The 16th century Kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac Ben Solomon Luria revolutionized the study of Jewish mysticism through Kabbalah. Luria, also known as Isaac Ashkenazi, attracted a large number of followers who gave him the title of "HaAri," The Lion, because of the initials of the phrase "haeloki Rabbi Yitzhak" – the divine Rabbi Yitzhak.
Luria was born in Jerusalem in 1534 to German parents. His father died when he was young, and Luria was brought up by his mother in the house of her brother, Mordecai Frances, a wealthy tax-farmer. In Egypt, Luria studied Jewish law and rabbinic literature under Rabbi David ben Solomon ibn Abi Zimra and Zimra's successor, Bezalel Ashkenazi. Luria's teachers considered him outstanding in non_mystical study and he collaborated with Ashkenazi on shitah mekubbetzet, a work on Jewish law based on Tractate Zevachim in the Talmud. In addition to study, Luria earned a living through commerce.
When Luria was 15 years old, he married his cousin. He spent approximately six years studying with Ashkenazi, then moved to Jazirat al-Rawda, a secluded island on the Nile that was owned by his father-in-law. He visited his family only on the Sabbath and the few words he spoke were always in Hebrew, directed solely to his wife. During this period, he concentrated his studies on the Zohar and the works of earlier Kabbalists. He was also particularly interested in his contemporary, Kabbalist Moses Cordovero. It was at this time that Luria wrote his commentary on the Sifra Di-Zenivta section of the Zohar. Luria believed that deceased teachers of the past spoke to him and that he had frequent interviews with Elijah the prophet.
In one of these "interviews," Luria believed that Elijah instructed him to move to the land of Israel, so, in 1569, he moved to Safed where he studied Kabbalah with Cordovero until Cordovero's death in 1570.
Luria originally won fame as a mystical poet. He later started teaching Kabbalah in an academy, and would occasionally speak in Ashkenazi synagogues. He was friendly with other Safed scholars, and formed a group of Kabbalists who met each Friday to confess their sins to each other. He revealed to his disciples the locations of graves of rabbis that he claimed to have discovered through spiritual revelations. He taught his students orally, teaching both theoretical Kabbalah and methods to communicate with the souls of tazddikim (righteous people). He felt that he could see people's sins by looking at their foreheads. On the Sabbath, he dressed in white and many followers considered him a saint. Some say he believed himself to be the Messiah, the son of Joseph.
Luria was known for his innovative ideas in understanding creation and various other metaphysical concepts. He created the idea of zimzum, the belief that God in a way "shrunk himself" to leave a void in which to create the world. He was conservative in interpreting Jewish law and believed that each commandment had a mystical meaning. He respected all strains of tradition and customs in Judaism and although he was of Ashkenazic descent, preferred Sephardic prayer liturgy. Lurianic Kabbalah refers often to Messianism and many say that his Messianic ideas paved the way for the false Messiah, Shabbetai Zvi.
Luria died in an epidemic in the summer of 1572 and was buried in Safed. His teachings were recorded by his disciples, particularly Rabbi Chaim Vital. Books on his work include: Ez Hayyim, Shulhan Aruch Shel R. Yizhak Luria, Orhot Zaddikim and Patora de Abba.
Sources: Encyclopedia Judaica. "Luria, Isaac Ben Solomon". Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, 1972; The Jewish Encylopedia. "Isaac ben Solomon Ashkenazi Luria." New York: Funk and Wagnalls Company, 1904; Encyclopedia of Geat Men in Israel. "Rabbi Yitzhak Luria Ashkenazi". Tel Aviv: Yavneh Publishing House, 1986.