Sunday 19 August 2018



R. Yitzchak Luria (1534-1572) known as the Ari (the ‘Lion’) is considered to be the father of modern Kabbalah.  He was born in Jerusalem to an Ashkenazi father, R. Shlomo Luria, and a Sefaradi mother. His father died when he was just eight years old and he was raised by his mother’s brother in Cairo.

During that time he studied under Radbaz (R. David ben Zimra, a Spanish Kabbalist who fled during the Expulsion from Spain) and his student R. Betzalel Ashkenazi, whom he helped compile the Shita Mekubetzet on some tractates of the Talmud.

At twenty-two, he began studying the Zohar, which had just recently been published, and for seven years he lived on the island of Roda in the Nile engrossed in his studies.

Until the appearance of the Ari, the popular Kabbalistic model that most followed was that of Ramak, or R. Moshe Cordovero of Safed. He advocated a rather intuitive perception of the Spiritual realms. However, during the mid-1500’s when the universal trend was leaning more towards science and industry a more systematic model was required. This need was filled by the Ari Zal and his very structured system was even endorsed by Ramak himself as the way forward.

The Ari Zal passed away when he was only 38 years old, and all he put down in writing were a few poems.  However, it was through his oral teachings (later recorded in writing by his students – particularly R. Chaim Vital) that the Zohar became comprehensible to us.

In this article we will explore some of his opinions as well as some speculation as to his views relating to nusach, or prayer rites:



Rabbi Eliezer Melamed explains in his Peninei Halacha[1] how each Jewish group thinks their rite is the most authentic. 

The Ashkenazim claim that their prayer rite is most accurate because its roots go back to all the way to Shimon haPekoli. He was a Tanna in Israel and his tradition remained in the Holy Land throughout the Talmudic and Gaonic periods.  As the Talmud records:

“Shimon haPekoli arranged the order of the Shemona Esrei under the supervision of Raban Gamliel at Yavneh.”[2]

 שמעון הפקולי הסדיר שמונה עשרה ברכות לפני רבן גמליאל על הסדר ביבנה

This was in contradistinction to Nusach Sefard which had its origins outside of Israel, in Babylonia. Nonetheless, the Sefaradim claim their nusach is a ‘higher’ one and one can, therefore, change from Ashkenaz to Sefard but not vice versa.[3]


Bearing in mind that nusach is a custom and not a law, the Peninei Halacha gives two sides of an interesting debate on the issue of changing one’s established nusach.

Assume a student from a Chassidic family, who prayed according to nusach Ari, goes to study at an Ashkenazi yeshiva and adopts the Ashkenazi nusach for the duration of his studies. After some time he returns home and now faces the dilemma of whether to revert back to nusach Ari or continue with nusach Ashkenaz?

The Ashkenazi rabbis would rule that he continue with nusach Ashkenaz because originally all Ashkenazim used that nusach, and it was only in the last two and a half centuries that the Chassidim innovated the change to nusach Ari. So while that period of two and a half centuries is sufficient to set a precedent for Chassidim, in general, to continue with their nusach, however, where someone had already changed ‘back’ to nusach Ashkenaz - as in our example - he should continue using nusach Ashkenaz as that still remains his ‘primary’ and ‘original’ nusach.

The Chassidic rabbis, on the other hand, would rule that he should certainly revert back to nusach Ari (or Sefarad-Chassidi) because we can still rely on the original Chassidic dispensation when the movement was born, to change from Ashkenazi to Ari in the first instance.

The Peninei Halacha suggests that, because of the deadlock, one should consult with one’s rabbi.[4]


The Chatam Sofer writes in his responsa, that all prayer rites are equally important. Then he adds:

“And the fact that the Ari composed his (mystical) kavanot (meditations) based on Nusach Sefard, was (simply) because he was accustomed to pray from (that rite). But, in truth, had someone like the Ari been (living in) Ashkenaz (Germany and Northern France), he would have composed all his kavanot based on Nusach Ashkenaz.” [5]


According to the very insightful  Keset Yehonatan (The Inkstand Yehonatan,[6] published in 1697):

“...R. Yitzchak Luria [the] Ashkenazi used to pray, throughout the year, in a Sefaradi community. It was only on the High Holy Days and Festivals that he would pray with Ashkenazim.

And when asked why he did not pray throughout the entire year with the Ashkenazim, he responded: ‘These and those are [equally] the words of the living G-d. Except that the Sefaradim have extra prayers and supplications and that is why I pray [more frequently] with them...’

According to this - essentially - the Ari Zal was expected to keep his original nusach which was nusach Ashkenaz! And this was apparently well known because the questioner asked why didn’t he always just pray in the Ashkenazi community? To this, he responded that he chose to pray with the Sefaradim more frequently simply because of their additional prayers which he also wanted to say.


The common perception, though, is that Ari Zal was a Sefaradi Jew, but the fact is he was an Ashkenazi Jew.

The acronym ‘ARI’ stands for ‘A’shkenazi ‘R’abbi ‘Y’itzchak. His surname was Luria, not Ashkenazi as some maintain. Ashkenazi was a description of his Ashkenazi heritage.

Some, however, insist that the ‘A’ stands instead for Elohi or G-dly, attesting to his extraordinary spirituality as no other sage is afforded such an honorific. They maintain that only later was Ashkenazi substituted for Elohi.

R. Binyomin Shlomo Hamburger in his Shorshei Minhag Ashkenaz points out that the Ari Zal was indeed Ashkenazi and prayed on the high holidays in an Ashkenazi shul (as we saw in Keset Yehonatan).
However, his student, R. Chaim Vital was a Sefaradi Jew, and therefore his teacher gave over to him lessons according to the Sefaradi customs. 

But evidently, the Ari Zal himself adhered for the most part, to his Ashkenazi rites and customs.


According to the Pachad Yitzchak[7], by R. Yitzchak Lamparonti (1679-1756):

 “...The Holy Ari did not interfere with customs of [different] communities...and he admonished people not to change their customs, because he said that every custom has an angel appointed over it and a [special]opening in heaven to receive those prayers [and practices]...”

It is most likely, considering the evidence that the Ari was an Ashkenazi - that history has mistakenly only viewed him through the prism of R. Chaim Vital the Sefaradi.  That is why we associate his kavanot with nusach Sefard. But we don’t know which nusach he used for himself.

As the Chatam Sofer said that “had someone like the Ari been (living in) Ashkenaz, he would have composed all his kavanot based on Nusach Ashkenaz.”

He knew he was an Ashkenazi and indeed he may have used kavanot based on nusach Ashkenaz (particularly considering that he had only known R. Chaim Vital, his Sefaradi student, for the last two years of his life).


A similar case can be made regarding the question of wearing teffilin on Chol haMoed. As a rule, Safaradim do not wear them while Ashkenazim do. But which custom did the Ari Zal abide by himself?

It is highly probable that the Ari Zal personally did put on teffilin on Chol haMoed, as again, he believed that Ashkenazim should remain faithful to their customs.[8]

R. Hamburger supports this thesis by mentioning R. Nosson Adler - one of the teachers of the Chatam Sofer, and himself a kabbalist who followed the ways of the Ari Zal - who would wear teffilin on Chol haMoed, for the same reasons as outlined above (i.e. because he was an Ashkenazi).

A rather obvious observation (pointed out by my wife) is that since the Ari Zal prayed with Ashkenazim on the High Holy Days which include Chol haMoed, it is very likely that he followed their custom and wore teffilin as well.


If all this is correct, another interesting irony would be the persistence of Chassidim, in the era after the Baal Shem Tov, to pray from their new nusach Sefard-Chassidi or nusach Ari[9], even though they themselves were originally Ashkenazim.

Of course one could argue that for those who didn’t know their exact lineage, there was a ‘Thirteenth Gate’ which the Ari Zal is said to have established over and above the standard ‘Twelve Gates’ through which the prayers of each of the Twelve Tribes were to have passed.

As the Maggid of Mezeritch (1704-1772) writes:

Now that people do not know the tribe of their origin, and we also do not know which customs apply to which tribes, it is best to follow the order arranged by the Ari, which is universal.”[10]

The question remains, though, as to what the Ari Zal himself would have suggested (hypothetically, as he had lived two hundred years prior) to the new Chassidim whose ancestors had already been using the Ashkenazi nusach for generations?

Considering that the Pachad Yitzchak said: “The Holy Ari did not interfere with customs of [different] communities...”- one wonders whether he would have wanted an entire community to change to a new nusach?

The question becomes compounded when we remember that the Ari Zal, as an individual, had personally chosen to vacillate between the two relatively ancient rites of Ashkenaz and Sefard. And although he was rather blasé about it, remarking “these and those are (equally) the words of the living G-d” - we have no idea of his view regarding a ‘new’ nusach for an entire community.


These are just some of the interesting questions which arise from discovering that a great ‘Sefardi’ Kabbalist was, in fact, an Ashkenazi who probably kept Ashkenazi customs and didn’t want people to change their customs either.

And yet, although he is said to have ‘opened’ the Thirteenth Gate of Prayer, he himself appears - through his own practice and admission - to have downplayed the centrality of any particular nusach, by glibly moving from one to the other.

Although many are quick to place the Ari Zal into a ‘theological box’, it may be more difficult to categorise and define this ‘Ashkenazi Kabbalist’ than most would have imagined.

[For more on the conflicting legacies of the Ari Zal see: EMEK HAMELECH - THE BATTLE FOR THE SOUL OF THE ARI ZAL:]


Here is an opposing opinion by the Chatam Sofer (1762-1839) to that of the Maggid of Mezrich (quoted above) concerning the “Thirteenth Gate":

Teshuvot Chatam Sofer, Orach Chaim 16.

“What you quote from...[the Maggid about the Thirteenth gate][11] is that the Sefardic rite [of the Ari] is intended for those who do not know their tribe, I am not worthy of understanding. If this...were true, the Kohanim and Levites, who certainly know the tribe of their origin, should not use this rite, but a special liturgy for Levites. [We clearly see that this is not the case].

Furthermore, in the time of the Talmud, people were already ignorant of their tribes of origin...Would we, therefore, have to say that all the Talmudic sages also used the Sefardic rite, and if this were true, from what source have we derived other rites?...

We know that all the sages of France, Rashi, the Tosafists, Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, Rabbi Asher...and many others, all made use of the Ashkenazic rite. Even though they did not know their tribe, their prayers certainly ascended to the heavens.

The Ari himself used the poems that Rabbi Shimon the Great composed...saying that they were composed by one who knew the way of Truth...but Rabbi Shimon used the Ashkenazic rite...

Shall we then say that the prayers of all these saints were cut off, may the Merciful One protect us?”[12]

[1] Peninei Halacha, haNusachim uMinhagei he Edot, 2, p.86 -7.
[2] Berachot 28b.
[3] The Chida wrote in the name of the Ari that the Sefaradi nusach is a universal rite that passes through all the Twelve Gates of prayer (see later in the article). (Yabia Omer 6:10)
[4] Peninei Halacha, Tefillah, 6:8, p.95.
[5] See: Shut Chatam Sofer 1, 15.
[6] It has been suggested that the title was taken from II Samuel 1:22, Keshet (with a shin), “The Bow of Yehonatan.” A Samech was substituted for the shin and it became Keset or inkstand. The author was R. Yonatan ben Ya’akov.
[7] Pachad Yitzchak: Vol. 13, p. 107.
[8] See Treasure of Ashkenaz - The Lion of Ashkenaz: The Arizal You Didn’t Know.
[9] Nusach Ari should not be confused for the actual nusach the historical Ari Zal used.  Nusach Ari is an ‘approximation’ based ‘al pi nusach haAri Zal’
[10] Maggid Devarav leYa’akov 141. (Translation by R. Aryeh Kaplan.)
[11] Parenthesis mine.
[12] See: A Call to the Infinite, by R. Aryeh Kaplan. Moznaim Publishing Company 1986. P. 87. 


  1. It is interesting that although the Chassidim tend to be very "shtark" about their minhagim (the phrase "we don't change our minhagim" is quite common among them) they, nevertheless, felt there was no problem giving up many Ashkenazi minhagim which have been standard in Ashkenaz for centuries (like tefillin on chol ha'moed, nusach hatefillah, etc)

  2. Whilst searching for reasons of different versions of the shmoneh esrei, I noticed a work done by Rabbi Daniel Mordechai Remer (my father's exact 2 first names also) called Siddur Tefilat Chaim which is an explanation of Nusach ha-Ari received by R Chaim Vital. Regarding the blessing Chonen hadaas he explains that R Shmuel the son of R Chaim Vital may have adapted it to say Chochma Binah veDaas instead of the original Deyah Binah vehaSkel.

  3. The arizal wearing tefillin on chol hamoed can't be write. It's the Zohar Vs the yerushalmi. Even the gaon alav hashalom didn't wear on chol hamoed

    1. Your claim that " It's the Zohar Vs the yerushalmi." is not correct. It is more complicated than that.

      In Shorshei Minhag Ashkenaz volume five, various explanations are given for the Minhag Ashkenaz to wear tefillin on Chol Hamoed. Some of them address your specific point. For example, there are ראיות from the Bavli to wear tefillin on Chol Hamoed, and there is more than one way to understand and deal with the Zohar.

  4. Another thing that seems to contradict the chasam sober zal is that the air writes specifically not to say certain words or to say certain words because the shemot that show up or because the gematria and u find his opinion matching with edut hamizrach fully not even with sefard