The Ariz’al and the Interrupted Dance

Rabbi Ari Kahn  (c) 2008

The fifth of Av marks the yahrzeit of the Ariz"al, the incomparable Rav Yitzchak Luria’ also known as the Ari (Lion), arguably the greatest mystic of the past millennium. The impact of his short holy life is still felt in Jewish teachings and practice. Though born in Jerusalem and primarily educated in Egypt, the fame of the Ari was achieved during two short years – the last years of his life.

The Place:

High up in the mountains of the Galilee lies a majestic city: A city of dreams. A city of visions. A city halfway to heaven. A city devastated by earthquakes and elevated by scholars. Its holy
residents of the 16th century are among the most significant legalists and kabbalists who ever lived.
The city is called Tzfat, and the following story encapsulates and characterizes the unique personality  of that place and time, due largely to the spiritual leadership of the Ariza"l.

The Song:

The song all modern Jews most associate with the coming of Shabbat, Lecha Dodi, was written in Tzfat and it is from here that the words ring out and reverberate all over the world every Friday night. All who greet the lovely Shabbat bride are enchanted by this spiritual love song.

Today in many synagogues around the world as the words "bo’i kalla" (welcome bride – Shabbat) are said, the congregation turns around to face the back or the door of the synagogue, as if to physically welcome the holy Sabbath Queen.

In Tzfat the ritual was somewhat more elaborate: The author of Lecha Dodi, Rabbi Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz, together with a band of mystics led by the Ariza"l, didn’t merely turn around. They danced their way out of the synagogue and climbed one of the imposing mountains on the outskirts of Tzfat, and from that lofty vantage point watched the sun go into hiding, the incontrovertible sign that the holy Shabbat had arrived.

The Opportunity:


On one particularly glorious Shabbat Eve, the energy was palpable. The air crackled with excitement: Shabbat, the age-old island of spiritual tranquility, would soon begin and redemption from the week and all its travails would arrive. Just as when you put a seashell to your ear you can still hear the sea, when we keep the Shabbat we can still hear the echoes of the six days of creation and the glorious Kiddush that God made on that first Friday night. The disciples of Rabbi Alkabetz and the Ariza"l rushed forward in song, toward this spiritual echo, to greet the Shabbat Queen.

The Dance:

They danced out to the hills but their feet barely touched the ground. They looked at their master, the Holy Ari, and he truly looked like a lion, a spiritual glow surrounding him like a mane of gold, outshining the setting sun.

As they sang and danced, as each psalm of the Kabbalat Shabbat was recited, they continued their physical and spiritual ascent. The Holy Ari, eyes blazing, turned to his followers and said: "Come, let us go up and celebrate Shabbat in Jerusalem". The students – who only moments before had tuned into the echoes of eternity, buoyed by their Master’s holiness – hesitated. They allowed pragmatism to intrude, and cloud the world of spirit. They responded: "Let us first go and tell our wives we will be late for dinner, and perhaps be away for all of Shabbat". Logic told them that Jerusalem was far away and Shabbat was about to begin. In confusion, the students retreated to calculations of distance and thoughts of cold chicken soup.

The Lost Moment:

The Ari was crushed, for he knew the moment was lost. The special holiness had vanished. The Jerusalem that is fully built in heaven, and had momentarily been within reach, had now retreated. Frightened and disappointed, he cried out "Woe to us! Had you all seized the opportunity and responded together ‘let us proceed to Jerusalem’, had you really believed, had you really felt the joy and happiness of the moment, the Redemption would have come. The entire world would have been redeemed, the Messiah would have arrived and the Temple, fully built in all its glory, would have descended from the sky." But the watershed moment was lost; the window of opportunity now opened only to a desolate vista, dissipating into the clouds that hover over the city of Tzfat. The Messiah would be left to wait. Many more painful chapters would be forced to unfold in a world still seeking redemption.

The Redemption

Then, as now, Tzfat is a place of vision, of epiphany. Those with keen eyes can still see those mystics on the mountaintops. Those with keen ears can still hear the song. Those with pure souls can still
sense the impending Redemption. May we all be blessed with the sensitivity to recognize that great opportunity when it confronts us. May we not blink or avert our gaze. Rather, may we all live to see it and join that epic dance from Tzfat to Jerusalem and greet the Messiah!

Dedicated to my sons Matityahu and Hillel and all their friends who truly love welcoming in Shabbat – may G-d protect them and all their fellow soldiers as they embark in their holy mission to protect the Land of Israel and her precious people. Please say a prayer for all the soldiers of the IDF, may G-d protect those who protect us.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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