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Hayyim ben Joseph Vital Safed, 1543 – Damascus, 23 April 1620) was a rabbi in Safed and the foremost disciple of Isaac Luria. He recorded much of his master's teachings. After Vital's death his writings spread having a "powerful impact on various circles throughout the Jewish world."
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Born in Safed as a young boy, Hayyim Vital was educated by the scholar, Rabbi Moses Alshich. Other than that, most of his early life is full of legends. For instance, it is claimed that at the age of twelve, he was told by a chiromancer that when he reached the age of twenty-four, he would find himself standing before two roads, and would rise or fall according to his choice. Rabbi Joseph Karo is said to have paid special attention to Vital's early talents and in 1557 requested that Alshich take special care in his education as he was destined to succeed his teacher in the world of Torah study. That same year, Vital first became acquainted with the kabbalist Rabbi Yitzhak Ben Shlomo Ashkenazi (Isaac ben Solomon Luria) aka as "The Ari", "Ari-Hakadosh", or "Arizal, who would have a lasting influence on him.
Hayyim Vital apparently married at a young age. According to one legend, his first wife was Hannah, the daughter of a certain Moses Saadia. It was an unhappy marriage, and when he left his wife, the prophet Elijah appeared to him in a dream and led him to a beautiful garden, where he saw the pious of all ages, in the form of birds, flying through the garden and studying the Mishnah. In the center of the garden was God Himself, seated on a throne that was surrounded by the pious, resting on elaborate tapestries. Convinced by this vision that he was destined to become a kabbalist, Rabbi Hayyim Vital devoted the following two and a half years to the study of alchemy. Upon completing his studies, Elijah appeared to him again in a vision, and told him that he would succeed in his efforts and write a commentary on the Zohar.
Study with Cordovero
When Luria arrived in Safed, Moses Cordovero had been the principal figure in the kabbalistic community for numerous years. "Cordovero was the teacher of what appears to have been a relatively loose knit circle of disciples. The most important Elijah de Vidas, Abraham Galante, Moses Galante, Hayyim Vital, Abraham ben Eliezer ha-Levi Berukhim, Elazar ben Moshe Azikri, Samuel Gallico, and an important kabbalist who studied with Cordovero for a short while in the 1560s, Mordechai Dato."
There's evidence to suggest that Isaac Luria also regarded Moses Cordovero as his teacher. "Joseph Sambari (1640-1703), an important Egyptian chronicler, testified that Cordovero was 'the Ari's teacher for a very short time.' ... Luria probably arrived in early 1570, and Cordovero died on June 27 that year (the 23d day of Tammuz). Bereft of their most prominent authority and teacher, the kabbalists looked for new guidance, and Isaac Luria helped fill the vacuum left by Cordovero's passing.
Student of the Arizal
In 1570 Vital became a student of Rabbi Isaac Luria, the Arizal, the foremost kabbalist of the day. In a study of Lurianic mysticism, Lawrence Fine writes: "Vital provides us with the names of thirty-eight individuals who according to him, made up Luria's discipleship... According to him, the fellowship was divided into four, hierarchically ordered groups. The first and most important, was composed of eleven men, listed in this order: Hayyim Vital, Jonathan Sagis, Joseph Arzin, Isaac Kohen, Gedaliah ha-Levi, Samuel Uceda, Judah Mishan, Abraham Gavriel, Shabbatai Menashe, Joseph ibn Tabul, and Elijah Falko (or Falkon). It is largely accepted that within a year Hayyim Vital emerged as the leading student, so that when the Arizal died in 1572, at the age of thirty-eight, Vital succeeded him. Since the Arizal had left almost none of his teachings in writing, Vital began to write down everything he had learned from his master.
Exile and return
Hayyim Vital arrived in Egypt in 1577, but soon returned to the Land of Israel, settling in the village of Ein Zeitim (near Safed), and later in Jerusalem. After that he went to live in Damascus, where he became the head of the Sicilian Jewish community.
A legend states that, when Vital was in Jerusalem, the Ottoman governor, Abu Saifia, requested that he use his powers to locate the aqueduct leading from the River Gihon to the city, which had been built in the days of King Hezekiah. Unwilling to fulfill this request, he fled to Damascus using the power of practical Kabbalah, where his master appeared to him and told him that he had had a chance to bring the final redemption by releasing the waters of Gihon, and now the chance was lost. This grieved Vital greatly.
In Damascus he began writing his first work of his own, on Abraham. The greater part of the book consists of an exposition on the conjuring of clouds and a discourse on the seven fixed stars (planets), the seven heavens, and their corresponding metals. Upon completing his book, Vital returned to Jerusalem, where his former teacher, Moshe Alshich, ordained him "in the 1590s." After a time, however, Vital left Jerusalem for Safed, where he fell sick and was obliged to keep his bed for an entire year.
During this illness Rabbi Yehoshua, his closest follower, who had accompanied Vital on nearly every journey, managed to bribe Vital's younger brother, Rabbi Moshe, with 500 gold coins, to lend him his master's writings, which were kept locked in a box. Rabbi Moshe accordingly brought Rabbi Yehoshua a large part of the manuscripts, and 100 copyists were immediately engaged: in just three days, they were able to reproduce more than 600 pages. Although according to some reports Vital, upon learning of this, claimed that the papers which has been copied were not his own writings, they were rapidly disseminated. The writings in question purported to contain the teachings of the Ari rather than Vital's independent work.
The first printed edition was in eight volumes, known as the Shemonah She'arim, and this version is still used by some Kabbalists in the Sephardi world. The best known recension was published later under the title Etz Hayyim ("Tree of Life"), in which the topics were arranged in a more systematic order, and the parts on ritual (the Peri Etz Hayyim) were kept separate from the parts on the underlying theology. In addition to a tribute to the Arizal, the work contains the assertion that it is one of God's greatest pleasures to witness the promotion of the teaching of the Kabbalah, since this alone can assure the coming of the Jewish Messiah. Rabbi Chaim Vital stated that he had received these teachings, like his other mystic theories, from his teacher the Arizal.
However, Vital still held the teachings of his former teacher, kabbalist Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, in high esteem. He maintained that Rabbi Moshe Cordovero often appeared to him in dreams. One of the most prominent of Vital's opponents was Menahem Lonzano, who publicly denounced him in his work Imrei Emet.
Later life and death
On 20 Elul 1590, Vital received rabbinical ordination from his teacher Moshe Alshich. Four years later, in 1594, he settled permanently in Damascus, where he lectured every evening on the kabbalah. In 1604 Vital's sight began to fail; in 1620 he died while preparing to return to Safed.
- Prevalent opinion for this date is 3 May 1620, corresponding to the Hebrew date of 30 Nisan 5380, consequently Vital's yahrzeit is celebrated on the 30 Nisan of each year. 23 April 1620 is the same date according to the Julian calendar, which was then still in use in Damascus.
- Fine 2003, p. 2
- Fine 2003, p. 80-81
- Sambari 1673, p. 64
- Fine 2003, p. 52
- There now exists an edition of Vital's works in fifteen volumes containing both recensions.
- Fine, Lawrence (2003). In Rodrigue, Aron; Zipperstein, Steven J. Physician of the Soul, Healer of the Cosmos: Isaac Luria and His Kabbalistic Fellowship. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. p. 480. ISBN 0-8047-4826-8 [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK]. Retrieved 2010-08-16.
- Joseph ben Isaac Sambari (1994) [1-23-1673]. Sefer Divrei Yosef. Jerusalem: Ben Zvi Institute.
- Hayyim ben Joseph Vital, The Tree of Life: Chayyim Vital's Introduction to the Kabbalah of Isaac Luria - The Palace of Adam Kadmon. Translated and with an introduction by Donald Wilder Menzi and Zwe Padeh. Northvale, N.J. and Jerusalem: Jason Aronson, 1999. This is a translation of the first volume of Luria's “Etz Chaim”; the introduction by the translators gives a general overview of the Lurianic system.