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Lionising Luria

Mosseri III.232
Mosseri III.232: A autograph letter by Isaac Luria
Ben Outhwaite
Sun 31 Mar 2024

The Genizah has preserved only a few glimpses of the life of the influential qabbalist Isaac Luria Ashkenazi, the Ari – הארי ז׳׳ל, 1534–72 CE.1 Similarly sparsely attested in the documentary record of the Genizah is his contemporary Joseph Karo, compiler of the Beṯ Yosef and the Šulḥan Aruḵ. Karo spent most of his later career in Safed – about forty years in fact – and was not therefore a firsthand participant in the Egyptian communities preserved in the Cairo Genizah. Luria, on the other hand, spent most of his working life in Egypt, mainly in Cairo, so we might expect to find evidence of his activities. Although we associate him with the circle of scholars and mystics in Safed, he actually only settled back in Palestine, the land of his birth, for the final three years of his life (Fine 2003: 39). In the view of Solomon Schechter (1908: 253), it was a momentous event: ‘Safed reached the zenith of its fame with the advent of Loria’.2

Isaac Luria’s fame didn’t come from his own writings; he preferred to instruct students directly, often during long walks (Scholem & Idel 2007). His qabbalistic thought and methods instead have reached us through his thirty or so disciples, principally Ḥayyim Vital, and from later interpreters such as Israel Sarug (or Saruq, a pseudo-disciple or disciple once-removed). On the other hand, we do know that – like many of his generation – he was not a full-time scholar, and he made his living as a businessman. Abraham David (1992: 296) suggests that this phenomenon, which we see shared by many of the leading rabbinic scholars of the sixteenth century, was in accordance with Maimonides’ ruling in the Mishneh Torah (Talmud Torah 3:10) ‘that anyone who engages in Torah study without performing work and lives off charity, desecrates the Name, shows contempt for the Law, and extinguishes the Faith’ (שיעסק בתורה ולא יעשה מלאכה ויתפרנס מן הצדקה הרי זה חלל את השם ובזה את התורה וכבה מאור הדת). According to Lawrence Fine (2003: 32–4), Isaac Luria supported himself through trading in ‘pepper, wine, cucumbers, wheat, and leather’ – for which, all bar the cucumbers, we have documentary evidence.3

Isaac Luria continued in business even after settling in Safed to study and teach there, since he’s reported through the testimony of Jedidiah Galante (ידידיה גאלאנטי) in Leon de (Yehuda Arye) Modena’s Sefer Ari Noham (ספר ארי נוהם) as wrapping up his commercial affairs on his deathbed (Fine 2003: 34). De Modena wrote:

ועוד אמר בשם החכם הנ׳׳ל שהיה הארי רוב היום מתעסק בסחורה, ושלשה ימי קודם מותו חשב

חשבונותיו עם הכל ואמר להם אם הוניתם אותי אני מוחל לכם, ואם יש אונאה בעדכם בואו ונשלם

‘And he also said in the name of the aforementioned sage that Ha-Ari used to be busy most of the day engaged in trade, and three days before his death he settled his accounts with everyone. He said “If you took advantage of me, I forgive you, and if advantage was taken of you, come and let’s settle it”.’4

In fact, it is only the professional, commercial activities with which Luria supported himself and his family that leave a few traces in the Genizah, wholly from the period of his life spent in Egypt. For now I’m focusing on the autograph letter by Luria preserved in the Mosseri Genizah Collection, which is the sole document written by Isaac Luria himself that we have identified among the Cambridge collections, and which was first published by Simcha Assaf in his Texts and Studies in Jewish History (1946: 204–5). There’s a single other autograph letter in the Elkan Nathan Adler collection at JTS, ENA 2738.21, of a similar commercial nature, which was discovered and first edited by Benayahu (1985: 230, 241–2).5 These are the only two autographs so far known from one of the greatest qabbalists of the sixteenth century.6

How did Luria’s associates refer to him, surely not ‘Ha-Ari’? Modena (d. 1648), in the Ari Noham, calls him that, but this designation was probably used to lionise him only after his death. Scholem & Idel (2007) state that he was referred to as הריא׳׳ש (R. Isaac Ashkenazi) and הריא׳׳ל (R. Isaac Ashkenazi Luria) by the other scholars in Safed. From contemporary Genizah sources, we have two letters sent to him by Moses Benjamin, a trader in Rosetta (Rašīd), and in both he greets his close associate Luria in the opening line as לוריא אשכנזי, Luria Ashkenazi (T-S 6J4.31 and T-S 6J4.32).7 Only the second letter has an address on the verso, and it was addressed to יצחק לוריא אשכנזי, Isaac Luria Ashkenazi, with his full name. 


Address on verso of T-S 6J4.32

Address on verso of T-S 6J4.32, a letter of Moses Benjamin to Luria


The Cambridge library assistant and scholar, Ernest Worman (1909: 281), published a document detailing Luria’s sale of a consignment of pepper, and there he is referred to in formal terms the same way – Isaac Luria Ashkenazi (T-S 12.589).8


Detail of T-S 12.589

Detail of T-S 12.589, recto, the legal document


The accounts listed in ENA 3726.5 twice refer to Isaac Ashkenazi (יצחק אשכנזי), recording a debt in silver and the purchase of pepper.9 Rough accounting from January 1557 (השיב, which equates to 5+300+10+2 =(5)317 of Creation), discovered by Abraham David (1992: 294–5), is headed חסב הנשא ונעלה כה׳׳ר יצחק אשכנזי, ‘reckoning of the high and exalted, honourable R. Isaac Ashkenazi’, T-S Ar.30.58.10


Top of T-S Ar.30.58<

Top of T-S Ar.30.58, recto


A letter in Hebrew, from Mordecai Ashkenazi sends greetings to family members including to אחי אשר כנפשי כ׳׳ר יצחק אשכנזי יצ׳׳ו ‘my brother who is like my own soul, the honourable R. Isaac Ashkenazi – may his Rock and Redeemer keep him’ and rejoices at the news that he has added another child to his family (T-S NS J154).11


Detail from Luria’s brother’s letter, T-S NS J154

Detail from Luria’s brother’s letter, T-S NS J154, recto


To most associates, friends and even his family-members therefore he was Isaac Ashkenazi – his lineage was originally from Germany or Poland, though he himself was born in Jerusalem – or Isaac Luria, or just Luria. The designation Ha-Ari reflected his posthumous status and fame only, as ‘the Lion’. Contrary to some sources of information, the sage-name ארי does not stand for אשכנזי רבי יצחק, ‘Ashkenazi Rabbi Isaac’,12  but to ‘Saintly’ or ‘Godly Rabbi Isaac’, האלהי רבי יצחק, as can be seen on this title page from the Genizah, T-S K6.60, which includes a copy (on verso) of Luria’s teachings on the ten plagues as recorded by Joseph b. Ṭabūl, one of his disciples:13


T-S K6.60 recto

T-S K6.60, recto 


זה הספר של הרב בגדול המקובל האלהי כמהר׳׳ר יצחק לוריא ידיע אשכנזי זלה׳׳ה זכותו יגן עלינו אמן

‘This is the book of the great, beloved rav, the godly, our honoured teacher and master Isaac Luria, known as Ashkenazi – may his memory live in the world to come, may his merit watch over us, amen’

Now we come to the autograph letter itself, Mosseri III.232, and we can see that he signs it ‘Isaac Luria’ (at the bottom left) with a distinct Ottoman-era flourish to the signature that I now know should be called a pençe in Turkish.14  I think it’s possible the flourish is an alef, for A(shkenazi). The same pençe appears in both the autograph letters. 


Detail of signature from Mosseri III.232

Detail of signature from Mosseri III.232, recto


Detail of signature from ENA 2738.21

Detail of signature from ENA 2738.21, recto


Moses Benjamin employs a pençe in the more formal of his two letters (T-S 6J4.32), repeating his name vertically below his signature.

That Luria’s signature is hard to read is not surprising given how difficult in general his hand is. It’s cramped, on a small piece of paper, and he uses ligatured and stacked letters, which led to the two main editors of this fragment, Simcha Assaf (1946) and Meir Benayahu (1985), offering a number of divergent readings.


Detail from Luria’s letter, Mosseri III.232

Detail from Luria’s letter, Mosseri III.232, showing stacked and ligatured letters in גבורת גשמים in the first line and כתבתי in the second


I’ve done my best to decipher Luria’s handwriting, and produced my own transcription below – which is indebted to both Assaf and Benayahu. I’ve noted in the footnotes where my readings differ from theirs.

As pointed out by Benayahu (1985: 229) and others the letter must have been sent while Luria was still living and working in Egypt. It was certainly delivered locally, by a ‘runner’ (הרץ), i.e., a courier, who presumably operated at best an inter-city, rather than an international, service. The addressee is not known (the letter is damaged) and while there are remains of some words on the back, they are not a decipherable address. Luria was away from home in Cairo when he wrote the letter, as he states, probably in Alexandria, and the letter was most likely sent to Moses Benjamin in Rosetta (Benayahu 1985: 229), a distance of about 30 miles.

The letter is interesting for the simple details it records about the business activities of the mystic and sage, but also for the colourful Hebrew language in which he communicates them. Luria doesn’t refer to ‘summer’ and ‘winter’, but to the seasons of heat and the ‘mightiness of rains’. A relative’s marriage is celebrated in proverbial terms, and he wishes his business associate to ‘ride upon the heights of prosperity’. He’s polite and witty, and using Hebrew from a variety of sources, even in a run-of-the-mill business communication. Ultimately, from reading this, the impression I get is that it’s a shame that he didn’t write more in his lifetime, since he was evidently a talented writer in Hebrew. If you're wondering why he wrote in Hebrew, when he was born in Jerusalem, then the answer is rooted in the different Jewish communities of Ottoman Palestine and Egypt. Luria's father migrated probably from Germany to settle in the Holy City. After his father's death, Luria was raised by an uncle in Egypt called Mordecai Franses ('French', in Ladino). He did business with Sefardi merchants and studied with the circle of David b. Solomon ibn Zimra, himself born in Spain. He was educated, lived and worked within the Ashkenazi and Sefardi communities of Palestine and Egypt, rather than the local Mustaʿrib (Arabic-speaking) Jewish community, and their common language by necessity and choice was Hebrew.

Text of Mosseri III.232

1. אוצר התבונה ומבצר האמונה ממנו יתד ממנו פינה ימלא ה׳ פיהו רינה הנבון וחכם גב[…]

2. נרו אחרי פקודת השלום ורב התשוקה ל[ראו]ת במאור פניך אודיע לכת איך

3. הגיעתני אגרתך הנוראה ובה גלית את אזני שנתת המעות לגביר אחיך יצו ושלח אלי […]

4. וכן כתב אלי כהר יעקב אליקים שנתן לו גם הוא מעות ועד הנה לא הגיעני דבר וזמן החם

5. עבר והגיע גבורת גשמים לכן מאד אחלה פני כ׳׳ת שאם לא טען אל ישלח לי דבר כי הזמן

6. עבר כאשר כתבתי וגם אני לא אוכל להתעכב [……] לי ד[…] חוץ לביתי ועל כן גמרתי

7. לשלוח הרץ הזה וכן שמתי מאז בפי כהר חיים חכים יצו בלכתו שיתן כ׳׳ת קצת מהמעות

8. לכהר שמעון לשלחם לירושל[ם] תב[׳׳ב] וי[…]ר יה[י]ו […]קדים […]ת עד לכתי ׄ הנה ש[מחתי]

9. בשמעי שקרובי כה׳׳ר שמעון מצא אשה {מצא טוב} יהי בסימן טוב לנו ולכל ישראל לא אאריך כי אם

10. להעתיר לה׳ ירכיבך על במותי ההצלחה וישביעך ששון ושמחה כנפשך החכמה ונפש ע׳׳[ה] הצעיר

11. ונא תטה שלומותי אל נות ביתך מבת ואל           יום ג פ׳ גוי וקהל גוים יהיה              יצחק לוריא

12. דוניא בואינה ובנך יצו וכל הנלוים עליך                           ממך וכו׳


1. והנה לפי אשר הבנתי מכתב כת ששלח התבואה בכלל הכא למעלמין ואנכי

2. לא ידעתי אם כן הוא ישלח אלי פתקה באיזה ספינה בא ומאיזה

3. כלל ואם לא שלח [א]ל ישלח


1.    A store of understanding and a fortress of faith, ‘out of them shall come a tent-peg’, ‘out of them a cornerstone’.15 May the LORD fill his mouth with a joyful cry, the discerning and wise, [my lord]16

2.    may the Merciful One protect him and redeem him17 – after the store of wellbeing, the abundance of longing to [see]18 the light of your countenance. I inform the Eminence of your Torah19 how

3.    your disturbing letter arrived, in which you revealed to my ears20 that you gave the money to your noble brother21 – may His Rock and Redeemer keep him22 – and he sent23 me […]

4.    and indeed the honourable R.24 Jacob Elyaqim wrote to me25 that he too had given him money. And up to now26 I’ve received not a thing. And the season of heat27

5.    has passed, and the might of the rains has arrived.28 Therefore I greatly entreat the Eminence of your Torah29 that if he hasn’t already loaded it, don’t send me anything, because the time

6.    has passed as I have written. And I also cannot be delayed […]30 except to my house. And for that reason I have finished

7.    by sending this courier.31  And indeed I put some time back in the mouth of the honourable R.32  Ḥayyim Ḥakim33  – may his Rock and Redeemer keep him34  – when he was going that the Eminence of your Torah35 should give some of the money

8.    to the honourable R.36 Shimʿon to send it to Jerusalem37  – may it be rebuilt speedily in our days38  [……] until I go. I celebrated indeed

9.    when I heard that my relative the honourable R.39 Shimʿon had ‘found a wife {found a good thing}’40  – may it be a good sign for us and for all Israel. I won’t carry on any longer except

10.    to entreat the Lord to let you ride upon the heights of prosperity and sate you with joy and happiness to your own wise pleasure and the pleasure of the servant of the Lord,41 the humble Isaac Luria (across lines 10-11).

(Postscript, lines 11–12)

And please pass on42 my greetings to ‘her indoors’43  – blessed shall she be above all women in the tent44  – and to Doña Buena and to your son – may his Rock and Redeemer keep him45  – and to all who are attached to you.

(Date, lines 11–12)

Tuesday of the Paraša ‘A nation and a company of nations shall come from you etc’.46 

(Right margin, lines 1–3)

1.    And here from what I understood of the letter of the Eminence of your Torah,47 he has sent the grain in full here for the masters,48 and I 

2.    did not know if he would indeed send me a note49 on some ship that is coming and what 

3.    the total would be, and if he hasn’t sent it, then he should not.


Ben Outhwaite

Ben Outhwaite is Head of the Genizah Research Unit at Cambridge University Library.

This article first appeared as the Fragment of the Month for March 2024. If you enjoyed reading it, other Fragments of the Month can be found here.


Amar, Z. (1995). ‘The use of Cassia Fistula in the Land of Israel and Syria during the Middle Ages’, Korot 11, 56-64.

Ashtor, E. (1969). Histoire Des Prix et Des Salaires Dans L’Orient Médiéval.

Assaf, S. (1946). Texts and Studies in Jewish History.

Benayahu, M. (1985). תעודות מן הגניזה על עסקי מסחר שלאר׳׳י ועל בני משפחתו במצרים, in M. Benayahu (ed.), ספר זכרון להרב יצחק נסים (Sefer Zikkaron le-ha-rav Yiṣḥaq Nissim), 225–53.

David, A. (1992). ‘Halakhah and Commerce in the Biography of Isaac Luria’ (Hebrew), Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought – Proceedings of the Fourth International Conference on the History of Jewish Mysticism: Lurianic Kabbalah, 287–97.

Fine, L. (2003). Physician of the Soul, Healer of the Cosmos: Isaac Luria and His Kabbalistic Fellowship.

Lopez, R., Raymond, I., & Constable, O. (2001). Medieval Trade in the Mediterranean World: illustrative documents.

Schechter, S. (1908). 'Safed in the Sixteenth Century: a City of Legists and Mystics', in idem., Studies in Judaism, Second Series, 202–85.

Schochetman, E. (1983). מקורות חדשים מן הגניזה לפעילותו המסחרית על האר׳׳י במצרים, Pe’amim: Studies in Oriental Jewry 16, 56–64.

Scholem, G., & Idel, M. (2007). ‘Luria, Isaac ben Solomon’, in M. Berenbaum & F. Skolnik (eds), Encyclopaedia Judaica, 2nd Edition, vol. 13, 262–7.

Worman, E. (1909). ‘Un document concernant Isaac Louria’, Revue des Études Juives 57:114, 281.



1 He is pronounced colloquially in my part of the world as the ‘aRIZzle’, /aˈrɪzl/.

2 Some of the shine has left Safed since its Ottoman heyday. When, thirty years ago, I told one of my more metropolitan Israeli friends I was going to spend the day looking round Safed, he asked where I'd be going next – ‘Holon?!’. Schechter (1908: 285) concluded his essay on Safed with ‘Safed thus ceases to be a centre of attraction. It decays slowly’.

3 Fine’s view that Luria had a commercial interest in cucumbers derives ultimately from references to the unusual word כיאר/כייר in the autograph Hebrew letter ENA 2738.21 and the letter to him by Moses Benjamin, T-S 6J4.32. This word has been identified (Benayahu 1985: 229) as ‘cucumber’, from Arabic ḵiyyār (خيار), the common cucumber, cucumis sativus, or, by Schochetman (1983: 64), for instance, as some special kind of cucumber (‘סוג מיוחד של מלפפון’). However, in the age before refrigerated transport, it seems unlikely that Luria made his living shipping cucumbers around, no matter how special they might be. Instead, a more lucrative, stable, and specialised commodity is needed, and כיאר probably denotes ḵiyyār šanbar, cassia fistula, a flowering tree whose pods, when dried, were used medicinally as a purgative, and which was cultivated and prepared in Egypt at that time. Cassia fistula turns up in other commercial documents of the fourteenth–sixteenth centuries (Ashtor 1969: 387), as well as in contemporary European trade manuals (e.g., Lopez, Raymond & Constable 2001: 350). This interpretation of ḵiyyār as ‘purging cassia’ – known in English delightfully as ‘Golden Shower’ – undoubtedly trumps that of the humble cucumber. On the plant and its medieval use see Zohar Amar (1995).

4 Translation mine. This is from p. 80 of the Leibowitz 1980 edition of Ari Noham, downloaded from

5 It can be seen here:

6 In the online catalogue of the John Rylands Genizah Collection there is a fragment of a Zohar commentary (A 375) in which the cataloguer has written ‘Could this be written by Luria himself?’: Looking at the handwriting, no.

7 First published by Eliav Schochetman (1983), and subsequently by Benayahu (1985). These can be seen here: and

8 It can be seen here:

9 The accounts are here: Luria features twice, once on each side of the leaf. Other known associates of his appear too.

10 They can be found here:

11 It could be a different Isaac Ashkenazi, but most likely this is greetings to Luria from his brother. It can be seen here:

12 For instance, ‘Rabbi Isaac Luria has become famous as the “Ari,” the holy lion; Ari represents the initials of “Ashkenazi Rabbi Isaac”,’


14 Strictly to be distinguished from the more formal and elevated tuğra used by sultans, the pençe was a stylised monogram used on Ottoman documents by lower-level personages. Thanks to Nick Posegay and his thriving social-media feed for this information.

15 The two phrases, in reverse order, are from Zechariah 10:4. Benayahu (1985: 240) reads פנה, but the ligatured yod is visible.

16 The end of the line is lost, but it probably just said גבירי. Benayahu (1985: 240) reads כה׳׳ר, but it’s more likely a ג, and there is no room for a name after it. 

17 Abbreviating נטריה רחמנא ופרקיה. Luria marks abbreviations inconsistently.

18 The reconstruction לראות is reliable, based on the surviving traces of letters. Assaf (1946: 204) read לח[זור] …, and Benayahu (1985: 240) reconstructed לר[אות בעי]ני – neither are correct.

19 The unmarked abbreviation כת stands for כבוד תורתך.

20 Is this just an idiom or perhaps it suggests he indeed read the letter out loud?

21 Assaf (1946: 204) and I read ‘your brother’; Benayahu (1985: 240) read חתנך, ‘your son-in-law’, but he’s misled by the ligatured yod, seeing it as a nun.

22 Abbreviating ישמרו צורו וגואלו, or ישמור צורו ויחיהו, ‘His Rock keep and preserve him’.

23 Benayahu (1984: 240) read ישלח, but it’s definitely a waw.

24 Abbreviating כבוד הרב.

25 Benayahu (1985: 240) read לי, but the ligatured alef-lamed is clear.

26 Bravely reading הנה, against both Benayahu (1985: 240) and Assaf (1946: 205), who read עתה. The paper is damaged, but the correct reading is discernible and the idiom perfectly acceptable.

27 Benayahu (1985: 240) read וזמן הסתיו, ‘and the season of winter’, but this is not what Luria wrote. Moreover, according to Luria’s letter, this season predates the heavy rains that are shortly on their way. Alexandria experiences heavy rainfall – torrential, sometimes even hail – in the winter, which is to say December onwards, and so Assaf’s (1946: 205) reading is the correct one. I’m grateful to my informant Dr Sally Abed (from Alexandria) for the meteorological information.

28 The phrase גבורת גשמים is from Mishnah Taʿanit 1:1.

29 The abbreviation כת stands for כבוד תורתך, i.e., the recipient.

30 Benayahu (1985: 241) reconstructed this as להתעכב [בכאן להיות אני נ]חוץ לביתי, which was an audacious attempt, but does not match the letters that remain visible.

31 ‘This runner’, הרץ הזה, suggesting that he and the recipient are relatively closely located.

32 Abbreviating כבוד הרב.

33 In place of חיים חכים יצו, Benayahu (1985: 241) inexplicably reads חיים ה׳׳י.

34 Abbreviating ישמרו צורו וגואלו, or ישמור צורו ויחיהו, ‘His Rock keep and preserve him’.

35 Abbreviating כבוד תורתך.

36 Abbreviating כבוד הרב.

37 Assaf (1946: 205) read  לשלחם לי מעל [תו] תו׳׳ם ו… [א]קדיש … ת, whereas Benayahu (1984: 231) read and reconstructed לירושלם תב׳׳ב ו[אפ]שר יה[יו] [מופ]קדים [המע]ות. I don’t think the remaining traces of ink support fully Benayahu’s reconstruction, but the reading ‘Jerusalem’ is spot on.

38 Abbreviating תבנה במהרה בימינו (Mishnah Avot 5:20).

39 Abbreviating כבוד הרב.

40 Proverbs 18:22, with the second half of the quote added above the line.

41 Abbreviating עבד ה׳.

42 Reading תטה with Benayahu (1985: 241) for Assaf’s (1946:205) תנה.

43 My free translation of this phrase derived from Psalms 68:13, ונות בית, ‘she that is abiding at home’.

44 Abbreviating מנשים באוהל תבורך from Judges 5:24.

45 Abbreviating ישמרו צורו וגואלו, or ישמור צורו ויחיהו, ‘His Rock keep and preserve him’.

46 This is Genesis 35:11, so the reading is Parašat Vayyišlaḥ, which is read in Kislev/December in the Annual Cycle, showing again that Benayahu’s reading of the end of line 4 is not tenable (see footnote 27 above). Winter is coming, not ending.

47 Abbreviating כבוד תורתך.

48 Lit. ‘teachers’ (Arabic معلمين). Assaf (1946:205) read למעלתך, which would make sense, but is not what Luria wrote. Benayahu (1985: 229) explains מעלמין as ‘חוכרי המכס’, collectors of customs duties. Given it’s an Arabic word in a Hebrew letter, then it is likely to be a technical term like this.

49 Reading, with Benayahu (1985: 241), פתקה for Assaf’s (1946:205) פתקא.

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