Tzfat (Safed) - Just outside of Tsfat, downhill from the old city, is an ancient cemetery with more tzaddikim ("righteous men") "per square meter" than anywhere in the world, with the possible exception of some Jewish cemeteries in Poland or Russia. Three of these tzaddikim are known as the Ramak (R'Moses Cordovero), the Ari z'l (Yitzhak Luria), and the Beit Yoseph (Rabbi Yoseph Karo). All three of them lived during th golden age of Tsfat, culminating in the 1570's after the death of the Ari z'l. Before visiting the tombs of any of these tzaddikim, gentlemen are advised to first take a dip in the mikveh (ritual bath) in the cemetery which is known as the Ari's mikveh. Unlike most mikvehs, its water is supplied from an underground fountain known as a ma'ayan, and as such its purifying qualities are more potent than the normal mikveh. It is said that one who tovels (dips) in the mikveh is guaranteed to do tshuva (repentance and return to G-d) in his lifetime. Brace yourself - the water is very cold. Having purified the body, (unfortunately, this opportunity is not usually available to women, but they should go to the kivrei tzaddikim - the tombs of the righteous - anyway) you will be ready to approach the tombs of these great tzaddikim.

The Ramak - Rebbe Moses Cordovero, was a great kabbalist whose task in life was to compile the work and approaches of all the previous kabbalists who had written explanations on the Zohar and other subjects, and organize these works into an orderly encyclopedic tome which he called the Pardes Rimonim ("orchard of pomegranets"). The Pardes brings the opinions of earlier kabbalists, critiques them, and often suggests new approaches and kabbalistic answers to the philosophical questions in their stead. As such, the Ramak represented the culmination of the tradition of the early Kabbalists, which was to be superseded by the kabbalistic work of the Ari z'l.

The Ari z'l - Rebbi Yitzhak Luria (also known as the Ashkenazi Reb Yitzhak, hence the acronym (Ari) - was born in the old city of Jerusalem. He received his Jewish education in Egypt, where he married the daughter of a great Jewish sage, and spent his days and weeks immersed in Torah study. He was very accomplished in Jewish law, but his main focus was to try to reach an understanding of a certain very esoteric section of the Zohar known as the Safra De'tzniyusa - the "book of modesty." Through intense study, fasting, and ultimately revelation from Elijah the prophet, he arrived at a revolutionary new understanding of Kabbalah based on structures of sephirot (sephirot are G-dly emanations with which He controls and illuminates the creation). The early kabbalists had focused on individual sephirot, but by focusing upon how they act together, the Ari z'l was able to unlock the secrets of this most esoteric section of the Zohar. He then proceeded to Tsfat to teach his new school of Kabbalah, but did not start to do so until the passing of the Ramak. He found a willing student in the person of Rabbi Chaim Vital, who had formally been a student of the Ramak. In the space of a year and eight months, R'Chaim Vital absorbed his master's teachings, and then spent the rest of his life writing and re-writing them down. What we have today of the Kabbalah of the Ari z'l comes almost entirely from the writings of R' Chaim Vital. Most of the great sages of that period who lived in Tsfat also become students of the Ari, though not all of them were successful in integrating his new approach.  The Ari's new approach even made its way to Europe, where it was eventually incorporated into the teachings of the new Chassidic movement, and especially in Chabad Chassidut that emerged nearly two hundred years later.

Rav Yoseph Karo - Also lived in this period in Tsfat, but though he knew Kabbalah, his focus was on Jewish law. He sorted thorugh the work of previous generations of halachic masters, especially the Rosh (Rabbeinu Asher, Germany and Spain in the 1300's), the Rambam (Maimonides, or R' Moshe ben Maimon of Spain and Egypt in the 1100's), and the Rif (Rabeinue Alfasi, Morocco in the 900's), sifting through their decisions in Jewish law together with several commentaries on the Talmud, in order to write a compendious compilation of Jewish law known as the Beit Yoseph ("House of Joseph"). In so doing, he succeeded in the monumental task of codifying Jewish law. He utilized the principle that whatever halachic decision was reached by two of the three above-mentioned sages would be the correct rendering of the halacha. His shulchan aruch ("set table"), as the concise code is called, was accepted by the Sphardic community of Jews, and with emendations by the Ramah (R' Moshe Isserles) in Cracow, Poland, was accepted by the Ashkenazi Jews as well. His tomb is located somewhat down the hill in the cemetery from the Ari and the Ramak, who are buired next to each other.

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