Rabbi Chaim Vital was unquestionably the leading disciple of the Holy Ari, Rabbi Isaac Luria, and his foremost interpreter. The Ari himself wrote very little and what is commonly known as the “Ari’s writings”, were in fact transcribed by Rabbi Chaim.
The Divine flow experienced by the Ari was so overwhelming that he was unable to commit it to writing. As he himself expressed it: “When I begin to reveal a Torah secret to you the flow of knowledge becomes like a mighty stream and I look for ways to open a small channel that you will be capable of absorbing .” Rabbi Chaim Volozhin bears witness to the fact that when he mentioned the Ari to the Vilna Gaon the Gaon’s whole body trembled.
Rabbi Chaim was born in Eretz Yisrael, probably in Safed. He studied nigleh (the revealed Torah) under Rabbi Moshe Alshech and Kabbalah under Rabbi Moshe Cordevero. However, when the Ari arrived in Safed from Egypt in 1570 Rabbi Chaim soon became totally devoted to him. The Ari is reported to have said that his sole reason for departing Egypt for Safed was to transmit his Torah to Rabbi Chaim. It is an amazing fact that the Ari who died in 1572 (at the age of 38) studied with Rabbi Chaim for less than two years and that the extensive body of writings transcribed by Rabbi Chaim came from that short period.
There were a number of editions of the “Ari’s writings”. At one point Rabbi Chaim decided not to publicize them. However, in 1586 he took sick and the writings were removed from his house, copied and returned. His son, Rabbi Shmuel prepared an edition years later. Another version was edited by Rabbi Meir Popperis.
Some idea of the Safed environment can be gained from Rabbi Chaim’s statement in his Gates of Holiness (Sha’arei Kedusha) that the holy spirit (Ruach HaKodesh) can be attained even in our own times and that such people in fact exist in our midst.
Rabbi Chaim wrote an autobiographical work (Sefer HaChizyonot) which is extant in his own handwriting and was published in 1954.
The impact of the Holy Ari on subsequent Jewish history was incalculable. But that influence was made possible only through the work of Rabbi Chaim Vital.