Vital, Ḥayyim

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VITAL, AYYIM (15431620), noted Jewish mystic. ayyim Vital was born in Safad, the Galilean town north of Tiberias that was the site of an important renaissance of Jewish mystical activity in the sixteenth century. His teacher in rabbinic subjects was Mosheh Alshekh, who ordained him as a rabbi in 1590. In 1564 he became a student of Mosheh Cordovero, the most important teacher of Qabbalah (Jewish mysticism) in Safad before the arrival of Isaac Luria. When Luria came to Safad in 1570, Vital became his chief disciple, the role for which he is best known.

Following Luria's death two years later, Vital was one of several disciples who assembled a written version of the master's teachings, since Luria himself had recorded almost nothing on his own. Vital's corpus, the Shemonah sheʽarim (Eight gates), is the most detailed version and the main one in which Lurianic teachings were circulated widely from about the year 1660. During his lifetime Vital sought to guard Luria's teachings jealously and to assume authority as the sole legitimate interpreter of his master's ideas. Thus in 1575 he secured the pledge of twelve of Luria's former disciples to study Lurianic teachings only with him, as well as a promise not to reveal more of Luria's doctrines than Vital wished. Such tactics were rooted partly in Vital's conviction that he alone was capable of explaining Luria's work, as well as in personal rivalries among Luria's disciples. In any case, this study fellowship lasted only a short time, for in 1577 Vital moved to Jerusalem where he served as a teacher and head of a school. In later years he lived again in Safad and in Damascus, where he died in 1620.

Besides his work as a teacher of Lurianic ideas and practices, ayyim Vital composed a number of qabbalistic treatises on his own. He wrote a commentary to the Zohar, the classical text of thirteenth-century Qabbalah, based upon the teachings of Mosheh Cordovero, to which he subsequently added notes in accordance with Luria's ideas. An interesting and important treatise intended to appeal to a wide audience is Vital's Shaʽarei qedushah (The gates of holiness). This book presents Vital's cosmological and anthropological views, culminating in an account of the process by which an individual might achieve a state of prophetic illumination. An adept, according to Vital's four-part program, must repent for all sins, meticulously observe all religious obligations, practice acts of purification such as ritual baths and the wearing of clean clothes, and enter into a state of perfect silence and solitude. Following these preparatory exercises the soul begins an ascent to its personal source in the divine realm as the adept meditates upon the ten sefirot, the divine qualities of personality that characterize the qabbalistic system. Successful contemplation results in various experiences of mystical inspiration, including having a revelation of the prophet Elijah.

Vital also composed a diary, Sefer ha-ezyonot (Book of visions), which reveals his interest in all manner of magic and esoterica. Here Vital discloses his youthful enthusiasm for alchemy, which he later lamented, as well as his habit of visiting fortune-tellers and magicians in order to learn about the past history of his soul and promises for the future. Sefer ha-ezyonot also records his rich dream life, in which Vital communicates with various teachers and sages.


The biographical details of ayyim Vital's activities are found in Gershom Scholem's Kabbalah (Jerusalem, 1974), pp. 443448, and Scholem's Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (1941; reprint, New York, 1961), pp. 254ff. Vital's theory of prophetic illumination, as presented in his book The Gates of Holiness, is detailed in R. J. Zwi Werblowsky's Joseph Karo (London, 1962), pp. 65ff. An interesting technique of contemplation that Vital taught is examined in my article "Recitation of Mishnah as a Vehicle for Mystical Inspiration: A Contemplative Technique Taught by ayyim Vital," Revue des études juives 141 (JanuaryJune 1982): 183199. For a study of the religious climate in which Vital worked, see my book Safed Spirituality: Rules of Mystical Piety; The Beginning of Wisdom (New York, 1984).

New Sources

Bos, Gerrit. "Hayyim Vital's 'Practical Kabbalah and Alchemy': A 17th Century Book of Secrets." JJTP 4 (1994): 55112.

Faierstein, Morris Moshe. "Rêves et dissonance dans le 'Livre des visions' de Hayyim Vital." Cahiers du Judaïsme 13 (2003): 3240.

Wexelman, David M. The Jewish Concept of Reincarnation and Creation: Based on the Writings of Rabbi Chaim Vital. Northvale, N.J., 1999.

Lawrence Fine (1987)

Revised Bibliography