Tag Archives: Mysticism

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.

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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.

Jew of the Week: Abraham

‘Abraham and the Three Angels’ by Gustav Doré

Avraham ben Terach (c. 1813 BCE-1638 BCE) was born in the Sumerian city of Ur (in modern-day Iraq). His father Terach was a wealthy idol merchant, and a minister to the king. According to legend, Abraham’s birth was predicted by the king’s soothsayers, who warned that it would be a bad sign for the monarch. Terach was thus ordered to eliminate the newborn, but couldn’t bring himself to do it, instead abandoning the child in a cave where he was protected and nurtured by an angel until Terach could safely bring him back home. By the age of 3, the young Abraham began to question the idolatrous and immoral society he was born into. Soon enough he had come to the conclusion that there must be one God, and man must strive to be righteous and draw closer to his Maker. By 52, Abraham had gained quite a following, and was a thorn in the side of both the king, and his own idolatrous father. He was put on trial and sentenced to death by fire. It was only at this point that God first revealed himself to Abraham, and miraculously saved him from the flames. Abraham went on to live in Haran (modern-day Syria), where he and his wife Sarah continued to spread the new faith, before permanently settling in the Holy Land. Abraham would become a wealthy and famous shepherd, as well as a popular astrologer, philosopher, and holy man. Rulers and sages from around the world would seek his council. He was undoubtedly most famous for his hospitality, constructing an entryway on each side of his house to make it easy for guests to find him, and providing free meals and lodging for all who were willing to listen to his message. Although naturally a pacifist, Abraham participated in his fair share of battles, including a regional war that engulfed nine different kingdoms, which he ultimately put an end to. It was with him that God first established an everlasting covenant, and promised that his descendants would be innumerable. This is the meaning of his name (“father of multitudes”) and indeed, today some two-thirds of the world’s population claim some form of descent from Abraham, whether biologically or spiritually. The place where he “elevated” his son Isaac would later become the site of the Temple in Jerusalem, the holiest point in Judaism. Abraham is considered the first Jew, and is often attributed with being history’s first monotheist. While there were other monotheists before him, Abraham was certainly the first to spread monotheism widely and combat idolatry head-on. It is said that he wrote a 400-chapter book debunking various idolatrous beliefs and proving that God is One. To him is also attributed the mystical Sefer Yetzirah, “Book of Formation”. He is Judaism’s first forefather, and the start of the chain that climaxed six generations later with Moses and the Israelites being saved from Egypt and receiving the Torah on Mt. Sinai. According to one tradition, Abraham was born and passed away on Rosh Hashanah.

Rosh Hashanah Begins Tonight! Wishing Everyone a Shana Tova u’Metuka!

Words of the Week

We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.
– Anonymous