The kabbalist Yitzhak Luria (1534-1572) was one of the most influential figures in the history of Jewish spirituality. His name entered Jewish tradition in the form of an acrostic of his Hebrew names ("the divine Rabbi Yitzhak"), the Ari (Lion), and his disciples were referred to as "the lion's cubs." Born in Jerusalem and brought up in Egypt, he acquired a reputation for halakhic and kabbalistic scholarship, but otherwise little is known about his early years. He settled in Safed in 1570 and died in the plague of 1572. These two years, about which no reliable details are known, laid the foundations for the subsequent explosion of legend, hagiography, and doctrinal innovation known as Lurianism.

Ari Synagogue, Safed (exterior)

Luria appears to have collected around him a band of devoted disciples who had to pledge not to divulge the new esoteric teachings to outsiders. The first known reliable document is a solemn contract in which several disciples pledge not to discuss or commit to writing any of the master's teaching except in the presence of Hayyim Vital, who had drawn up the contract in an effort to establish his claim to be the spiritual heir and sole repository of canonical Lurianism. In spite of the intended secrecy, pirated copies of Vital's "canonical" writings as well as other, and on some points divergent, versions of the master's doctrine began to circulate and were eagerly spread. According to legend, Luria himself had hardly written anything because the rush of inspiration was so powerful that it could not be reduced to writing. The vast corpus of Lurianic literature was composed by his disciples and by kabbalists influenced by them; it is still inadequately analyzed and any account of the Lurianic revolution is therefore provisional and incomplete. Luria's fame as a charismatic man of God spread through hagiographic epistles and books (such as Shivhei ha-Ari and Toledot ha-'Ari) long before his doctrines.

Ari Synagogue, Safed (interior)

The revolutionary aspect of Lurianism resides in the notion that perfection is not in the past, not even in the eternal Godhead before creation, but in the future. The achievement of perfection is the purpose of all existence, the divine realm as well as the created order. Luria addressed the problem of the purpose of existence in a more radical manner than other theologians. Whereas the early Spanish Kabbalah was concerned mainly with the spiritual achievements of the individual, Lurianism transformed the Kabbalah into a teleological and history-oriented system, teaching the meaning of exile and messianic expectation not only on the level of the individual but also on that of the community of Israel. In Lurianism, mystical life thus acquires a redemptive and potentially messianic quality

Luria utilized an ancient term, tzimtzum (retraction, reduction), found in Talmudic literature and in the writings of the Hasidei Ashkenaz[*] but gave it a novel twist. If God is All in All, how is a non-divine existence, such as creation, possible? According to Luria's theological mythology, the Godhead "retracted" and "withdrew itself into itself" so as to create an empty space in which creation could take place. This process is said to be cathartic, since the new vacuum (tehiru, Aramaic for empty) contained residues (reshimu) of elements in the primordial Godhead that would develop later into forces of evil. During the following process of creation, however, a major catastrophe occurred. The vessels (kelim), or channels, were not able to contain the power of the divine light that flowed through them, and so they collapsed (shevirat ha-kelim, breaking the vessels). This brought into being a new independent realm, into which fell many divine lights and sparks (nitzotzot), which are held captive by the powers of evil until they are raised again in a process that is the ultimate meaning and purpose of history.

The kabbalistic version of the early liturgical prayer order (siddur) in Eretz Yisrael was known as Minhag Ari (Tradition of the Ari), named after Yitzhak Luria. Individual Hasidic communities developed their own variants on that version; to this day, there are prayerbooks designated as following this tradition.

Creation is thus out of joint from its very beginning and it is Israel's, and especially the kabbalist's, duty to set it right (tikkun olam, repairing the universe). The way to do this involves the practice of the proper intentions and meditations, in both daily life and especially in ritual actions. The raising of the sparks is thus the inner purpose of everything. All historical events, from Adam and the garden of Eden to the theophany on Mount Sinai and the sin of the golden calf and beyond, were interpreted as failed attempts to bring about this tikkun.

The Lurianists created several mystical rituals and also re-edited the prayer book. It has been suggested that the Lurianic Kabbalah was a response to the traumatic experience of the expulsion from Spain. The symbolism and terminological apparatus of Lurianic thought was taken up by both Hasidism and non-Hasidic kabbalists of the eighteenth century.

[*] The pious ones of Ashkenaz, a term referring to the various circles of Jewish mystics and pietists in Ashkenaz (Germany — mainly the Rhineland, and northern France), in the late-12th, early-13th centuries. [back]
From: The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion, editors in chief: R.J. Zwi Werblowsky and Geoffrey Wigoder (Oxford University Press, 1997).

Joseph Dan, Gershom Scholem and the Mystical Dimension in Jewish History (New York, 1987), pp. 244-285.
Gershom Gerhard Scholem, Kabbalah (Jerusalem, 1974), pp. 420-428
Gershom Gerhard Scholem, "Kabbalah and Myth," in On the Mystical Shape of the Godhead (New York, 1991).
Gershom Gerhard Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (New York, 1954), pp. 244-286.

LIONS Table of Contents



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