By Laurie Rappeport. Travelers to Northern Israel can enjoy a fascinating visit to the ancient city of Safed, known as the “City of Kabbalah.” Visitors often wander through the windy alleyways and narrow lanes of Safed’s Old City without fully understanding the significance of the site but with a little background travelers can fully appreciate the history, culture and religious meaning of the region.
Safed is mentioned in the Talmud as one of the mountaintops on which fires would be lit to mark the beginning of every “Rosh Chodesh” — New Month. The Crusaders occupied the area and build a Citadel on the top of the mountain. Their writings indicated that there was a Jewish population in the town during that period.
Safed became prominent in the Jewish World in the 16th century when Jews, fleeing the Spanish Inquisition, settled in Safed. Among these settlers were the great Kabbalistic scholars of the day including Rabbi Moshe Alsheich, Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz and Rabbi Moshe Cordevero. The arrival of the preeminent Kabbalist of the era, Rabbi Yitzhak Luria, sealed Safed’s reputation as the City of Kabbalah.
Rabbi Luria — the ARI — studied and taught Kabbalah in Safed and in the process, refined the discipline to the Jewish Mysticism that is known today. Luranic Kabbalah uses the messages that are contained in the texts, verses, words and even letters of the Torah to provide guidance that enables man to strengthen his relationships with his fellow man and with God. The ARI’s teachings influenced the Hassidic movement which emerged in the early 18th century. It is said that the ARI studied Kabbalah with Elijah the Prophet in a cave located in the Eliyahu HaNavi synagogue. After his death the Eliyahu HaNavi synagogue was renamed the ARI Sepharadi synagogue. It is open for tourists daily from 10:00a.m. to 15:00p.m.
During his time in Safed the ARI developed the custom of going to the field next to the Girigos synagogue to sing hymns and psalms to welcome the Sabbath. One of the best-known of these songs, the “Lecha Dodi” was written in Safed by Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz. This service became known as “Kabbalat Shabbat” and today, it is observed in synagogues and temples throughout the world. After the ARI’s death the Girigos synagogue was renamed the ARI Ashkanazi. It is open for visitors daily throughout the day.
Most of the old synagogues of Safed are built in the Sepharadi tradition. The “Bima” — podium — is located in the middle of the sanctuary and benches for the congregants are arranged around the bima. Some of these synagogues also incorporate the Kabbalistic tradition of having seven stairs leading to the bima, reminiscent of the six days of the week which culminate in the seventh day — the Sabbath. The Abuhav, also known as the “Blue Synagogue” is one such synagogue. The Abuhav was, according to tradition, built in Spain and magically transported to Safed when the Inquisition threatened to destroy it. (An alternate version notes that the synagogue may have been planned in Spain and actually built in Safed). The synagogue is a favorite among tourists who marvel at its high blue domed ceiling and the etchings of animals and flowers that surround the dome’s perimeter. The Abuhav synagogue is frequently open but, when hosting Bar Mitzva ceremonies, closes to visitors.
The Yosef Caro synagogue is located on Caro Street, amidst the art galleries that display many different aspects of Judaica as well as Safed and Israeli art. The Caro synagogue is located above the cave where, according to tradition, Rabbi Yosef Caro sat with an angel and wrote the massive “Shulhan Aruch” — Code of Jewish Law — in which he methodically set out the laws, customs, traditions and practices of Judaism according to Jewish law. The synagogue itself is open during the morning hours for visitors. A “geniza” — depository — is located on the side wall where old texts and scrolls are kept as, according to Jewish Law these articles may not be thrown away.
Self-guided walking tours of Safed are easy today with a smartphone app that allows tourists to hear all of the history, facts, stories and legends of Safed on their mobile as they walk through the city. The videos are also available for PC viewing in preparation for the visit.
Laurie Rappeport has lived in Safed 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.