July 6, 2009


From Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, “Meditation and Kabbalah” (Samuel Weiser or Jason Aronson editions), p. 206-208, based on biographical material found in Shivchey HaAri, Emek HaMelekh, and Toldot HaAri. Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572), also known as the “Ari” (meaning “lion,” but also an acronym for “Ashkenazi Rabbi Yitzchak”), was the foremost kabbalist of the sixteenth century, whose profound teachings forever transformed the Jewish mystical tradition.

Rabbi Isaac Luria’s Years of Seclusion

[The Ari's] father died while he was still a child. Because of poverty, he went to Egypt, where he lived with his wealthy uncle. His brilliance continued to shine in dialectic (pilpul) and logic.

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.

After he was married, he spent seven years meditating (hitboded) with his master, Rabbi Betzalel Ashkenazi [author of the classic Talmudic commentary, Shittah Mekubetzet]. He then meditated alone for six years.

He then added to this, meditating and reaching higher levels of 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.

The only time he would return home would be on the eve of the Sabbath, just before dark. But even at home, he would not speak to anyone, 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 (Hebrew).

He progressed in this manner and was worthy of Ruach HaKodesh (the holy spirit). At times, Elijah revealed himself and taught him the mysteries of the Torah.

He was also worthy for his soul to ascend every night, and 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 Akiba or Rabbi Eliezer the Great. On occasion he would also visit the academies of the ancient Prophets.

Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543-1620), his foremost disciple, attested (Introduction to the “Tree of Life”):

“[The Ari] was overflowing with Torah. He was thoroughly expert in the Bible, Mishnah, Talmud, Pilpul, Midrash, Agadah, Workings of Creation, and Workings of the Merkava (Divine Chariot). He was expert in the conversation of trees, the conversation of birds, and the speech of angels. He could read faces in the manner outlined in the Zohar. 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 the individual's mind. He knew future events, and was aware of everything happening here on earth, and what was decreed in heaven.

“He knew the mysteries of 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 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, whether those who had died recently, or those who had lived in ancient times. With these he studied the true mysteries. By a person's odor he was able to know all that he had done, an ability that the Zohar attributes to the ‘Holy Child.’ It was as if all these mysteries were lying in his bosom, ready to be used whenever he desired. He did not have to meditate 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, [the like of which] had not been seen on earth since the time of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.

“None of this was attained through the Practical Kabbalah, heaven forbid. There is a strong prohibition against using these arts. Instead, it came automatically, as a result of his piety and asceticism, after many years of study in both the ancient and newer Kabbalistic texts, He then increased his piety, asceticism, purity and holiness until he reached a level where Elijah [the Prophet] would constantly reveal himself to him, speaking to him ‘mouth to mouth,’ and teaching him these mysteries.

“This is the same thing that had happened to the Ra’avad [Rabbi Abraham ben David of Posqueres, 1120-1198], as [Rabbi Menachem] Recanti (1223-1290) states. Even though true prophecy no longer exists, Ruach HaKodesh is still here, manifest through Elijah. It is as the prophet Elijah taught his disciples, commenting on the verse, “Deborah was a prophetess” (Judges 4:4): “I call heaven and earth to bear witness, that any individual, man or woman, Jew or Gentile, freeman or slave, can have Ruach HaKodesh bestowed upon him. It all depends on his deeds.”