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Hayyim ben Joseph Vital (Calabria, 1543 – Damascus, 23 April 1620) was a foremost exponent of Kabbalah.

Contents

Early life

Born in Calabria, Italy, [1] as a young boy, Hayyim Vital was educated by the scholar, Rabbi Moses Alshech. 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 Alshech 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 Lapidot Ashkenazi, 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 Chaim 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.

Student of the Arizal

In 1570 Vital became a student of Rabbi Isaac Luria, the Arizal, the foremost kabbalist of the day. Within just a year, he emerged as his 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 'Ain Zaitun (near Safed[2]), and later in Jerusalem. He remained there until 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. There 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, appointed him rabbi in 1584. After a time, however, Vital left Jerusalem for Safed, where he fell sick and was obliged to keep his bed for an entire year.

He also authored Shaar HaGilgulim, a kabbalistic work on reincarnation.

Etz Hayyim

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 under the title Etz Hayyim ("Tree of Life"). 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 passing

On 20 Elul 1590, Vital received rabbinical ordination from his teacher Rabbi Moshe Alshech. 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.

References

External links

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