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A walk through the Old City of Safed

Safed (Tzfat in Hebrew) in the 1500s CE would have been an exciting place to live in spiritually. New ideas in kabbalah and new halachic works were originating from Safed that influence the Jewish world to this day. Many of the rabbis living here were immersed in kabbalah and were convinced that the messianic dawn was approaching. The ideas of Rabbi Yitzhak Luria (the Ari), a new arrival to Safed, provided the means for His appearance. This would be called Lurianic kabbala. Even today, the Old City of Safed retains its spiritual atmosphere. In this circular walk, we will try and capture this spirituality, especially through its synagogues. None of these synagogues date from the 1500s, as they were destroyed during the earthquakes of 1759 and 1837, but all have been reconstructed and all have much beauty and charm.

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The three arks of the Ha’Ari Sephardi Synagogue.

A WALK AROUND SAFED

 

Time: A few hours.

Distance: About 6¾ Km, but the walk can be shortened.

Type of walk: Circular.

Difficulty: An easy walk on paved roads. There is an elevation and lots of steps.

Directions, starting point and parking: This walk starts on Keren Hayesod St. There is often plenty of free parking along the sides of this street. Enter “Keren Hayesod” into Waze and click on “Keren Hayesod Safed.” Park as close to the Old City end of the street as possible, although not right at the end as it can be difficult to get out of the cul-de-sac.

Public transport: Safed is well serviced by bus lines, with direct and frequent buses from Jerusalem, Bnei Brak and Haifa for example. Enter “Safed” into Moovit.

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The kabbalah, messianism and halachic writings of the rabbis of Safed

 

Following their expulsion from Christian Spain in 1492, many Jews immigrated to the Islamic world. Suleiman the Magnificent defeated the Mamlukes in 1516, and he welcomed Jews to his new Ottoman Empire of which Palestine was a part. A power-house of kabbalists began gathering in Safed in the 1500s who would have a profound influence on the Jewish world. 

Two individuals, in particular, were responsible for Safed’s reputation as one of the holy cities of Israel - Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, also known as the Ari, who developed Lurianic Kabbalah and Rabbi Yosef Karo, who wrote the famous halachic work the Shulchan Aruch. There were also thousands of talmudic students learning in yeshivot throughout the city. Rav Yosef Caro, for example, had a yeshiva of 200 students. By 1584, there were 32 synagogues registered with the Ottoman authorities.

The foundational book of Jewish mysticism is the Zohar. This was revealed by Moses de Leon in the 13th century and was allegedly written by the sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (Rashbi), a second-century Tannaitic sage. Tradition holds that Rashbi spent 13 years in a cave hiding from the Romans 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 so many kabbalists began gathering in Safed. One of these kabbalists was Rabbi Moshe Cordovero (1522-1570) who systemized the kabbalah of the Zohar in an encyclopedic work called Pardes Rimonim. He also led a study group of kabbalists.

Rabbi Yitchak Luria (1534- 1572) arrived in Safed in 1570 and joined Rabbi Cordevero’s group. People immediately recognized that he was functioning on an elevated spiritual level. He had also developed a new system of kabbalah based on the Zohar. When Rabbi Cordevero passed away, a cadre of disciples gathered around the Ari. The Ari lived only two years in Safed before dying in a plague at the young age of 38, but this was enough time for his ideas to set Safed ablaze.

 The Ari described a process of tzimtzum (withdrawal) whereby God, who is called the Ein Sof or That Which is Without Limit, withdrew from Himself into Himself at the time of creation resulting in an empty primordial space. A dynamic process involving an intermediate and the light of the Ein Sof then resulted in the formation of ten sefirot (vessels) containing God’s creative activity. However, the Divine light was unable to be contained within the vessels of the lower sefirot and this resulted in a cosmic catastrophe known as shevirat hakelim (the breaking of the vessels). This permitted the demonic side of existence necessary for a person to be able to choose good or evil. Because of the breaking of vessels, the light of the Ein Sof necessary to sustain the sefirotic realm became 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, and with this the repair of the entire cosmic process, redemption will occur not only of the Jewish people but of all mankind.

The Ari did not write down his system but taught it to his disciples in Safed and his teachings were written up by his foremost disciple Rabbi Hayyim Vital (1542-1620) in a book called Etz Hayyim. Lurianic kabbalah spread across the Jewish world. One reason for its popularity was the notion that each individual could influence the messianic process by reconstituting the sefirot and their vessels with sparks of holiness. These sparks could arise by keeping the commands of the Torah, not perfunctorily but by directing one’s intent towards each command, by doing good deeds, and studying kabbalah. Lurianic kabbala would subsequently become the foundation of a new messianic movement that arose and swept across Eastern Europe in the 1700s called Hassidism.

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 rabbinic ordination program which had been interrupted for eleven centuries and which would allow for the restoration of the Sanhedrin. This, in turn, would also be a step in promoting the coming of messianic times. He ordained a number of rabbis, including Rav Yosef Caro and Rabbi Moshe Cordevero. However, there was strong opposition to his idea from a rabbi in Jerusalem. Rabbi Beirav's scheme failed to gather enough support from within the Jewish world and the idea fizzled.

​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 that governs a person’s life. It was the first and most comprehensive halachic work of its time to bring together and decide upon halachic opinions from different authorities and was intended to bring consistency to halachic life. It became widely accepted throughout the Jewish world as the authoritative guide to Jewish law. The practice of the purest form of halacha was envisioned as speeding up messianic redemption, especially after the failure of Rabbi Beirav’s semicha program. Rav Caro served as Chief Rabbi of Safed and head of its rabbinical court after the passing away of Rabbi Beirav.

The Jews and Arabs of Safed

 

Safed was a mixed Jewish and Muslim town during the Muslim, Crusader and Ottoman periods and also during the British Mandate. There are no Arabs there now. How come?

 

The Jewish population of Safed increased considerably during the 16th century when Palestine became part of the Ottoman empire. It would have the largest Jewish community in Ottoman Syria. By the mid-1500s there were 7,000 Jews living Safed. They were heavily involved in the textile industry and transformed the city into an important center for textile manufacturing using innovative technology and the water power of Nahal Amud. However, the fortunes of the town subsequently declined due to competition within the textile industry, plagues and the earthquakes of 1759 and 1837. Buildings were on a hill and crumpled one on top of another. The earthquake of 1837 led to the deaths of about 4,000 Jews and the destruction of all its 14 synagogues.

 

By the beginning of the British Mandate in 1922 there were only 2,986 Jews living in Safed and almost twice as many Muslims. During the Arab riots of 1929 there were riots in Safed and Hebron and twenty Jews were killed in Safed. In riots between 1936 to 1939, the British constructed a wide stairway to separate the two sides. It is now called Ma’alot Oley HaGardom in memory of seven fighters of the Jewish underground who were executed in Acre prison in 1947 and who are buried in Safed.

 

During the civil war between Jews and Arabs that was the initial stage of the War of Independence, there were only 1,700 Jews left in Safed, mainly elderly and religious. The British left the city in April 1948 as part of their withdrawal from the country. About 400 Arab Liberation soldiers and local militiaman attempted to take over the Jewish Quarter with the intention, clearly announced, 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.

 

The Davidka was a primitive home-made mortar used during this 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 the Jews had a secret weapon. The entire Arab population fled via a route that had been left open for them. The Davidka is on display in a small park on Jerusalem St., the main thoroughfare of the city, adjacent to the stairway.

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The ark In the Ashkenazi Ari Synagogue is constructed in an Ashkenazi rather than in the Sephardi-style seen in the other synagogues up to now. It was built by an artisan from Galicia. 

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The beautiful interior of the Abuhav Synagogue.

A CIRCULAR WALK THROUGH THE OLD CITY OF SAFED

 

Walking through the Old City of Safed using road names for direction can be tricky, since there are a lot of unnamed alleyways. For this reason, I often talk about numbered turnings. However, if you lose your way, it should not be difficult to find your location on Google Maps.

Our first stop is the Sephardi HaAri Synagogue (A):

 

  • Assuming you are parked on Keren Hayesod, walk to the very end of the street (heading in the direction of the center of town). Otherwise, make your way to this street. 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 (A). Alternatively, enter “Ari Sephardic Synagogue” into Google Maps. The synagogue is usually open most of the day.

 

This is the oldest building in Safed and already existed 300 years before Rabbi Yitzchak Luria arrived in Safed and spent time here. None of the synagogues we will be visiting are original buildings, including this one, since all were completely or partially destroyed by earthquakes. 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 building was renovated by a philanthropist three years after the earthquake of 1837. 

 

Although now in a relatively low part of the Old City, this synagogue was once in the heart of the Jewish Quarter and was one of three synagogues in this location. (The Jewish Quarter subsequently expanded up the hill). Its congregation was North African Jews. The synagogue was dedicated to Eliyahu Hanavi (Elijah the Prophet), but was renamed in the Ari’s memory some years after his death. It overlooks Mount Meron and the tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai at Meron. There is a small cave opening on the eastern wall of the synagogue and legend holds that the Ari studied Torah and kabbalah in this cave with Elijah the Prophet. Note the three arks for the Torah scrolls (most synagogues have only one ark).

 

The Ari's mikvah (B) and tomb (C)

 

  • Consider going to the Ari’s mikvah (ritual bath) (B) and his tomb in the cemetery (C). Go in the opposite direction along HaAri St that you took to get to the Ari Synagogue until you reach the mikvah (B). It could have been used by the Ari. According to tradition, he was purified here before his burial. If you are male, consider an immersion (this mikvah is for males only). It is an experience, especially if you have never been in a mikvah 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.

 

  • Then go back on the road you came on, and opposite the staircase you came down on take the path down to the cemetery, including the tombs of the Ari, Rabbi Moshe Cordovero and Rabbi Shlomo Al-Kabetz (C). They are not far from the mikvah and are located adjoining each other under the first covered area on your left.t.

 

We have discussed the Ari and Rabbi Moshe Carderovo, but not Rabbi Al-Kabetz. He is the author of the popular poem “Lecho dodi” sung in the synagogue on Friday night. If you examine its translation, you will notice that other than its first two verses and its refrain, this hymn makes no further mention of the Sabbath but only the future messianic redemption. This fits in well with the expectations of the rabbinic leaders of 16th century Safed.

 

Beit HaMeiri (HaMeiri House Museum) (D):

 

  • Go back up the staircase from Ha’Ari St. and turn right onto Keren Hayesod St. Depending on your time and interest, the Beit HaMeiri (D) at 158 Keren Hayesod St. could be worth a visit. It is the first building on your left after the cul de sac. Alternatively, enter “Beit Hameiri” into Google Maps and click on “Beit Hameiri, Keren ha-Yesod Street, Safed.”

 

This museum documents Jewish life in Safed over the last 200 years through nine 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 explaining the exhibits. The rooms at street level are over 400 years old. The top level would have been the living quarters of the people who once lived here and the lower levels their cellars (now converted into exhibition halls). The museum is open 8.30 a.m. to 2.30 p.m. from Monday to Thursday and is closed Friday, Shabbat and Sunday. Their phone number is 04-692 1939. Click here for their website.  

 

The Meiri Lookout (E) and the stairway Ma’alot Oley HaGardom:

 

  • Continue along Keren Hayesod St. until you come to the stairway Ma’alot Oley HaGardom, which is the first turning on the left. Opposite the beginning of this stairway on the other side of the road is the lookout Mitzpe Meiri (Meiri Lookout) (E) , named after Yehezkel Ha'Meiri (1934-1984) who developed the Beit HeMeiri Museum.

 

On a sign is a summary of Yehezkel's professional life and why this secular Jew spent 30 years engaged in this project. Another useful sign identifies the view that can be seen from this observation area. Mount Meron is the highest peak on the far right.


The long staircase 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. The artists of Safed were very influential in the development of Israeli art, and artists such as Moshe Castell and Yitzchak Frenkel developed international reputations.

 

The Artists Quarter and General Exhibition (F):

 

  • Take the first turning on the right going up the stairway. There is a blue sign Artists Colony at its entrance. A good starting place for appreciating this section of the Old City is the General Exhibition (F) in a former mosque. You will soon see it ahead of you.

 

The founding artists of Safed formed an Artists Colony cooperative and took over this abandoned mosque for exhibiting their works. Many of the artists of Safed continue to exhibit here even if they have galleries elsewhere. All the works displayed are for sale. Some have the price marked on their work, while others do not and you will have to ask. Close to the main gallery are workshops used by up-and-coming artists, some cafes and a restroom (for which you may need to ask for the key in the main gallery). Opening hours for the General Exhibition are Sunday to Thursday 10.00 a.m. to 5.00 pm and 6.00 p.m. in the summer, and Friday and Saturday 10.00 a.m. to 2.00 p.m. There is no admission charge.

 

  • You may wish to wander around the Artist Quarter. Otherwise, retrace your steps, cross Maalot Oley HaGardom and continue along this covered street, which is Gallery Avenue. It contains many art and tourist stores. Two synagogues on this street are of interest.

 

The Rav Yosef Caro Synagogue (G):

 

  • A short distance past the second turning on the left from the stairway is the Rav Yosef Caro Synagogue (G). There is an overhead sign on Gallery Avenue. Alternatively, enter “Rabi Joseph Karo” into Google maps. The synagogue is open from early morning until late at night.

 

This building was originally constructed in the 16th century and was used as a house of learning and rabbinical court rather than as a synagogue. Only recently has it been functioning as a house of prayer. 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. Near its entrance is a map on the wall 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. 

 

  • Beneath the synagogue is Rav Yosef Caro’s residence where he lived and completed his writings. You can walk around the building to see its entrance, although it functions as a study hall for Torah and is usually locked.

 

The Abuhav Synagogue (H):

 

  • Just after the covering over Gallery Avenue comes to an end, you will see the woman’s entrance to the Abuhav Synagogue (H) on your left. Guys can go down the next alley on the left that has a sign to the Abuhav Winery. Another sign on the left on this alley indicates the direction to the synagogue. Alternatively, enter “Abuhav Synagogue” into Google maps.

 

Rabbi Yitzhak Abuhav was a well-known kabbalist and community leader from Spain who never actually lived in Safed. However, his disciple Rabbi Yaacov Beirav and others brought his Sefer Torah (scroll of the law) to Safed. This Sefer Torah is the oldest in Safed and is still used on special occasions. The synagogue is originally from the 1500s and was rebuilt after the earthquake of 1759. The Torah was undamaged during the earthquake. The synagogue has three arks and the one on the right contains the scroll penned by Rabbi Abuhav. The decorative interior of the synagogue has pictures of musical instruments used in the Temple, the signs of the tribes of Israel, and four crowns – the crowns of Torah, priesthood, royalty, and impending redemption. There are usually only three crowns – impending redemption is specific to Safed. There are restrooms just outside the synagogue.

 

Livnot U’Lehibanot (I):

 

  • This institute and tourist information site is located on the continuation of Gallery Avenue at 17 Alkabetz, just after the previously mentioned turning on the left.  

 

Livnot U’Lehibnot (I) is a non-affiliated educational institute that provides young adults with little or no previous Jewish education the opportunity to connect to their Jewish heritage on their own terms, including experiential education, hiking, and volunteering. It also provides tourist information about Safed. During excavation of their premises, underground rooms, a communal area and a mikvah were discovered from the 16th century. Their discovery was not surprising since the houses of Safed were built on top of the ruins of previous buildings. You can view these findings as part of an underground tour of this now National Heritage site. They also sell a very useful and recommended map of the Old City.

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The HaAri HaAshkenazi Synagogue (J) and Safed Candles (K):

 

  • Take the staircase on the right after Livnot U’Lehibanot. The synagogue will be on your left as you climb the stairway. Alternatively, enter “Ari Ashkenazi Synagogue” into Google Maps.

 

The HaAri HaAshkenazi Synagogue (J) was built by immigrants from Spain who had lived for a time in Greece. They were kabbalists and followers in the main of Rabbi Moshe Cordovero. The Ari joined their synagogue in 1570.

 

It was outside this synagogue in what is now a paved courtyard that there was an open field where Ari and his followers would gather on late Friday afternoon dressed in white to greet the Shabbat with prayers and singing. One of these songs was Lecho dodi composed by Rabbi Al-Kabetz. They would all face to the west towards Meron and the tomb of Rashbi and await the setting of the sun, which would be the time for a mystical betrothal of the Jewish people to the Sabbath. This song would become popular in Safed and its recital in a new prayer service formulated in Safed, kabbalat Shabbat, would spread to the rest of the Jewish world.

 

The synagogue became Ashkenazi in the 18th century when it was taken over by Hassidim from Europe 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 less spiritual, continue further along this street to Safed Candles (K).

 

There are no historic connotations to this store. It does, however, contain many interesting scenes and caricatures sculpted from bee’s wax and has become a popular tourist destination. The phone number is 04 682-2068.

 

Defender’s Square, or Kikar HaMeginim (L):

 

  • Return to the stairway and continue up to the next intersection. At the intersection, go through the alleyway, and this will bring you to Defender’s Square or Kikar HaMeginim. Alternatively, enter “Kikar HaMeganim” into Google MapsThis is the central plaza of Safed’s Old City.

 

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. and continue on this street until you come to the main stairway Ma’a lot Oley HaGardom. The original post office building is at the top of the stairway, including its searchlight. Turn to your right down the stairway to your car.

  • Alternatively, you may wish to go into town with its restaurants and cafes, the Davidka and the Citadel. For a view of the Davidka turn to the left. On the other side of the road is a passageway to the ruins of the Citadel.

 

The Citadel is the highest point of this part of town. Safed developed around the fortresses that were built here, first a Crusader castle and then a Mamluke castle built on its ruins. This is why the streets of the Old City are arranged roughly in concentric circles. All that can be seen today close to the top of the hill are the ruins of some walls and an intact water cistern. At the summit are a memorial, a sign with information about the capture of this height and the rest of Safed during the War of Independence, and a small park. There are also splendid views from the summit. There are restrooms towards the bottom of the staircase to the Citadel.

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Interior water plumbing is a relatively recent phenomenon. This water cistern in Beit HaMeiri is fed from rain water.

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Ma’a lot Oley HaGardom. The original post office building and its searchlight still remain. The British also had a gun placement controlling the stairway.

Map of circular hike through Safed

The walk can be started at any point in the route.

Links to the HOME PAGE and best family activities, hikes and historic sites in the GOLAN, EASTERN GALILEE, UPPER GALILEE, LOWER GALILEE, JORDAN VALLEY & LAKE KINNERET, the SHEFELAH, TEL AVIV-YAFFO and surroundings, NORTH of TEL AVIV, and SOUTH of TEL AVIV.

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