the Arizal’s greatness. Within a short while, his time spent with R’ Chaim was greatly compromised.
ALL TOO SOON a deadly plague struck the idyllic holy city. At a mere thirty-eight years of age the Arizal passed away suddenly in the summer of 1572 (5 Av 5332), only two years after the Arizal arrived in Tsfat. No one understood the true significance of the loss more than R’ Chaim. The redemption had been foiled, the dream shattered, at least for then.
During the funeral, Rabbi Chaim almost went mad with grief. When the Arizal’s body was lowered into the grave, he jumped in as well, clinging to it tightly. With great difficulty, others separated him from his master’s body and lifted him out from the grave.
R’ Chaim later wrote, “In my transgression, I wanted to be a ‘foolish chassid’ so I said to my master, ‘If these great scholars aren’t able to learn from you, then neither will I. I want no accusations in heaven leveled against me that I was concerned only for myself and not for these great tzaddikim who also want to learn from you.’”
After the death of his master, R’ Chaim often saw him in dreams, but as the years passed, these visits became less frequent. He settled in Damascus in 1594, teaching and inspiring Jews to return to a Torah-based life, but he was plagued until the end of his life with profound regret and sorrow that the final redemption had not yet come. With the exception of occasional visits to Tsfat, R’ Chaim remained in Damascus until his own death in 1620.
TWO EARTHQUAKES and a series of plagues subsequently devastated the city, and Tsfat went into a deep spiritual and physical slumber, essentially freezing her healing redemptive powers for another time in the future.
Thus the gates of redemption temporarily closed in sixteenth-century Tsfat, home to some of the greatest tzaddikim in Jewish history. Although the Arizal’s time in Tsfat was brief, the spiritual levels attained during this period sustain us until today, as we await the final redemption when we are destined to reach these levels and beyond.