History of Kabbalah: ARI – the Foundation of Modern Kabbalah

The Ari was a landmark figure in the history of Kabbalah. He transformed the centuries-old Kabbalistic method so that Kabbalah was no longer a wisdom reserved for unique individuals with divine souls. The method he created was a preparation for the modern age, when masses of people would begin using the wisdom of Kabbalah for spiritual ascent.

The Ari was born as Isaac Luria Ashkenazi, in 16th century Jerusalem. He lived at the dawn of the technological era, when the Middle Ages were being rapidly replaced by the Renaissance, and the first sprouts of a new civilization began to emerge. But humanity was not undergoing just technological and cultural development. People also began to develop spiritually, to yearn for spiritual elevation and to discover the source of life. Precisely this new desire that emerged in humanity allowed the Ari to reshape the Kabbalistic method, in order to adapt it to the new spiritual desires of the masses.

Beginning with a very young age, he became interested in sacred texts and devoted all his time to studying Kabbalistic texts, such as the Holy Scriptures. Very quickly, he absorbed all the Kabbalistic knowledge that was attained before him and became a renowned spiritual teacher at the young age of 35.

The Ari headed a Kabbalistic school in a small town in Northern Israel called Tzefat. There, he expounded his spiritual attainment and the wisdom of Kabbalah, but he did not simply teach the things others before him had attained. He presented the Kabbalistic wisdom in a completely new way, and later generations would study the spiritual world using primarily his books.

But as fate would have it, he taught for just a year and a half before passing away at the age of 36. Of all his students, he felt that only one student had understood him enough to continue studying his spiritual teaching. This student was 28 year old Chaim Vital, and in the year and a half he had studied with the Ari, he wrote down everything he heard. When the Ari passed away, Chaim Vital was the only disciple allowed to continue and publicize the Ari’s work.

All the existing texts of the Ari’s Kabbalistic teaching are the notes Chaim Vital took during that year and a half. They comprise about 20 volumes, of which the most important text is The Tree of Life. This text examines the origin of all life and the essence of Creation or man. Most importantly, it talks about the general force of Nature that governs everything and brings everything into existence. The Ari called this force “Upper Light.” Here is an excerpt from the book The Tree of Life:

Behold that before the emanations were emanated and the creatures were created,
The Upper Simple Light had filled the whole existence.
And there was no vacancy, such as an empty atmosphere, a hollow, or a pit,
But all was filled with Simple, Boundless Light.
And there was no such part as head, or tail,
But everything was Simple, Smooth Light, balanced evenly and equally,
And it was called the Endless Light.

The Ari’s great achievement was that he renovated the entire Kabbalistic method that existed before him for thousands of years—the method of attaining the Upper Light. Before him, the method was intended only for special people whose souls already possessed unique spiritual qualities. After the Ari, the method could be used by the masses, by anyone who truly desires spiritual ascent, regardless of age, gender or nationality. Thanks to the Ari, anyone can now engage in the wisdom of Kabbalah, find out about the purpose of Creation, and attain a sensation of the Upper Light.

Moreover, the Ari paved the way for Kabbalah to become a modern science. He was the first Kabbalist to expound the wisdom about the spiritual world in a modern, scientific language. Before him, Kabbalists had stated the same knowledge in a mysterious, concealed language of legends, fantastical stories and the like. Their texts could be properly interpreted only by other Kabbalists, and remained hidden to the uninformed reader.

Thus, the Ari laid the foundations for modern Kabbalah, creating a method that responded to people’s new spiritual desires in his generation. The Kabbalistic method used in the world today by millions of people is also based on the Ari’s work, and his book The Tree of Life remains a fundamental textbook used by modern students of Kabbalah.