Sacred Space: Isaac Luria and the Kabbalistic Renaissance

BORN to an Ashkenazi father and a Sephardic mother, on the site of what is now the Old Yishuv Court Museum in Jerusalem, Isaac Luria-Ashkenazi (1534-1572) was to become the most celebrated Kabbalist of the late-medieval period.

In order to understand the complexities of the world into which he was brought forth, however, it is necessary to take into consideration the fact that after the Expulsion hundreds of thousands of Jews now found themselves forcibly dispersed across mainland Europe and throughout the eastern Mediterranean. Many of them settled in Holland, Italy, Morocco, Tunisia, Jerusalem and the northern Palestinian city of Safed. This feeling of resentment, some of which the Jews had brought upon themselves, led to the development of a persecution complex and that, in turn, generated a vast wave of messianic fervour:

Prophets and visionaries appeared who predicted the imminent advent of the messianic age and the destruction of Israel’s enemies. During the Talmudic period and throughout the Middle Ages certain scholars and mystics had made claims of divine inspiration (ruah ha-kodesh), visits from the prophet Elijah, and other forms of contact with the divine realm.[1]

As far as the Turkish Sultan, Bazazid II or Bayezid-î Velî (1447-1512), was concerned, Ferdinand II of Spain’s loss was his gain and the Turks welcomed the arrival of tens of thousands of Sephardic Jews with open arms. Once they had settled in Istanbul (formerly Constantinople) and Salonica (or Thessalonica), both part of the Ottoman Empire, the Jews began to specialise in the production of textiles and armaments. This enabled the Turks to become a world power and certainly went some way towards the fact that, in 1683, they were able to reach the gates of Vienna.

Some years previously, in 1517, the Turks had managed to widen the southern borders of their Empire into Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and Palestine. The small Palestinian town of Safed, which later performed such an important role in the life of Isaac Luria, became an important commercial and cultural centre in the service of the Ottoman Empire itself. Around this time, there

were at least three hundred practising rabbis in Safed, eighteen rabbinical seminaries, and perhaps up to a hundred synagogues representing Jews from every country in the Mediterranean and Europe.[2]

Thanks to the remarkable tolerance of their accomodating Muslim hosts, this welcome atmosphere led to a remarkably productive time for Jewish spirituality and men such as Joseph ben Ephraim Karo (1488-1575), Moses ben Jacob Cordovero (1522-1570) and Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz (1500-1580) were at the forefront of a mini-revival of mystical Jewish theology, including the gradual popularisation of the Kabbalah and the codification of Jewish law. In 1520, Suleiman the Magnificent (1494-1566) came to the throne of the Ottoman Empire and the number of Jews based at the religious community of Safed – most of whom had found their way to the town by way of Fez (Morocco), Tlemcen (Tunisia), Salonica (Greece) and Istanbul (Turkey) – increased to around 30,000. The population grew in confidence, too, after Suleiman had constructed a wall around the town and arranged for a large garrison of Turkish soldiers to protect it. As a result, Safed became the most well-defended settlement both in Upper Galilee and most of the Middle East. Perle Epstein has described Safed as

a natural mystic’s retreat, the perfect landscape for cultivating Awe, an ethereal town that could just as well have been a tiny Tibetan enclave or the setting for an isolated monastery in the Himalayan foothills; a Jewish Shangri-La. And so it was, once.[3]

Isaac Luria, then based in Jerusalem, had been orphaned at the age of eight and brought up by his uncle, Mordechai Franses, a wealthy tax-farmer. The child was enrolled in the prestigious yeshiva of David ben Solomon ibn Abi Zimra (1479-1573), a learned Chief Rabbi who had authored no less than 3,000 responsa or halakhic (legal) decisions on Jewish law. Zimra also wrote the Magen David, a mystical text which sought to elaborate upon the meaning of the sacred aleph bet (Hebrew alphabet).

By the time he was fifteen, Luria – who still had two years of study remaining – had already become a brilliant young scholar and married his uncle’s daughter. Around the same time, he stumbled across the Sefer ha-Zohar that Moses de León had produced in Spain and was impressed with its discussion about the nature of God, the origins of the universe and the true meaning of redemption. In fact Luria first encountered the Sefer ha-Zohar after a chance meeting with a local trader, who had agreed to part with the mysterious volume in return for an assurance that the youth would persuade his uncle to waive the taxation of his goods. Luria agreed, became a recluse and devoted the next six years to an intense study of this esoteric volume:

His customs were mysterious. For six days of the week he would sit on the shores of the Nile in a nondescript hut. (Some sources have Luria spending his time on an islet in the Nile). He would study and meditate constantly, going beyond time, going beyond knowing when it was night or day. On the eve of the Sabbath, he would return to his wife to continue his mystical meditations in relationship rather than in solitude.[4]

After the six years had elapsed, Luria began to experience a series of dreams in which he was urged to leave Egypt and travel to Safed, where he would meet a young student called ‘Chaim’. The fact that he consequently met his most loyal and devoted servant in Hayyim ben Joseph Vital (1543-1620), seemed to represent a fulfilment of that prophecy. Viewed from a Jungian perspective, the meaning contained in this synchronicity was later to demonstrate that an event in the real world repeated or supplemented an inner experience. But more of that later. Needless to say, a deeply religious man like Isaac Luria was not prepared to take these messages from the subconscious lightly and, in the year 1570, shortly after visiting the Lag ba-Omer festival in Meron, he continued his journey east and settled in nearby Safed with his wife and two children.

For the first three months, Luria studied under the wise and fortuitous direction of the aforementioned Moses ben Jacob Cordovero, who had outlined a course of instruction for his Chaverim (‘Comrades’). This involved the application of the thirteen divine attributes:

1. Forebearance in the face of insult.

2. Patience in enduring evil.

3. Pardon, to the point of erasing the evil suffered.

4. Total identification with his neighbour.

5. Complete absence of anger, combined with appropriate action.

6. Mercy, to the point of recalling only the good qualities of his tormentor.

7. Eliminating all traces of vengefulness.

8. Forgetting suffering inflicted on himself by others and remembering the good.

9. Compassion for the suffering without judging them.

10. Truthfulness.

11. Mercy beyond the letter of the Law with the good.

12. Assisting the wicked to improve without judging them.

13. Remembering all human beings always in the innocence of their infancy.[5]

Cordovero – who, in order to provide readers with some idea of his theological reputation, is considered to be the Jewish equivalent of St. Thomas Aquinas – was highly schooled in the Sefer ha-Zohar to which Luria had devoted so much of his early life, as well as the Sefer Yetzirah. As we have seen, the opening section of the latter is divided into four parts and examines the sephirot, or ten enumerations of the Kabbalah through which the Ein Sof is revealed, whilst subsequent chapters discuss the letters of the alphabet in a meditative context, the three-fold division of the letters into ‘Mothers,’ ‘Simples’ and ‘elementals,’ as well as the astrological categories of ‘universe, soul and year’. The first commentaries on the text had been written in the Tenth Century, of course, but Cordovero was responsible for choosing the best manuscript from a selection of ten that were available to the Safed school in the mid-Sixteenth Century.

Not long after Luria’s arrival in Safed, however, Moses Cordovero died. As the rabbi’s shrouded body was being carried towards the cemetery, his young student had a vision in which he saw two bonfires following the procession along the route. This was interpreted by those present as an indication that Luria was the natural successor to Cordovero and his famous Kabbalistic school. At just thirty-six years of age, therefore, Luria began teaching in place of Cordovero and caused a light ripple of consternation when he abandoned his late master’s rationalistic approach to the Sefer ha-Zohar and began to advance the theory that the archetypes contained in de León’s much-revered text represented a dynamic system both in and of themselves.

Luria’s refreshingly original approach led to an important meeting with Hayyim ben Joseph Vital, the mysterious ‘Chaim’ that he had first encountered in his vivid dreams on the Nile. Despite the fact that he was nine years his junior, Hayyim Vital was an extremely precocious young man and something of an expert on the Kabbalah himself. Eliahu Klein takes up the story, explaining that

just out of curiosity Vital showed Luria a passage of the Zohar and asked him to explain it […] Luria responded in such a powerful way, revealing a new approach in understanding and presenting mysteries of Torah (sodei hatorah), that Vital was taken aback. He asked for an explanation of another piece of the Zohar, and Luria opened up and revealed secrets that Cordovero never realized. Another time Vital asked Rabbi Yitzchak Luria for answers and this time he was refused. For months Vital begged Luria to study with him, but it took Vital throwing himself at the feet of the master and begging with his entire soul to be Luria’s student. Then Luria accepted him.[6]

Writing in his diary, the Sefer ha-Hezyonoth, or ‘Book of Visions,’ Vital went on to recount how he first entered the world of Lurianic mysticism. The process itself, similar to various other initiatic transmissions that create a symbolic link between the individual and the Primordial, involved Vital being taken out to the centre of Lake Tiberias (Yam Ha Kineret) in a boat and drinking from a small water-vessel. As he retuned to the shore, Vital was informed that the sacred Well of Miriam – which had followed the Israelites through the desert on their way to the Holy Land – had disappeared when the prophetess herself had died, but that it could now be found in the centre of the Yam Ha Kineret. The story, which can be found in the Midrash, a collection of rabbinical literature designed to function as a more profound and in-depth exegesis of the Bible, was used to demonstrate to Vital that drinking from an established centre of Jewish tradition prepares the candidate for the absorption of new wisdom. Compared to certain other religions, the initiation contains very little in the way of hardship, but in terms of spiritual illumination it may be likened to the chains of transmission that one finds in the Sufi, Vedanta, Taoist, Masonic and High Pagan traditions.

By this time, Rabbi Isaac Luria had become known to his theological admirers as ‘the Ari,’ or Lion. The word itself is a Hebrew acronym for the ‘Godly Rabbi Yitzhak’ (ha-Elohi Rabbi Yitzhak) and often appears as both Rabbenu HaAri, HaAri HaKadosh (the holy Ari’) and Arizel (‘the Ari of blessed memory’). Those gathered around Luria – known to later generations as the ‘Lion Cubs’ – amounted to around thirty followers and included Israel Sarug (1590-1610), Josef ibn Tibul, Avraham Beruchim (1515-1593), Moshe Jonah, Yoseph Arzin and, by now the Ari’s official scribe, Hayyim Vital. Luria taught his students orally and, due to the fact that much of his unique and inimitable wisdom was centred around his own mystical experiences, he therefore left behind very little in the way of written material.

In 1571, Luria told Vital that he was able to ‘read’ souls and that he had first developed this supernatural ability in Egypt. According to Vital’s autobiography, the Sefer ha-Hezyonoth, completed between 1609 and 1612:

He told me that the essence of my Soul was on a higher plane than numerous very exalted angels and I would be able to ascend with my Soul, by means of my deeds, higher than the firmament of Aravot.[7]

Luria went on to inform Vital that his soul was in a constant state of transmigration and that he had lived previously as a number of different Jewish personalities. His teacher also explained that this process was due to Vital’s anima (Nefesh) and not to the aspects of his spirit (Ruah) or soul (Neshamah). In order to repair himself, Vital was told, he would have to familiarise himself with the Sefer ha-Zohar. He did far more than that, however, and became a great scholar in his own right. Morris M. Faierstein provides a useful insight into the work that has been passed down to us:

There are four independent versions of Luria’s writings. Vital’s version of Luria’s teachings was the most comprehensive. It became the “authoritative” version and was the most influential. In addition to his “Lurianic” writings, Vital also wrote many other works. They include a commentary on the Zohar written before he met Luria, sermons, a treatise on Alchemy, one on astronomy, and a commentary on the Talmud. Some have been published, while others remain in manuscript.[8]

Hayyim Vital compiled the Sefer ha-Hezyonoth, too, a work based on the life of Luria himself and which came from a long tradition of sixteenth-century diaries with a decidedly esoteric bent. Other works produced in that formative century included Solomon Molcho’s Hayyat Kaneh, Eleazer Azikri’s Milei de Shemaya, Joseph Caro’s Maggid Mesharim, the anonymous Sefer ha-Meshiv and, finally, Joseph Taitazak’s own spiritual diary.

Joseph Caro (1488-1575), who was also part of the mini-exodus from Spain to Palestine by way of Turkey, was especially important and his mystical speciality was ‘automatic speech’. In fact he

believed himself to be the recipient of a heavenly mentor. This phenomenon was not unknown among the kabbalists, who called the spirit which brought the revelation a maggid. Karo’s [sic] maggid revealed itself to him in order to impart kabbalistic mysteries and to instruct and rebuke him. He identified the maggid both with the soul of the Mishnah and and with the Shekhinah.[9]

Much of Lurianic Kabbalah deals with the unfolding of the Absolute, or Divine Essence (Ein Sof), into a primal space (tehiru). As we have seen, this the process of Creation that stems from the metaphorical Word of God mentioned in the first chapter of Genesis. As the Ein Sof descends into the ten sephirot that make up the Kabbalistic Tree, it accords with God’s own systematic method of reflection at every creative stage, down through the levels of reality and into each of the worlds. The sephira themselves, beginning at the top of the tree, are Keter (Crown), Hokhmah (Wisdom), Binah (Understanding), Chesed (Kindness), Gevurah (Severity), Tiferet (Beauty), Netzach (Eternity), Hod (Splendour), Yesod (Foundation) and Malkuth (Kingdom). Unlike the first nine sephira, however, this final emanation does not come from God but from Creation itself. Needless to say, it hardly seems appropriate to attribute to God directly the realm associated with both the feet and the anus. Each of the Sephira are united within the mystical position known as Da’at (Knowledge), although this does not appear on all representations of the Kabbalistic Tree. It has been said that the

drama of Creation is a religio-psychic odyssey nested in God’s very self: it begins with unity and connected harmony, nonmaterial fullness, total self-possession and inwardness and concludes with the ontological presentness of today: plurality, disunity, distraction in matter, and dispossessed selves in external worlds of exile.[10]

These negative aspects are represented by the realm that lies below the sephirot and which is known to house the Qliphoth (‘shells’). These demonic features exist in a purely external manner and are said to conceal holiness. In due course I shall examine the Qliphoth in more depth, but now that I have provided a broad overview of the creative processes as they relate to the Tree of Life, I will attempt to summarise the main principles of Lurianic Kabbalah.

Lawrence Fine has described the contribution of Isaac Luria as an elaborate cosmological myth, explaining that his work

certainly bears no resemblance to the brevity and elegant simplicity of the Biblical account of creation, and even in comparison to the far more complex cosmogonic myth of Spanish Kabbalah, Luria’s teachings are extraordinarily intricate. While we tend to think of a creation myth in terms of a single, coherent narrative that can be told as one does a simple story, Luria’s mythological teachings have not come down to us in this way. Instead, we discover a seemingly endless series of inordinately complex notions, presented in often fragmentary and conflicting versions by multiple authors and editors.[11]

The writings of Hayyim Vital, for example, which are extremely voluminous, often contradict one another and certain facts about Luria which appear in one source may be radically different (or perhaps absent) in another. One contemporary scholar, Ronit Meroz, has explained in her many Hebrew works on Luria that such discrepancies are simply the result of different stages in the evolution of his thought. In actual fact, Meroz – using a range of different criteria – identifies no less than five distinct levels of Lurianic thought.

Although the self-manifestation of God (theogony) and the first appearance of the universe (cosmogony) happened simultaneously, much of Luria’s early work addresses the nature of the cosmos in its primordial state. This analysis of the Divine in its original form essentially tells us that the cosmos itself was completely filled with the presence of God and that it was a form of limitless light. This, of course, is the Ein Sof, the undifferentiated light that has neither beginning nor end. The term itself was first used by Azriel ben Menahem (1160-1238), a Kabbalistic scholar from the small Catalan town of Girona. This undeveloped stage of luminous primordiality, however, the infinite no-thingness of the Ein Sof, was not to last.

A crucial aspect of Luria’s teaching relates to the concept of tsimtsum, meaning ‘contraction’ or ‘shrinkage’. The word denotes the withdrawal of God from the entirety of the cosmos and the need to become manifest within an actual space. This meant that the four spiritual worlds of Emanation, Creation, Formation and Actualisation were brought forth and the light was thus withdrawn from the centre of the universe, gravitating out towards the sides in an equidistant fashion and leaving behind a conceptual space or circular vacuum (tehiru) in which the creative process could take place. As a result, tsimtsum represents a strange and complex paradox in which God becomes simultaneously transcendent and immanent. A limitation, if you will, of the Creator’s own godliness, although this should not imply that His godliness was completely withdrawn because without it there would have been no creation of life at all. His presence, therefore, is partial. Interestingly, the idea of contraction can also be found in Yoga, where the energies of the sense-organs that have been dispersed throughout the world are gathered up and returned to a spiritual centre in the body:

In the Chinese yogic text called The Secret of the Golden Flower we are told that in order to create the flower, or subtle body, we must take the energies which normally flow outward into the world through the eye (i.e. the senses or general involvement with the world of the senses) and cause them to ‘flow backward’. This withdrawal of energies might be likened to the Ein-Sof’s contraction of Himself.[12]

Luria was not the only medieval figure to discuss the notion of tsimtsum and it was also taught much earlier by Rabbi Nahmanides in his Commentary on Sefer Yetsirah, as well as by Shem Tov ben Abraham ibn Gaon (1283-1330), his North African contemporary Shimon ben Lavi (1488-1588) and his Safed-based predecessor, Moses Cordovero. What is so particularly unique and distinctive about Luria’s interpretation of tsimtsum, on the other hand, is that by occupying the entire cosmos the Ein Sof left no room for anything remotely creative. A second Lurianic explanation for the Divine contraction, meanwhile, was the purging of Din. This latter is a mixture of good and evil, in which Judgement (ha-Dinim) was combined with Compassion (Rahamim). The former made up just a tiny percentage of the entire Ein Sof, but although Rahamim was in the ascendency the Divine Essence is said to have wanted to eradicate the final vestiges of ha-Dinim completely. Indeed, were

it not for the creation of the world, Ein-Sof would have continued to consist of an admixture of good and the roots of evil, a circumstance that “necessitated the mending of the world, to separate the holy from the profane.” To put this in starkly gendered terms, a masculine divinity sought to purify itself of the feminine quality of severity, or to put it more precisely, to transform these qualities so as to purify them.[13]

This meant that the Ein-Sof was able to gather up the more undesirable elements of Din and deposit them in one place, namely within the fresh void that had been created by tsimtsum. What remained was a small residue of Compassion (Rahamim) and a large percentage of Judgement (ha-Dinim). Although Compassion had been permitted to dominate prior to tsimtsum, the ratio had now been reversed. This led to the appearance of an unformed and amorphous mass (golem), which – despite being materialistic in nature – became manifest as the ‘four worlds’ that were originally designed to represent the various levels of spiritual creation. A small ray of light was transmitted back to the void by the Ein Sof and the shapeless golem was thus animated and charged with imparting creation to the ten lights of the sephirot which, prior to tsimtsum, had been in perfect harmony. This ray of luminance was a Gnostic figure known as Adam Kadmon and is symbolised by Yod, the tenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The eternal source of all manifestation, therefore, appears as a gigantic Heavenly Man, something that can also be found in several other ancient philosophies. According to W. E. Butler, the

anthropomorphic tendency has caused much trouble in the religious world. This is because the multitudes usually employ a subconscious mental mechanism known as “projection”. This means that we tend to give to an outer image the emotions and instinctive values which are in ourselves. This projection takes place in varying degrees, but very few people entirely escape its employment. This method, when it is employed in religious work, can give rise to some very queer ideas as to the nature of the Supreme Being.[14]

The light that emanated from the Primordial Adam’s ‘ears,’ ‘nose’ and ‘mouth’ was poured into the different vessels (kelim) that were originally intended to contain it:

The sefirotic light within these vessels, in turn, proceeded to penetrate the four worlds in a continuous dialectical process of descent and reascent. It conducted light into the four worlds, then departed, only to return once again in an ongoing pattern of egression and regression (ratso ve-shov), an image self-evidently sexual in nature. The worlds were thus suffused with divinity, animated by the light of the sephirot that flowed and ebbed through these ten vessels, like ocean waves that wash upon the shore and then retreat to the source from which they came in the first place.[15]

The three upper vessels of the Sephirot (Keter, Hokhmah and Binah) were able to contain the light fairly effectively, although Hokhmah and Binah fell to a lower cosmic position. Tragically, the seven lower vessels (Chesed, Gevurah, Tiferet, Netzach, Hod, Yesod and Malkuth) were broken during the process. Six were shattered completely, whilst the seventh, Malkuth, was left cracked. The divine light that was subsequently released by the damaged vessels returned to the Godhead, but a few of the divine sparks were caught in the fragments of the vessels themselves and fell into the vacuum. From these broken shards were formed the impure husks, or shells (Qliphoth), considered to be a source of evil from the ‘other side’ (Sitra Ahra) that effectively trapped human souls. According to Hayyim Vital’s Sefer Hagilgulim (‘Book of Reincarnations’):

Sometimes souls are strongly entrapped in the depth of the Shells [kelippot]. They are unable to free themselves from there until a certain person, who is from the same soul root, arrives and performs a good deed [mitzvah], which relates to what is necessary to rectify [tikkun] the defect in a particular soul.[16]

The concepts of Mitzvah and Tikkun will be explained in due course, but as far as the Qliphoth are concerned, they occupy a counter-domain in which Satan rules over an entirely separate hierarchy of demons and arch-demons. There are also elemental entities, which dwell below the lower face of Asiyyah, the last of the four worlds. This idea, that the world of nature is purely spiritual, is borrowed from the Neoplatonists. A seventeenth-century source, Kabbalah Denudata, produced in Latin by Christian Knorr von Rosenroth (1636-1689), claims that the Qliphoth are the result of an imbalance towards Gedulah (‘the Pillar of Mercy’) and that they have since been destroyed. In the Western tradition, which shall be discussed later, Israel Regardie (1907-1985) has suggested that the ten spheres of the Qliphothic tree are diametrically opposed to the sephirot of the Tree of Life. In Jungian psychology, this Qliphothic underworld represents the human subconscious. As Z’ev ben Shimon Halevi explains, in

a kellippotic or disordered situation, these sephirot, when unbalanced and without the control of the central column of consciousness, become demonic and thus we have the reverse side in the traditional study of demonology with its various names and terms for the disordered sephirot in Yezirah and the archdemons of a kellippotic world of Creation. Such a study reveals how the absence of consciousness can lead to individual and cosmic cataclysm, and as we observe in the history of the human race the demons of psychology can, and do periodically, rule the world.[17]

The ‘shells’ are also renowned for their immobility and stagnation. When people begin to have problems controlling their natural flow of energy, for example, and display either lethargy or over-activity, they are said to become less-than-human and this may account for some of the more demonic aspects of our history:

All Qliphothic phenomena signify the disturbance of the natural interplay of the Sephiroth. The lack of, or over-stimulus of the active or passive processes can create an imbalanced situation to a greater or lesser degree. Any permanent distortion in a Tree will generate a disastrous circumstance; on a large scale, global war, on the individual level, madness – indeed possession by devils.[18]

If one is consumed by these Qliphothic energies, the individual begins to lose control and is thus unable to act in accordance with reason. Mistakes are made and corruption begins to set in, leading to the eventual overthrow of the individual himself. The same process applies with regard to political regimes and dictatorships.

Within the Kabbalistic system, the cataclysmic disruption of the sephirot is known as the ‘breaking of the vessels’ (shevirat ha-kelim) and means that the containers below Binah have descended to the level of creation. The remnants of these ruptured vessels, the Qliphoth, managed to cling on to some of the divine light and this gave them a degree of vitality and strength. Luria believed that there were a total of 288 sparks of light, whilst he connects the number of broken vessels to the seven kings of Edom (Genesis, 36:31) who reigned prior to the arrival of the Israelites. The fact that all but one – King Hadad – of these Canaanite figures perished, matches the shattering of the six vessels and the damage that was caused to the seventh. The Sefer ha-Zohar had already raised the importance of the symbolism surrounding the Kings of Edom to the status of a potential world crisis as early as the Thirteenth Century. Nevertheless, however one views the esoteric significance of the shevirat ha-kelim it is clear that something completely disastrous and unforeseen had impacted upon the creative unfolding of the divine:

Here we have one of the quintessential images to emerge from Lurianic mysticism: particles of divine light have fallen into the material world, utterly alienated and estranged from their sublime and transcendent origin. These sparks of light instinctively long to be liberated and reunited with the divine source from which they originally flowed.[19]

The initial phase of the overall restoration process was designed to involve the issuing forth of a further emanation of light from Adam Kadmon. Not in the form of ten sephirot, as before, but as five major configurations known as partsufim (meaning ‘faces’ or ‘countenances’). This was a very complex method of reorganisation and the five partsufim were intended to bring a degree of strength and stability to the divine light that had been absent during the previous manifestation:

The first sephirah, Keter, was called Arikh Anpin (the long or patient face). The second and third sephirot, Hokhmah and Binah, became Abba (father) and Imma (mother). The next six sefirot – Hesed (lovingkindness), Din (stern judgement), Tipheret (splendour), Netzah (endurance), Hod (majesty) and Yesod (foundation) – were all incorporated into the Parzuf of Zeir Anpin (the short or impatient face). The last of the five Parzufim is Nukvah de Zeir (the feminine of Zeir), which represents the last sephirah, Malkhut or Skekinah, the feminine aspect of the Godhead.[20]

The various ‘faces’ have a specific meaning attached to them, too. Arikh Anpin represents the existence of will throughout all worlds; Abba is God the Father, or intuitive insight in a fully articulated form; Imma denotes God the Mother or Creation, intellectual power and emotion; Ze’ir Anpin is the light of grace and the leadership of divine attributes that both co-exists and remains independent from the Nukvah that we find in ourselves; and, finally, the Nukvah de Zeir itself means the root of all created beings which develop from Malkhut. Even more complex, perhaps, is the fact that within each of the ‘faces’ can be found the full structure of the ten sephirot and each individual sephira is attributed to a particular anatomical feature. Furthermore, each of the four worlds – Emanation, Creation, Formation and Actualisation – are endowed with a complete set of partsufim:

For instance, one can speak of Yesod of Ze’ir Anpin in the world of Atsilut (Emanation). This illustrates Luria’s penchant for exponentially multiplying the elements that comprise the structure of divinity. Significantly, the complete pattern of the divine is recapitulated in every one of its discrete manifestations, like mirrors set up in such a way that they endlessly reflect one another. The cosmos consists of a great chain of being, in which one can discern the whole structure of reality in any particular part of it.[21]

When compared to the system of creation as it is discussed in Lurianic Kabbalah, at least in the opinion of the present writer, Christianity seems fairly impoverished and insubstantial. However, it is not as though any of these Judaic attributes were discarded during the doctrinal reorganisation that took place at the fourth-century Council of Nicea, because Luria would not be around to formulate them for another 1,200 years. At the same time, of course, we should not discount the theory that he inherited many of these notions from the esoteric underground. They do, after all, contain the unmistakable hallmarks of Gnosticism and

the form in which Luria presented his ideas is strongly reminiscent of the Gnostic myths of antiquity. The similarity is, of course, unintentional; the fact is simply that the structure of his thoughts closely resembles that of the Gnostics.[22]

Other enduring Gnostic aspects include the dualistic trends that one also finds elsewhere in Babylonian and Persian beliefs such as Zoroastrianism Sixth Century BCE) and Manicheanism (Third Century CE).

Whilst the Primordial Adam lived within the divine inner consciousness (mohin) of the Elohim, the partsufim relate to Adam as the first fully-human person and he, in turn, represents a microcosmic reflection of the Primordial Adam that was involved in the initial process. This was intended to allow mankind to participate in the ongoing work of repair (Tikkun ha-Olam), but due to the concept of original sin this process was interrupted. Gershom Scholem explains:

The sin of the historical Adam repeats and re-enacts on the anthropological and psychological levels the havoc wrought by the breaking of the vessels on the ontological plane of the Primordial Adam.[23]

This led to the separation of two of the partsufim, namely Zeir Anpin and Nukvah de Zeir, leading to the lowest of the four worlds (Assiyah) and its ten sephirot – as well as the four lowest sephirot of Yetsirah – descending into the realm of the Qliphoth. As a result, the sparks in all human Souls made the same descent and mankind is now left with the task of restoring these fragments of light to their rightful place in the divine realm. Souls, too, are rather complex in their actual composition:

According to rabbinic science, each person contains 248 organs and 365 vessels. Each of these 613 organs and vessels corresponds to a “great” Soul. Each of these great souls can subdivide itself into a maximum of 600,000 Soul sparks. While 600,000 is the maximum number of sparks into which a Soul can divide itself, it can also divide into any intermediate number of sparks. Each of these sparks constitutes one human Soul. One can speak of families of Soul sparks that derive from the same one of the 613 great Souls.[24]

The Soul also has five distinct levels: Yechidah (the Soul’s oneness with the ultimate consciousness of the Divine), Chayyah (the Soul’s life-force within moral consciousness), Neshamah (the Soul’s intellect within sustained existence), Ruah (the Soul’s breath within the heart of love and emotions) and Nefesh (the Soul’s blood within the body in the world of living beings).

The reader should bear in mind, however, that whilst Luria’s cosmogony relates mainly to the non-material realms which were created long before our own material plane, the ongoing process of Tikkun ha-Olam is the restitution of everything to its original place in the universe, thus allowing the Creation to continue. Due to an interruption in the creative process, in other words, mankind must help to bring about the replenishment of the world in order that Creation – which is presently in a state of suspension – can recommence. According to one source, through

successive crises in the Godhead caused by imperfection inherent in the nature of Creation, all phenomena devolved to a continually emerging struggle between unity (transcendental inner self) and chaos in matter (corporeal beings).[25]

Tikkun ha-Olam therefore relates, not to abstract tenets of Judaic law, but directly to the social sphere and relies upon the actual intervention of humanity. The word ‘Tikkun’ is mentioned in an old Jewish prayer known as the Aleinu, which is recited three times a day. It was only in the medieval period, however, that the concept of Tikkun ha-Olam began to play a more important and significant role in the wider Kabbalistic sphere. By examining one’s active and contemplative state, Jews hope to recover the divine light that has been trapped and thus facilitate the lost unity of the Divine image (Skekhinah) with God. One may well question why mankind is to be held responsible for the dynamic processes which took place before the creation of Adam and Eve, but humans are said to have made the situation worse and are therefore obliged to help repair the damage. Adam’s transgression on the anthropological level was a replica of that which had occurred previously on the purely spiritual plane. Both Adam and Eve, meanwhile, were born as a result of the ‘marital relations’ that took place between Zeir Anpin and Nukvah de Zeir when they rose to become Abba (father) and Imma (mother) respectively.

One way of fulfilling the rigorous demands of Tikkun ha-Olam is achieved by observing a series of divine commandments known as mitzvot. A mitzvah, to use the singular term, is a moral deed arising from a sense of religious duty and comes directly from God. There are 613 mitzvot in the Torah, although a text called the Sefer ha-Chinuch (‘Book of Education’) identifies six particular mitzvot that must be observed on a daily basis:

1. To believe in God, and that he created all things.

2. Not to believe in anything else other than God.

3. To believe in God’s Oneness.

4. To fear God.

5. To love God.

6. Not to pursue the passions of your heart and stray after your eyes.[26]

Those who follow the principles of Lurianic Kabbalah adhere strongly to these important theological precepts and believe, in addition, that a man is required to do everything that is asked of him by the Torah unless it is completely beyond his control. Luria also prescribed a disciplined schedule for the study of the Torah itself, including recitations in both Hebrew and Aramaic.

A second method of Tikkun ha-Olam is based on forms of devotional prayer that must be carried out with strict intentionality (kavvanah):

As used in talmudic and midrashic literature, the term kavvanah relates to enacting a mitsvah with at least a minimal degree of awareness and conscious intention. Thus, to pray with kavvanah entails paying attention to one’s words, in contrast, say, to one who does so merely by rote.[27]

As those of us who have ever attempted to recite a daily prayer or ritual of some kind will know, irrespective of race or religion, this is by no means an easy task and the tendency of the mind to wander can be a regular hazard. Luria’s reasoning, on the other hand, is that a prayer can only be truly effective when it has some kind of genuine intellectual fortitude behind it and therefore meaningless repetition in the absence of a full and committed engagement will simply not suffice. The kavvanah, then, was a form of magical ritual designed to effect a positive change on the inner self.

Philosophically speaking, it could be argued that the shattering of the vessels suggests that the Creator is imperfect and that Jewish theology is thereby flawed. However, the reasoning behind this catastrophe is based on providing humans with free choice: If it became known to humanity that the Creator failed initially with cataclysmic mistakes and nevertheless recreated and re-established existence as it is, then all human beings can do the same with their lives. Destruction leads to reconstruction. Cynicism becomes optimism. Wrath is migrated into harmony.[28]

On July 15th, 1572, when he was just thirty-eight years of age, Isaac Luria – ‘the Ari’ – fell victim to a plague epidemic and died. Based on certain remarks made about Luria by his closest disciples, some Jewish scholars believe that he considered himself to be ‘the Messiah’ and that he was destined to die in the course of his mission. There is no real evidence to support this claim, but it is known that Luria was thought to be a reincarnation of first-century CE rabbi and Tannaitic scholar, Simeon bar Yochai Theologians have also claimed that Luria’s teachings were based on the traditions of the Ashkenazi Hasidim who, as we have seen, were active in the German Rhineland during the Twelfth and Thirteenth centuries. This is incorrect. Similarly, it is wrong to claim that Lurianic Kabbalah was merely a practical manifestation of theoretical or speculative Kabbalah. As Gershom Scholem contends, the

theoretical and practical aspects are blended in every Kabbalistic system, particularly in those followed by the scholars of Safed. Luria’s originality does not lie in his stress on the practical aspects of man’s adhesion to his Creator, or on the performance of good deeds, but in his pioneer conception of the theoretical aspect of Kabbalah.[29]

Luria, then, was at the forefront of a medieval renaissance that successfully re-energised the waning Jewish religion by introducing various spiritual elements that drew upon the rich fabric of existing tradition.

Curiously, in the wake of his death Lurianic Kabbalah lay dormant for almost two decades, until Hayyim Vital himself became ill whilst he was editing Luria’s surviving manuscripts. This prompted a group of leading Kabbalistic scholars to copy out six hundred pages of the documents concerned, something which led to the widespread dissemination of Luria’s work for the first time. Ten years later, his work had become the most prized and well-respected example of Kabbalistic mysticism in the entire Jewish Diaspora.

Lurianic Kabbalah later spawned a huge movement led by the enigmatic rabbi, Sabbatai Zevi (1626-76), although his claim to be the long-awaited Messiah – just like Jesus of Nazareth before him – almost destroyed the entire unity of the Jewish religion itself. Isaac Luria would certainly not have approved of Zevi, but this episode does show how popular his Kabbalistic ideas had become almost one century after his death.

Whilst in the Nineteenth Century there would be a huge backlash against Kabbalistic thought by the rapidly expanding Haskalah movement, which had been founded by Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786), its influence in Europe was substantially limited. This did not affect Oriental Jews, however, who, apart from those based in Yemen – where there was much sectarian discord – continued to use the theoretical and practical aspects of Lurianic Kabbalah regularly. Meanwhile, Luria continues to reflect

the deepest religious feelings of the Jews of that age. For them, Exile and Redemption were in the strictest sense great mystical symbols which point to something in the Divine Being. This new doctrine of God and the universe corresponds to the moral idea of humanity which it propagates: the ideal of the ascetic whose aim is the Messianic reformation, the extinction of the world’s blemish, the restitution of all thing in God – the man of spiritual action who through the Tikkun breaks the exile, the historical exile of the Community of Israel and the inner exile in which all creation groans.[30]

By managing to survive the tumultuous debates that often raged within the fragmented Judaic community, Isaac Luria’s legacy has found its way into the Twenty-First century. In the opinion of James David Dunn:

Not everyone is ready to concede the relevance of mystical traditions in the modern world. This requires personal detachment, objectivity, and a neutral stance – to the degree that they are possible. But when the spirit of God irupts into one’s soul, it is a wondrous occurrence that reason can neither contemplate nor hope to understand.[31]

Luria’s religious platitudes may not be to everyone’s tastes, even his fellow Jews, but through the application of comparative religion it is clear to see that his work contains elements which are inspired by a wider spiritual tradition.


1. Faierstein, Morris M. (Trans.); Jewish Mystical Autobiographies: Book of Visions and Book of Secrets (Paulist Press International, 1999), p.4.

2. Eliahu Klein; Kabbalah of Creation: The Mysticism of Isaac Luria, Founder of Modern Kabbalah (North Atlantic Books, 2005), p.xvii.

3. Perle Epstein; Kabbalah: The Way of the Jewish Mystic (Shambala, 2001), p.10.

4. Eliahu Klein; Kabbalah of Creation: The Mysticism of Isaac Luria, Founder of Modern Kabbalah, op.cit., p.xxii.

5. Moses ben Jacob Cordovero; “The Thirteen Divine Attributes,” quoted in Perle Epstein, Kabbalah: The Way of the Jewish Mystic, op.cit., p.13.

6. Eliahu Klein; Kabbalah of Creation: The Mysticism of Isaac Luria, Founder of Modern Kabbalah, op.cit., pp.xxiii-iv.

7. Morris M. Faierstein (Trans.); Jewish Mystical Autobiographies: Book of Visions and Book of Secrets, op.cit., p.156.

8. Ibid., p.10.

9. Jacobs, Louis; Jewish Mystical Testimonies, op.cit., p.98.

10. James David Dunn; Window of the Soul: The Kabbalah of Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572), Selections from Hayyim Vital (Red Wheel/Weiser, 2008), p.21.

11. Lawrence Fine; Physician of the Soul, Healer of the Cosmos: Isaac Luria and His Kabbalistic Fellowship (Stanford University Press, 2003), p.124.

12. Charles Poncé; Kabbalah: An Introduction and Illumination for the World Today (Quest Books, 1997), p.99.

13. Lawrence Fine; Physician of the Soul, Healer of the Cosmos: Isaac Luria and His Kabbalistic Fellowship, op.cit., pp.127-8.

14. W. E. Butler; Magic and the Qabalah (The Aquarian Press, 1981), p.90.

15. Lawrence Fine; Physician of the Soul, Healer of the Cosmos: Isaac Luria and His Kabbalistic Fellowship, op.cit., p.133.

16. Hayyim Vital; Sefer Hagilgulim 32, quoted in Unterman (Ed.), Alan; The Kabbalistic Tradition (Penguin Classics, 2008), p.284.

17. Z’ev Ben Shimon Halevi; Adam and the Kabbalistic Tree (Gateway Books, 1990), pp.313-4.

18. Z’ev Ben Shimon Halevi; Tree of Life: An Introduction to the Kabbalah (Gateway Books, 1997), p.79.

19. Lawrence Fine; Physician of the Soul, Healer of the Cosmos: Isaac Luria and His Kabbalistic Fellowship, op.cit., p.137.

20. Morris M. Faierstein [Trans.]; Jewish Mystical Autobiographies: Book of Visions and Book of Secrets, op.cit., pp.28-9.

21. Lawrence Fine; Physician of the Soul, Healer of the Cosmos: Isaac Luria and His Kabbalistic Fellowship, op.cit., p.139.

22. Gershom Scholem; Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, op.cit., p.260.

23. Gershom Scholem; Sabbatei Sevi: The Mystical Messiah, 1626-1677 (Princeton University Press, 1976), p.38.

24. Morris M. Faierstein (Trans.); Jewish Mystical Autobiographies: Book of Visions and Book of Secrets, op.cit., p.30.

25. James David Dunn; Window of the Soul: The Kabbalah of Rabbi Isaac Luria, op.cit., p.22.

26. Sefer ha-Chinuch, mitzvah 387.2.

27. Lawrence Fine; Physician of the Soul, Healer of the Cosmos: Isaac Luria and His Kabbalistic Fellowship, op.cit., p.220.

28. Eliahu Klein; Kabbalah of Creation: The Mysticism of Isaac Luria, Founder of Modern Kabbalah, op.cit., p.27.

29. Gershom Scholem; Kabbalah: A Definitive History of the Evolution, Ideas, Leading Figures and Extraordinary Influence of Jewish Mysticism, op.cit., p.427.

30. Gershom Scholem; Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, op.cit., p.286.

31. James David Dunn; Window of the Soul: The Kabbalah of Rabbi Isaac Luria, op.cit., p.12.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.