Luria, Isaac

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LURIA, ISAAC (15341572), known also by the acronym ARiY (ha-Elohi Rabbi Yitsaq, "the godly Rabbi Isaac"); Jewish mystic. Isaac Luria was the preeminent qabbalist of Safad, a small town in the Galilee where a remarkable renaissance of Jewish mystical life took place in the sixteenth century. Not only did Luria's original mythological system and innovative ritual practices achieve great popularity in Safad itself; they also exerted profound influence upon virtually all subsequent Jewish mystical creativity. By the middle of the seventeenth century, Lurianic theology and ritual practices had permeated much of the Jewish world. It has been observed that Lurianism was the last premodern theological system to enjoy such widespread acceptance within Judaism.

Luria was born in Jerusalem, where his father had settled after migrating from Germany or Poland. Following his father's death his mother took him to Egypt, where he lived in the home of his uncle, a wealthy tax gatherer. In Egypt, Luria studied with two prominent rabbis, David ibn Abi Zimra and Betsalʾel Ashkenazi, and collaborated with the latter on legal works. During this period Luria apparently immersed himself in the study of the Zohar and other qabbalistic texts. In late 1569 or early 1570, Luria traveled to Safad and began studying with Mosheh Cordovero, the principal master of esoteric studies in this community. Luria quickly attracted a circle of students to himself that included ayyim Vital, his chief disciple, as well as Yosef ibn abūl and Mosheh Yonah.

It appears that Luria possessed the traits of a genuinely inspired and charismatic individual. He became known in Safad as an extraordinarily saintly person who had been privileged to experience personal revelations of qabbalistic knowledge from the Holy Spirit, the prophet Elijah, and departed rabbis. He was regarded as having knowledge of such esoteric arts as metoposcopy and physiognomy and the ability to understand the language of animals. He was able to diagnose the spiritual condition of his disciples and others and provided them with specific acts of atonement for restoring their souls to a state of purity.

To his formal disciples, who numbered about thirty-five, Luria imparted esoteric wisdom, vouchsafing to each one mystical knowledge pertinent to his particular soul, such as its ancestry and the transmigrations through which it had gone. He also gave his disciples detailed instructions on the meditative techniques by which they could raise their souls up to the divine realm, commune with the souls of departed rabbis, and achieve revelatory experiences of their own.

Luria developed an intricate mystical mythology that served to explain, on a cosmic level, the meaning of the exile of the Jewish people, which was felt especially strongly after their expulsion from Spain in 1492. The three elements of this myth correspond to three dramatic events within the life of God. In an attempt to explicate how the world could come into being if God originally filled all space, Luria taught that God had withdrawn into himself, so to speak, thereby creating an "empty space." This divine act of self-withdrawal, known in Hebrew as tsimtsum, made possible the existence of something other than God. The second part of the cosmic process, called the "breaking of the vessels" (shevirat ha-kelim), concerns the emanation or reemergence of divinity back into the primordial space produced by tsimtsum. During this process of emanation, some of the "vessels" containing the light of God were shattered. While most of the light succeeded in reascending to its divine source, the remainder fell and became attached to the now-broken "vessels" below. The result of this chaotic and catastrophic dispersal of divine light was the imprisonment of holy sparks in the lower world, the realm of material reality.

Since these sparks of divine light seek to be liberated and returned to their source, the human task, according to Isaac Luria, is to bring about such liberation through proper devotional means. Known as tiqqun, the "mending" or "restitution" of the life of God, this effort is, at its core, a contemplative one. Every religious action requires contemplative concentration in order to "raise up the fallen sparks." The successful struggle on the part of the community will result in the final separation of holiness from materiality, and a return of all divine light to the state of primordial unity that preceded the creation of the world. Lurianic mysticism exercised great influence and had enduring appeal long after Safad itself ceased to be a prominent center of Jewish life. It gave mythic expression to the notion that collective religious action could transform the course of history to redeem both the people of Israel and God.

See Also



A general introduction to the teachings of Isaac Luria is found in Gershom Scholem's Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (1941; reprint, New York, 1961), as well as in Scholem's Kabbalah (New York, 1974), especially pp. 128144. An important study of Lurianic rituals is Scholem's essay "Tradition and New Creation in the Ritual of the Kabbalists," in his book On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism (New York, 1965). Those able to read Hebrew will want to consult a lucid study of Lurianic ideas by Isaiah Tishby, Torat ha-raʿ ve-ha-qelippah be-qabbalat ha-Ariy (Jerusalem, 1942). Special customs and rituals practiced by Isaac Luria are found in my study Safed Spirituality: Rules of Mystical Piety; The Beginning of Wisdom (New York, 1984), and for the techniques he taught, see my articles "Maggidic Revelation in the Teachings of Isaac Luria," in Mystics, Philosophers, and Politicians: Essays in Jewish Intellectual History in Honor of Alexander Altmann, edited by Jehuda Reinharz and David Swetschinski (Durham, N.C., 1982), and "The Contemplative Practice of Yiudim in Lurianic Kabbalah," in History of Jewish Spirituality, edited by Arthur Green (New York, 1986).

New Sources

Fine, Lawrence. Physician of the Soul, Healer of the Cosmos: Isaac Luria and His Kabbalistic Fellowship. Stanford Studies in Jewish History and Culture. Stanford, Calif., 2003.

Magid, Shaul. "From Theosophy to Midrash: Lurianic Exegesis and the Garden of Eden." AJS Review 22 (1997): 3775.

Wineman, Aryeh. "The Dialectic of 'Tikkun' in the Legends of the Ari." Prooftexts 5 (1985): 3344.

Lawrence Fine (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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