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.
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