Within a mere year and half, Isaac Luria (the Holy Ari) revolutionized Kabbalah and made it accessible to all. Since his time, his “Lurianic Kabbalah” has become the predominant approach to the study of Kabbalah.
The Ari was the greatest Kabbalist in 16th century Safed, a town near Rashbi’s village, Meron. In the Ari’s time, Safed was famed for its Kabbalist population.
The story of the Ari’s life is shrouded in mystery and legends. One such legend is that when he was born, his father was told that his son was destined for greatness. The Ari’s sudden demise at age thirty-eight, when he was in his prime, is still a mystery today.
A MAN OF MYSTERY AND LEGEND
The Ari was born in Jerusalem in 1534. At the age of eight, he lost his father, and his family was left destitute. Driven by despair, his mother decided to send young Isaac to live with his uncle in Egypt, where he spent most of his life.
As a young boy, the Ari would confine himself to his room for hours or even days at a time. He would immerse himself in The Book of Zohar, trying to understand its subtleties. Many folk stories claim that the Ari was awarded “the revelation of Elijah” (a unique spiritual revelation), and that he learned The Zohar “from him.” To the Ari, The Book of Zohar was the whole world.
As the capital of Kabbalist studies in the 16th century, Safed attracted many practitioners from near and far. Additionally, Safed is located not far from Mt. Meron, the burial place of Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yochai, and in close vicinity to Rashbi’s cave, the Idra Raba.
In the year 1570, a harsh winter struck Egypt. Torrential rains created massive flash floods, gale force winds tore rooftops off homes, and the Nile spilled over its banks, inundating whole villages under a deluge of mud and water.
One legend has it that Prophet Elijah visited the Ari on one of the stormiest nights of that dreadful winter and told him, “Your end is near. Leave here; take your family and go to the town of Safed, where you are eagerly awaited. There, in Safed, you will find your disciple, Chaim Vital. You will convey your wisdom to him, anoint him after you, and he will take your place.”
Thus, in the dead of winter, the Ari went to Safed, in the land of Israel. He was thirty-six at the time, and he had two years left to live.
PREPARING FOR THE REVELATION
Kabbalists kept the wisdom of Kabbalah hidden for 1,500 years prior to the Ari, ever since Rashbi had concealed The Book of Zohar. They would rise at midnight, light a candle and shut the windows so their voices would not be heard outside. Then they would reverently open the Kabbalah books and delve into them, striving to grasp their hidden truths. Kabbalists were reluctant to publicize their work because they feared it would be misinterpreted. The Book of Zohar stated that it would reappear when the generation was ready, and at the time of the Ari, Kabbalists felt that the time was not yet ready.
Humanity had been waiting for many centuries for the right guide to open the gates of the wisdom of Kabbalah to the public. Finally, with the arrival of the Ari in Safed and the public’s subsequent exposure to The Book of Zohar, it appeared that it was finally time to introduce the secrets of Kabbalah to the world.
Curiously, around the time of the Ari, and without any direct contact, many people, specifically artists and intellectuals, developed a keen interest in Kabbalah. One of these people was Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494), an Italian scholar. His book, Conclusions, contains the following statement: “This true interpretation of the law … which was revealed to Moses in godly tradition is called Kabbalah… which to Hebrews is the same as for us ‘receiving.’”
It is difficult to overstate the Ari’s importance and stature. Within merely eighteen months, he had left a huge mark on the history of Kabbalistic thought and teaching methods. His teachings introduced a new, systematic presentation of the spiritual knowledge. Using the Ari’s method, anyone in today’s scientific age can achieve what only a chosen few could achieve before.
Among the Ari’s books, The Tree of Life is probably the most important. This book presents the Ari’s teachings in a clear and simple style. Over the years, The Tree of Life has become one of the essential texts in Kabbalah, second only to The Book of Zohar.
The Ari passed away at age thirty-eight after falling ill with a plague that broke out in the summer of 1572. His appearance was a forerunner to a whole new era. He was not only one of the greatest Kabbalists, but also one of the first to be given “permission from Above” to disclose the wisdom of Kabbalah to the world. His ability to transform Kabbalah from a method for a chosen few to a method for all, made him a spiritual giant for the ages. Today, many more souls are ready for spiritual ascension, and to do so, they need to learn his method, the Lurianic Kabbalah