Tzfat, also spelled Zefat, Zfat, Safet, Safad and a few other variations, is an ancient town in Northern Israel that has come to be known as the center of Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism).
Below is an article graciously written for Israel-Travel-and-Tours by Laurie Rappeport, who has lived in Tzfat 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 the town to enjoy the religious, historical, cultural and artistic sites and experiences that the city has to offer. You can visit her site at www.safed-home.com.
Tourists who are spending time in Northern Israel should be sure to add a trip to Tzfat to their schedule. The sleepy little town is a center of Israeli art and Judaica, but more importantly to travelers who are interested in Jewish spirituality, it is the hub of Jewish mysticism— Kabbalah.
Kabbalah began to develop during the early years of the first millennium, when Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai hid in a cave to avoid a Roman death decree. During his four-year stay in the cave he received divine inspirations which formed the basis of The Zohar, the foundation of the study of Jewish mysticism.
Rabbi Bar Yochai was buried on Mt. Meron and the proximity to this holy site was one of the factors that drew many of the great Kabbalistic scholars to Tzfat after the Spanish Expulsion of 1492.
Together with other Jewish exiles, these rabbis settled in the Jewish Quarter of Tzfat where they studied, taught and expanded their understandings of the secrets that, they believed, G-d included in the Five Books of Moses—the Torah. Today visitors can wander through the winding lanes and narrow alleyways of the Old Jewish Quarter and visit the sites where these scholars worked and lived.
One of history's greatest Kabbalah scholars, Rabbi Isaac Luria, lived in the town in the 16th century. Rabbi Luria was also known as the ARI—The Lion—due to his tremendous ability to understand intricate Kabalistic concepts. The ARI refined Kabbalah to its present-day discipline, which teaches how Jewish mysticism can help a person strengthen his relationship with G-d and with his fellow man.
The ARI studied and prayed at the Elijah the Prophet—Eliyahu HaNavi—synagogue which was located above the ancient Tzfat cemetery. After the ARI's death the synagogue was renamed in his honor as the "Ari Sepharadi". It is open daily and visitors can see the cave in which, according to tradition, the ARI sat with Eliyahu HaNavi to study Kabbalah.
Zefat legend relates that Rabbi Abuhav, a 15th century Spanish rabbi, built his synagogue in Spain but magically transported it to the town when the Inquisition threatened to destroy it.
The synagogue houses three old Torah scrolls—which survived the two earthquakes that devastated Safed in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The synagogue is a favorite site for visitors who can observe the unique Sephardic style of synagogue seating—in a circle surrounding the podium—and see the ornate decorative paintings that surround the blue domed ceiling.
Rabbi Joseph Caro was a contemporary of the ARI. He is best known for having written the Code of Jewish Law—the Shulchan Aruch—which meticulously sets out the laws, customs and practices of the Torah.
Tradition relates that Rabbi Caro wrote the Shulhan Aruch in a cave in which he sat with an angel who guided him through his work. The cave is often open and can be seen below the present-day Joseph Caro synagogue.
The Ari Ashkanazi Synagogue was originally called the Girigos Synagogue. It was established by Jewish refugees who had fled from Spain after being forcibly converted to Christianity. These people were not immediately accepted by the town's Jewish community, so they built their own synagogue on the then-outskirts of the Jewish Quarter.
The ARI and his students initiated the Kabbalat Shabbat—Welcoming of the Sabbath—service in a field next to the synagogue, where they would sing psalms and prayers in preparation of the Sabbath.
Shortly after the ARI's death the rabbis agreed to re-integrate the Girigos Jews back into the mainstream Jewish world and the Girigos synagogue was renamed the Ari Ashkanazi synagogue. The Kabbalat Shabbat service is today observed by all Jews throughout the world.
The Tzfat or Zefat Tourist Information Center is located in the midst of the Jewish Quarter. Visitors can obtain maps and other touring information, see a movie about the history of the town and visit excavations which illustrate the old homes and buildings which were buried by the earthquakes. Two local organizations, Livnot U'Lehibanot and Shvil HaLev, developed an app which allows visitors to conduct a self-guided tour through the city on their smartphone or view the videos in advance as a preparation for a visit.
Have a question about this Israel topic? Or a suggestion or tip? Maybe even a personal story to share?
Great! Just fill out the fields below and send us your submission...