||R. Isaac b. Solomon Luria (1534–1572), kabbalist, referred to as Ha-Ari ("the [sacred] lion" from the initials of Ha-Elohi Rabbi Yizhak, "the divine Rabbi"). This cognomen was in use by the end of the 16th century, apparently at first in kabbalistic circles in Italy, but R. Luria's contemporaries in Safed refer to him as R. Isaac Ashkenazi, R. Isaac Ashkenazi Luria. His father, a member of the Ashkenazi family of Luria from Germany or Poland, emigrated to Jerusalem and apparently there married into the Sephardi Frances family. As he died while Isaac was a child, his widow took the boy to Egypt where he was brought up in the home of her brother Mordecai Frances, a wealthy tax-farmer. Traditions concerning R. Luria's youth, his stay in Egypt, and his introduction to Kabbalah are shrouded in legend, and the true facts are difficult to distinguish. Contradicting the widely accepted belief that he went to Egypt at the age of seven, is his own testimony recalling a kabbalistic tradition which he learned in Jerusalem from a Polish kabbalist, R. Kalonymus (see Sha'ar he-Pesukim, para. Be-Ha'alotekha).
In Egypt, R. Luria studied under R. David b. Solomon ibn Abi Zimra and his successor, R. Bezalel Ashkenazi. R. Luria collaborated with the latter in writing halakhic works such as the Shitah Mekubbezet on tractate Zevahim, which according to R. Hayyim Joseph David Azulai was burned in Izmir in 1735. Their annotations of some of R. Isaac Alfasi's works were printed in Tummat Yesharim (Venice, 1622). As well as religious study, he also engaged in commerce while in Egypt as attested by documents in the Cairo Genizah. A document relating to his business in pepper dating from 1559 had been published by E. J. Worman (REJ, 57 (1909), 281–2), and a second, relating to grain, by S. Assaf (Mekorot u-Mehkarim (1946), 204). Assaf connects this with R. Luria's sojourn in Safed, but there is no doubt that it was written in Egypt. The entire document is in R. Luria's handwriting, the only extant specimen to date. This material supports the evidence of Jedidiah Galante (in R. Leon Modena's Sefer Ari Nohem, ed. by S. Rosenthal; Leipzig, 1840) that, like many of the Safed scholars, R. Luria conducted business in the town; three days before his death he made up his accounts with his customers. Many of the scholars of Safed similarly engaged in business activities.
While still in Egypt, R. Luria began his esoteric studies and retired to a life of seclusion on the island Jazirat al-Rawda on the Nile near Cairo. This island was owned by his uncle, who in the meantime had become his father-in-law. It is far from clear whether this retirement, which is reported to have lasted for seven years, took place in his youth at the beginning of the 1550s or when he was older. Legend antedates it considerably. In 1558, R. Luria endorsed a halakhic decision jointly with R. Bezalel Ashkenazi and R. Simeon Castellazzo. In his mystic study, he concentrated on the Zohar and works of the earlier kabbalists, and of the works of his contemporaries made a particular study of R. Moses Cordovero. According to evidence dating from the end of the 16th century, it was during this initial period of kabbalistic study that he wrote his single work, a commentary on the Sifra di-Zeni'uta ("Book of Concealment"), a short but important section of the Zohar (published in R. Vital's Sha'ar Ma'amrei Rashbi). In Egypt he met R. Samuel ibn Fodeila, a kabbalist, to whom R. Luria wrote a lengthy letter on kabbalistic topics. Here he refers to his own book and asks him to examine it in his brother's house, evidently in Egypt. In 1569, and perhaps at the beginning of 1570, he settled in Safed with his family and studied Kabbalah with R. Cordovero for a short time. Some of his glosses on passages of the Zohar were evidently written while R. Cordovero was still alive and some after his death, since R. Luria refers to him both as "our teacher whose light may be prolonged" and "my late teacher." On the other hand, he had already begun to impart his original kabbalistic system to a number of disciples in Safed, among them distinguished scholars. After R. Cordovero's death at the end of 1570, R. Hayyim Vital drew particularly close to Luria, becoming his principal and most celebrated disciple.
R. Luria may have gathered around him in Safed an academy whose members engaged in exoteric and esoteric studies. The names of some 30 of his disciples are known. R. Vital confirms (in the manuscript on practical Kabbalah, holograph in the Musajoff collection, Jerusalem) that a week before his preceptor died they had been studying the tractate Yevamot. He also gives some information about R. Luria's system of study in the non-mystical parts of the law. R. Luria occasionally delivered homilies in the Ashkenazi synagogue in Safed, but generally refrained from religious teaching in public. On the other hand, he often took long walks with his closest disciples in the neighborhood of Safed pointing out to them the graves of saintly personages not hitherto known, which he discovered through his spiritual intuition and revelations. At this period, he had already become famous as a man who possessed the "holy spirit" or received the "revelations of Elijah." He taught his disciples orally, instructing them both in his original system of theoretical Kabbalah, and also in the way to communion with the souls of the righteous (zaddikim). This was accomplished by "unification" of the Sefirot and exercises in concentration on certain of the divine names and their combinations, and especially by means of kavvanah, i.e., mystical reflection or meditations in the act of prayer and the fulfillment of religious precepts. He himself wrote down little of his teaching, apart from an attempt to provide a detailed commentary on the first pages of the Zohar and glosses on isolated passages. These were collected from his autography by Vital and assembled in a special book, of which a number of handwritten copies are extant.