April 23, 1620, is the date on which Rabbi Chaim ben Joseph Vital died, according to the Julian calendar in use at the time (May 3, 1620, by the Gregorian calendar). Considered the most significant student of Rabbi Isaac "the Ari" Luria, creator of the school of Jewish mysticism known as Lurianic kabbalah, Vital and his writings ensured that the Ari's teachings were passed down to successive generations.
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Chaim Vital was born in Safed in 1543. His father was Rabbi Joseph Vital, a Torah scribe who was known for the tefillin he produced. The son studied the revealed Torah with Rabbi Moshe Alshech, and later kabbalah with Rabbi Moses ben Jacob Cordovero, an important thinker in the field. In 1569, Vital began writing a commentary on the essential kabbalistic text, the Zohar, based on the teachings of Cordovero. The following year, however, two important things happened that affected the direction of Vital’s life: Rabbi Cordovero died, and Isaac Luria arrived in Safed from Cairo.
The death of Cordovero left his circle of students bereft of a teacher, and it seems that Luria filled that hole. Vital himself was in Damascus at the time of Luria’s arrival in Safed, but he soon returned. Legend has it that Luria, acknowledged at the time as the greatest scholar of mysticism, also came to Safed specifically to work with Chaim Vital.
Vital’s conversion to the mystical school of Isaac Luria was not immediate. He wrote that his initiation came during a voyage on a boat across Lake Kinneret together with Rabbi Luria. “At a point opposite the arches of the Old Synagogue of Tiberias,” wrote Vital, “my teacher dipped a cup into the water and gave it to me to drink. He told me that now I would be able to grasp this wisdom [the teachings of kabbalah] for I had just drunk water from the Well of Miriam [which is buried in the lake]. From that time on I began to enter the depth of this wisdom.”
The two men had only 22 months to study together before Luria died, at the age of 38. The Ari had never committed any of his work to paper, and after his death, Vital began to redact what he and his fellow students remembered of his teachings. Everything that we know today about Luria comes to us from the voluminous records prepared by Vital.
In 1590, Vital received rabbinical ordination in Jerusalem from his former teacher Rabbi Alshech, who then had him appointed a rabbinical judge there. After several years in Jerusalem, he returned to Safed, before moving to Damascus in 1594. There he lectured on kabbalah, and it was there that he died in 1620.
During the period he was back in Safed, Vital was sick for an extended period. According to legend, it was during that time that his student Rabbi Yehoshua bin Nun bribed Vital's younger brother, Moshe, to borrow the collected writings of the Ari, as compiled by Vital. Moshe gave him 600 pages, and Yehoshua then employed 100 scribes to copy as much of the texts as they could in three days.
Later, after Chaim Vital’s death, his son Shmuel corrected and reorganized the manuscripts, preparing a finished version in 1660. His version comprised eight sections, which are known collectively as “Etz Hahayim” (“The Tree of Life”), also called “The Eight Gates.”
Another edition of Vital’s writings was prepared by several followers of his, Abraham Azulai and Yaakov Tzemach, who exhumed from his grave the manuscripts that Rabbi Vital had asked to have buried with him.
Among other works written by Rabbi Vital was “Sha’arei Kedushah” (“Gates of Holiness”), the only known textbook published on kabbalistic meditation in that period. Its fourth section, which explicitly details technique, has never been published, owing to the “dangerous” nature of its contents were they to reach the wrong hands.