All about Safed (Tzfat)
Safed (alternative spelling Tzfat) was an exciting place to live in the 1500’s CE. Its luminaries were developing new ideas for bringing the messianic redemption closer, primarily through the use of kabbala. Even today, Safed retains a rarefied, spiritual and magical atmosphere. In this circular walk through the Old City, we will try and capture this mystery, especially through its beautiful old synagogues.
The Abuhav Synagogue showing its beautiful interior.
A WALK AROUND SAFED
Time: A few hours.
Distance: About 6¾ Km, but the walk can be shortened to less than this.
Type of walk: Circular.
Difficulty: An easy walk on paved roads, but there is an elevation and lots of steps.
Directions and parking: Enter “Keren Hayesod” into Waze and click on “Keren Hayesod Safed.” There is plenty of free parking along the sides of the street. Park as close to the Old City end of the street as possible, although not the end as it can be difficult to get out of the cul de sac.
Messianism and kabbala in Safed
Following the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, Jews began immigrating throughout the Islamic world. With the defeat of the Mamlukes by the Ottomans in 1516, a power-house of kabbalists gathered in Safed in the 1500’s and they would have a profound influence on the Jewish world. Kabbala aims to improve personal piety as a step towards redemption. This was a town, therefore, in which much of its rabbinic leadership was striving towards a messianic future.
Two individuals, in particular, bestowed upon Safed its reputation as one of the four holy cities of Israel - Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, also known as the Ari, and Rabbi Yosef Karo. However, not only well-known rabbis lived in Safed, but thousands of Talmudic students learnt in multiple yeshivot throughout the town. Rav Yosef Caro, for example, had a yeshiva of 200 students. By 1584, 32 synagogues were registered in Safed.
The foundational book of Jewish mysticism is the Zohar. This was discovered by Moses de Leon in the 13th century and was allegedly written by the sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, a second-century Tannaitic sage. Tradition holds that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai spent 13 years in a cave hiding from the Romans in Peki’in in the Upper Galilee and was inspired to write this book by Elijah the Prophet. He was buried in Meron, not far from Safed, and the proximity of his burial place to Safed could be one reason why so many kabbalists began gathering here.
Rabbi Moshe Cordovero (1522-1570) living in Safed systemized the kabbala of the Zohar in an encyclopedic book called Pardes Rimonim. Rabbi Yitchak Luria (1534- 1572) arrived in the town in 1570 shortly after his death. He had producied a new system of kabbala as a development of the Zohar system called Lurianic Kabbala and it swept through the rabbinic world of Safed. He spent two years in Safed before dying at the young age of 38.
Lurianic kabbalah deals in particular with two theological issues. First, how was it possible for God to leave room for the creation of a universe when His presence is everywhere, and second, and related to this, how can God create a world out of nothing when His very presence means there is no nothing? The Ari’s answers to these questions are too complicated to be addressed here, but an extremely abbreviated and incomplete answer is that the Ari describes a process of tzimtzum (withdrawal) whereby God who is called the Ein Sof or That Which is Without Limit withdraws from Himself into Himself resulting in an empty primordial space. A dynamic process involving an intermediate and the light of the Ein Sof then results in the formation of ten sefirot (vessels) containing God’s creative activity.5 However, the Divine light is unable to be contained within the vessels of the lower sefirot and this results in a cosmic catastrophe known as shevirat hakelim (the breaking of the vessels). This allows for the demonic side of existence necessary for a person to be able to choose or reject good and evil. Because of the breaking of vessels, the light of the Ein Sof necessary to sustain the sefirotic realm becomes fragmented. The task allotted to the Jewish people is for a tikkun (putting right) and restoration of the holy sparks to their Source. Once the tikkun is complete, redemption will occur of not only the Jewish people but of all mankind and with it the repair of the entire cosmic process.
Rabbi Isaac Luria did not write down his system but taught it to disciples in Safed and his teachings were written up by his foremost disciple Rabbi Hayyim Vital (1542-1620) in his book Etz Hayyim.
Lurianic kabbala became the most accepted form of mysticism in the Jewish world. One reason for its popularity was its notion that each individual could influence the messianic process by reconstituting the sefirot and their vessels with sparks of holiness and thereby helping complete cosmic perfection. This could be done by keeping the commands of the Torah not perfunctorily but by directing one’s intent towards the command, by doing good deeds, and by studying kabbala.
Another extremely influential rabbi living in Safed was Rav Yosef Caro (1488-1575), the author of the Shulchan Aruch (“The Prepared Table”). This is a compendium of all Jewish law governing a person’s life. It was the most comprehensive halachic work of its time and was intended to bring consistency to halachic life. It became accepted as the authoritative guide to Jewish law. It was also thought that the practice of the purest form of halacha would speed up messianic redemption. Rabbi Caro served as Chief Rabbi of Safed and head of its rabbinical court after Rabbi Yaakov Beirav.
Rabbi Yaakov Beirav (1474-1546) lived in a number of places in the Islamic world before arriving in Safed. He attempted to institute the original semicha or rabbinical ordination which had been interrupted for 11 centuries. The restoration of the Sanhedrin would be a further step in promoting the coming of messianic times. He was able to ordain a number of rabbis, including Rav Yosef Caro and Rabbi’ Moshe Cordevero. However, there was strong opposition from a rabbi in Jerusalem and their disagreement became personal. In the end, his scheme failed to gather enough support from within the Jewish world and the idea fizzled.
Jews and Arabs in Safed
Safed was a mixed Jewish and Muslim town in the Muslim, Crusader and Ottoman periods and during the British Mandate. There are no Arabs now. How so?
The Jewish population of Safed increased considerably in the 16th century when Palestine became part of the Ottoman empire, and had the largest Jewish community of Ottoman Syria. In the mid-1500’s there were 7,000 Jews living Safed, and by 1584 32 synagogues were registered in the town. The Jews were heavily involved in the textile industry and they transformed the town into an important center for wool production and textile manufacturing. However, the fortunes of the town subsequently declined due to attacks, plagues and the earthquakes of 1759 and 1837. The latter led to the deaths of about 4,000 members of the Jewish community and destroyed all of its 14 synagogues.
By the beginning of the British Mandate in 1922 there were just 2,986 Jews in Safed and almost twice as many Muslims. During the Palestine riots of 1929 there were riots in Safed and Hebron, and 20 Jews were killed in Safed. In riots between 1936 to 1939, the British constructed the stairway to separate the two sides. It is named in memory of seven fighters of the Jewish underground who were executed in Acre prison in 1947 and buried in Safed. By the civil war of 1948 there were only 1,700 Jews left in town, mainly elderly and religious, and the Jewish Quarter was under siege by the Muslims. The British left Safed in April 1948 and about 400 Arab Liberation soldiers and local militiaman attempted to take over the Jewish Quarter with the announced intention of massacring the Jewish population. In May 1948 the Palmach initiated two offensives, seized the city’s dominant buildings including the citadel and the police station, and pounded sites within the Arab quarter. This led to the flight of the Arab population through a route left free for them. The Davidka was a primitive home-made mortar that was used during the offensive. It was inaccurate but made a ferocious noise and may have been instrumental in leading to the flight of the Arab population who thought that the Jews had a secret weapon. The Davidka is now in a small park on Jerusalem St., the main thoroughfare of the city, adjacent to the stairway.
In the Ashkenazi Ari Synagogue the ark is in an Ashkenazi rather than Sephardi-style as in the other synagogues seen up to now. It was built by an artisan from Galicia.
The three arks of the Ha’Ari Sephardi Synagogue.
A CIRCULAR WALK THROUGH THE OLD CITY OF SAFED
Walking through the Old City of Safed using directions can sometimes be tricky, since some of the route described is on unnamed alleyways. For this reason, I often talk about numbered turnings. If you lose your way, it should not be difficult to find your location on Google Maps.
First stop - the Sephardi HaAri Synagogue: Go to the very end of Keren Hayesod (heading in the direction of the center of town). On the left of the cul de sac is a short tunnel that leads to a series of steps that descend past the Breslov synagogue to Ha’Ari St. The first building on your right is the Ari Sephardi Synagogue. It is usually open most of the day. (Directions: Enter “Ari Sephardic Synagogue” into Google Maps and click on “Ari Sephardic Synagogue, HaAri Street, Safed).”
This is the oldest building in Safed and was in existence 300 years before Rabbi Isaac Luria arrived and spent time here. (Note that none of the synagogues we will be visiting are original buildings, since all of them were completely or partially destroyed by earthquakes in 1759 and 1837. However, all are in the same location as their original building and their overall structure is similar, although their interior would probably have been different). This present building was renovated by a philanthropist three years after the earthquake of 1837. of 1837.
During the Ari’s lifetime, this synagogue was dedicated to Eliyahu Hanavi (Elijah the Prophet), but it was renamed some years after the Ari’s death. The synagogue overlooks Mount Meron and the tomb of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai at Meron (more details about the view when we reach the Meiri Lookout). There is a special room adjoining the main sanctuary where legend holds that the Ari studied Torah and kabbalah with Elijah the Prophet. Note the three arks for the Torah scrolls (most synagogues have only one).
[If you have time, consider visiting from here the Ari’s mikveh (ritual bath) and his tomb in the cemetery. Go down the steps and turn to the left. This mikveh could have been the one used by the Ari. If you are male, consider an immersion (this mikveh is for males only). It is a worthwhile experience, especially if you have never been in a mikveh before. You will certainly get a physical jolt, and this may even jolt you spiritually! You will be completely naked and the spring water is really cold. After drying, continue on this road past the staircase you came down on to the tombs of the Ari, Rabbi Moshe Cordovero and Rabbi Shlomo Al-Kabets. They are not far from the mikveh and are located close to each other under the first covered area on the left].
We have discussed the Ari and Rabbi Moshe Carderovo, but not Rabbi Al-Kabetz. Rabbi Al-Kabetz is well-known for composing the words of the hymn “Lecho Dodi.” One of the Ari’s customs was to leave the synagogue and go out to a field on Friday night to greet the Sabbath. From this arose the popular custom of singing Lecha Dodi written by Rabbi Shlomo Al-Kabets (1508-1593) also from Safed, in honor of the arrival of the Sabbath. This hymn is now sung throughout the Jewish world on Friday night. if you examine the translation, you will notice that other than its first two verses and its refrain, this hymn makes no further mention of the Sabbath but of the future messianic redemption. This fits in well the ethos of 16th century Safed.
Beit HaMeiri, the Meiri Lookout and Ma’a lot Oleh HaGardomaz: Go back up the staircase from Ha’Ari St to Keren Hayesod. Depending on your time and interest, the Beit HaMeiri (HaMeiri House Museum) at Keren Hayesod 158th could be worth a visit. Turn right onto Keren Hayesod and the museum is the first building on your left after the cul de sac. (Directions: Enter “Beit Hameiri” into Google Maps and click on “Beit Hameiri, Keren ha-Yesod Street, Safed”).
This museum documents Jewish life in Safed for the last 200 years through 9 exhibits. The museum is the work of one person Yehezkiel Hemeiri. Yehezkiel did not live in this building but purchased it for his museum. There is no brochure, but they do have a sheet in English which explains what you are about to see. The rooms at street level are over 400 years old. The top level would have been the living quarters of people who formerly lived here and the lower levels their cellars (now converted to exhibition halls). The museum is open 8.30 am-2.30 pm Monday to Thursday, and is closed Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The phone number is 04-692 1939. This is their website.
Continue along Keren Hayesod until you come to the stairway Ma’alot Oley HaGardom, this being the first turning on the left. Opposite this stairway on the other side of the road is Mitzpe Meiri (Meiri Lookout), named after Yehezkiel Hemeiri (1934-1984) who developed the Beit HeMeiri museum. On a sign is a summary of his professional life and why this secular Jew spent 30 years of his life engaged in this project. The observation area also has a useful sign identifying the view. Mount Meron is the highest peak on your far right.
The long staircase of Ma’alot Oley HaGardom was the dividing line between the Jewish and Arab communities of Safed prior to the 1948 War of Independence. During the war, the Arab population fled and its houses were taken over by immigrants and artisans. Safed was very influential in the development of Israeli art, and its artists such as Moshe Castell and Yitzchak Frenkel developed international reputations.
The Artists Quarter: Take the first right from the stairway. (From the stairway, you can see the blue sign Artists Colony at its entrance). A good starting place for appreciating this section of the Old City is the General Exhibition, which is in a former mosque, and which you will soon see ahead of you.
The founding artists of Safed took over this abandoned mosque to exhibit their works as an Artists Colony cooperative. Many of the artists of Safed continue to exhibit here even if they have galleries elsewhere. All the works on exhibit are for sale. Some have their price conveniently marked on their work, while others do not and you will have to ask. By the main gallery are workshops used by up-and-coming artists, some cafes and a WC (you will need to ask for the key in the main gallery). Opening hours for the General Exhibition are Sunday to Thursday 10.00 am to 5.00 pm and to 6.00 pm in the summer, and Friday and Saturday 10.00 to 2.00 pm. Admission is free.
You may wish to wander a bit around the Artist Quarter. Otherwise, retrace your steps back to Maalot Oley HaGardom and continue along Gallery Avenue, which is a continuation of the street you just came from. It is covered and contains many art and tourist stores. Two synagogues along this road are of interest.
Rav Yosef Karo Synagogue: A short distance from the second turning on the left from the stairway is the Rav Yosef Karo Synagogue. There is an overhead sign. The synagogue is open for prayer services from early morning to late at night, but may be closed now during the day because of Covid.
This building was constructed in the 16th century as a house of learning and rabbinical court rather than a synagogue. Only recently has it been functioning as a synagogue. As the Chief Rabbi of Safed, Rav Caro would have taught and adjudicated here. It was destroyed and rebuilt following the earthquakes of 1759 and 1837. Its last rebuilding was in 1839 by an Italian scholar and philanthropist Rabbi Yitzchak Goyatos who dedicated himself to rebuilding many of the destroyed synagogues of Safed. Beneath the synagogue is a residence where Rav Yosef Caro lived and completed his works.
As one enters, there is a map on the wall to the left showing Rav Caro’s travels from Spain prior to arriving in Safed. The marble floors are from Italy. The bima or central elevated prayer area is larger than it was previously, being replaced about 40 years ago. Otherwise, little would have changed.
The Abuhav Synagogue: As the covering above Gallery Avenue comes to an end, on the left is the woman’s entrance to the Abuhav Synagogue. Go through the building and turn left to the men’s entrance. Alternatively, and probably better for guys, go down the next alley on the left that has a sign to the Abuhav Winery. A sign on the left indicates the direction to the synagogue.
Rabbi Yitzhak Abuhav was likely a well-known kabbalistic rabbi from Spain who never lived in Safed. However, his disciple Rabbi Yaacov Beirav and others brought his sefer Torah to Safed. This sefer Torah is the oldest in Safed and is used on special occasions. The building was originally from the 1500’s and was rebuilt after the earthquake of 1759. The Torah was undamaged during the earthquake. There are things of kabbalistic significance in its beautiful interior. It has three arks. The ark on the right contains the scroll penned by Rabbi Abuhav. Its decorative interior has musical instruments used in the Temple, the signs of the tribes of Israel, and four crowns – that of Torah, the priesthood, royalty, and impending redemption. There are usually three crowns – the fourth is specific to Safed. There are WC’s outside.
Livnot U’Lehibanot. This institute and tourist information site is on the continuation of Gallery Avenue at 17 Alkabetz, just after the previously mentioned turning on the left.
This is a non-affiliated educational institute that provides young adults with little or no Jewish education the opportunity to connect to their Jewish heritage on their own terms through different programs involving hiking, volunteering and experiential education. The organization also provides tourist information about Safed. In the process of excavating their premises, they reminded everyone that Safed is built on the ruins of previous generations, and they discovered underground rooms and communal areas from the 16th century. These discoveries in this now national Heritage site can be viewed as part of a tour. They also sell an extremely useful artistic map of the Old City that is available for 10 nis.
The HaAri HaAshkenazi Synagogue and Safed Candles: Take the next staircase on the right after Livnot U’Lehibanot and the synagogue is on your left. (Alternatively enter “Ari Ashkenazi Synagogue” into Google Maps).
This synagogue was originally built by Spanish immigrants who had lived for a while in Greece. They were kabbalists who were followers in the main of Rabbi Moshe Cordevoro. The Ari joined their synagogue in 1570. The synagogue became Ashkenazi in the 18th century when Hassidim from Europe took it over, and it then became known as the Ashkenazi Ari Synagogue. The synagogue was destroyed by the earthquake of 1837, but rebuilt 20 years later.
For something different, continue further along this street to Safed Candles on the right.
There is nothing ancient about this store. It contains lots of interesting sculpted scenes and caricatures made from bee’s wax and has become a popular destination for tourists. Their phone number is 04 682-2068.
Defender’s Square, or Kikar HaMeginim: Return to the stairway and continue up to the next intersection. At the intersection, continue up through an alleyway, and this will bring you to Defender’s Square or Kikar HaMeginim, which is the central plaza of Safed’s Old City. (Directions: Enter into Google Maps “Kikar HaMeganim).”
There are several fast-food type restaurants in the square and it is a popular hangout. It is named after the defenders of Safed during the War of Independence. Adjacent buildings were the headquarters of the Palmach.
Ma’alot Oley HaGardom and back to your car: Take the far right Hatam Sofer St. until you come to the main stairway Ma’a lot Oley HaGardom. You can see the original post office building at the top of the stairway, including its searchlight. To visit the town, its restaurants and cafes, and for a view of the Davidka go to the left. Otherwise, turn right down the stairway to your car.
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Interior water plumbing is a recent innovation. This is a water cistern in Beit HaMeiri fed from rain water.
The original post office building and its searchlight have been left. The British also had a gun placement controlling the stairway.