Rabbi Hayyim Vital
One interesting way to learn about Safed and the history of this location is to learn about the great Rabbis and other leaders who lived there. During the 16th century, Safed was a very big spiritual center for the Jewish people. One Rabbi, Rabbi Hayyim Vital, had a great influence on Safed, and on the Jewish people during this time.
Rabbi Hayyim Vital was born in Safed to Rabbi Joseph, a learned man and a maker of Tefillin. Rabbi Joseph had arrived in Safed years before from Calabria, Italy and was well known for his Tefillin. As an interesting fact, Rabbi Joseph was known as Calabrese, due to his birth city, and Rabbi Hayyim Vital was also given this added name and was often called Rabbi Hayyim Vital Calabrese.
Growing Up in Safed
Rabbi Vital grew up in an era of incredible learning in Safed. During his life, he was taught by Rabbi Moshe Alshich and was also influenced by the many wise people who were learning, teaching and writing in Safed. These people included Rabbi Joseph Karo, the author of the Shulchan Aruch, Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz, the author of the Shabbat hymn "Lecho Dodi" and Rabbi Moshe Cordovero. All of these men were leading Talmudic scholars and Kabbalists in Safed.
The Rabbi Grows
Rabbi Hayyim married the daughter of Rabbi Moshe Saadiah, Hannah, when he was 23. This was quite late in those days. He continued learning and studying during this time. In 1570, Rabbi Isaac Luria Ashkenazi arrived in Safed. Although Rabbi Luria was only 36 years old at the time, he was the greatest Kabbalist of his time period. Rabbi Hayyim became devoted to him and learned from Rabbi Luria. For almost two years, Rabbi Luria taught Rabbi Hayyim about the Kabbalah and revealed many secrets and mysteries about this topic to him.
Rabbi Luria Dies
Rabbi Luria died at only 38, leaving Rabbi Hayyim to carry on his studies and to become the leader of the Kabbalists, as he had been. While Rabbi Luria hadn't written any of his teachings down, Rabbi Hayyim had kept studious notes. Many people offered Rabbi Hayyim money for these notes, but he refused. Unfortunately, Rabbi Hayyim fell quite ill and became in need of money. At this time, his brother, Moshe, coped a good part of the notes and sold them to a Kabbalist with great financial means.
Rabbi Hayyim's Legacy
Rabbi Hayyim was a very modest man and legend has it that he did not want his notes and works published. He actually requested that all of his writings be buried with him. This was done, but his son, Samuel and his disciples desperately wanted to dig up his writings and bring his knowledge to the masses. They claimed that Rabbi Hayyim came to them in a dream and gave them permission to publish his writings. From this point, many of his writings were published and he ended up leaving quite an extensive list of books.
Rabbi Hayyim's Books
His most important books were entitled Shemone Perakim (Eight Chapters) and Etz Hayyim (Tree of Life). Other books were Otzroth Hayyim (Treasure of Life), Sefer baGilgulim (Book of Wanderings), Sefer haHezyonoth (Book of Visions) and Shaarei Kedushah (Gates of Holiness). His books are, today, the main source for the Lurianic School of Kabbala and his books carry on Rabbi Luria's message and teachings. These books and this teaching became the basis for the teachings of the great Baal-Shem-Tov who founded Hassidism.
Rabbi Luria's teachings continue to live on through Rabbi Hayyim's books, and many of Rabbi Hayyim's teachings live on today and continue to influence Jews around the world who study Kabbalah and Jewish thought.