Q. Some Jews say they follow the customs of the Arizal. Who was this?A. Arizal is the name popularly given to Rabbi Isaac ben Shlomo Luria, 1534-1572. Because his ancestry was German, Ashkenazi is often added to his name. Hence Ari is the initials of Ashkenazi Rabbi Yitzchak, though it could also be Eloki Rabbi Yitzchak, “the divine Rabbi Yitzchak” or, as a nickname, Ari meaning lion (of the kabbalists). Zal is the abbreviation for zichrono livrachah, “his memory be a blessing”.
One side of the Luria family settled in Poland, the other in Israel. Isaac Luria’s father was told by Elijah the prophet that his son would bring kabbalah to the world and save the Jewish people from suffering. Shlomo, the father, died when Isaac was a child and the family moved to Cairo where they had rich relatives. There Isaac was already writing rabbinic works as a young age; at 15 he married his patron’s daughter. Acquiring a copy of the Zohar, the handbook of the mystics, he spent long periods studying kabbalah in seclusion. Some years later he moved to Tz’fat (Safed) and took over kabbalistic leadership from Rabbi Moses Cordovero.
His disciples included Rabbi Chayyim Vital, who like Luria taught that to come close to the Divine Presence one has to love all human brings. Luria insisted on strict compliance with Torah ethics, including the prompt payment of workmen. There are several Sabbath z’mirot composed by him.
Luria died in 1572. He left little written work; his ideas flowed forth so freely that it was hard to systematise and record them. His disciples collected and embroidered the facts of his life and gathered and disseminated his kabbalistic teachings. In liturgy, Luria preferred the Sephardi tradition and enriched it with his mystical interpretations. His liturgical and other practices were adopted by the Chassidim and the Ashkenazi kabbalists.