This Day In Jewish History

1572: Father of Lurian Kabbala and Confidant of Elijah Dies

Rabbi Isaac Luria thought evil had been created commensurately with everything else, but could be reversed by 'tikkun olam'.

Grave of Isaac Luria in Safed, Israel
Jonathan Stein/Wikimedia Commons

On July 25, 1572 (5 Av 5332), the mystic-scholar Rabbi Isaac Luria died, in Safed, in the Galilee. Although Luria himself left behind almost no writings of his own, he had followers – in particular Rabbi Hayyim Vital – who collected his teachings, and these served as the basis for the Lurianic school of Kabbala, which remains an influential mystical trend in Judaism.  

Isaac ben Shlomo Luria Ashkenazi was born in Jerusalem, in 1534. His father, Solomon Ashkenazi, is believed, as suggested by his name, to have come to Eretz Israel from either Germany or Poland. His mother, whose name is not known, was of Sephardi background, from the community of Jews expelled just decades before from Spain.

Prophet Elijah's first appearance

Much of what is known about Luria is derived from hagiographical texts about him, so it’s hard to point to established facts. Here are some of the stories.

Solomon, his father, according to tradition, was sitting in synagogue one day after prayers when he was visited by the Prophet Elijah. Elijah told him that his wife would give birth to a boy, and that the couple should name him “Yitzhak.” Elijah also informed Solomon that his son would help usher in the deliverance of the Jewish people, and told him not to circumcise the infant until he showed up.

Elijah meets the widow and brought her dead child (translated from German)
Hochschul- und Landesbibliothek Fulda/Wikimedia Commons

Isaac was still a child when his father died. His mother moved with the family to Cairo, where her brother, Mordechai Franses, lived.

Franses worked as a tax farmer, meaning collector, for the Ottoman governors of Egypt, and was a prominent member of the Cairo Jewish community. He arranged for Isaac to study under the city’s chief rabbi, David ibn Zimra, and for him to marry his own cousin – Franses’ daughter – when the boy reached age 15.

Wine and a worldly life, at least for a while

After the death of Ibn Zimra, Luria continued studying with the rabbi’s successor, Rabbi Bezalel Ashkenazi, with whom the young student collaborated on several written works. At the same time, Luria began working as a trader, evidence of which was found in documents in the Cairo Geniza, where we find that he dealt in cucumbers, pepper, leather and wine, among other things.

Although there is some evidence that even at the end of his life, when he was already in Safed, Luria continued to have a commercial career, it is generally believed that in about 1556, Luria turned away from the worldly life, and went into seclusion on the Nile island of Jazirat al-Rawda. There he spent the next six or seven years studying the Zohar, the key mystical 13th-century Aramaic text. He returned home each Shabbat, but even then he kept his speech to an absolute minimum.

Supposedly he did have frequent conversations with Elijah, however. It was the biblical prophet who supposedly told Luria, in 1569, that he should return to the Land of Israel.

There’s some evidence that Luria lived briefly in Jerusalem before moving, the following year, to Safed, the Galilee town that had recently become a magnet for mystical scholars. He apparently attached himself to a group of scholars who were led by Rabbi Moses Cordovero. When Cordovero died, in June 1570, Luria is believed to have taken his place.

Though he lived only another two years, Luria developed a following, and although its members were instructed not to spread his esoteric teachings beyond their circle, the volumes containing his collected wisdom inevitably were distributed in Europe, and are seen as influential in the development of the philosophy that guided the 17th-century movement of the false messiah Shabbetai Zevi.

Portrait of Shabbetai Zevi, an old engraving in the Joods Historisch Museum in Amsterdam.
Vassil/Wikimedia Commons

Luria taught that the Creation was accompanied by a disaster, called the breaking of the vessels, in which evil was released into the world. The goal of Lurianic Kabbala was to restore harmony to existence by the repair of the vessels – called “tikkun olam” – and Luria himself seems to have imagined himself as the Messiah who could accomplish this repair.

In fact, Isaac Luria died during an epidemic, on this day in 1572, at the age of 38.