Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572), renowned as the greatest kabbalist of modern times, is commonly known as the ARI, an acronym standing for Elohi Rabbi Yitzhak – the G-dly Rabbi Isaac. No other master or sage ever had this extra letter, standing for – Elohi – G-dly – prefaced to his name. This is a sign of what his contemporaries thought of him. Later generations, fearsome that this appellation might be misunderstood, said that this alef stood for Askenazi, indicating that his family had originated in Germany, as indeed it had. But the original meaning is the correct one, and to this day Rabbi Isaac Luria is universally referred to as the “Holy Ari.”
The Ari was born in Jerusalem in 1534. By the time he was eight, he was recognized as a wonder child, a prodigy who already outshone the greatest minds of Jerusalem. At this tender age, he had already mastered the intricacies of the Talmud and committed dozens of volumes to memory.
The Ari’s father died while he was still a child. Under the pressure of poverty, his mother went to Egypt, where they lived with her brother, Mordecai Frances, a wealthy tax agent. The Ari’s brilliance continued to shine. The young prodigy was placed under the tutelage of Rabbi Betzalel Ashkenazi (1520-1592), best known for his important Talmudic commentary, the Shita Mekubetzet (Embracing System). There is also evidence that the young lad also studied under the great Radbaz, Rabbi David ben Zimri (1480-1573) who was then the chief rabbi of Cairo. By the time he was fifteen, his expertise in Talmud had overwhelmed all the sages in Egypt. According to a reliable account, the Ari himself also wrote a large Talmudic commentary around this time. Had he remained nothing more than a Talmudic scholar, he would have joined the ranks of the greatest of all times.
At this time he married his uncle’s daughter. At age seventeen, he discovered the Zohar, obtaining his own manuscript copy. After, he spent fifteen years meditating, at first with his master, Rabbi Betzalel Ashkenazi, and then alone, reaching the highest levels of holiness. Eventually, he spent two years meditating in a hut near the Nile, utterly isolated, not speaking to any human being. The only time he would return home would be on the eve of the Sabbath, just before dark. But even at home, he would not speak. When it was absolutely necessary for him to say something, he would say it in the least possible number of words, and only in the Holy Tongue.
It is accepted that the Ari became worthy of ruach hakodesh. At times, Elijah revealed himself to him and taught him the mysteries of the Torah. Every night his soul ascended to heaven. Angels would escort him, asking which academy he chose to visit. Sometimes it would be that of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. He also visited the academies of Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Eliezer the Great, and on occasion the academies of the ancient Prophets.
At the end of this period he received a command to go to the Holy land, from Elijah the Prophet. He arrived in Safed during the summer of 1570, and began by concealing his gifts completely. He was only there a short time when the Ramak (Rabbi Moshe Cordovero 1522-1570), head of the Safed kabbalists, died on June 26, 1570 (23 Tammuz, 5330). By identifying the heavenly pillar of fire that followed the great kabbalist’s funeral procession, the Ari established himself as the new leader.
The Ari passed away on July 15, 1572 (5 Av, 5332), barely two years after he had arrived in Safed. During his brief stay there, he had assembled a group of approximately a dozen disciples, with Chaim Vital at their head, and they continued to review his teachings. For the most part, it was Rabbi Chaim who put them into writing. The main works are the Etz Chaim (Tree of Life) and Pri Etz Chaim (Fruit of the Tree of Life), as well as the Eight Gates, which deal with everything from Bible commentary to divine inspiration and reincarnation.
The Ari also authored the liturgical poems “Azamer Bishvachin,” “Asader Lisudata,” and “Benei Heichala,” sung at the three Shabbat meals respectively and included in nearly every Chassidic and Sephardic prayerbook.
The teachings of the Ari have been afforded status as a primary authority, on the same level as the Zohar itself. Every custom of the Ari was scrutinized, and many were accepted, even against previous practice. The great Polish codifier, Rabbi Abraham Combiner (1635-1683), author of the Magen Avraham (Shield of Abraham), takes the Ari’s personal customs as legally binding precedents. In deciding disputes that had remained unresolved for centuries, he often cites the Ari’s custom as the final authority. The fact that the Ari had acted in a certain manner was enough to convince this tough-minded legalist that this was the correct opinion.
There are a select number of individuals who live on a plane so high above the rest of humanity that it seems as if they are a completely different, higher species of being. They teach, but we grasp but little, and from the few crumbs that we glean, we can build mountains. Such a person was Rabbi Yitzhak Luria, the holy ARI, the Lion of Safed.
(compiled from Meditation and Kabbalah by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan and from other sources)
Rabbi Chayim Chaim Vital writes in the Introduction to Shaar HaHakdamot:
The Ari overflowed with Torah. He was thoroughly expert in Scripture, Mishnah, Talmud, Pilpul, Midrash, Agadah, Ma’aseh Bereishit and Ma’aseh Merkavah. He was expert in the language of trees, the language of birds, and the speech of angels. He could read faces in the manner outlined in the Zohar (vol. II, p. 74b). He could discern all that any individual had done, and could see what they would do in the future. He could read people’s thoughts, often before the thought even entered their mind. He knew future events, was aware of everything happening here on earth, and what was decreed in heaven.
He knew the mysteries of gilgul [reincarnation], who had been born previously, and who was here for the first time. He could look at a person and tell him how he was connected to higher spiritual levels, and his original root in Adam. The Ari could read wondrous things [about people] in the light of a candle or in the flame of a fire. With his eyes he gazed and was able to see the souls of the righteous, both those who had died recently and those who had lived in ancient times. With these departed souls, he studied the true mysteries.
From a person’s scent, he was able to know all that he had done. (See Zohar, Yenuka vol. III p. 188a). It was as if the answers to all these mysteries lay dormant within him, waiting to be activated whenever he desired. He did not have to seclude himself to seek them out.
All this we saw with our own eyes. These are not things that we heard from others. They were wondrous things that had not been seen on earth since the time of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. None of this was attained through magic, heaven forbid. There is a strong prohibition against these arts. Instead, it came automatically, as a result of his saintliness and asceticism, after many years of study in both the ancient and the newer Kabbalistic texts. He then increased his piety, asceticism, purity and holiness until he reached a level where Eliyahu/Elijah would constantly reveal himself to him, speaking to him “mouth to mouth,” teaching him these mysteries and secrets.
(translated by Rabbi Moshe Miller)