Isaac ben Solomon Luria Biography


(History of the World: The Renaissance)

Article abstract: Luria was the culminating figure in the history of the Jewish mystical tradition known as Cabala, which, originating in southern France in the last quarter of the thirteenth century, reached its height in the sixteenth century. Luria’s revision of key Cabalist concepts and his theory of a dynamic creation—catastrophically altered by sin but capable of regeneration and final redemption—had a profound influence on subsequent Jewish thought, including Hasidism, and on messianic movements in both the Jewish and the Christian worlds.

Early Life

Isaac Luria, also known as ha-Ari (the acronym of the Ashkenazic Rabbi Isaac), was born in Jerusalem in 1534. His father was an Ashkenazi who had come from Germany or Poland, and his mother was of Sephardic stock. At his father’s death, his mother took him to Egypt, where he grew up in the household of his wealthy uncle, a tax collector. Details of his life are sparse; the principal source is the Toledot ha-Ari (life of the Ari), an account written fifteen or twenty years after his death in which fact and legend are freely mingled.

Luria was highly precocious, and his uncle provided him with able tutors, including David ibn Ali Zimrah and Betsal’al Ashkenazi. He collaborated with the latter in producing legal commentaries and wrote a study of the Book of Concealment section of the Zohar, the central text of the Cabalist tradition. In later life, he disdained to write, however, preferring personal teaching and communication with his disciples; his mature thought is known only through their accounts, particularly those of Chaim Vital (1543-1620), who claimed to have recorded his master’s thoughts verbatim.

Luria married at the age of fifteen and later went into commerce, in which he was engaged to the end of his life. At the age of seventeen, he began an intensive study of the Cabala, focusing on the Zohar and on the works of his elder contemporary, Moses Cordovero (1522-1570), the leading figure of the major Cabalist school at Safed in Palestine. In early 1570, he took up residence in Safed with his family and studied briefly with Cordovero himself, who was said to have appointed him his spiritual successor.

Life’s Work

At Cordovero’s death, Luria became the head of a group known as the Cubs (his own nickname of Ari meant “Holy Lion” in Hebrew), who formed a core of devoted disciples about him. They lived as a community, with quarters for themselves and their families. Luria lectured to them on the Sabbath, after they had donned ritual white garments and marched processionally into the neighboring fields. He also worked with them on an individual basis, imparting the techniques of mystical meditation and elucidating the spiritual ancestry of each in accordance with the Cabalist principle of transmigration.

The impact of Lurianic doctrine may be attributed not only to its intrinsic power as a revision of Cabalist tradition but also to the condition of Jewry in the aftermath of the Spanish expulsion of 1492 and the revived anti-Semitism of Reformation Europe. For Jews seeking a divine meaning in these calamities and thrown back anew upon the painful consciousness of their Galut, or exile, Luria’s thought had both explicative and consolatory appeal.

Traditional Cabalism described the creation of the universe as a wholly positive event, emanating from God’s benevolence and unfolding in orderly stages. Luria, in contrast, described this process as involving an act of privation, a contraction or concentration (tzimtzum) of the Godhead into itself to create a space outside itself (the tehiru, or void) in which the universe could be formed.

The divine light of creation was released into the void, but some of the forms or vessels (sefirot) created to receive it were overwhelmed by its force. This “breaking of the vessels” (the shevirah) caused a catastrophic scattering of light. The intact vessels constituted a perfected but incomplete upper realm, while the broken ones (including the highest, Adam Kadmon, or Primal Man, which consisted not only of Adam but of the souls of all of his progeny as well) produced a lower, fallen world, to which, however, many sparks of divine light still clung. The sin of Adam then produced further...

(The entire section is 1799 words.)