The Great Lion: The Life of Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, the Arizal

ari kabbalah redemption tzfat Jul 23, 2023

By Rabbi Amichai Cohen

Rabbi Yitzchak Luria Ashkenazi, known as the Arizal (meaning "the holy lion"), was a great Kabbalist in Safed during the era of the "golden age of Safed, over 450 years ago. 

The Ari was born in Jerusalem in the year 1534 to a Sephardic mother and a father from the Luria family, renowned in Ashkenaz and attributed to Rashi and of the lineage of King David.

At the age of eight, Rabbi Shlomo, his father, passed away, and his mother took him to Egypt, where he lived with his wealthy uncle, who also gave him his daughter in marriage.

In Egypt, Rabbi Yitzchak studied Torah from Rabbi David ben Zimra, a master in both revealed and hidden aspects of Torah, as well as Rabbi Betzalel Ashkenazi, the author of "Shitah Mekubetzet" on the Talmud. The Arizal also contributed to writing part of the "Shitah Mekubetzet."

At a young age the Arizal was a master in the revealed areas of the Torah. He is characterized by his student Rabbi Chaim Vital as "deeply knowledgeable and sharp in studying the Talmud and its commentaries." 

During those years, the Arizal secluded himself for days on the banks of the Nile, returning home only for Shabbat. It was there that he gained revelations of the secrets of the Torah.

At the age of twenty-one, he was exposed for the first time to the Zohar and began delving into it in solitude.

Coming to Safed- Tzfat

When he was 36 years old, Eliyahu HaNavi (Elijah the Prophet) instructed him to return to the Land of Israel and pass on the secrets of Kabbalah to a select group of disciples, led by Rabbi Chaim Vital.

The Arizal came to Tzfat shortly before the passing of Rabbi Moshe Cordovero- the Ramak. The Ramak codified the teachings of Kabbalah and before his passing, the Ramak revealed to his students that the one who would fill his place would see a pillar of fire following his funeral, and he further added that the person to come after him would "illuminate the eyes of the generation with the wisdom of Kabbalah." He mentioned that this person would be "a great man, a spark of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai." Only the Arizal witnessed the marvelous pillar of fire, and since then, his place has been recognized as the head of the Kabbalists of Safed.

The Arizal taught his teachings to a small number of students, explaining that this was his purpose in coming to the world.

The Arizal introduced a new approach to the hidden Torah and the understanding of the holy Zohar. He also delved into topics such as the rectification of souls, reincarnations, the intentions of prayers, and more.


His disciples were called "the lion cubs of the Arizal." Among his Kabbalistic disciples were Rabbi Chaim Vital, his closest student, Rabbi Moshe Alshich, Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz, Rabbi Yosef HaGiz, Rabbi Yosef Karo, Rabbi Eliyahu De Vidas, Rabbi Elisha Na'aldoi, Rabbi Moshe Bassola, and more.

Together, they went to Meron, the burial place of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his son Elazar, where they sat in the places where the students of Rabbi Shimon had sat and listened to the Idra Rabbah. The Arizal prostrated himself on the grave of Rabbi Shimon, uniting his soul with that of the Tanna, and Rabbi Shimon revealed to him the secrets he had learned in the heavenly yeshiva.


His teachings and writings collected by his students are known as "Writings of the Arizal." These writings, gathered in 18 volumes, form a vast source of knowledge for Kabbalah and the understanding of the Zohar. Among them are "Sha'ar HaHakdamot," "Sha'ar Ma'amarei Rashbi," "Sha'ar Ma'amarei Chazal," "Sha'ar HaPesukim," "Sha'ar HaMitzvot," "Sha'ar HaKavanot," "Sha'ar Ruach HaKodesh," "Sha'ar HaGilgulim," "Luach Roshai Teivot v'Kitzurim," "Hagahot u'Mara'eh Makomot," and more.

The Arizal also introduced a new way of praying based on specific intentions called "Kavanot of the Arizal." Even today, many Kabbalists pray regularly using the "Siddur HaArizal" and his intentions (in various versions including the Alter Rebbe's approach called Sidur Ha'ari).

In one of the introductions to the book "Etz Chaim," Rabbi Chaim Vital describes the Holy Ari as follows:

"No one could grasp this wisdom in its entirety like him, for he knew Mishnah, Talmud, Aggadot, and Midrashim in all their depth and levels of interpretation (PaRDeS). He delved into the mysteries of Creation, the chariot (Merkabah) visions, conversations with birds, date palms, trees, and plants, the secrets when a stone falls from a wall and when coals are kindled, and communications with angels.

He communicated with spirits from past incarnations - good and evil spirits. He could detect scents on clothing, just like the story of the child (the yenuka) in the Parsha of Devarim and mute birds. He brought a person's soul out of their body while they were still alive and spoke with them about all their needs and desires, then returned the soul to its body. He could see souls when they departed the body and at their entry to Gan Eden every Friday evening. He conversed with the souls of righteous individuals in the World to Come and they revealed to him the secrets of Torah.

He also knew the wisdom of physiognomy, the lines of the hands, and the interpretation of dreams' truthfulness, both those from old and new incarnations. He knew what a person thought and dreamt through observing their forehead and taught the interpretation of the root of their soul. He would read a person's thoughts on their forehead, their merits, and transgressions that they contemplated. He assigned each individual a unique rectification according to their special qualities or according to their root soul, which is connected to the root of Adam HaRishon.

He knew how many mistakes were made in various books and knew how to correct them. He could strike with sparks of fire. He was aware of all the debates among scholars. He was full of piety, humility, fear, love, and awe of God, fear of sin, and all good qualities and deeds were present in him.

He knew all of this at all times and moments. All these wisdoms were always within him as if they were in his embrace. His eyes could see without any impediment. All this he achieved through his great piety and asceticism after dedicating many days to studying old and new books in this wisdom. On top of that, he added more piety, asceticism, purity, and holiness. This led him to the level of Divine inspiration (Ruach HaKodesh), and Elijah the Prophet, would constantly reveal himself to him."

"Love Your Neighbor"

At the core of the Arizal's teachings is the path of love and devotion to the Divine, which he believed to be the quintessential essence of the Torah. The Ari, delving into the sacred texts and mystical teachings, revealed that the commandment to "love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18) is not merely a moral injunction to treat others with kindness and compassion. It is a profound spiritual principle that holds the key to unlocking the deepest mysteries of existence.

In the eyes of the Arizal, love was not a mere emotion or sentiment; it was a transformative force that could elevate the soul and bridge the gap between the human and the divine. By loving one's neighbor, one could transcend the barriers of ego and self-interest, expanding their consciousness to recognize the divine spark within every soul. This recognition of the divine essence in others was, in fact, an acknowledgment of the underlying unity of all existence, where each individual is interconnected in the tapestry of creation.

The Arizal's teachings on love went even further, encompassing the profound concept of loving God as well. For the Ari, love for the Divine was not separate from love for one's fellow human beings; rather, they were intimately connected. Loving God meant recognizing the divine presence within oneself and within others, thus fostering a harmonious relationship with all of creation.

By embracing the principle of "Ve'ahavta L're'akha Kamokha," the Arizal encouraged his disciples and followers to actively practice love and compassion in their daily lives. This practice went beyond mere acts of kindness; it was a spiritual discipline aimed at refining one's character and cultivating a heart that could love unconditionally. 

In fact the Arizal introduced "Loving your neighbor as yourself" before the morning prayer so that the effect of prayer and love will be felt for the entire day.

The Arizal revealed the location of many of the burial places of the Tannaim and Amoraim that had been lost over the years. Many of the well-known gravesites of the righteous we know today were revealed by him.


He attributed all his knowledge and accomplishments to the joy of performing a mitzvah. He emphasized the importance of joy in performing the commandments, stating that anyone who believes should rejoice.

The Arizal particularly warned against anger, considering it like idolatry. He explained that anger darkens the soul and causes it to lose the divine flow prepared for it. Therefore, he stressed the necessity of finding joy in every moment of a mitzvah.


The Arizal was deeply connected to the sanctity of Shabbat. On Friday, he would prepare himself for its arrival, going with his disciples to the fields to recite the piyut "Lecha Dodi" while dressed in four white garments. He meticulously arranged his table with great care and attention to detail, and he continued in this manner until the end of Shabbat, with profound respect for the holiness of the day and immense joy at every moment of Shabbat.

This practice was also observed on all the holidays, with attention to every detail, action, and word, giving profound meanings to all from his meticulous observance.

The Arizal passed away on the 5th of Av in the year 1572, at the age of 38. His tomb is a place of prayer and supplication for thousands of people who come to him from near and afar.

There is a tradition that those who immerse themselves in the "Mikveh of the Arizal" before his burial will not depart from this world without repentance.

The spreading of his teachings

Rabbi Chaim Vital believed that spreading the Torah of the Holy Ari is a stage in preparing the world for redemption, which will come through studying the inner essence of Torah with understanding and comprehension. Therefore, his name is hinted at in the verse speaking of redemption: "And the children of Israel will go out with an uplifted arm," which Onkelos translates as "And the children of Israel went forth with heads raised high." In the word "beresh" (heads), the initials of his name, Rabbi Yitzchak ben Shlomo, are hinted, as he is among those bringing the complete redemption.

It is also recounted that on one of the Friday evenings when the Ari went out with his disciples to welcome the Sabbath, he asked their opinion about traveling to Jerusalem for the Sabbath. This journey would take several hours. The disciples agreed to travel with their teacher to Jerusalem, but some wanted to go and ask permission from their wives before setting out. Upon hearing this, the Ari said that this showed a lack of willingness to bring the complete redemption because if they had all agreed to go together to Jerusalem, the Redeemer of righteousness would have come.

May his memory be a blessing for us!

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