The Ari Hakadosh ZT"L
By D. Friedman
There is something very
special about the city of Tzefas. A ring of light seems to surround it, a pristine aura to
pervade it. This uniqueness, though, does not stem only from the lofty mountains that
encircle it, nor from its sun-drenched cobble-stoned streets.
Chazal teach that
ancient sites or landmarks have the capacity to inspire awe and feelings of contentment,
while sites where corrupt acts were committed can evoke impure thoughts.
The Beis Halevi
addresses this idea in his discussion of Rashi's interpretation of the passage "For
all flesh had corrupted" (Bereishis 6:13), in which he notes how man's negative
behavior influenced his surroundings during the time of the Flood. In other sources,
Chazal allude to the capacity of sacred sites to generate happiness and noble thoughts
(See Shulchan Aruch, "The Laws of Prayer").
Tzefas is the city
where many great kabbalists and Torah sages lived, including Rav Yosef Karo, author of the
Shulchan Aruch; Rav Moshe Cordovero, the Ramak; Rav Shlomo Alkabetz, author of Lecha Dodi;
Rav Elozer Azkiri, the Chareidim; Rav Moshe Alshich: and, of course, Rav Yitzchok Luria,
the Ari Hakadosh. It is no wonder that an atmosphere of kedusha pervades the city, and all
who visit it are elevated.
Last Wednesday, the 5th of Av, tens of thousands of Jews visited the grave of the
Ari Hakadosh, in honor of his 429th yahrzeit. The Ari Hakadosh was one of Am Yisroel's
greatest kabbalistic sages, illuminating the entire world with his profound approach to
the mystical teachings of the Torah.
The Ari Hakadosh was born in Yerushalayim in 5294. He descended from an illustrious
line of Torah scholars. His father, Rav Shlomo Luria Ashkenazi, is believed to have been a
descendent of Rav Yechiel Luria, av beis din of Brisk, and famed author of "Chochmas
Shlomo" on Shas, and the equally well known "Yam Shel Shlomo."
The name Ashkenazi denotes Rav Shlomo Luria's affiliation with the very small
Ashkenazic community that lived in Yerushalayim about 450 years ago, and was led by the
famed Rav Klonimus of Brisk.
Although Rav Klonimus had held a prestigious position in Brisk, serving as av beis
din and rosh yeshiva, he longed to live in Eretz Yisroel, where he felt he would achieve
ultimate closeness with Hashem. When the Turkish emperor, Suliman the Magnificent, known
for his compassionate attitude toward Jews, conquered Yerushalayim, Rav Klonimus realized
his dream and moved to Eretz Yisroel, settling in Yerushalayim.
Among those who joined him was Rav Shlomo Luria, whose wife gave birth to a son not
long after their arrival in Eretz Yisroel.
Rav Shlomo Luria spent most of his time studying in Rav Klonimus ' beis medrash,
taking his brilliant son, Yitzchok, along with him. But this idyllic situation did not
last long. When Yitzchok was still a child, Rav Shlomo Luria passed away, leaving behind a
bereft and distraught family.
But they were not alone. Rav Klonimus assumed responsibility for Yitzchok's
education, while Yitzchok's maternal uncle, Rav Mordechai Francis of Egypt, supported the
Sadly, Rav Klominus died not long after Rav Shlomo, and the Luria family once again
lost their source of succor and encouragement. However, the Ari's uncle, Reb Mordechai,
came to their aid, and brought the entire family to Egypt, where he provided for them and
attended to Yitzchok' s education and spiritual needs, eventually taking him as his
BLOSSOMING IN EGYPT
Despite his vast wealth and prominence, Reb Mordechai's home was one of Torah and
tzedaka, where outstanding scholars gathered. These scholars recognized Yitzchok's
potential, and urged his uncle to enroll him in the yeshiva of Rav Dovid Ben Zamra,
The Radbaz was the author of such prestigious works as Yakar Tiferes on Zeraim,
Klalei HaTalmud and Tshuvos HaRadbaz Hayeshanos V' hamechudashos. The standards at his
yeshiva were very high. Among the eminent Torah scholars who studied there were Rav Yaakov
Castro and Rav Betzalel Ashkenazi.
Yitzchok, who was only 14 at the time of his admission into this yeshiva, rapidly
became one of the Radbaz's most beloved and closest students.
Seeking to bring out the best in his exceptional student, the Radbaz asked Rav
Betzalel Ashkenazi to serve as his mentor. Rav Betzalel is famed for his two works, Shu't
Rabbi Betzalel, a series of responses to questions posed to him in Egypt, and Shita
Mekubetzes, in which he compiled and clarified all of the various Talmudic approaches of
the Rishonim according to the order of the Shas.
The young Rav Yitzchok studied with Rav Betzalel Ashkenazi for seven years, helping
him prepare parts of the Shita Mekubetzes, and comments on the writings of the Rif, Rav
Yitzchok Alfasi, and the Ran, Rabbenu Nissim. During that period, Rav Yitzchok delved into
the Talmud and the commentaries. However, he longed to study kabbala, which he felt would
increase his devotion to Hashem.
THE ARI AND KABBALA
Kabbala involves the study of the hidden aspects of the Torah, and focuses mainly
on the secrets of Divinity and Creation. At first, these secrets were transmitted orally
from teacher to student, in order to prevent them from being studied by those unworthy of
doing so. However, when the sages saw that very few people were suited for this form of
study, they committed their essential teachings to writing, explaining the preparations
one must make before approaching such pursuits.
The basic work of the kabbala is the Zohar, which was written by Rav Shimon bar
Yochai and his son Rav Elazar. These two great sages had studied these secrets during
their 13 years of confinement in a cave at the time of the Roman conquest. They recorded
their teachings in kuntrasim, notebooks, and after their deaths, their students collected
these notebooks and arranged them in the form of the Sefer Hazohar, adding on other
essential teachings they had heard from their mentors.
The prerequisites for studying the Zohar are very demanding and rigid. Due to its
nature, only one who has thoroughly mastered all of the revealed Torah, and has totally
perfected his soul and character, is considered worthy of studying the Zohar. The results
of the imprudent study of the Zohar by one who has not met these criteria can be dire.
The Ari did not launch into a study of the kabbala headfirst, but prepared himself
for this study for a long time, under the guidance of the Radbaz. He devoted himself to
in-depth and diligent study of Shas and poskim, acquiring the 21 virtues that result from
such study, among them kedusha and tahara. Every night he would recite Tikkun Chatzos,
lamenting the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash. He would study Torah all day, wrapped in
tefillin according to the teachings of Rabbeinu Tam, and in a Tallis. He would immerse
himself in a mikveh frequently, and remain watchful of his own behavior. A short while
before his death, he was heard pleading "Hashem, spare me from pride."
After completing these preparations, the Ari decided to seclude himself in a remote
area for seven years, returning to his home only on Shabbos. During this period, he
studied the writings of the kabbalistic sages, committing many of his own thoughts to
writing. Among the works he produced at that time was his commentary on Safra d'Tsniusa,
an ancient kabbalistic work attributed to Yaakov Avinu.
At the end of those seven years of intense preparation, he sought to increase the
level of his piety. He went to live in a hut on the banks of the Nile, once again
returning home only on Shabbos, where he continued to maintain his ascetic practices.
After Shabbos he would return to his hut on the banks of the Nile, in an area called Old
Egypt while his family remained in New Egypt. While in that retreat, Eliyahu Hanavi
divulged many secrets to him. This period also lasted for seven years.
During that period, he was sustained by his father-in-law, who would send servants
to the retreat with food, so that the Ari could devote himself solely to the study of
kabbala. The Ari, completely immersed in his studies, would not exchange a single word
with the servants. When at home on Shabbos, he also remained detached from his
surroundings, while his father-in-law attended to his needs and even arranged a minyan for
At a later date, the Ari told his students that only Divine intervention enabled
him to scale such lofty heights while on the banks of the Nile. "To receive this
level of siyata d'Shmaya," he would say, "I would fast frequently, and shed
copious tears in which I would beg Hashem to help me achieve my aim."
It was only after all of these preparations that the gates of kabbalistic wisdom
opened to him.
A TIME TO LEAVE
When the Ari was 36, the time for him to spread his teachings arrived. As is related in
Shivchei HaAri and Rav Chaim Vital's introduction to Eitz Chaim, at that point Eliyahu
Hanavi told the Ari, "Your days are numbered, and you must leave Egypt and settle in
Tzefas, where you will reveal your Torah to all who seek Hashem."
At first, the Ari was very reluctant to leave Egypt. He feared that imparting his
teachings to others would be difficult for him, and that his need to pursue a livelihood
in Tzefas would detract from his Torah studies.
However, Eliyahu Hanavi encouraged him, saying, "In Tzefas you will meet Rav
Chaim Vital, who will both record and spread your teachings. Your entire purpose is coming
down to this world is in order to transmit your teachings to Rav Chaim Vital. His soul is
very precious. You will enable him to probe the depth of kabbala and to spread it
throughout the world."
According to Shivchei HaAri, Eliyahu added that by leaving impure Egypt and
dwelling in sacred Eretz Yisroel, the quality of the Ari's kabbalistic studies would be
enhanced. That explanation gave him the impetus to leave Egypt and head to Tzefas.
TZEFAS DURING THE TIME OF THE ARI
With the Ottoman conquest of Eretz Yisroel, many cities that had until then
remained desolate began to flourish, and Tzefas became a vibrant Jewish community.
The Ari arrived in Tzefas with his wife and children and his mother. He found a
city replete with Torah sages. He was reunited with the Radbaz, with whom he had studied
in Egypt. But the Radbaz had no idea of the lofty heights the Ari had reached. For that
matter, nor did anyone else, since the Ari was so unassuming and humble, and even engaged
in an occupation to support his family.
The Ari first gained a name for his mystical poetry, which sang the praises of
Shabbos. Soon he was grew friendly with other scholars, and formed a group that met each
Friday to confess their sins to each other and to develop their character traits.
However, one person recognized the Ari's true greatness-the Ramak, Rav Moshe
Cordovero, who studied with the Ari and earmarked him as his successor as the Rav of
Tzefas and head of his yeshiva.
The very same year that the Ari arrived in Tzefas, 5330, the Ramak, who had studied
under the great kabbalists Rav Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz and Rav Yosef Karo, and had written
such important works as the Paredess Rimonim and Tomer Devorah, was niftar. The greatest
sages in Tzefas had flocked to the Ramak to listen to his teachings. One of his
outstanding students was Rav Chaim Vital.
When the Ramak was on his deathbed, he did not reveal his successor's name, but
hinted to the manner in which he could be identified. "The man," he said,
"who will see a cloud preceding my bier will be my successor."
At the funeral, many of Tzefas great scholars eulogized the Ramak. When the
eulogies ended, one of the Ramak's students invited the Ari to speak. This aroused much
surprise, and a bit of dismay, too. True, Reb Yitzchok Luria was a revered scholar, who
had even studied with the Ramak. But he was a newcomer to Tzefas, and he was considerably
younger than the other Torah scholars. Why had the Ramak's student selected the Ari for
such an honor, when there were many other eminent scholars in the city who could have
At the end of the funeral, the student revealed his reason for having asked the Ari
to speak. "While we were preparing a plot in the cemetery for the burial," he
said, "Rav Yitzchok Luria told us that we had chosen the wrong place, and that the
cloud hadn't stopped there, but further on. Then he pointed to a different site."
No more had to be said. The Ramak's students unequivocally accepted the Ari
Hakadosh as their spiritual mentor, drinking his words eagerly despite the fact that his
approach to kabbala was different from the Ramak's.
It looked as thought the time had finally arrived for the Ari to begin teaching the
kabbala he had learned and developed over his many years of preparations.
However, a number of Tzefas' sages, among them the Radbaz, doubted whether the Ari was
worthy of teaching the hidden secrets of the Torah. Although the Radbaz thought highly of
the Ari, he asked him to refrain from teaching kabbala to the Ramak's students. The Ari
did not try to refute the Radbaz or argue with him.
Nonetheless, he felt constrained by the bidding of Eliyahu Hanavi and pressed by
the knowledge that his days were numbered, and could not honor the Radbaz's request, which
was actually based on a mistaken assumption.
Meanwhile, the Radbaz sent Reb Betzalel Ashkenazi-who had been the Ari's mentor-to
listen to one of the Ari's discourses, asking him to cross-examine and even contradict
him. Reb Betzalel Ashkenazi, however, returned to the Radbaz with nothing but praise for
the Ari, and the Radbaz realized his mistake.
The Radbaz, however, was not alone in opposition to the Ari's approach to kabbala.
Many of the Ramak's students also disapproved of the teaching. Some would come to his
shiurim to criticize him or to disprove his words, but in the end would realize his
greatness and become his staunch supporters.
One student, though, remained particularly adamant in his opposition to the Ari's
approach-the Ramak's most prominent student, Rabbi Chaim Vital. He had been living in
Damascus, engaged in completing the Ramak 's commentary on the Zohar when the Ari gained
his prominent place among the sages of Tzefas. Rav Chaim Vital had not been present at the
time when the Ramak had appointed the Ari as his successor. He also did not know that the
Ari had identified the cloud that had followed the Ramak's bier. Upset by the fact that
the Ari, whose approach was different from the Ramak's, had become the primary teacher of
kabbala in Tzefas, he remained estranged from the Ari.
The Ari was equally upset by the situation. His sole purpose in leaving Egypt had
been to impart his teachings to Rav Chaim Vital. However, the Ari did not summon Rav Chaim
Vital to Tzefas. He felt his influence on the scholar would be greater if Rav Chaim Vital
approached him on his own initiative.
Despite Rav Chaim Vital's reluctance to visit the Ari, he had many dreams that told
him: humble yourself before the Ari. He dismissed these dreams as vanity.
One time, when he was stymied by a particular section of the Zohar, he had a new
dream with another message: Only the Ari can explain that passage to you. Go to Tzefas and
study under him.
This time, Rav Chaim Vital heeded the message, and set out to Tzefas to meet the
Ari, resolving that if the Ari explained the difficult passage, he would become his
devoted student. Rav Chaim Vital was so impressed by that encounter that he became the
Ari's principal pupil and most dedicated follower, recording the Ari's teachings for
posterity and spreading them throughout the world.
PRAISING THE ARI
In his introduction to Eitz Chaim, Rav Chaim Vital describes the multifaceted
aspects of the Ari's knowledge of the kabbala: "He knew the secrets of Creation, the
secret of Divinity, the language of birds and trees, the secrets revealed by fire as it
interacts with coal, as well as the language of the angels.
"He conversed with reincarnated souls, knew each man's secret, the roots of
souls and the events of people's past lives. He could communicate with dybbuks, rectify
them and dislodge them from the people whose bodies they had entered.
"He spoke with the souls of the deceased tzaddikim, who would reveal the
Torah's secrets to him. He could assess a person's character by studying his facial
features, could read palms, interpret dreams and prescribe tikunim.
"He was perfect in his fear of Hashem, love of Hashem, fear of sin, humility
and character traits.
"He achieved all this as a result of his supreme piety and asceticism, as well
as by means of his total immersion in the study of our kabbalistic works. So great was his
piety that Eliyahu Hanavi would reveal himself to him."
The Ari used these capacities to help others, and is credited with having helped
many individuals rectify their souls. The Ari was selected to be one of the 10 sages
responsible for the conduct of the members of the Tzefas community. He did not minister
his supervision harshly but rather with the compassion, benevolence, and deep
understanding of human nature which were at the core of his character.
In addition to mending the souls of the living, the Ari identified the graves of
the great Torah sages whose burial sites had not been known until then, and developed the
prayers to be said at each one of these graves. He transmitted this list to his students.
Rav Chaim Vital's son Shmuel copied it and printed the list at the end of Rav Chaim
Vital's chapter Shaar Hagilgulim, from the Eitz Chaim. The list includes the graves of
many figures from Tanach, such as Nachum HaElkoshi, Benayahu ben Yehodaya, Adino Haetzni,
Shmuel Hanavi, and also various Tanaaim, Amoraim, and Rishonim.
The Ari lived in Tzefas for less than three years, from 5330 until 5332. All of
Tzefas' Torah sages recognized his greatness and submitted themselves to him. The Ari
delivered his shiurim in the fields or mountains and valleys surrounding Tzefas. Often he
would expound on the mystical meaning of each of the Mitzvot. Sometimes, he would take his
students to graves outside of Tzefas, and together they would pray for the welfare of Am
TORN FROM THE GRAVE
As predicted by Eliyahu Hanavi, the Ari Hakadosh passed away not long after he had
imparted his wisdom to Rav Chaim Vital. All of Tzefas' residents attended his funeral, and
the city's sages ruled that even Kohanim could attend it.
The Ari Hakadosh was buried beside the Ramak. As the Ari's coffin was being lowered
into the freshly dug pit, Rav Chaim Vital jumped into it, clutched the body of his beloved
mentor and refused to let go. Students of the Ramak barely managed to remove him from the
Before the final closing of the pit, the head of the city's Chevra Kadisha begged
the Ari's forgiveness. Then he said: "May his merit protect us and all Am Yisroel.
May we be saved from calamity and affliction and shortly redeemedÉAmen kain yehi
It is written that the secret of Hashem is revealed to those who fear him,
"Sod Hashem l'yireiav." The Hebrew word "l'yireiav" contains all the
letters of the name Luria. May the teachings of the Ari Hakadosh, master of the kabbala,
continue to inspire us.