1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Luria, Isaac ben Solomon

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1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 17
Luria, Isaac ben Solomon
See also Isaac Luria on Wikipedia; and our 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica disclaimer.

LURIA, ISAAC BEN SOLOMON (1534-1572), Jewish mystic, was born in Jerusalem. From his German descent he was surnamed Ashkenazi (the German), and we find that epithet applied to him in a recently discovered document of date 1559. In that year Isaac Luria was living in Cairo and trading as a spice merchant with his headquarters in Alexandria. He had come to Egypt as a boy after his father's death, and was brought up by his wealthy maternal uncle Mordecai Francis. The boy, according to the legends which soon grew round his life, was a “wonder-child,” and early displayed marvellous capacity. He married as a lad of fifteen, his bride being his cousin. For some time he continued his studies; later on when engaged in business there was no break in this respect. Two years after his marriage he became possessed of a copy of the Kabbalistic “Bible” — the Zohar of Moses de Leon (q.v.). In order to meditate on the mystic lore he withdrew to a hut by the Nile, returning home for the Sabbath. Luria afterwards gave to the Sabbath a mystic beauty such as it had never before possessed. Thus passed several years; he was still young, but his new mode of life produced its effects on a man of his imagination and saintly piety. He became a visionary. Elijah, who had been his godfather in his babyhood, now paid him frequent visits, initiating him into sublime truths. By night Luna's soul ascended to heaven and conversed with celestial teachers who had once been men of renown on earth.

In 1566 at earliest Luria removed to Safed. This Palestinian town was in the 16th century the headquarters of the Kabbala. A large circle of Talmudists lived there; at their head Joseph Qaro, then over eighty years of age. Qaro's son married Luria's daughter, and Qaro rejoiced at the connexion, for he had a high opinion of Luria's learning. Mysticism is often the expression of a revolt against authority, but in Luria's case mysticism was not divorced from respect for tradition. After his arrival at Safed Luria lived at most six years, and died in 1572. But these years were momentous for Judaism. He established an extraordinary reputation; his personality had a winning attractiveness; and he founded a school of mystics who powerfully affected Judaism after the master's death. The Holy Spirit, we are told, rested on him, drawn to him by the usual means of the mystics — self-flogging, ablutions and penance. He had wonderful gifts of insight, and spoke to the birds. Miracles abounded. More soberly true is the statement that he went on long walks with enthusiastic disciples, whom he taught without books. Luria himself wrote no mystical works; what we know of his doctrines and habits comes chiefly from his Boswell, Hayim Vital.

There was little of originality in Luria's doctrines: the theory of emanations, the double belief in the process of the Divine Essence as it were self-concentrating (Zimzum) and on the other hand as expanding throughout creation; the philosophical “sceptism” which regards God as unknowable but capable of direct intuition by feeling — these were all common elements of mystical thought. Luria was an inspirer of saintly conduct rather than an innovator in theories. Not beliefs, he said, but believers need rebirth. As he rose in the morning he prayed: “O God, grant that throughout this coming day I may be able to love my neighbour as myself.” Never would he retire to rest until he had fulfilled his definite engagements to those who had served him. Luria and his school altered the very look of the Jewish Prayer Book. Prayer was his main prop. By it men became controllers of the earthly world and reached God. He or his school introduced innumerable ritual customs, some of them beautiful enough. On Sabbath he dressed in white, wearing a four-fold garment to typify the four letters of the Divine Name. The Sabbath was to him an actual cult. It was a day of the most holy joy. Resuming the Talmudic idea of an Over-soul present in every Israelite on the Sabbath, Luria and his school made play with this Over-soul, fed it with spiritual and material dainties and evolved an intricate maze of mystic ceremonial, still observed by countless masses. Another strong point with Luria was penance. The confessions of sin which he introduced descend to minute ritual details and rise to the most exalted aspects of social and spiritual life. He deprecated general confessions and demanded that the individual must lay bare the recesses of his heart. Hayim Vital reports that on his death-bed Luria said to his disciples: “Be at peace with one another: bear with one another: and so be worthy of my coming again to reveal to you what no mortal ear has heard before.” His mystic ceremonial became a guide to religious practice, and though with this there came in much meaningless and even bewildering formalism, yet the example of his life and character was a lasting inspiration to saintliness.

See S. Schecher, Studies in Judaism, second series, pp. 251 seq.; Jewish Encyclopedia, viii. 210; E. Worman in Revue des Études Juives, lvii. 281. (I. A.)