The Grave Site of the Arizal

Prophet of the Kabbalah: Rabbi Yitzhak Luria Ashkenazi, the Ari z’’l

Rabbi Yitzhak Halevi Luria, forerunner of the Kabbalah and, more particularly, the school of thought that bears his name, became widely known throughout the Jewish world under the name of the Ari, a name formed by his initials.

As the surname Ashkenazi indicates, the family of Rabbi Yitzhak Luria came from Germany. They then immigrated to the Holy Land and settled in Jerusalem. Born there was a man that was destined to play a defining role in the spiritual development of his generation, an influence that makes itself felt unto today.

Becoming fatherless from his early childhood, the future Rabbi Yitzhak went to Cairo with his mother to meet his uncle, Rabbi Mordechai Parnass. Being a wealthy, learned and generous man, he immediately saw to raising him and lavishing him with the best Jewish education possible. The child was enrolled in the Cairo yeshiva, and had as his teacher the illustrious Rabbi David ben Zimra, better know by this initials, the Ridbaz. As the Chief Rabbi of Egypt, the Ridbaz had already gained great renown from his book of responsum. He made his young and brilliant student one of his protégés, and helped him to arrive at the summit of sacred knowledge.

It was in this way that Rabbi Yitzhak, while still a young man, managed to write a brilliant commentary on the tractate Zebachim (Sacrifices).

Aware of having an unusually great sage in the person of his nephew, Rabbi Mordechai Parnass gave him his daughter in marriage and undertook to free him of all material concerns.

Yet Rabbi Yitzhak Luria, whose soul was noticeably at the highest-level possible, did not want to limit himself to the study of Talmud and Halachah. Kabbalah, the science of truth, acquired by the most extensive analysis possible of Torah, exerted an irresistible attraction on him. He therefore decided to devote his life to study and develop it. It was thus that, from his earliest years, he began to isolate himself by the shores of the Nile. Later he withdrew completely from social life to devote himself totally to the key work of Kabbalah, in this case the Zohar of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.

This period of isolation lasted seven years, during which time Rabbi Yitzhak would come home but once a week to spend Shabbat with his family.

The lofty soul that was his allowed him not only to understand the secrets of the Zohar, but also (and especially) to become familiar with the universe in all its mysteries. Nothing dealing with the ways of nature, of life, or of the world were unfamiliar to him. To arrive at such knowledge, knowledge that was sometimes inaccessible to even the greatest sages of his era, Rabbi Yitzhak didn’t hesitate to impose on himself entire days of fasting, of prayer, and of study.

His tireless efforts to penetrate to the depths of Torah allowed him to discover the true meanings of the Jewish faith in all its different aspects. Henceforth was born a new school of Kabbalistic thought that carried the name of the Ari.

This G-d-inspired man set himself the goal of purifying the world by replacing its faulty foundations. In 1569, he left Egypt with his entire family to go to the Holy Land. After a stay in Jerusalem, he left for Sefat with firm intention of making it an important center for the study of Kabbalah.

It wasn’t long before the small town in the Galilee became the center of attraction for scholars who wished to drink of the hidden secrets of the Torah. His students didn’t stop rushing to be close to the Ari in order to listen to his Kabbalistic interpretations, not only of Torah, but also of every event, large and small, that shook the world, especially in the Holy Land and Sefat.

The students of the Ari, who were becoming ever more numerous, joyfully accepted the way of life of their revered teacher. This was a life of holiness, but also one of mortification, and was the only way to make them malleable to the spiritually elevating knowledge of Kabbalah. Under the influence of the Ari, the smallest gesture, the least word, the slightest thought would from that moment take on a completely different dimension; all the more would public prayer. In fact, what the Ari had discovered and transmitted was the deepest, most authentic and spiritual sense of every word – even every letter – of the Torah.

We therefore have no problem imagining the atmosphere of inspiration, holiness, and fervor that surrounded the services in the Ari’s synagogue. It was the same for every Shabbat meal, strewn with words of Kabbalah and sacred songs, many of which came from the pen of the Ari himself. Such Shabbat meals took on the semblance of veritable sacrifices to G-d. As for the Melaveh Malka meal, at the end of Shabbat, those who partook of it were left with an indelible impression that lasted the entire week.

Expanding beyond the borders of the Holy Land, the Ari’s Kabbalistic teachings spread across the entire world and became a unique point of reference for all Jewish communities, within whom the world of reality and prayer had forever been changed.

The moment has come to make mention of one of the principle students of the Rabbi, a person to whom we owe the credit for spreading his teachings around the world. This person was Rabbi Haim Vital, who alone had the privilege and the authorization of putting the Ari’s thoughts into writing. Who is not familiar with his monumental work Etz Chaim (“The Tree of Life”), of which new editions have not ceased since the invention of the printing press?

As for Rabbi Israel Saruk, he was another eminent student of the Ari.

A veritable prophet of Kabbalah, the Ari passed away when he was only 39 years old. The entire Jewish people began to mourn this giant of Torah and Kabbalah, a man who in many ways revolutionized the Jewish nation’s daily and long-term way of life. Innumerable are the communities that have adopted the Ari’s customs, and who, during Chassidic get-togethers, sing songs and melodies created by our revered teacher.

We can thus affirm, without exaggerating, that the teachings of the Ari served as a veritable shield for European Jewish communities that were confronted with the Reform movement, a movement that attacked Judaism during the 16th and 17th centuries.

The Hilloula of the Ari z’’l is Av 5.





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