Isaac Luria (Arizal)

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The Grave of Isaac Luria in Safed

Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534July 25 1572) was a Jewish scholar and mystic. He is the founder of one of the most important branches of Kabbalah, often referred to as Lurianic Kabbalah.

In Hebrew he is called Yitzhak Lurya יִצְחַק לוּרְיָא, Yitzhak Ben Shlomo Ashkenazi, and Yitzhak Ashkenazi. He is also known as Ari אֲרִי and He-Ari ("The Lion") from the acronym for Adoneinu Rabbeinu Itzhak ("Our Master Our Rabbi Yitzhak"), thus Arizal with "ZaL" being the acronym for Zikhrono Livrakha ("of blessed memory" or literally "let the memory of him be for a blessing"), a common Jewish honorific for the deceased, and known as Ari Ha-Kadosh ("Ari the Holy").

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Main article Judaism and Other Religions

The predominant source for these sentiments is the writings of the Kabbalist rabbi Isaac Luria who stated that gentiles do not have souls. Israel is locked into a cosmic battle of Kabbalistic redemption and earthly gentile impurity. Our continuous sins cause us to descend into the shells instead of redeeming ourselves.

For Luria, the historical situation of exile is a manifestation of the cosmic reality of rupture and evil. The gentiles are not merely the Other, or the anti-Israel, as in the less metaphysical approaches of Rashi; they are the same stuff as the evil at the beginning of creation. The internal logic of this myth leads to the radical notion – unsupported by classical Jewish texts – that non-Jews have no souls.

While the influence of Luria on subsequent Jewish history has been overstated, his notion that non-Jews lack souls was a significant, and dangerous, innovation. It moved the exclusivity of Rashi to a new and potentially dangerous realm.

Dualism has room for rereading

This dualism needs to be reread from our vantage of connection to the classic texts.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Chajes dealt with these texts by claiming that rabbinic texts were written in a binary black and white, good and evil style for didactic purposes.[1] While this is a fine approach for dealing with rabbinic texts and it should be developed further, the demonic dualism and the dehumanization texts also need to be addressed.

An example of the possibilities of rereading can be seen in the history of the statements in Tanya written by R. Schneur Zalman of Liady, the founder of the Chabad Hasidic dynasty. He clearly states at the beginning of his work Likkute Amarim (Tanya) that, as presented in Lurianic writings, gentiles do not have souls.[2]

Nevertheless, this dualistic statement was transformed by later generations of Chabad thinkers into a historical inclusivism, in which the gentiles today are part of the messianic progress; or into a hierarchal inclusivism, in which the gentiles have greater needs to purify themselves.[3]

Early life

He was born at Jerusalem in 1534 to an Ashkenazi father and a Sephardic mother; died at Safed, Israel July 25 1572 (5 Av 5332). While still a child he lost his father, and was brought up by his rich uncle Mordecai Francis, tax-farmer at Cairo, Egypt, who placed him under the best Jewish teachers. Luria showed himself a diligent student of rabbinical literature; and, under the guidance of Rabbi Bezalel Ashkenazi (best known as the author of Shittah Mekubetzet), he, while quite young, became proficient in that branch of Jewish learning.

At the age of fifteen he married his cousin, and, being amply provided for financially, was able to continue his studies. Though he initially may have pursued a career in business, he soon turned to asceticism and mysticism. About the age of twenty-two years old, he became engrossed in the study of the Zohar, a major work of the Kabbalah which had recently been printed for the first time, and adopted the life of a recluse. He retreated to the banks of the Nile, and for seven years secluded himself in an isolated cottage, giving himself up entirely to meditation. He visited his family only on the Shabbat, speaking very seldom, and always in Hebrew. Arizal became a visionary. He had frequent interviews with the prophet Elijah through this ascetic life, by whom he was initiated into sublime doctrines. He also asserted that while asleep his soul ascended to heaven and conversed with the great teachers of the past.


In 1569 Arizal moved to the Palestine; and after a short sojourn at Jerusalem, where his new kabalistic system seems to have met with little success, he settled in Safed. There he formed a circle of kabbalists to whom he imparted the doctrines by means of which he hoped to establish a new basis for the moral system of the world. To this circle belonged Rabbi Moses ben Jacob Cordovero, Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz, Rabbi Joseph Karo, Rabbi Moses Alshech, Rabbi Elijah de Vidas, Rabbi Joseph Hagiz, Rabbi Elisha Galadoa, and Rabbi Moses Bassola. They met every Friday, and each confessed to another his sins. Soon Arizal had two classes of disciples: (1) novices, to whom he expounded the elementary Kabbalah, and (2) initiates, who became the depositaries of his secret teachings and his formulas of invocation and conjuration. The most renowned of the initiates was Rabbi Chaim Vital of Calabria, who, according to his master, possessed a soul which had not been soiled by Adam's sin. In his company Luria visited the grave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and of other eminent teachers, it is said that these graves were unmarked and the identitys of each grave was unknown and through Elijah was each grave recognized . Arizal's kabbalistic circle gradually widened and became a separate congregation, in which his mystic doctrines were supreme, influencing all the religious ceremonies. On Shabbat Arizal dressed himself in white and wore a fourfold garment to signify the four letters of the Ineffable Name.

His teachings

Arizal used to deliver his lectures extempore and, with the exception of several works and some kabbalistic poems in Aramaic for the Sabbath table did not write much. The real exponent of his kabbalistic system was Chaim Vital. He collected all the notes of the lectures which Arizal's disciples had made; and from these notes were produced numerous works, the most important of which was the Etz Chayim, ("Tree of Life"), in six volumes (see below). At first this circulated in manuscript copies; and each of Arizal's disciples had to pledge himself, under pain of excommunication, not to allow a copy to be made for a foreign country; so that for a time all the manuscripts remained in Palestine. At last, however, one was brought to Europe and was published at Zolkiev in 1772 by Satanow. In this work are expounded both the theoretical and the devotonal or meditative Kabbalah based on the Zohar.

Teachings about the Sefirot

The characteristic feature of Arizal's system in the theoretical Kabbalah is his definition of the Sefiroth and his theory of the intermediary agents, which he calls partzufim (from πρόσωπν = "face"). Before the creation of the world, he says, the Ein Sof ("Without Ending") filled the infinite space. When the Creation was decided upon, in order that God's attributes, which belong to other beings as well, should manifest themselves in their perfection, the Ein Sof retired into God's own nature, or, to use the kabbalistic term, God "concentrated" (Tzimtzum) Himself. From this "concentration" proceeded the "infinite light". When in its turn the light "concentrated", there appeared in the center an empty space encompassed by ten circles or dynamic vessels (kelim) called Sefirot, ("Circled Numbers") by means of which the infinite realities, though forming an absolute unity, may appear in their diversity; for the finite has no real existence of itself.

However, the infinite light did not wholly desert the center; a thin conduit of light traversed the circles and penetrated into the center. But while the three outermost circles, being of a purer substance because of their nearness to the Ein Sof, were able to bear the light, the inner six were unable to do so, and burst. It was, therefore, necessary to remove them from the focus of the light. For this purpose the Sefirot were transformed into "figures" (parzufim).

The first Sefirah, being Keter ("Crown"), was transformed into the potentially existing three heads of the Macroprosopon (Erech Anpin); the second Sefirah, being Chochmah (Wisdom"), into the active masculine principle called "Father" (Abba); the third Sefirah, being Binah (Understanding"), into the passive, feminine principle called "Mother" (Imma); the six broken Sefirot, into the "male child" (Ze'er), which is the product of the masculine active and the feminine passive principles; the tenth Sefirah, Malkut which is ("Kingship"), into the female child (Bath). This proceeding was absolutely necessary. Had God in the beginning created these figures instead of the Sefirot, there would have been no evil in the world, and consequently no reward and punishment; for the source of evil is in the broken Sefirot or vessels (Shvirat Keilim), while the light of the Ein Sof produces only that which is good. These five figures are found in each of the four worlds; namely, in the world of Emanation (atzilut), Creation (beri'ah), Formation (yetzirah), and in that of Action (asiyah), which represents the material world.

Arizal's psychological system, upon which is based his devotional and meditational Kabbalah, is closely connected with his metaphysical doctrines. From the five figures, he says, emanated five souls, Neshamah ("Soul"), Ru'ach ("Wind"), Nefesh ("Spirit"), Chayah ("Life"), and Yechidah ("Singular"); the first of these being the lowest, and the last the highest. (Source: Etz Chayim). Man's soul is the connecting link between the infinite and the finite, and as such is of a manifold character. All the souls destined for the human race were created together with the various organs of Adam. As there are superior and inferior organs, so there are superior and inferior souls, according to the organs with which they are respectively coupled. Thus there are souls of the brain, souls of the eye, souls of the hand, etc. Each human soul is a spark (nitzotz) from Adam. The first sin of the first man caused confusion among the various classes of souls: the superior intermingled with the inferior; good with evil; so that even the purest soul received an admixture of evil, or, as Luria calls it, of the element of the "shells" (Kelipoth). From the lowest classes of souls proceeded the pagan world, while from the higher emanated the Israelitish world. But, in consequence of the confusion, the former are not wholly deprived of the original good, and the latter are not altogether free from sin. This state of confusion, which gives a continual impulse toward evil, will cease with the arrival of the Messiah, who will establish the moral system of the world upon a new basis. Until that time man's soul, because of its deficiencies, can not return to its source, and has to wander not only through the bodies of men and of animals, but even through inanimate things such as wood, rivers, and stones.

Return of the soul

To this doctrine of gilgulim (reincarnation of souls) Arizal added the theory of the impregnation (ibbur) of souls; that is to say, if a purified soul has neglected some religious duties on earth, it must return to the earthly life, and, attaching itself to the soul of a living man, unite with it in order to make good such neglect.

Further, the departed soul of a man freed from sin appears again on earth to support a weak soul which feels unequal to its task. However, this union, which may extend to three souls at one time, can only take place between souls of homogeneous character; that is, between those which are sparks of the same Adamite organ. The dispersion of Israel has for its purpose the salvation of men's souls; and the purified souls of Israelites unite with the souls of men of other races in order to free them from demoniacal influences.

According to Arizal, man bears on his forehead a mark by which one may learn the nature of his soul: to which degree and class it belongs; the relation existing between it and the superior world; the wanderings it has already accomplished; the means by which it can contribute to the establishment of the new moral system of the world; how it can be freed from demoniacal influences; and to which soul it should be united in order to become purified. This union can be effected by formulas of conjuration.

More on - Shaar ha Gilgulim

Influence on ritual

Arizal introduced his mystic system into religious observers. Every commandment had for him a mystic meaning. The Sabbath with all its ceremonies was looked upon as the embodiment of the Divinity in temporal life; and every ceremony performed on that day was considered to have an influence upon the superior world. Every word, every syllable, of the prescribed prayers contain hidden names of God upon which one should meditate devoutly while reciting. New mystic ceremonies were ordained and codified under the name of Shulkhan Arukh heAri (The "Code of Law of the Ari") (compare Shulkhan Arukh by Rabbi Joseph Karo).

Influence on modern Judaism

The teachings of the Ari have been almost universally accepted in Judaism, although not all groups follow the customs he initiated or revived. Those communities which most tend to play down or avoid the influence of the Ari mainly consist of certain Litvish and Modern Orthodox groups, as well as a noticable segment of Baladi Yemenite Jews and others who follow a form of Torah Judaism more strictly in line with Maimonides and the Geonim.

Modern day descendants

Many members of the ultra-orthodox community in Safed and in Jerusalem can trace their lineage back to Luria.


  • Lawrence Fine: Physician of the Soul, Healer of the Cosmos: Isaac Luria and His Kabbalistic Fellowship: Stanford: Stanford University Press: 2003: ISBN 01804748268 Template:Please check ISBN
  • Eliahu Klein: Kabbalah of Creation: The Mysticism of Isaac Luria, Founder of Modern Kabbalah: Berkeley: North Atlantic Books: 2005: ISBN 15556435428 Template:Please check ISBN

External links



  1. Z. H. Chajes, The Student's Guide through the Talmud (New York : P. Feldheim, c1960).
  2. See Tanya, chapter 1; Iggeret haKodesh 25.
  3. Yitzhak Nahmani,Sefer Torat Ha-gilgul, Nefesh, Ruah U-neshamah. (Netanyah : Y. Nahmani, 755 [1995]). In this volume Nahmani tries to downplay the dualism by rejecting the theory that gentile souls come from the evil side. Using sources from elsewhere, Nahamni argues that all souls originate in Adam, and even Esau and Ishmael have Divine lights.