Although he is best known as the scribe and editor of the teachings of his master, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (the Arizal), Rabbi Chaim Vital was a prolific writer in his own right. According to one account, he began a kabbalistic commentary on the Torah at the astonishingly young age of 20 with a work that was later printed under the title Etz HaDaat Tov (Zolkov 5624 / 1864 CE). A second volume, containing commentaries on Proverbs, Job, Daniel and Chronicles was published in Jerusalem 5666 (1906 CE) from manuscripts found in the possession of the great kabbalist Rabbi Shalom Sharabi. In later editions his commentaries on Psalms and the Five Megillot were added to this work.
In the year 5329 (1569 CE), at the age of 26, Rabbi Chaim began writing a commentary on Zohar, the primary text of Kabbala, according to the approach of his first teacher of Kabbala, Rabbi Moshe Cordovero (Ramak). It was published in Rabbi Abraham Azulai’s Or HaChamah 5656-8 (1896-8 CE).
Rabbi Chaim is most famous for his voluminous codification of the teachings of the Arizal
Several legal responsa are extant; one of them is included in the responsa of Rabbi Yosef of Trani, and ten more are published in Rabbi Shmuel Vital’s Be’er Mayim Chaim. His commentaries on the Talmud are also extant and have been published at the end of each tractate of the El HaMekorot Talmud. Many of his sermons have been preserved in manuscript (Torat Chaim in the collection of Grand Rabbi Alter of Gur, #286 and elsewhere). His Sefer HaTechuna on astronomy was published in Jerusalem 5626 (1866 CE). He wrote Shaarei Kedusha, a manual of proper comport and character for aspiring mystics (Constantinople 5494 / 1734 CE). The fourth part, the most overtly kabbalistic, was published from manuscripts in Jerusalem 5748 (1988 CE). His Lev David was published in Leghorn 5549 (1789 CE). He authored several other manuscripts, unpublished, on a variety of subjects, including alchemy and practical Kabbala.
It is without doubt, however, that Rabbi Chaim is most famous for his voluminous codification of the teachings of the Arizal. The process of codification entailed a substantial number of revisions, refinements and reorganizations by Rabbi Chaim himself, producing several versions. Around 5347 (1587 CE), Rabbi Chaim was in Safed where he fell gravely ill. His brother, Moshe, allowed R. Joshua ben Nuun, a good friend of Rabbi Chaim, to borrow 600 pages of his manuscripts for a few days. The enterprising fellow hired 100 scribes and had them copy the manuscripts within three days. The copy was then further circulated among a select group of kabbalists. Understandably, these were filled with errors. Subsequently his son, Rabbi Shmuel Vital, edited and re-arranged these copies in eight sections, known as the Shemoneh She’arim. He began circulating them in manuscript form only from around the year 5420 (1660 CE). It was eventually printed in seven volumes in Jerusalem 5623-5658 (1863-98 CE) with the support of the kabbalists of the Bet-El Yeshiva. Many kabbalists are of the opinion that this version, known as the mehadura kamma (the first version) is the most reliable version of Rabbi Chaim’s writings.
The Shemoneh She’arim, also known collectively as Etz HaChaim (not to be confused with the book, Etz Chaim), are:
Before he died in 5380 (1620 CE) Rabbi Chaim ordered that all his manuscripts be buried with him.
Shaar HaHakdamot - on the emanation and creation of the worlds.
Shaar Mamarei Rashbi - a commentary on some passages in Zohar.
Shaar Mamarei Razal - a kabbalistic explanation of various Talmudic dicta.
Shaar HaPesukim - a commentary on the verses of Tanach.
Shaar HaKavanot divided into two parts. The first details matters pertaining to blessings and prayers; the second with matters pertaining to Shabbat and the Festivals (Venice 5384 / 1624 CE) (Not to be confused with Sefer HaKavanot, see below).
Shaar HaMitzvot - a kabbalistic explanation of the mitzvot.
Shaar Ruach HaKodesh - meditations, kabbalistic customs and yichudim-meditations.
Shaar HaGilgulim - explaining and describing the doctrine of transmigration and metempsychosis. (Not to be confused with Sefer HaGilgulim, see below).
Before he died in 5380 (1620 CE) Rabbi Chaim ordered that all his manuscripts be buried with him. Several years later, after asking his permission in a kabbalistic rite known as sh’eilat chalom, Rabbi Abraham Azulai and Rabbi Yaakov Tzemach, colleagues and disciples of Rabbi Chaim, extracted the writings from Rabbi Chaim’s grave and published them. This version is known as the mehadura batra (the later version).
Rabbi Meir Poppers, a disciple of Tzemach, combined both versions, as well as others that were found elsewhere (apparently in Hebron and Italy) in the final edition that was completed in 5413 (1653 CE). A recent study by Yosef Avivi, entitled Binyan Ariel (Jerusalem 5747 / 1987 CE) has attempted to sort through the plethora of editions that appeared in the first hundred years after the passing of Rabbi Chaim Vital.
In addition to the works mentioned above, there are several more of note:
Sefer HaKavanot, mystical customs and meditations on the prayers.
Dodi Yarad l’Gano, a poem printed in Shaarei Tzion (Amsterdam, 5431 / 1671 CE).
Sefer HaGilgulim, explaining and describing the doctrine of transmigration and metempsychosis (Frankfort on Maine 5444 / 1684 CE).
Nof Etz Chaim (Frankfort on Maine 5444 / 1684 CE).
Likutei Torah u’Taamei HaMitzvot, a kabbalistic analysis of the mitzvot(Zolkove 5535 / 1775 CE).
Otzrot Chaim, containing kabbalistic doctrines similar in content to Etz Chaim (Koritz 5543 / 1783).
Likutei Shas, a kabbalistic analysis of Talmudic statements (Livorno 5544 / 1794).
Arba Me’ot Shekel Kessef, an examination of various kabbalistic doctrines and ideas (Koritz 5543 / 1783 CE).
Olat Tamid, meditations on the prayers, 5610 (1850 CE).
Sefer HaChizyonot, a semi-autobiography explaining what he had heard from the Arizal regarding his soul and powers, and revelations that he had experienced during dreams (Jerusalem 5626 / 1866 CE. Earlier versions were incomplete).
Sources: Shem HaGedolim; Encyclopedia l’Gedolei Yisrael; Shenot Chaim (by Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Hillel); Binyan Ariel; Sefer Yad Eliyahu (Rabbi Eliyahu Slotki); Encyclopedia Judaica
For more information on the Life of Rabbi Chaim Vital, click here.
For Rabbi Chaim Vital on the nature of prophecy in modern times, click here.