Increasing numbers of tour groups and individual tourists are making it a point to put Safed (also known as Tzfat) on their tour itinerary, and with some amazing things to see and experience in this Galilee city, it’s not hard to see why. The mountaintop city is known as the City of Kabbalah and attracts many individuals who look forward to experiencing the spiritual, mystical and magical atmosphere that Safed offers.
This article looks at the more historical and spiritual side of Safed: for the ultimate Safed experience, don’t miss our guide to the must see things to see and do in Safed.
Safed’s Early History
Safed was first mentioned in the Talmud as “Zefath,” where the Yerushalmi Talmud noted that it was one of five elevated spots in which huge bonfires would be lit to alert the surrounding communities that a new month –Rosh Chodesh — had been declared. A few centuries later Safed was referenced in Josephus’s War of the Jews in which Josephus claimed that he had stationed a battalion of his soldiers in “Zefath” during the war against the Romans.
Any evidence of early Jewish life in Safed was destroyed when the Crusaders arrived in the 11th century. They built a huge fortress — the largest Crusader fortress built in the Middle East — on Safed’s mountaintop, obliterating any archaeological indications of the Jewish community that existed before their arrival. By the time that the Crusaders were defeated by the Beibars in the 13th century, a small Jewish community had been established further down the mountainside near the ancient cemetery. Ruins of the Crusader citadel are still visible on the mountaintop, a five-minute walk from Safed’s main street.
The existing Jewish community, a welcoming ruling Ottoman Empire, economic opportunities and Safed’s proximity to the area where Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai had written the Book of Zohar — the basis of Kabbalah — drew thousands of Jewish settlers and rabbis to the city in the 1500s. These people had been expelled from Spain and Portugal by the Inquisition and were drawn to Safed where they could live and study. Among the new residents were the greatest Kabbalistic scholars of the era who continued to develop and expand the study of Jewish mysticism. Many of the historical sites that are open today to visitors are connected to the Kabbalists of the 16th century.
The ARI and the ARI Synagogues
Rabbi Isaac Luria, known as “The ARI” was the preeminent Kabbalistic scholar of the era. He arrived in Safed in 1570 and developed the “Lurianic Kabbalah” which forms the basis of Kabbalistic study. Lurianic Kabbalah greatly influenced the Hassidic movement and it is still the cornerstone of Kabbalah study today. Lurianic Kabbalah teaches that Kabbalah — secrets that are embedded in the Torah — form the basis of one’s understanding of how to strengthen one’s relationship with God and with one’s fellow man.
During his lifetime in Safed the ARI prayed at the ancient Eliyahu Hanavi — Elijah the Prophet — synagogue which was located near Safed’s cemetery. A small cave inside the synagogue is where, according to legend, the ARI sat with Elijah the Prophet and studied new Kabbalistic inspirations. After the ARI’s death the synagogue was renamed the ARI Sepharadi in honor of the ARI’s Sepharadi father.
A second synagogue, the Gerigos synagogue, was built by Spanish Jews who escaped the Inquisition and fled to the Greek island of Gerigos and then managed to immigrate to Safed. These Jews had converted to Christianity under duress and were not immediately accepted by the Safed Jews. They built their synagogue on the outskirts of the town. Each Friday afternoon the ARI would arrive in the field next to the synagogue to sing psalms and prayers to mark the beginning of the Sabbath. This Kabbalat Shabbat service is still included in the Sabbath prayers of Jews throughout the world.
Following the ARI’s death, and with the decision of the rabbis to re-include the Gerigos Jews within the Jewish community, the synagogue was renamed the ARI Ashkanazi in honor of the Ari’s Ashkanazi mother.
One notable piece of furniture in the synagogue is the Elijah’s chair, a chair on which the sandak — godfather — traditionally sits with a baby boy during the child’s circumcision. According to tradition, if an infertile couple sits on the chair, they will have a child within a year — a belief to which many couples, even today, attest.
Joseph Caro Synagogue and Cave
Rabbi Joseph Caro was exiled from Spain in the late 15th century and lived in Turkey before he was able to immigrate to Safed. According to Jewish tradition Rabbi Caro was charged by God with compiling all of Jewish Law into one set of volumes so that the dispersed Jews of the Middle Ages could continue to adhere to Torah laws, practices and customs. God sent down an angel — the Maggid — who sat with Rabbi Caro in a cave where Rabbi Caro wrote the Code of Jewish Law — Shulhan Aruch. Next to the cave, in a larger room, Rabbi Caro functioned as the head of the Rabbinical Court of Safed.
The Joseph Caro synagogue was built on top of the cave and the synagogue is open for visitors who can see the unique Sepharadic synagogue style along with the hand-crafted wooden Ark and an ancient Geniza where old texts are stored. Tourists can walk down the stairs to the left of the synagogue to see the original cave which is frequently open for visitors.
The Abuhav synagogue is a favorite with many visitors. It is quite ornate with a domed ceiling that is painted with Kabbalistic images of animals, flowers and other figures.
Safed tradition relates that the Abuhav synagogue was built by Rabbi Abuhav in Spain who, through mystical powers, transported it to Safed after the Inquisition threatened to destroy it. Whether or not this is true is up to each person to decide. The synagogue does have Torah scrolls that are hundreds of years old and are still in use — they are taken out on holidays, including one 100-year-old Torah scroll which Rabbi Abuhav himself wrote.
The old stone buildings, arched doorways and domed ceilings of today’s Old City are built in the tradition of a Spanish Kahal — Jewish Quarter — as they existed in the Middle Ages. Safed itself was destroyed by two earthquakes, one in 1759 and one in 1837, and the buildings which are seen today have been rebuilt on top of the ruins.
An excavated home from the 1500s can be seen at the Tzfat Tourist Information Center which is run by the Livnot U’Lehibanot Israel Experience Program. Livnot participants excavated the building which is open to the public for free viewing.
Livnot, in conjunction with the Shvil Halev Safed Experience, has developed a video guide which allows visitors to conduct a self-guided tour of Safed on their smartphones. The videos are also available online for people who want to view the video tour in preparation for their visit.