Baruch Shalom ha Levi Ashlag (also known as the "Rabash") was born in Warsaw, Congress Poland, Russian Empire on January 22, 1907. He began his Kabbalah studying with his father's (Kabbalist Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag) selected students at the age of nine, and joined him on his trips to the Rabbi of Porisov and to the Rabbi of Belz. In 1921, at age 13, he immigrated with his family to the Land of Israel, and continued his schooling at the Hasidic institution "Torat Emet".
He was ordained as a rabbi at age 20 by the chief rabbis of Israel at that time, Abraham Isaac Kook, Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, and Yaakov Moshe Harlap. He did not want to use the knowledge of Torah he had acquired for a living. For most of his life, he was a simple worker, doing road works, construction works, and low-level clerical work. When the Rabash grew, he became his father's prime disciple. He joined his father (Yehuda Ashlag, author of the Sulam commentary on The Book of Zohar) on his trips, did his father's errands, and provided for his father's every need.
He would often study with his father in private, and what he'd heard from his father he wrote in his personal notebook. Thus, thousands of unique notes were accumulated, documenting Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag's explanations concerning the spiritual work of an individual. (It should be pointed out that Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag is considered one of the foremost Kabbalists of the 20th century. He is known as Baal HaSulam (Master of the Ladder) for his Sulam (Ladder) commentary on The Book of Zohar.
He studied Kabbalah with his father for more than thirty years. When his father, Baal HaSulam, fell ill, he appointed the Rabash to give the lessons to his disciples in his stead. After the passing of Baal HaSulam, the Rabash took his father's place as the leader of the Ashlag Hasidim, and dedicated his life to continue his father's unique way, to interpret and expand on his father's writings, and to disseminate the Kabbalah among the people.
Due to disputes concerning the rights to publish The Book of Zohar with the Sulam commentary that his father wrote, Baruch Ashlag left Israel for three years, spending most of that time in the United Kingdom. During that period, he also held discussions with Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson of Lubavitch, Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum of Satmar, and other prominent rabbis. He also taught Kabbalah in Gateshead and in other cities in the U.K.
Upon his return to Israel, the Rabash continued to study and to teach. He did not want to become publicly known as a Kabbalist; hence, as did his father, he declined any offers for official posts. After the end of the 1960s, he changed his ways and began teaching Kabbalah in broader circles. He would travel to wherever there was even the smallest demand to hear about Kabbalah. Among the cities he frequented were Hebron, Tiberias, and Jerusalem. In 1976, he expanded his seminary, and his humble home in Bnei Brak became a spacious synagogue. He himself moved to the second floor of the building. He would occasionally travel to Tiberias for purposes of seclusion.
In 1983, some forty new students joined the group of Kabbalists that the Rabash had been teaching up to that point. To help them "fit in" with the group more easily and quickly, he began to compose essays describing the spiritual evolution of an individual, and the basics of the work in a group of Kabbalists. From 1984 and up to his last day in 1991, he would write a weekly article and give it to his disciples. In time, his disciples collected the essays he had written and published them in a five volume publication known as Shlavey ha Sulam ("Rungs [of] the Ladder"). Rav Baruch Shalom HaLevi Ashlag died on September 13, 1991. He was interred on Har HaMenuchot.
The Rabash's primary engagement was interpretation and expansion of his father's (Baal HaSulam) compositions. The Rabash's essays are a far easier read than compositions of earlier Kabbalists, since they are written in a simple language. Baruch Ashlag dedicated most of his efforts to elaborate on an individual's spiritual path, from the very first steps, when one asks, "What is the meaning of my life?" to one's climb toward the revelation of the spiritual reality. His disciples testify that "the Rabash believed that any person, man or woman, and even the youngest child can study the internality of the Torah, if they only wish to complete the correction of their souls".
His primary publications:Shamati ("I Heard"): This is the Rabash's personal notebook, where he wrote what he had heard from his father throughout the time he was studying with him. The uniqueness of the book is in its content, and the (conversational) language in which it is written. The book contains essays that describe the spiritual states one experiences along the spiritual path. These essays are the only documentation that we have of the conversations the author of the Sulam commentary had had with his disciples.
The book title comes from the writing that appeared on the cover of the notebook in which it was written, where the Rabash himself wrote, "Shamati" (I heard). From the 2nd printing onward, the book also contains "The Melodies of the Upper World," music notes to 15 of the melodies Baal HaSulam and the Rabash composed.Igrot Rabash ("Letters [of the] Rabash"): These are letters Baruch Ashlag had sent to his disciples while he was overseas. In his letters, the Rabash answers his disciples' questions concerning their spiritual path and progress, indicates the spiritual meaning of the Jewish holidays according to Kabbalah, and addresses many other issues.
Dargot ha Sulam ("Steps [of] the Ladder"): This is a two-volume publication containing primarily utterances and notes that Rabbi Baruch Ashlag had written in the course of his life. These were mostly written as drafts on scraps of paper and served as headlines, drafts for essays and answers he'd written to his disciples. This book can teach a lot about the Rabash's state of mind and thoughts, and it continues the essays in the book Shamati.
Shlavey ha Sulam ("Rungs [of] the Ladder"): A comprehensive five-volume composition containing all of Rabash's essays between 1984 and 1991. In this publication, Ashlag explicates in detail his Kabbalistic doctrine, beginning from man's work in a group, which is a fundamental element in this teaching, through a Kabbalistic interpretation of the Torah (Pentateuch) as an allegory to a person's spiritual path in our world.
Rabbi Yehuda asserted that a human being is a social being and that one cannot exist without a society that provides for one's basic needs, and projects its values upon its members. As his father before him, the Rabash believed that an individual is constantly affected by the environment he is in. From the moment a person enters a certain society, he no longer has freedom of choice and is completely subordinate to its influence. According to Ashlag, one's only choice is the choice of the environment that will project the values one wants to adopt.
Rabbi Baruch Ashlag spent many years formulating the fundamentals of building a co-operative society that strives to achieve spirituality, the way Kabbalists perceived it throughout the generations: achieving love of the God by means of first attaining love of man. For this reason, the bulk of Rabash's essays are dedicated to explication and simplification of the principles of the spiritual work of an individual within such a society. The actual spiritual work is revealed through study and a process of internal transformation. Therefore the teaching cannot be understood simply intellectually and is dependent on the inner processes the disciple experiences.
Rabbi Baruch Ashlag asserted that two elements are imperative to one's spiritual path. First, one must find an environment that will promote one as safely and as quickly as possible toward "equivalence of form" with one's Maker. Next, one must know how to approach the study of Kabbalah correctly, so that no time is lost. Once we've explained the first element in the previous item, let us now explain the second: Kabbalists throughout the generations believed that during the study, a Light shines on a person's soul, a "Surrounding Light." To receive that Light within the soul, one need only want that Light to permeate one's soul. In other words, one needs to want to experience the states that the Kabbalist who wrote the book is describing. However, this is a complex process, requiring time and considerable effort on the part of the student, since one must reach a state of "prayer," i.e. to formulate a complete desire to discover the Higher Reality. The emphasis in his teachings is not on understanding the material, but on the individual's desire. From the moment a person acquires a complete measure of desire to reach spirituality, the spiritual world opens and one discovers the Upper Worlds described by the author.
In Shamati, essay 209, he mentions three conditions to reach "genuine" prayer, a complete desire for spirituality:
There are three conditions to a prayer: a) To believe that He [the Creator] can help one. b) That one no longer has any other counsel, that one has already done all that one could, but yielded no cure to one's affliction. c) That if He does not help one, one's death is better than one's life. Prayer is a matter of work in the heart. And the more one is lost, the greater is one's prayer.
And now we shall speak about the love of God. First, one should know that love is acquired through deeds. By giving presents to one's friend, each and every gift one gives to one's friend is like an arrow and a bullet that pierces a hole in one's friend's heart. And although one's friend's heart is like a stone, each and every bullet still punctures a hole, and from the many holes, a space is made. Then, the love of the giver of the presents enters within that space, and the warmth of the love attracts to it the sparks of love of one's friend. Thus, from two loves, a clothing of love is made, and this clothing covers them both.
…But we see that there is one thing common to all, meaning high spirits, as it is said, 'A concern in one's heart, let one tell it to others.' This is because with high spirits, neither wealth nor knowledge will help. Rather, one person can help another… It follows that each and everyone should pay attention and think how one can help one's friend, and make one's spirit high, for in high spirits, anyone can find a place of lack in one's friend, that one can fulfill.
…This is analogous to ten people standing, observing a plane in the sky from afar. To one, the plane seems like a little dot, and some wear binoculars, which magnify the plane by several times. And each has a different binocular, meaning for one it magnifies by a lot, and for another it magnifies less. Therefore, it turns out that one sees the plane as four meters long and the other says it is three, and another says it is only two etc. Certainly, they are all truthfully stating what they see, but still there are differences among them. Nevertheless, all those changes do not make changes in the plane itself. Rather, all the changes are only in the perceivers. Similarly, in spirituality, all the multiplicity of changes are only according to the merit of the qualification of the lower ones.
After his demise, several of his disciples continued to study according to his method: Rabbi Avraham Mordecai Gottlieb, Dzerke Rebbe; Rabbi Aharon Brizel, who currently teaches a Hasidic version of this method in New York; as well as Rabbi Feivel Okowita, who heads the Kabbalah Institute of America. Michael Laitman, Rabash's personal assistant, heads Bnei Baruch, an organization that is based in Petach Tikva, Israel and is dedicated to disseminating the wisdom of Kabbalah to the world.