Throughout the next millennium, the study of Kabbalah was limited to a few select scholars of each generation. In the Middle Ages, many of these scholars made their way to Israel after the Spanish Expulsion of 1492, and of those, many came to Tzfat, which was believed to have a special connection to Kabbalah because of its proximity to the area where Rabbi Shimon had taught, as well as to Rabbi Shimon’s gravesite, on Mt. Meron.
If you’re traveling in Northern Israel, one of the spots that you won’t want to miss seeing is the ancient city of Safed, known as the City of Kabbalah. Safed has something for everyone — mystics and Kabbalistic teachers for spiritual seekers, ancient sites and excavations for travelers who want to explore the history of the area and a large art center for anyone who wants to experience Judaica and the Israeli art scene.
Safed has been a center of Jewish life since the time of the First Temple which existed in Jerusalem approximately 2500 years ago. The Crusaders built a fortress on the Safed mountaintop in the 11th and 12th centuries and a Muslim community was established after the Crusaders were forced to leave.
Safed rose to prominence in the Jewish World in the 1500s when many of the Jews who were exiled by the Spanish Inquisition moved to Safed. Among these new settlers were some of the greatest Kabbalistic scholars of the era. These rabbis studied and taught Kabbalah and during this period Safed became known as the City of Kabbalah, a name which still identifies it today.
The quaint Old Jewish City of Safed resembles a Spanish “Kahal” — Jewish Quarter — with windy alleyways, narrow lanes and stone houses that feature arched doorways and domed ceilings. The Jews who arrived in the 1500s built Safed on the mountainside in the same manner as they remembered their homes in Spain and this style continues to characterize Safed today.
There are many different religious, historical and cultural sites to see in Safed. You can survey these locations in a few hours or take a day or two to meander through the city and really experience the city’s sights and sounds.
Some of the most popular places for tourists include the ancient synagogues — the ARI Ashkanazi, the ARI Sepharadi, the Abuhav and the Joseph Caro synagogues. These synagogues are open daily.
The ARI — Rabbi Isaac Luria — was an eminent 16th century Kabbalistic scholar whose works later influenced the Hassidic movement. The ARI taught that understanding the mysticism that is embedded in the Five Books of Moses can guide an individual to strengthen his relationship with G-d and with his fellow man. The two ARI synagogues both existed during the ARI’s lifetime but were renamed after the ARI following his death. Each features different elements of Safed synagogue styles with ornate Arks that house the Torah scrolls, hand-crafted woodwork and a seating style in which congregants sit in a circle around the “bima” — podium.
The Joseph Caro synagogue was built over a cave in which, according to legend, Rabbi Caro sat with an angel and wrote the massive Code of Jewish Law. This Code encompasses the entire spectrum of Jewish law, traditions and customs and is still used by rabbis throughout the world as the basis for determining proper Jewish practice in every situation. You can walk around to the side of the synagogue and go downstairs to the cave and then return to the synagogue where you will see a “geniza” — archive — where ancient Jewish texts are stored.
Local legend relates that the Abuhav synagogue was built by Rabbi Abuhav in Spain in the 15th century. The Inquisition announced plans to destroy it so Rabbi Abuhav magically transported it to Safed. Other versions of the story recount that Rabbi Abuhav planned the synagogue in Spain and built it in Safed. Either way, the ornately-decorated synagogue is a favorite site for tourists who are enthralled with the decorated domed ceiling which depicts Kabbalistic imagery. The Abuhav synagogue houses a 500-year-old Torah scroll which Rabbi Abuhav wrote. It is still used on holidays.