Rabbi Chayim Vital ("Vital," from the Latin vita, life, has the same meaning as the Hebrew chayim) was born in the city of Safed in the Holy Land. His father Rabbi Joseph was a learned and pious man, who was a maker of tefillin; his tefillin were famous and sought after. Rabbi Joseph came to Safed from the province of Calabria, in Italy. (Calabria is known for its ethrogim, which grow there wild, and are known to be genuine, not having been crossed with other citrus fruits). Rabbi Joseph was therefore known as Calabrese, and his son Rabbi Chayim, who was born in Safed, also had this added name, and is known as Rabbi Chayim Vital Calabrese.

Rabbi Chayim Vital kept a diary, in which he related what happened to him from the day he was born, and even before, according to what he was told. He relates that before his father came to the Holy Land he was visited bv a holy man, whose name was Rabbi Chayim Ashkenazi ("Ashkenazi" meaning "The German," having come from Germany). This holy man told his father that he would settle in the Holy Land and would be blessed there with a son, who would be a great man. Two years after Rabbi Joseph settled in the Holy Land a son was indeed born to him, whom he named Chayim, after that saintly man.

The city of Safed was a center of learning in those days. There lived in Safed at that time the great Rabbi Joseph Karo, the author of the Shulchan Aruch, the great scholar and preacher Rabbi Moshe Alshich, the famous Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz, author of the Shabbath hymn Lechah Dodi, and last but not least, the great and saintly Kabbalist Rabbi Moshe Cordovero. These great men were the outstanding Talmudic scholars of their age, as well as the leading Kabbalists, who studied the Zohar and spread the teachings of the secrets of the Torah. Young Rabbi Chayim thus grew up in a holy atmosphere of learning and prayer. He was a disciple of Rabbi Moshe Alshich.

As Rabbi Chayim further tells us, a palm-reader foretold him when he was twelve years old that at the age of twenty four he would find himself at the crossroads: if he chose the wrong path, he would become the most wicked man on earth, but if he chose the right one, and continued along the path of the Torah and the Kabbala, he would become the greatest man of his generation. Other diviners, who had the power of foreseeing future events, also told him that he was an unusual person and warned him to take great care of himself.

Rabbi Chayim devoted his days and nights to his holy studies. At the age of twenty-three, quite late for those days, he married Hannah, the daughter of Rabbi Moshe Saadiah, and he continued his studies.

Several years later, in the year 5330 (1570), a great man came to Safed from Egypt, whose name was Rabbi Isaac Luria Ashkenazi. Though still a young man—Rabbi Isaac Luria was only 36 years old at that time—he was the greatest Kabbalist of the age, and none was greater after him. Rabbi Chayim became his devoted disciple. For nearly two years, right to his last day, Rabbi Isaac Luria taught Rabbi Chayim the great wisdom of the Kabbala and revealed many secrets to him.

After Rabbi Isaac Luria passed away, at the young age of thirty-eight years, Rabbi Chayim became the leader of the Kabbalists and continued to teach what he had learned from his great master. Rabbi Isaac Luria left no written books, but Rabbi Chayim had kept notes of all that he had learned from him. Rich men offered him large sums of money for permission to copy and publish these notes, but Rabbi Chayim refused all offers. However, when Rabbi Chayim became seriously ill and money was urgently needed, his brother Moshe copied a good part of the notes which he sold to a rich Kabbalist.

Despite the impression which one might get from his diary, which contains many wonderful things about himself as he had been told by his father and others, Rabbi Chayim was a very modest man. He did not consider his writings and notes worthy enough to be published, and be left word that they should be buried with him after his death. His last will was fulfilled, but his son Samuel and his disciples were very anxious to dig them up and bring them to light. They fasted and prayed for a revelation to permit them to do it. Finally, in a dream, Rabbi Chayim gave permission to recover his writings and publish them. As a result, a number of his books were published. Most important of his books is one entitled Shemone Perakim ("Eight Chapters") edited by his son, and Etz Chayim ("Tree of life"). Some of his other books are: Otzroth Chayim ("Treasures of Life"), Sefer ha-Gilgulim ("Book of Wanderings"), Sefer ha-Hezyonoth ("Book of Visions"), the last named being the "diary" which we mentioned earlier on. Rabbi Chayim Vital is also the author of Shaarei Kedushah ("Gates of Holiness") and other works.

Rabbi Chayim Vital's books are the main source of the Lurianic School of Kabbala, that is, the teachings of Rabbi Isaac Luria. The Etz Chayim is one of the classical books of this School of Kabbala, and to this day it is an unending source of knowledge and wisdom of the secrets of the Torah, of a better understanding of the Soul, of the purpose of life on this earth, of Divine Providence, etc. The book also contains many explanations and commmentaries on the Zohar.

The teachings of Rabbi Isaac Luria, for which we must thank Rabbi Chayim Vital, were the basis of the teachings of the great Baal-Shem-Tov, founder of Chassidism, which has brought a great spiritual revival in Jewish life to this very day.