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Isaac Luria

Issac Luria (Yitzhak ben Solomon Ashkenazi), also known as the Ari or Arizal, was a famed Jewish mystic who was believed by some to be the messiah. In many ways he is the founder of Kabbalah in its modern form. Modern Jewish mysticism is often referred to as Lurianic Kabbalah.

He was born of German parents at Jerusalem in 1534; died at Safed, Israel Aug. 5. 1572. While still a child he lost his father, and was brought up by his rich uncle Mordecai Francis, tax-farmer at Cairo, who placed him under the best Jewish teachers. Luria showed himself a diligent student of rabbinical literature; and, under the guidance of Bezaleel Ashkenazi, he, while quite young, became proficient in that branch of Jewish learning.

At the age of fifteen he married his cousin, and, being amply provided for, was enabled to continue his studies undisturbed. When about twenty-two years old, becoming engrossed with the study of the Zohar, which had recently been printed for the first time, he adopted the life of a hermit. He removed to the banks of the Nile, and for seven years secluded himself in an isolated cottage, giving himself up entirely to meditation. He visited his family only on the Sabbath, speaking very seldom, and always in Hebrew. Such a mode of life could not fail to produce its effect on a man endowed by nature with a lively imagination. Luria became a visionary. He believed he had frequent interviews with the prophet Elijah, by whom he was initiated into sublime doctrines. He asserted that while asleep his soul ascended to heaven and conversed with the great teachers of the past.

Table of contents
1 Disciples
2 His teachings
3 Teachings about the Sefirot
4 Return of the Soul
5 Influence on Ritua
6 Influence on Modern Judaism


In 1569 Luria removed to Palestine; and after a short sojourn at Jerusalem, where his new cabalistic system seems to have met with but little success, he settled at Safed. There he formed a circle of cabalists to whom he imparted the doctrines by means of which he hoped to establish on a new basis the moral system of the world. To this circle belonged Moses Cordovero, Solomon Alḳabiẓ, Joseph Caro, Moses Alshech, Elijah de Vidas, Joseph Ḥagiz, Elisha Galadoa, and Moses Bassola. They met every Friday, and each confessed to another his sins. Soon Luria had two classes of disciples: (1) novices, to whom he expounded the elementary Cabala, and (2) initiates, who became the depositaries of his secret teachings and his formulas of invocation and conjuration. The most renowned of the initiates was Ḥayyim Vital of Calabria, who, according to his master, possessed a soul which had not been soiled by Adam's sin. In his company Luria visited the sepulchers of Simeon ben Yoḥai and of other eminent teachers, the situation of which had been revealed to him by his constant mentor, the prophet Elijah. Luria's cabalistic circle gradually widened and became a separate congregation, in which his mystic doctrines were supreme, influencing all the religious ceremonies. On Sabbath Luria dressed himself in white and wore a fourfold garment to signify the four letters of the Ineffable Name. His followers looked upon him as a saint who had the power to perform all kinds of miracles, while he himself pretended to be Messiah ben Joseph, the forerunner of Messiah ben David.

His teachings

Luria used to deliver his lectures extempore and, with the exception of some cabalistic poems in Aramaic for the Sabbath service, did not write anything. The real exponent of his cabalistic system was Hayyim Vital. He collected all the notes of the lectures which Luria's disciples had made; and from these notes were produced numerous works, the most important of which was the " 'Eẓ Hayyim," in six volumes (see below). At first this circulated in manuscript copies; and each of Luria's disciples had to pledge himself, under pain of excommunication, not to allow a copy to be made for a foreign country; so that for a time all the manuscripts remained in Palestine. At last, however, one was brought to Europe and was published at Zolkiev in 1772 by Satanow. In this work are expounded both the speculative Cabala, based on the Zohar, and the practical or miraculous Cabala, of which Luria was the originator.

Teachings about the Sefirot

The characteristic feature of Luria's system in the speculative Cabala is his definition of the Sefirot and his theory of the intermediary agents, which he calls "partzufim" (from πρόσωπν = "face"). Before the creation of the world, he says, the En Sof filled the infinite space. When the Creation was decided upon, in order that His attributes, which belong to other beings as well, should manifest themselves in their perfection, the En Sof retired into His own nature, or, to use the cabalistic term, concentrated Himself. From this concentration proceeded the infinite light. When in its turn the light concentrated, there appeared in the center an empty space encompassed by ten circles or dynamic vessels ("kelim") called "Sefirot," by means of which the infinite realities, though forming an absolute unity, may appear in their diversity; for the finite has no real existence of itself.

However, the infinite light did not wholly desert the center; a thin conduit () of light traversed the circles and penetrated into the center. But while the three outermost circles, being of a purer substance because of their nearness to the En Sof, were able to bear the light, the inner six were unable to do so, and burst. It was, therefore, necessary to remove them from the focus of the light. For this purpose the Sefirot were transformed into "figures" ("parẓufim").

The first Sefirah, Keter, was transformed into the potentially existing three heads of the Macroprosopon ("Erek Anfin"); the second Sefirah, Ḥokmah, into the active masculine principle called "Father" ("Abba"); the third Sefirah, Binah, into the passive, feminine principle called "Mother" ("Imma"); the six broken Sefirot, into the male child ("Ze'er"), which is the product of the masculine active and the feminine passive principles; the tenth Sefirah, Malkut, into the female child ("Bat"). This proceeding was absolutely necessary. Had God in the beginning created these figures instead of the Sefirot, there would have been no evil in theworld, and consequently no reward and punishment; for the source of evil is in the broken Sefirot or vessels, while the light of the En Sof produces only that which is good. These five figures are found in each of the four worlds; namely, in the world of emanation (); in that of creation (); in that of formation ( ); and, in that of action , which represents the material world.

Luria's psychological system, upon which is based his practical Cabala, is closely connected with his metaphysical doctrines. From the five figures, he says, emanated five souls, Neshamah, Ruaḥ, Nefesh, Ḥayyah, and Yeḥidah; the first of these being the highest, and the last the lowest. Man's soul is the connecting link between the infinite and the finite, and as such is of a manifold character. All the souls destined for the human race were created together with the various organs of Adam. As there are superior and inferior organs, so there are superior and inferior souls, according to the organs with which they are respectively coupled. Thus there are souls of the brain, souls of the eye, souls of the hand, etc. Each human soul is a spark ("niẓoẓ") from Adam. The first sin of the first man caused confusion among the various classes of souls: the superior intermingled with the inferior; good with evil; so that even the purest soul received an admixture of evil, or, as Luria calls it, of the element of the "shells" ("ḳelipot"). From the lowest classes of souls proceeded the pagan world, while from the higher emanated the Israelitish world. But, in consequence of the confusion, the former are not wholly deprived of the original good, and the latter are not altogether free from sin. This state of confusion, which gives a continual impulse toward evil, will cease with the arrival of the Messiah, who will establish the moral system of the world upon a new basis. Until that time man's soul, because of its deficiencies, can not return to its source, and has to wander not only through the bodies of men and of animals, but even through inanimate things such as wood, rivers, and stones.

Return of the Soul

To this doctrine of metempsychosis Luria added the theory of the impregnation ("ibbur") of souls; that is to say, if a purified soul has neglected some religious duties on earth, it must return to the earthly life, and, attaching itself to the soul of a living man, unite with it in order to make good such neglect.

Further, the departed soul of a man freed from sin appears again on earth to support a weak soul which feels unequal to its task. However, this union, which may extend to three souls at one time, can only take place between souls of homogeneous character; that is, between those which are sparks of the same Adamite organ. The dispersion of Israel has for its purpose the salvation of men's souls; and the purified souls of Israelites unite with the souls of men of other races in order to free them from demoniacal influences.

According to Luria, man bears on his forehead a mark by which one may learn the nature of his soul: to which degree and class it belongs; the relation existing between it and the superior world; the wanderings it has already accomplished; the means by which it can contribute to the establishment of the new moral system of the world; how it can be freed from demoniacal influences; and to which soul it should be united in order to become purified. This union can be effected by formulas of conjuration.

Influence on Ritua

Luria introduced his mystic system into religious observances. Every commandment had for him a mystic meaning. The Sabbath with all its ceremonies was looked upon as the embodiment of the Divinity in temporal life; and every ceremony performed on that day was considered to have an influence upon the superior world. Every word, every syllable, of the prescribed prayers contain hidden names of God upon which one should meditate devoutly while reciting. New mystic ceremonies were ordained and codified under the name of "Shulkhan Arukh shel Ari."

This tendency to substitute a mystic Judaism for rabbinical Judaism, against which Luria was warned by his teacher of Cabala, David ibn Abi Zimra, became still stronger after Luria's death. His disciples, who applied to him the epithets "Holy" and "Divine," sank further in mysticism and paved the way for the pseudo-Messiah Shabbethai Tzevi.

Influence on Modern Judaism

The teachings of the Ari have been almost universally accepted in Judaism.