Lurianic Kabbalah takes its name from Isaac Luria (1534–1572), one of the great sages of Kabbalah. Lurianic Kabbalah is considered modern Kabbalah, or Kabbalah as it was practiced from the sixteenth century to the present. Luria, who was born in Jerusalem, moved to the kabbalistic community of Safed on the Sea of Galilee to study with the great teacher Moses Cordovero, one of the leading minds of Kabbalah at the time. Though Luria lived in Safed for only three to four years, he became the foremost teacher of Kabbalah after Cordovero’s death. Luria soon also gained acclaim for his mystical powers. He claimed to be able to read his students’ souls and commune with the dead. His disciples called him “the holy Ari” (Ari means “lion”).
Since Luria wrote very little down, most of what we know of Lurianic Kabbalah comes from the writings of his students, who transcribed Luria’s teachings before he died in 1572. Luria reimagined the creation of the world, most notably the structure of the sefirot, and explained some of the most profound mysteries of the Zohar. Luria was strictly opposed to magic. Luria believed magic could disrupt the complex order of the universe that he imagined and that Ein Sof established. Below are some of his more important and enduring revelations.
Luria’s explanation of creation is among the most intricate in all of Kabbalah. Luria taught his students that Ein Sof created the world in order to understand itself better. Because it was infinite, Ein Sof was also formless and without purpose—it existed as pure energy. Ein Sof therefore resolved to create something with both form and purpose—human beings. Luria theorized that because Ein Sof’s energy had filled up the entire universe previous to the creation of human beings, Ein Sof’s first action had to be tsimtsum, which means “withdrawal.” In order to make room for creation, Ein Sof had to first create a void inside itself, a space in which to make yesh (something) from ayin (nothing).
Ein Sof’s yesh was Adam Kadmon, or “Primordial Adam.” Adam Kadmon served as a mystical template for the human race—he was entirely different from Adam of Adam and Eve. Luria described Adam’s creation as the birth of the sefirot and the letters of the Hebrew alphabet: the lights that flashed from the eyes and mouth of Adam Kadmon were the ten sefirot and the twenty-two holy letters. Though they would become the foundation for all of creation, the sefirot and the holy letters began as simply light and energy.
Kabbalah teaches it followers to look very closely, to examine every text and experience with exacting precision. Luria’s genius lay in his ability to apply this principle to the main events in kabbalistic history, especially creation. The merkavah mystics and bereshit scholars who preceded Luria never considered what came before the first day of creation. The Zohar speculated that Ein Sof created sparks and lights before creation, but that information didn’t satisfy Luria—he wanted to know why Ein Sof created the universe. Luria’s best guess, and his most important contribution to Kabbalah, was that Ein Sof created the material world to better understand itself, to give its pure energy a form and purpose. The creation of the human race became Ein Sof’s crowning achievement, as only through men and women could Ein Sof truly understand its power and its role in the universe.
At the dawn of creation, Adam Kadmon, like Ein Sof, arose as formless energy. Adam served as the blueprint for the human soul, but like everything in the universe, he remained a part of Ein Sof. Because human beings arose in Adam Kadmon’s image, Luria theorized that human beings also contained Ein Sof. To this day, kabbalists believe that every human being has the power to impact Ein Sof, to determine God’s place in the world.
As Ein Sof attempted to fill the vessel it had created with its light, catastrophe struck, and the vessel shattered. Shevirat ha-kelim is the name for the breaking of the vessel. The breaking of the vessel destroyed the ordered universe that Ein Sof had begun to create. Tiny pieces of the vessel, like shards of glass, scattered and brought chaos to the universe. The masculine and feminine aspects of Ein Sof divided. Even Adam Kadmon split into parts.
When the shards of the vessel began to fall, they brought with them sparks of Ein Sof’s light, called netzutzot. Together, the shards and the sparks fell into what would become material reality, or the human world. In place of a harmonious world made from the perfectly balanced ten sefirot, human beings entered a broken world filled with scattered sparks of divine light, which came to be called klippot, meaning “husks.” Lurianic Kabbalah requires every human being to liberate the sparks of light from these husks through righteous study of Kabbalah. Only when all the sparks are freed will Ein Sof become whole again, ushering in the perfect world that Ein Sof designed at the moment of creation.
Luria’s theory of creation presents a bold revision of the traditional concept of divinity. Most religions portray God as omnipotent, a force that guides the actions of all human beings and depends on nothing but itself. Ein Sof is a dependent God, not an all-knowing God. It’s a God that needs human beings in order to understand its scope and purpose, and also to restore it to wholeness. Luria’s idea has inspired kabbalists to speak of God becoming, not being. As the world develops, sparks are liberated, people are born, and Ein Sof evolves to become more and more true to itself. The God of Kabbalah is not a static, unchanging force with one aspect or face, but an ever-evolving source of energy that thrives on the actions of human beings.
Many religions describe the creation of the world as an act of God’s love, but Luria viewed it as a sign of God’s self-sacrifice. The Bible’s account of creation makes it sound like a harmonious simple affair: God simply spoke, creating light and life. But Luria describes creation as a disaster, a catastrophic descent into chaos. The world and human beings form not according to God’s perfect plan, but as a result of destruction—the fragments of Adam Kadmon and the ruin of Ein Sof’s perfect plan. Yet because human beings can liberate the sparks from the material world and help to restore God, the universe becomes filled with good deeds and the hope for redemption.
Every human being must liberate the sparks of divine light from the klippot. Luria described the klippot as shells in which the light is trapped, existing everywhere. Not all of the light trapped within klippot can be freed, nor should it be. Luria believed some klippot are like demons, incapable of being redeemed.
Among the most famous of all klippot is a female demon named Lilith. Lilith was initially associated with female vengeance: she attacked newborn infants and pregnant women and tried to kill mothers in labor. Kabbalah followers now believe that Lilith was Adam’s first wife, the predecessor of Eve. The Bible says Eve arose from Adam’s rib, but Lilith was supposed to have been created from earth, just like Adam. Since Lilith had the same origin as Adam, she considered herself his equal and refused to be subservient to him, especially when it came to sex. Adam and Lilith fought, and three angels chased Lilith from the Garden of Eden. Eve was then created in Lilith’s place, this time from one of Adam’s ribs, so she would know she was not equal. Lilith herself became a klippa (the singular form of klippot).
Kabbalists believe Lilith’s mission began with her expulsion from Eden. Determined to populate the world with demons instead of men, she set out to kill babies and expectant mothers. To advance the spread of demons over men, she also entered the homes of sleeping men and had sex with them, harvesting their seed to fertilize her womb.
The story of Lilith has been used by kabbalists to explain to explain two mysterious and sometimes troubling human phenomena: fatal childbirth and nocturnal emissions. The Bible says that the pain of childbirth is Eve’s punishment for eating of the apple from the Tree of Knowledge, but kabbalists have a different view. They use Lilith to explain why even virtuous women and innocent babies sometimes die during childbirth—Lilith attacks them. Some kabbalistic legends attribute the phenomenon of nocturnal emission, in which men ejaculate in their sleep, to Lilith’s sneaky demonic deeds. As Lilith passed from man to man, arousing each in their sleep, she slyly stole their sperm for use in creating more demons. But because Lilith’s human-demon offspring were an impure mix, they could not survive.
Lilith’s bad reputation has been reversed in recent years as she has become a feminist icon, a symbol of female strength and independence. One Jewish feminist magazine is named Lilith, and for many years a summer festival featuring an all-female lineup of performers, called Lilith Fair, gave sold-out concerts nationwide. The women who have tried to reclaim Lilith as a heroine emphasize her spirit of rebellion: rather than subjugate herself to Adam, Lilith risked resisting, which led to a life of power and independence fired by the thirst for revenge.
Gilgul refers the life of the soul after death. Kabbalists believe in reincarnation, the rebirth of a soul into a new human body, and transmigration, the movement from one form of life to another. Kabbalah’s Sefer ha-Bahir says human souls can only migrate into the bodies of other human beings, but kabbalists over the years have expanded upon this limited understanding of gilgul. Some now believe the human soul can enter any living being, plant, and animal, a view that closely resembles the Hindu doctrine of reincarnation. Some think only the souls of sinners reappear time and time again as punishment, whereas righteous kabbalists ascend to Ein Sof. Others maintain that only righteous souls are recycled through generations, with the aim of improving the world.
Luria argued that everything changes form constantly as energy cycles across the universe. Energy from the sefirot descends into the human realm, human souls rise up to the realm of the sefirot and back again. Luria believed all human souls are pieces of Adam Kadmon, Ein Sof’s blueprint for humans. He described gilgul as the process of human souls trying to assemble themselves to match and rebuild the form of Adam Kadmon. Restoring Adam Kadmon became a key facet of tikkun, the process of mending Ein Sof’s shattered vessels of energy. As human souls triy to remake themselves in Adam Kadmon’s image, they help to restore wholeness to Ein Sof, bringing the universe back into harmony following the catastrophe of creation.
Gilgul should be viewed as a policy of punishment and mercy. Though it may seem unfair that righteous people could be condemned by inheriting the recycled sinful souls of others, it’s important to remember that Kabbalah is a religion based on patience and continuity. The suffering of a righteous person for the past sins of his soul was a step toward redemption for that soul. Whereas some religions condemn sinners to eternal hellfire after one mistake, Kabbalah offers every misguided soul further chances via gilgul. Gilgul also rewards the souls of the righteous by reusing them in the bodies of sinners. That way gilgul spreads goodness and rewards the righteous by bestowing good souls with endless life.
Gilgul was also used to explain a few other human phenomena. If a man’s soul transmigrated into a woman’s body, for example, the woman would become unable to bear children. When an infant mysteriously died, gilgul explained the death as a punishment of the parents for their sins in a past life. A Jewish soul passing into the body of a gentile explained why some gentiles were eager to convert to Judaism. The punishment for performing forbidden sexual acts was transmigration into an animal.
In Luria’s slightly more complex version of gilgul, every soul has a place in the universe. After the crisis of creation, the order of souls fell into disarray. Souls therefore recycle and migrate in an attempt to restore order, like puzzle pieces trying to fit themselves back together. Luria believed that each person could be composed of fragments of different souls, and that only rarely would new souls enter the universe. Luria also viewed gilgul as a method of redemption for sinful souls, rather than as punishment: sinners’ souls were recycled in an effort to give them a second chance to act righteously. As souls approached perfection, each would return to its rightful place in the universe, helping to restore the body of Adam Kadmon and the wholeness of Ein Sof.