Isaac ben Solomon Ashkenazi Luria

The Jewish mystic Isaac ben Solomon Ashkenazi Luria (1534-1572) founded a Cabala which profoundly influenced central European Judaism of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Isaac ben Solomon Ashkenazi Luria was born in Jerusalem. His parents were German, hence the title Ashkenazi (German) in his name. He was called Ari Haqodesh (The Holy Lion) or simply Ari (Lion) by his followers. After his father's death, he lived with an aunt in Cairo. After several years of rabbinic studies, at the age of 17 he found a Cabalistic manuscript and was fascinated by its contents. He retired from all his friends for 6 years to study Cabala and to concentrate especially on the Book of Zohar. After this period he retired to a hut on the Nile where he underwent further study and practiced extreme asceticism. In 1570 he returned to Palestine and settled at the Palestinian center of Cabala at Safed. He drew a large and enthusiastic group of followers and students. But he spent only a year and a half there; a plague broke out, and he died on Aug. 5, 1572, at the early age of 38.

Luria is best known as the founder of the Lurianic Cabala. He wrote only a commentary on certain parts of the Book of Zohar, but his doctrine became known through the works of his disciples, particularly Joseph in Tabal and Hayyim Vital, and through the letters of a certain Shlomel Dresnitz of Moravia, which were published under the title Shivhe Ha-Ari (The Praises of the Lion).

Luria had mystic experiences of visions and communications, and he expressed his thought in complex imagery. He taught three basic tenets. First, creation came about through tzimtum. Tzimtum was a withdrawal or retraction of God from Himself, thereby making existence outside Himself possible. Second, evil was created through shevirat ha-kelim (breaking of the vessels); once the divine spilled over into creation, some sparks of being fell into demonic spheres, and thereby evil was produced. Third, he preached the tikkun (restoration of God's unity). This restoration was to be effected by the life of holy men and their observance of the commandments. This doctrine of redemption of the world by men had never before been prominent in Jewish thought.

The teaching of the 15th-century Jewish mystic Joseph Alkastiel of Játiva, Spain, deeply impressed Luria. He also used themes and motifs drawn from earlier rabbinic sources. His genius, however, lay in the synthesis he made of traditional Jewish teaching with a mystical outlook.

Luria provided consolation for those who had lost loved ones or had misspent their lives. He did this by his doctrine of gilgul (transmigration of souls). For Luria this was not a mode of punishment but a chance to cleanse and perfect oneself. Lurianic teaching heightened the ethical value of each individual action because he taught that each action helped to redeem the world. His doctrines greatly influenced Jewish piety and ritual and provided the Hasidic movement of the 18th and 19th centuries with its main tenets.

Further Reading on Isaac ben Solomon Ashkenazi Luria

Studies of Luria are found in Solomon Schechter, Studies in Judaism: Second Series (1908), and Gershom G. Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (1941; 3d rev. ed. 1954).

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