In Hebrew he is called Yitzhak Lurya יִצְחַק לוּרְיָא, Yitzhak Ben Shlomo Ashkenazi, and Yitzhak Ashkenazi. He is also known as Ari אֲרִי and Ha-Ari ("The lion") from the acronym for Ashkenazi Rabbi Itzhak ("The Ashkenazic Rabbi Yitzhak"), thus Arizal with "ZaL" being the acronym for Zikhrono Livrakha ("of blessed memory" or literally "let the memory of him be for a blessing"), a common Jewish honorific for the deceased, and known as Ari Ha-Kadosh ("The holy lion").
At the age of fifteen he married his cousin, and, being amply provided for financially, was able to continue his studies. Though he initially may have pursued a career in business, he soon turned to asceticism and mysticism. About the age of twenty-two years old, he became engrossed in the study of the Zohar, a major work of the Kabbalah that had recently been printed for the first time, and adopted the life of a recluse. He retreated to the banks of the Nile, and for seven years secluded himself in an isolated cottage, giving himself up entirely to meditation. He visited his family only on the Shabbat, speaking very seldom, and always in Hebrew. Hassidism attributes to him that he had frequent interviews with the prophet Elijah through this ascetic life, by whom he was initiated into sublime doctrines.
In 1569 Arizal moved to the Land of Israel; and after a short sojourn in Jerusalem, where his new kabalistic system seems to have met with little success, he settled in Safed. There he formed a circle of kabbalists to whom he imparted the doctrines by means of which he hoped to establish a new basis for the moral system of the world. To this circle belonged Rabbi Moses ben Jacob Cordovero, Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz, Rabbi Joseph Caro, Rabbi Moses Alshech, Rabbi Eliyahu de Vidas, Rabbi Joseph Hagiz, Rabbi Elisha Galadoa, and Rabbi Moses Bassola. They met every Friday, and each confessed to another his sins. Soon Arizal had two classes of disciples: (1) novices, to whom he expounded the elementary Kabbalah, and (2) initiates, who became the depositaries of his secret teachings and his formulas of invocation and conjuration.
However, the most renowned of the initiates was Rabbi Chaim Vital of Calabria, who, according to his master, possessed a soul which had not been soiled by Adam's sin. In his company Luria visited the grave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and of other eminent teachers, it is said that these graves were unmarked -- the identity of each grave was unknown -- and through Elijah each grave was recognized. Arizal's kabbalistic circle gradually widened and became a separate congregation, in which his mystic doctrines were supreme, influencing all the religious ceremonies. On Shabbat Arizal dressed himself in white and wore a fourfold garment to signify the four letters of the Ineffable Name.
Many Jews who had been exiled from Spain following the Edict of Expulsion believed they were in the time of trial that would precede the appearance of the Messiah in Galilee. Those who moved to Palestine in anticipation of this event found a great deal of comfort in Luria’s teachings, due to his theme of exile. Although he did not write down his teachings, they were published by his followers and by 1650 his ideas were known by Jews throughout Europe.
The Ari used to deliver his lectures extempore and, with the exception of several works and some kabbalistic poems in Aramaic for the Sabbath table did not write much. The real exponent of his kabbalistic system was Chaim Vital. He collected all the notes of the lectures which Arizal's disciples had made; and from these notes were produced numerous works, the most important of which was the Etz Chayim, ("Tree of Life"), in eight volumes (see below). At first this circulated in manuscript copies; and each of Arizal's disciples had to pledge himself, under pain of excommunication, not to allow a copy to be made for a foreign country; so that for a time all the manuscripts remained in Palestine. At last, however, one was brought to Europe and was published at Zolkiev in 1772 by Isaac Satanow. In this work are expounded both the theoretical and the devotional or meditative Kabbalah based on the Zohar.
However, the infinite light did not wholly desert the center; a thin conduit of light traversed the circles and penetrated into the center. But while the three outermost circles, being of a purer substance because of their nearness to the Ein Sof, were able to bear the light, the inner six were unable to do so, and burst. It was, therefore, necessary to remove them from the focus of the light. For this purpose the Sefirot were transformed into "figures" (parzufim, cf. Greek πρόσωπον = "face").
The first Sefirah, being Keter ("Crown"), was transformed into the potentially existing three heads of the Macroprosopon (Erech Anpin); the second Sefirah, being Chochmah (Wisdom"), into the active masculine principle called "Father" (Abba); the third Sefirah, being Binah (Understanding"), into the passive, feminine principle called "Mother" (Imma); the six broken Sefirot, into the "male child" (Ze'er), which is the product of the masculine active and the feminine passive principles; the tenth Sefirah, Malkut which is ("Kingship"), into the female child (Bath). This proceeding was absolutely necessary. Had God in the beginning created these figures instead of the Sefirot, there would have been no evil in the world, and consequently no reward and punishment; for the source of evil is in the broken Sefirot or vessels (Shvirat Keilim), while the light of the Ein Sof produces only that which is good. These five figures are found in each of the Four Worlds; namely, in the world of Emanation (atzilut), Creation (beri'ah), Formation (yetzirah), and in that of Action (asiyah), which represents the material world.
Arizal's psychological system, upon which is based his devotional and meditational Kabbalah, is closely connected with his metaphysical doctrines. From the five figures, he says, emanated five souls, Nefesh ("Spirit"), Ru'ach ("Wind"), Neshamah ("Soul"), Chayah ("Life"), and Yechidah ("Singular"); the first of these being the lowest, and the last the highest. (Source: Etz Chayim). Man's soul is the connecting link between the infinite and the finite, and as such is of a manifold character. All the souls destined for the human race were created together with the various organs of Adam. As there are superior and inferior organs, so there are superior and inferior souls, according to the organs with which they are respectively coupled. Thus there are souls of the brain, souls of the eye, souls of the hand, etc. Each human soul is a spark (nitzotz) from Adam. The first sin of the first man caused confusion among the various classes of souls: the superior intermingled with the inferior; good with evil; so that even the purest soul received an admixture of evil, or, as Luria calls it, of the element of the "shells" (Kelipoth). From the lowest classes of souls proceeded the pagan world, while from the higher emanated the Israelitish world. But, in consequence of the confusion, the former are not wholly deprived of the original good, and the latter are not altogether free from sin. This state of confusion, which gives a continual impulse toward evil, will cease with the arrival of the Messiah, who will establish the moral system of the world upon a new basis. Until that time man's soul, because of its deficiencies, can not return to its source, and has to wander not only through the bodies of men and of animals, but even through inanimate things such as wood, rivers, and stones.
Further, the departed soul of a man freed from sin appears again on earth to support a weak soul which feels unequal to its task. However, this union, which may extend to three souls at one time, can only take place between souls of homogeneous character; that is, between those which are sparks of the same Adamite organ. The dispersion of Israel has for its purpose the salvation of men's souls; as the purified souls of Israelites will fulfill the prophecy of becoming "A lamplight unto the nations," influencing the souls of men of other races in order to free them from demoniacal influences.
According to Arizal, man bears on his forehead a mark by which one may learn the nature of his soul: to which degree and class it belongs; the relation existing between it and the superior world; the wanderings it has already accomplished; the means by which it can contribute to the establishment of the new moral system of the world; how it can be freed from demoniacal influences; and to which soul it should be united in order to become purified. This union can be effected by formulas of conjuration.
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Lurianic Kabbalah has been accused by some of being the cause of the spread of the false Messiah Shabbetai Tzvi. However, it remained the leading school of mysticism in Judaism, and is an important influence on Hasidism and Sefardic kabbalists. In fact, only a minority of today's Jewish mystics belong to other branches of thought in Zoharic mysticism. Some Jewish kabbalists have said that the followers of Shabbetai Tzvi strongly avoided teachings of the Arizal because his system disproved their notions. On the other hand, the Sabbateans did use Rabbi Luria's concepts of nitzotzot trapped in kelippot and pure souls being mixed with the impure (see below) to justify some of their antinomian actions.
The Lubavitch Movement considers the teachings and practices of the Ari as major influences on its own teachings and practices. Additionally, today's mekubalim mizra`him (oriental Kabbalists), following the tradition of R' Chayim Vital and the mystical legacy of the Rashash (Gilgul of the ARI), consider themselves legitimate heirs to and in continuity with the teachings of the Ari.