Although Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (the Arizal) wrote relatively little himself, as mentioned in the "Works" section, his teachings were nevertheless systematically recorded by his disciples, primarily by Rabbi Chaim Vital. It is from these teachings that the startlingly innovative teachings of the Arizal have been given to posterity.

Following the era of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his disciples, a long line of distinguished kabbalists focused their teachings on one or more of the themes already found explicitly or implicitly in early texts such as Sefer Yetzira , Sefer HaBahir and Zohar and in the works of their immediate predecessors and contemporaries. They set out to clarify and compare these teachings, and ultimately to transmit them to a disciple or small group of select disciples. In this sense the work of the Kabbalists after the Tannaitic era (i.e., until the 4th or 5th century CE) was primarily classificatory, with very little by way of innovation.

The Arizal, however, was clearly an original thinker. Although he also set out to explain the most abstruse parts of the kabbalistic literature available at the time, particularly Zohar, his analysis of those texts and the innovations he subsequently taught his disciples were unparalleled and may therefore be regarded as an entirely new school of kabbalistic thought.

There are five areas of focus in the Arizal's teachings that may be regarded as the primary innovations of his system: the concept of tzimtzum (G‑d's self-contraction, so to speak) through its various stages; the process of shevirat hakeilim (the shattering of the vessels in the world of Tohu); the Tikkun (rectification) of that shevira through birur hanitzotzot (elevating the sparks); the concept of partzufim (literally, "visages" — compound structures of the sefirot in arrays that interact with each other); the nature of the soul, the purpose of its descent into this world, and its relationship with the higher realms and ultimately with G‑d.