In 1492, the Jews were expelled from Spain. Some went West to discover the Americas, yet the bulk went East to Turkey, and it was in the beginning of the sixteenth century that a number of Jews settled in the Holy Land in the city of Safed.
For an eighty year period there was a renaissance of Jewish life and activity in this mystical city that was to change and shape the Jewish world.
The rabbi of the city was none other than the famous Rabbi Joseph Karo. After writing his monumental work called the Bet Yosef, in which he traces the source and origin of contemporary Jewish Law, he summarized all practical legalistics in his book the Code of Jewish Law (Shulchan Aruch).
The city’s mystics were no less famous. Rabbi Moses Cordevero, known as the Ramak, wrote a monumental Kabbalistic work called Pardes Rimonim. However, the most famous Kabbalist of the day was Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572), universally known as the Arizal, an acronym for “The G‑dly Rabbi Isaac of Blessed Memory.”
Though the Arizal only lived for 38 years, he possessed a phenomenal soul, and all secrets of the creation were open to him. It was only in the last two years of his life that he met his foremost disciple, Rabbi Chaim Vital. While the Arizal himself never wrote any books, however all his words were faithfully recorded by Rabbi Chaim Vittal and recorded in what we call Kitvei Ari, the “writings of the Arizal.”
The Zohar is difficult to decipher without extensive knowledge and guidance. The main relationship between the Kitvei Ari and the Zohar is that without the Arizal’s teachings the Zohar does not make much sense. One could study the Zohar, which is a very poetic text, but it is hard to detect any system or structure. Once one knows the Kitvei Ari, the knowledge of Zohar begins to unfold.
The main work of the Kitvei Ari is the Etz Chaim (Tree of Life). This work expounds the theoretical foundation of the Kabbalah. For one who has mastered the contents of this work, the rest is essentially revealed. Next, the Pri Etz Chaim (Fruit of the Tree of Life) and Shaar HaKavanot (Gate of Meditations) show one how to apply the various teachings of the Etz Chaim to all kinds of daily situations such as meditations for when one puts on tzitzit or tefillin, when one prays, or when one eats matzah.
It is at this point the works known as the Shemonah Shearim (Eight Gates) were produced. The first gate, Shaar HaHakdamot (Gate of Introductions), covers the same theoretical ground as the Etz Chaim. The second is Shaar Maamarei Rashbi, the “Gate of Zoharic Teachings”; the third is Shaar Maamarei Chazal, the “Gate of Talmudic Teachings”; the fourth is Shaar HaPesukim, the “Gate of Biblical Verses”; the fifth is Shaar HaMitzvot, the “Gate of the Commandments”; the sixth is Shaar HaKavanot, the “Gate of Meditations”; the seventh is Shaar Ruach HaKodesh, the “Gate of Divine Inspiration”; and the eighth is Shaar HaGilgulim, the “Gate of Reincarnations.” In many ways, the Shaar Ruach Hakodesh, which is a general recapitulation and describes how to use the Arizal’s system as a meditative discipline, is the key to the entire Kitvei Ari, because all the previous gates deal with theory while the Shaar Ruach Hakodesh teaches how to put this into practice.
It was the Arizal who formulated the Kabbalah into a comprehensive system. Today we refer to this system as Lurianic Kabbalah. Of great significance is that Rabbi Chaim Vital writes in the name of the Arizal that, “It is a Mitzvah to reveal this wisdom.” This means that although until the period of the Arizal, the Kabbalah was held only within a close circle, the time had come for the teachings of the Kabbalah to be taught widely. The Lurianic school of Kabbalah, which follows the teachings of the Arizal, and its disciples, revolutionized the Jewish world and popularized the study of Kabbalah.