Rabbi Chaim Vital was born and raised in Safed. After his Bar Mitzvah, he studied Torah under Rabbi Moshe Alshich. One day Rabbi Yosef Karo came to caution Rabbi Alsheich.

"Your student Chaim is a very remarkable young man. In the name of the Maggid, the heavenly teacher who comes to me, I request that you be exceptionally careful in supervising every stage of his development, particularly in Torah."

He soon turned to the mystical side of Torah and avidly studied the Zohar.

Rabbi Chaim quickly gained a deep understanding of Talmud and halacha, and eventually was ordained by Rabbi Alsheich. He soon turned to the mystical side of Torah and avidly studied the Zohar. In due course of time, he was initiated into the select circle of Rabbi Moshe Cordevero's disciples.

When he began studying with Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, the holy Ari, in 1570, his mentor set out a two-fold program for him to constantly follow. The first directive was to restrain himself at all times from any bad character traits. He should never get angry, depressed, haughty, or impatient, nor should he even discuss trite matters. Instead, he should maintain a low-keyed image of himself, filled with inner joy and fear of sin. The second directive was an order of learning, a detailed curriculum. Every day he should study Chumash, Mishna, Talmud and Kabbala, especially the Zohar.

Only by reciting the blessing with the proper kavana can one annul that adverse affect...

Rabbi Luria stressed that man's ability to ascend the spiritual ladder depends greatly on one's kavana, his intentions and focus. Besides the necessary kavana when fulfilling a commandment, the Ari cautioned his disciple to be very meticulous when reciting blessings on food. All foods, he explained, possess (in addition to a holy spark) adverse spiritual forces (kelipot) which 'desire' to create a negative affect on the eater. Only by reciting the blessing with the proper kavana can one annul that adverse affect, thus purifying one's body and cleansing one's thoughts.

Next, Rabbi Luria delineated a path of repentance for Rabbi Chaim to follow to correct sins he had committed earlier in is life. For instance, as an atonement for cursing his parents when he was a child, Rabbi Chaim was to fast for three consecutive days, meditating on certain holy names. The fast ended on Shavuot night.

"The whole night of Shavuot," wrote Rabbi Vital, "I studied Kabbala with Rabbi Luria. He informed me that I had succeeded in atoning for that sin."

Both the intensity of their learning and its tremendous quantity and complexity began to affect Rabbi Vital. He realized that he could not retain all of the vast wisdom his mentor was bestowing on him.

The situation worsened.

When Rabbi Chaim confided his concern to his mentor, Rabbi Luria simply told him not to worry. He has a plan.

Together they went to Tiberias and walked through the town until they came to the fishing dock by the bank of the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee). There they rented a small boat and rowed southward into the lake in the direction of the Tomb of Rabbi Meir Baal HaNess.

...the Ari slowed the boat and carefully scanned the water...

About halfway there, the Ari slowed the boat and carefully scanned the water, searching for a certain spot, using an ancient synagogue on the shoreline as a landmark. When he reached the exact spot for which he had been searching, which appeared to Rabbi Chaim no different from the rest of the lake, he lowered a flask and filled it with sea water.

"Drink this!" he ordered his disciple as he handed him the flask. "It is water from the well of Miriam from which our forefathers drank in the wilderness. They were called the Generation of Knowledge, and once you have partaken of this water, it will cure you and you shall forget nothing I teach you."

So it came to pass. From that day Rabbi Chaim Vital both comprehended the wisdom of the kabbalistic system of his mentor, and became its principal disseminator and redactor, in the form of the multi-volume Kitvey Ari-"Writings of the Ari," the authoritative writings of the holy Ari of blessed memory.

[Adapted by Yerachmiel Tilles from "Safed, The Mystical City" by Dovid Rossoff.]

Connection to Weekly ReadingMiriam's Well

Biographic notes:
Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543 - 30 Nisan 1620) Student of Rabbis Moshe Alsheich and Moshe Cordevero, but best known as the main disciple of Rabbi Yitzchak Luria and the authoritative redactor of his doctrines, as recorded in Etz Chaim ("Tree of Life"). Pri Etz Chaim ("Fruit of the Tree of Life"), and Shmoneh Sha'arim ("Eight Gates"). Author of several books of his own as well.
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Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (1534 - 5 Av 1572), Known as "the holy Ari," revolutionized the study of Kabbalah and its integration into mainstream Judaism during the two years he spent in Zefat before his death at 38.
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