Category Archives: Religious Leaders

Spiritual and Religious Greats of the Jewish People

Jew of the Week: the Arizal

The Arizal’s Grave in Tzfat

Itzchak ben Shlomo Luria (1534-1572) was born in Jerusalem to an Ashkenazi father and a Sephardi mother. His father passed away when he was still a child, forcing his mother to move back to Egypt. There, he was raised by his wealthy uncle and placed under the tutelage of Cairo’s greatest rabbis. He married at the age of 15, and continued his religious studies while also entering the business world. (Several business documents signed by his hand have been found in the famous Cairo Genizah, along with a few letters.) At 22, he was introduced to the study of Jewish mysticism and began learning the Zohar, the central text of Kabbalah. Some time later, he left his home and spent seven years meditating in a small cottage along the Nile River. Rabbi Luria would return home only on Shabbat, and spoke only in Hebrew, the holy tongue. During this time, he conceived of an entirely new system and interpretation of Kabbalah. Around 1569, he left Egypt for Tzfat, then the capital of Jewish mysticism, and home of the greatest Kabbalists of the time. Shortly after his arrival, the leader of the Tzfat Kabbalists, Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, passed away, and Rabbi Luria quickly filled the void. He was soon known as HaAri HaKodesh, “the Holy Lion”. Although he did not gain a very large following (focusing on a small group of astute disciples) and although he wrote very little himself, Rabbi Luria’s teachings would revolutionize Judaism. His students diligently recorded his teachings. His primary disciple, Rabbi Chaim Vital, together with his son Shmuel Vital, laid out the entire Lurianic system in a series of texts called the “Eight Gates”. These works describe the origins and anatomy of the cosmos as well as the dynamics of souls and spiritual forces. They provide deeper explanations for the narratives of the Torah and for the Jewish holidays, and are filled with gematria (Jewish numerology), kavvanot (meditations), and tikkunim(spiritual rectifications). Among the most famous of the treatises is Sha’ar HaGilgulim, “Gate of Reincarnations”, the standard Jewish textbook on transmigration of souls. Rabbi Luria’s teachings spread rapidly all over the world, and went on to completely transform Judaism. They would give rise to the Hasidic movement, while at the same time providing the fuel for the first sparks of Zionism. Rabbi Luria’s teachings were even translated into Latin and impacted Christian mysticism and the European Renaissance. His prayer style (Nusach haAri) became the standard for all Sephardic, Mizrachi, and Hasidic communities. His own life was mysteriously cut short at age 38, just two years after arriving in Tzfat. He has since become more commonly known as the Arizal, “the Lion of Blessed Memory”. He was scrupulously observant, avoiding consuming meat and dairy on the same day, and immersing in a mikveh regularly, even in the cold of winter. He studied and meditated to the point of sweating, well past midnight, and was up again before sunrise. He avoided harming anything, even the tiniest of flies. The Arizal was famous for being able to peer into people’s souls. It is said he could speak to angels, and understood the speech of animals and trees. His impact on Judaism, and the world at large, is immeasurable. The Arizal’s hillula (or yahrzeit) is on Tuesday.

10 Facts About Hebrew Every Jew Should Know

The Jewish View on Cards and Gambling

Words of the Week

It is incumbent for a person to take upon themselves each day the mitzvah of “love your fellow as yourself”.
– Rabbi Isaac Luria, the Arizal

The classic Kabbalistic “Tree of Life” (left) is often associated with the Arizal. Though he did not originate the diagram, his teachings explained it in an entirely new and profound way. The diagram at right was produced by Christian Knorr von Rosenroth, who translated some of the Arizal’s teachings together with passages from the Zohar into the Latin ‘Kabbalah Denudata’, once very popular in Christian Europe.

Jews of the Week: Rabbi Yehuda Bibas and Rabbi Yehuda Alkali

The Unbelievable True Story of the Real Founders of Zionism

Yehuda Aryeh Leon Bibas (1789-1852) was born in Gibralter to a long line of Sephardi rabbis. After his father’s untimely death, the young Bibas moved to Livorno to be raised by his grandfather. There, he studied both at the yeshiva and the university, becoming a rabbi and physician. He returned to Gibralter to head its yeshiva, attracting many students from across Europe and North Africa. In 1831, he was appointed chief rabbi of Corfu (a Greek island that had a large population in those days). Over the next decade, he understood the terrible predicament that Jews were in, and resolved that restoring an independent Jewish state in the Holy Land was the only solution. In 1839, he embarked on an international tour to encourage Jews all over the world to make aliyah. Some credit him with being the first prominent figure to do so in modern times. He was supported by the great Moses Montefiore, a wealthy Sephardic Jew who financed the first printing press and textile factory in the land of Israel, refurbished many of its Jewish holy sites, and established several Jewish agricultural colonies.

Rabbi Alkali

It was during Rabbi Bibas’ global tour that he met Rabbi Yehuda Alkali (1798-1878). Rabbi Alkali was born in Sarajevo and studied in Jerusalem under the tutelage of the holy city’s greatest Kabbalists. He went on to become the chief rabbi of Semlin, Serbia. Partly inspired by Serbia’s own nationalist movement, and further spurred by an 1840 blood libel against the Jews of Damascus, Rabbi Alkali was convinced that Jews must have a state of their own after meeting Rabbi Bibas. Rabbi Alkali established the Society of the Settlement of Eretz Yisrael and began a campaign to encourage Jews to settle in their ancestral home. Based on a famous prophecy in the Zohar, Rabbi Alkali proclaimed that the year 1840 would be the start of the process of Redemption, and that it would take one hundred years to accomplish. In an incredible prediction, he said that if Jews failed to take advantage of this spiritually-auspicious century, then by 1940 the Redemption would begin anyway, but in a much more difficult way, and only through “an outpouring of wrath will our dispersed be gathered”. History has eerily confirmed his prophecy. More amazing still, Rabbi Alkali published a book in 1857 titled Goral L’Adonai (“Lot for the Lord”) which clearly outlined the steps to re-establish a Jewish state in Israel. He presented one of the first copies of the book to his dear friend, and a member of his Semlin synagogue, named Simon Loeb Herzl. This happened to be the grandfather of Theodor Herzl, who would inherit the book. Scholars agree that Rabbi Alkali and his 1857 treatise played a major role in influencing Theodor Herzl, and thus the whole Zionist movement. In fact, it was Rabbi Alkali who first proposed restoring Hebrew as the primary spoken language of the Jews, who argued that the Holy Land should be legally purchased piece by piece, and that Jews must re-learn to become agriculturalists for the whole endeavour to work. (All three of these things would soon materialize.) Both Rabbi Bibas and Rabbi Alkali practiced what they preached and made aliyah to Israel. Rabbi Bibas first joined his disciples in Yaffo, then moved to Hebron and opened a library. He passed away shortly after, and is buried in Hebron’s Jewish Cemetery. Rabbi Alkali, meanwhile, founded a settlement near Jerusalem and lived there for the remainder of his life. He is buried in Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives Cemetery.

Did You Know These Famous People are Sephardic Jews?

Words of the Week

It was a city of wonders. Everything was written in Hebrew. People were speaking Hebrew. I thought, This is redemption. This is the city of the Messiah.
– Amnon Shamosh, Syrian-Israeli novelist, on first arriving to Tel-Aviv in 1937