Rabbi Yitzchak Luria Ashkenazi ben Shlomo, a.k.a. the Holy Ari z"l
Yahrtzeit: 5th of Av
Buried: the Old Cemetery of Tzfat

Rabbi Yitzchak Luria is commonly known as the Ari, an acronym standing for Elohi Rabbi Yitzchak, the G‑dly Rabbi Isaac. No other master or sage ever had this extra letter aleph, standing for Elohi [G‑dly], prefaced to his name. This was a sign of what his contemporaries thought of him. Later generations, fearful that this appellation might be misunderstood, said that this aleph stood for Ashkenazi, indicating that his family had originated in Germany, as indeed it had. But the original meaning is the correct one, and to this day among Kabbalists, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria is only referred to as Rabbenu HaAri, HaAri HaKadosh [the holy Ari] or Arizal [the Ari of blessed memory].

The teachings of the Ari were afforded the status of a Rishon [primary authority]. Every custom of the Ari was scrutinized, and many were accepted, even against previous practice. The Magen Avraham (Rabbi Avraham Gombiner, 1635-1683) takes the Ari's personal customs as legally binding precedents. In deciding disputes that had remained unresolved for centuries, he often cites the Ari's custom as the final authority.

The Wonders of the Ari

The Ari was born in purity in the Old City of Yerushalayim in 5294 (1534) in what is now the Old Yishuv Court Museum. It is said that the prophet Elijah himself was the sandak [the one who holds the child during the circumcision ceremony] at his circumcision.

Sefer HaKavanot U'Ma'aseh Nissim records the following story:

There was once a very great chasid in Eretz Yisrael, named Rabbi Shlomo Luria... One day he remained in the synagogue alone, studying, when the prophet Elijah appeared to him and said, "I have been sent to you by the Almighty to bring you tidings that your holy wife shall conceive and bear a child, and that you must call him Yitzchak. He shall begin to deliver Israel from the kelipot [husks, forces of evil]. Through him numerous souls will receive their tikun. He is also destined to reveal many hidden mysteries in the Torah and to expound on the Zohar. His fame will spread throughout the world. Take care therefore that you not circumcise him before I come to be the sandak." As he finished speaking, he disappeared.

Rabbi Shlomo Luria went home but did not reveal this secret to anyone, even to his wife. When the Ari was born, the house was filled with light, and on the eighth day they brought him to the synagogue to circumcise him. His father searched everywhere to see if Elijah had come as he promised, but he did not see him. Everyone was urging him to proceed, but he replied that not all the guests had arrived. An hour went by, but Elijah still did not come. Then he thought bitterly to himself: My sins must have prevented him from fulfilling his promise. But as he was crying, Elijah appeared and said, "Do not cry, servant of G‑d. Draw nigh unto the altar and offer your son as a pure sacrifice dedicated entirely to Heaven. Sit on my chair and I shall sit upon you." Whereupon, invisible to everyone present except Rabbi Shlomo, Elijah sat on him, received the child with both hands and held him during the entire circumcision. Neither the officiating rabbi nor those assembled saw anything but the father holding his baby. After the circumcision ceremony, he again promised Rabbi Shlomo that the child would bring great light to the entire world, and he disappeared.

Rabbi Shlomo passed away when the Ari was still a child. In 1541, unable to support the family, his mother decided to travel to Egypt, where they lived with her brother, Mordechai Frances, a wealthy tax agent. His brilliance continued to shine in pilpul [dialectic] and logic. His teachers were Rabbi David ben Zimra (Radbaz) and Rabbi Betzalel Ashkenazi, author of Shitah Mekubetzet. By the time he was fifteen, his expertise in Talmud had overwhelmed all the sages in Egypt.

At this time he married his uncle's daughter, and yet spent seven years in almost total hitbodedut [self-seclusion] with Rabbi Betzalel Ashkenazi. It was also around this time that a priceless copy of one volume of the Zohar came into his hands. With this Zohar, he secluded himself for another six years. He then added to this, secluding himself and reaching even higher levels of kedushah [holiness]. This he did for two years straight, in a house near the Nile. There he would remain alone, utterly isolated, not speaking to any human being. He would return home on the eve of the Sabbath day, just before dark. But even at home, he would not utter a word, even to his wife. When it was absolutely necessary for him to say something, he would say it in the least possible number of words, and then, he would speak only in the Holy Tongue.

He progressed in this manner until he merited a spirit of prophecy. At times, the prophet Elijah revealed himself and taught him the mysteries of the Torah. He was also privileged for his soul to ascend every night [into the heavenly realms]. Troops of angels would greet him to safeguard his way, bringing him to the heavenly academies. These angels would ask him which academy he chose to visit. Sometimes it would be that of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, and other times he would visit the academies of Rabbi Akiva or Rabbi Eliezer the Great. On occasion he would also visit the academies of the ancient prophets. In 1570, after he had attained an extremely exalted rung of holiness in Egypt, Elijah told him the time had come to ascend to Tzfat. There, he would meet Chayim Vital, the man to whom he was destined to transmit the keys to the ancient knowledge [Shiv'chey HaAri; Toldot HaAri].

The Arizal's teachings explained:

The Ari overflowed with Torah. He was thoroughly expert in all aspects of Written Torah and Oral Torah, Ma'aseh Bereshit and Ma'aseh Merkavah. He was expert in the language of trees, the language of birds, and the speech of angels. He could read faces in the manner outlined in the Zohar (2:74b). He could discern all that any individual had done, and could see what they would do in the future. He could read people's thoughts, often before the thought even entered their mind. He knew future events, was aware of everything happening here on earth, and what was decreed in heaven. He knew the mysteries of gilgul [reincarnation] - who had been born previously, and who was here for the first time. He could look at a person and tell him how he was connected to the Supernal Man, and how he was related to Adam. He could read wondrous things [about people] in the light of a candle or in the flame of a fire. With his eyes he gazed and was able to see the souls of the righteous, both those who had died recently and those who had lived in ancient times. With these he studied the true mysteries. By a person's scent he was able to know all that he had done, an ability that the Zohar attributes to the holy Yenuka [Child] (3:188a).

It was as if all these mysteries were lying in his bosom, waiting to be activated whenever he desired. He did not have to mitboded [seclude himself] to seek them out. All this we saw with our own eyes. These are not things that we heard from others. They were wondrous things that had not been seen on earth since the time of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. None of this was attained through magic or sorcery, heaven forbid. There is a strong prohibition against these arts. Instead, it came automatically, as a result of his saintliness and asceticism, after many years of study in both the ancient and the newer Kabbalistic texts.

He then increased his piety, asceticism, purity and holiness until he reached a level where Elijah would constantly reveal himself to him, speaking to him "mouth to mouth," teaching him these mysteries. This is what happened to Raavad, as Recanati states. Although complete prophecy no longer exists, a spirit of prophecy is still here, manifest via Elijah. It is as the prophet Elijah taught his students, commenting on the verse, "Devorah was a prophetess" (Shoftim 4:4): "I call heaven and earth to bear witness, that any individual, man or woman, Jew or Gentile, freeman or slave, can have a spirit of prophecy bestowed upon him. It all depends on his deeds" (Rabbi Chayim Vital, Introduction to Sha'ar HaHakdamot, printed at the beginning of all editions of Etz Chayim).