For visitors to Israel, the “City of Kabbalah” — Safed — is a must-see stop on the itinerary. There are guided tours of Safed but travelers can easily make their way around the Old Jewish Quarter on their own to experience the historical, religious and cultural sites of the city.
Safed’s history dates back thousands of years but it became a prominent Jewish center — one of Judaism’s Four Holy Cities — in the 1500s when some of the era’s greatest Kabbalistic rabbis, fleeing the Spanish Inquisition, settled in Safed. The mountaintop town is located in the Galilee, in the area in which the 2nd century C.E. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai wrote The Zohar, the text which serves as the foundation of Kabbalah study. The 16th century rabbis who lived in Safed expanded on Rabbi Bar Yochai’s writings to allow for a more thorough understanding of Jewish mysticism
Following Safed’s Golden Age of the 16th century the Jewish population experienced subsequent difficulties. By the early 20th century the population, which had once numbered 15,000 people, was reduced to 2,000. After Israel’s independence in 1948 Safed again began to expand, with new neighborhoods circling the original Jewish Quarter. Tourism expands as new interest in Kabbalah study brings visitors to the spiritual center of the study of Jewish mysticism.
There are four old synagogues that are open during weekday hours in which tourists can visit. Other synagogues, including many old historic synagogues, only open on the Sabbath or on holidays. Visits to the synagogues are free but donations are appreciated and are used to help maintain the synagogues. Men are requested to wear head-coverings and women are requested to have coverings for their knees and shoulders. The synagogues offer scarves and shawls (free) for this purpose.
One of the synagogues that many visitors enjoy visiting is the ARI Ashkanazi synagogue. The ARI Ashkanazi was built in the early 1500s by a group of Jews who had been forcibly converted to Christianity by the Spanish Inquisition. These people fled Spain to the Greek isle of Girigos and subsequently made their way to Safed. During those years such Jews were regarded with suspicion by Jewish communities throughout the world and the Girigos Jews were not immediately accepted by the existing Safed Jewish community. The Girigos Jews built their synagogue on the then-edge of the Jewish Quarter.
In 1570 Rabbi Isaac Luria, known as the ARI — the Lion — arrived in Safed. He was recognized as one of the greatest Kabbalistic scholars of the era….perhaps since Rabbi Bar Yochai. The ARI developed a tradition of initiating the Sabbath with songs, hymns and psalms which he would sing with his students in a field next to the Girigos synagogue. This practice evolved into the “Kabbalat Shabbat” service which has become integrated into Jewish synagogues and temples throughout the world. After the ARI’s death the Girigos Jews were re-integrated into the Jewish community and their synagogue was renamed the ARI Ashkanazi synagogue.
The ARI Ashkanazi features an exquisitely-hand-carved Ark of the Torah which is the centerpiece of the synagogue. The synagogue is laid out in the Sepharadi — Mediterranean/North African — tradition, with the bima — the podium — in the middle of the synagogue and the benches for the congregants surrounding the bima.
Yosef Caro Synagogue
The Yosef Caro synagogue was built over the cave where, according to tradition, Rabbi Yosef Caro sat with an angel and wrote the massive Code of Jewish Law — the Shulhan Aruch. In the years following the Spanish Expulsion, Jews had dispersed to far-flung regions and didn’t have access to rabbinic leadership in matters of proper practice of the Jewish laws. Rabbi Caro wanted to compile the laws in one easy-to-access volume to facilitate adherence to the laws. Rabbi Caro sat with the Maggid — angel — in a small cave in the Old Jewish Quarter and wrote the Code which is, today, used by Jews throughout the world.
The original cave can be entered underneath the synagogue — visitors can walk a little further down the street from the synagogue and descend the stairs that take them to the cave where Rabbi Caro sat. Inside the synagogue itself, a large bookshelf along the southern wall holds texts that are hundreds of years old
ARI Sepharadi Synagogue
The Ari Sepharadi synagogue was called the “Eliyahu HaNavi” — Elijah the Prophet — synagogue when Rabbi Isaac Luria arrived in 1570. Rabbi Luria — the ARI — prayed and studied Kabbalah in the synagogue with, according to legend, Elijah the Prophet. The synagogue is located on the lower road of the Old Jewish Quarter, above the cemetery, and visitors can still see the small cave-room where the ARI studied and prayed
The Abuhav synagogue was built, according to legend, by Rabbi Abuhav, a great Spanish Kabbalistic scholar, in Spain. The tradition continues that he transferred it, through Kabbalistic incantations, to Safed when the Inquisition threatened to destroy it. (An alternate version of the story states that Rabbi Abuhav planned the synagogue in Spain and built it in Safed).
The Abuhav is probably the most popular synagogue in Safed. Its blue décor is a Kabbala hue and the entire design of the synagogue, including the seven steps which lead to the “bima” — podium — are guided by Kabbalistic imagry. The entire domed ceiling is framed by paintings of nature.
The Abuhav Synagogue houses two ancient Torah scrolls which were written by 16th century Kabbalists. The synagogue Ark that houses these scrolls was mysteriously saved from two earthquakes that devastated the rest of Safed in the 18th and 19th centuries. The scrolls are still used today, on holidays.
Visitors to Safed should be aware that the city shuts down for the Sabbath, so anyone who arrives for a Friday afternoon or Saturday visit should not expect any of the sites or galleries to be open. There are no restaurants open on the Sabbath either, though eateries do reopen Saturday night.
A smartphone tour is available. The tour is free and can be accessed by PC for viewing as well.