The ancient city of Safed (also spelled Safed, Zefat, Tsfat, Zfat, Safad, Safes, Safet, Tzfat, ) is a rather small town located in Northern Israel, 900 meters (3200 feet) above sea level in the mountains of the Upper Galilee. It commands magnificent views east to the Golan, north to the Hermon and Lebanon, west to Mt. Meron and the Amud Valley, and south to Tiberias and the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee).
For a long time Safed has been a well kept secret, even to most Israelis. However, according to the great mystics of the past, Safed is to play an important role in the final redemption. The Meam Loez, in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, says that the Messiah will come from Safed on his way to Jerusalem. The Ari HaKodesh said that until the Third Temple is built, the Shechinah (God's Manifest Presence) rests above Safed.
Its past is also rich and great. According to legend, Safed is where Shem and Ever, son and grandson of Noah, established their yeshiva where Jacob (Yaakov Avinu) studied for many years. According to other sources, the town was founded in 70AD. The city flourished in the 16th century, when many famous Jewish religious scholars and mystics moved to Safed following the Spanish Expulsion, fleeing from the horrors of the Inquisition.
Safed then became the spiritual center of the Jewish world, where Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) reached the peak of its influence. Kabbalists, such as Rabbi Yitzhak Luria (Ha-Ari HaKadosh) and Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz (author of Lecha Dodi) and Rabbi Yosef Karo (author of the Shulchan Aruch) just to name a few, made the city famous.
It was here that the first printing press in the Middle East was set up, publishing in 1578 the first Hebrew book to be printed in Israel. At that time the town was also a thriving trade center. However, Safed suffered terribly during the ensuing years due to earthquakes, plagues and Arab attacks. In modern times, the liberation of Safed was one of the most dramatic episodes in the 1948 War of Independence.
Safed is one of the four holy cities in Israel, together with Jerusalem, Hebron and Tiberias. The old part of town consists of narrow cobblestone alleys revealing artists' galleries, medieval synagogues, private homes and small guest houses. Despite its small population (ca 27,000), Safed is once again making its mark on the map.
The conditions in Safed are ideal for immersion in Torah study. Excellent Torah classes are available for whoever seeks to learn, in either Hebrew or English, especially for those new to the path of yiddishkeit. There are very few distractions, and relations between religious and secular residents are good. The famous mountain air is conducive to clear thinking and excellent meditation. The nearby forest and nature reserve provide the seclusion and serenity needed for powerful communion with God.
Many Tzaddikim (righteous holy people) are buried around here. After all, as our sages are quick to point out, a Tzaddik never dies. These graves tend to be located in some of the most scenic locations in the Land of Israel and most are easily accessible by foot or car.
Despite its natural beauty and charm, to truly appreciate Safed requires an intimate, holy and Jewish connection, which requires work. Like a beautiful yet modest woman, her real charm is hidden and only made available to the special few who merit her attention. Yet it is this modesty, humility and sense of purpose that makes Safed special.
Safed is the balance where the spiritual meets the physical, where the East meets the West, where Hashem guides you along the path but your efforts allow you to merit the reward. Everyone is invited to experience and appreciate the challenge.
But let's take a short walk down the cobblestone lanes of the Old City, past the main square to the left, then to the right down some stairs and again to the left through an open courtyard, down a narrow lane. All along both sides of the lane are a tall stone walls and small synagogues. The first entrance way on the left side is my first glimpse into timelessness ... two of my most favorite synagogues in the world are about to be unveiled on my furtive steps...
Ashkenazi Ari Synagogue
Its congregation were Kabbalists, mostly followers of Rabbi Moshe Cordovero. They were joined in 1570 by Rabbi Isaac Luria ("Ari"). His custom was to pray in the synagogue on the Eve of Sabbath, proceeding from there with his disciples to a nearby field (Hakal Tapuchin) to welcome the Sabbath.
The Ashkenazi Ari Synagogue was built in the sixteenth century on the northern fringes of the Sephardic neighborhood. It was originally founded by Spanish exiles who had settled in Greece and then immigrated to Safed, earning it the name "Gerigos".
In the eighteenth century, with the arrival of a large group of Hasidim from Europe, the congregation changed and it began to be called “the Ashkenazi Ari Synagogue.” It was destroyed in the earthquake of 1837, and its reconstruction was completed in 1857, which in Hebrew numerology is equivalent to "and My Temple shalt thou revere" - the inscription in Hebrew that appears above the entrance.
The Holy Ark was carved in olive wood by a craftsman from Galicia, in the style of the synagogues of Eastern Europe and includes an anthropomorphic image of a lion, alluding to the acronym Ari, which means “The Lion.” During the 1948 War, shrapnel tore through the synagogue while it was packed with people seeking shelter, yet miraculously no-one was hurt. This event was considered one of many miracles said to have occurred in Safed.
Though the synagogue is associated by name with the Ashkenazi community, it serves as a place of worship for Hasidic and Sephardic Jews and remains popular among worshipers of different affiliations. The Ari's tradition of welcoming the Sabbath outside is still echoed in every Kabbalat Shabbat service today when, during the singing of Lecha Dodi, the worshipers turn toward the entrance of the synagogue.
It is not clear which of the two rabbis named Yitzhak, Abuhav inspired the naming of this synagogue, which contains a famous Torah scroll attributed to one of them. Popular tradition links the synagogue with the author of Menorat Hama'or, a well-known work on ethics.
But it is more likely that the synagogue is named after the fifteenth-century rabbi who is considered one of the gaonim -- great sages -- of Castile. He served in the rabbinate in Toledo and headed a yeshiva for the study of Jewish philosophy and Kabbalah.
The scroll in this synagogue is the oldest in Safed, and many traditions and legends are associated with it. It is kept locked up in the Ark and taken out for reading only three times a year: Yom Kippur, Shavuot, and Rosh Hashanah. Another Torah scroll in the Abuhav Synagogue is the scroll of Rabbi Solomon Ohana, a Kabbalist from Fez, Morocco who moved to Safed in the sixteenth century.
For generations, the Jews of Safed gathered in the synagogue on the eve of Shavuot to celebrate the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people. It was also customary at weddings to bring the bride to the synagogue accompanied by music, dancing and singing. The synagogue was built in the sixteenth century and its southern wall contains three Arks. The bima is in the center and the benches for the congregation are arranged around it, as was customary in ancient synagogues.
The interior of the synagogue dome is decorated with depictions of musical instruments that were used in the Temple in Jerusalem, symbols of the tribes of Israel, and four crowns, representing the Torah crown, the priestly crown, the royal crown, and a crown unique to Safed.
"The crown of impending redemption." In keeping with the numerological tradition of Kabbalah, the design of the synagogue has numerical significance: one bima, two steps to it, three Arks, and so forth. The works of well-known Israel artist Ziona Tagger adorn the walls.
The day has been mesmerizing. Stories of mysticism, faith and love for God filled our hearts with joy, hope and far away peaceful thoughts. We are now ready to drive along the large region in northern Israel called by many Galil Elyon , Galil Takhton and Galil Maaravi depending on it's geographical location.
While looking at the beautiful landscape I can't help but wonder what in heaven Moses would have thought if had just seen it...
This post is dedicated to Alina Oster who kindly has been my guide, inspiration and dear new friend.
Other Synagogues in Safed:
Photo Credits: Steven Pinker