Travelers who are visiting Northern Israel can enjoy an educational, spiritual and meaningful visit when they take some time to explore the mountaintop city of Safed.
Safed is known as one of Judaism’s Four Holy Cities. Some of history’s greatest Kabbalistic scholars settled in Safed during the 1500s after they fled the Spanish Inquisition. These rabbis, their families and members of their communities were drawn to Safed because of its proximity to the Galilean hills in which Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai wrote The Zohar, the foundation of Jewish mysticism, in the 2nd century A.D. The Kabbalists of the 16th century studied, wrote and expanded the study of Kabbalah to the discipline that it is known as today — as a framework by which people can understand the secrets which are hidden within the Five Books of Moses to strengthen their own relationship with God and with their fellow man.
People of all ages will enjoy walking around the lanes of Safed as they learn more about Safed’s history, Kabbalah and the lives of the observant Jews who live there today.
It’s probably a good idea to start a visit at the Safed Tourist Information Center. In addition to an exhibit about the history of Safed and a short audio-visual presentation, the Tourist Center offers an opportunity to descend into the subterranean tunnels that exist below the entire Old Jewish Quarter. Two earthquakes destroyed Safed by triggering landslides that covered over the city. However the buildings of the 1500s survived and still exist below the present city. The Tourist Center has excavated a sample building and visitors can walk down, for free, to get a glimpse into Safed’s past.
In addition, a smartphone app developed by the Center and the Shvil HaLev organization offers a free walking tour of Safed. Visitors can use the app to tour Safed on their own or may view the videos before they arrive to prepare for a visit.
There are several old synagogues in Safed which are open to the public during the week. Two of them are named for the great Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria — the ARI — whose teachings and innovations continue to impact on the Jewish world till today.
The main synagogue that served Safed’s Jewish community in the 16th century was the Eliyahu HaNavi Synagogue that was located in the middle of the Sephardic Quarter near the ancient cemetery. Tradition says that the ARI sat in a small cave in this synagogue with Elijah the Prophet as he learned new Kabbalistic insights through Divine Inspiration. After the ARI’s death the synagogue was renamed the ARI Sepharadi synagogue. It was destroyed in the 1759 earthquake and again in the 1837 earthquake but was rebuilt in the tradition of Sephardic synagogues, with the podium — the bima — centered in the middle of the sanctuary and the benches for the congregants surrounding the bima. Visitors can see the small cave on the side of the sanctuary where the ARI sat and learned Kabbalah.
A second Sephardic synagogue, the ARI Ashkanazi, was once the synagogue of the Jewish community from Girigos, Greece. These Jews had been forcibly converted to Christianity by the Inquisition but were able to flee Spain and after a period of time on the island of Girigos, they immigrated to Safed. The Safed Jews did not initially accept them into their community so the Jews of Girigos established their own synagogue. The ARI initiated the tradition of celebrating the Welcoming of the Sabbath — Kabbalat Shabbat — in a field next to the synagogue. There he and his students would sing psalms and hymns every Friday afternoon to welcome the Sabbath, a tradition that is observed in every Jewish synagogue and temple today throughout the world. After the ARI’s death the Girigos Jews were reintegrated into Safe’s Jewish community and the synagogue was renamed the ARI Ashkanazi synagogue.
In addition to the ARI Synagogues, a third old synagogue, the Abuhav, is a favorite among visitors who find that Kabbalistic pictures etched along the perimeter of the blue domed ceiling offer a fascinating look at Sephardic Jewry and its attachment to visual imagery. The bima which sits in the center of the synagogue has seven steps that lead up to the top. These seven steps are indicative of the six days of the week that lead up to the crowning glory — the seventh day Sabbath. The Abuhav synagogue often serves as a venue for families from all over the world who bring their sons and daughters to celebrate Bar and Bat Mitzvas in the synagogue. Visitors who arrive on Monday or Thursday mornings, the traditional days for a Bar or Bat Mitzva celebration, may be able to join in with the festivities.
Laurie Rappeport has lived in Safed, Israel for over 25 years and worked at the Tourist Information Center in the Old Jewish Quarter for 13 years. She continues to be involved in a wide range of projects which are aimed at bringing visitors to Safed to enjoy the religious, historical, cultural and artistic sites and experiences that the city has to offer. Laurie blogs at Safed.blogspot.co.il.