Taking a walk through Safed, the northern city which is a major point of interest for many visitors to Israel who journey to the town to enjoy the cobbled stone alleys, the art, the historical sites and the mystical atmosphere of this ancient city. Jewish settlement in Tzfat dates back to the Temple period but Safed – pronounced “Tz-fat” in Hebrew – achieved fame and a reputation as the “City of Kabbalah” during the 16th century when the rabbis, Kabbalistic scholars and other Jews who were fleeing from the Spanish Inquisition made their home in the mountaintop town.
Taking a walk through Safed
Visitors today have a wide variety of opportunities to explore the city, its history and its meaning to the Jewish world, either with a guide or through their own self-guided walking tour. As well as the most popular sites – the Safed Artists Quarter and Safed Citadel, there are a host of more off-the-beaten track things to see in this city.
Tzfat Tourist Information Center
The Tzfat Visitors Center is located at 17 Alkabetz Street, just below the ARI Ashkanazi synagogue. The Center features a historical exhibition and provides maps, guidebooks and other information to tourists. Visitors can watch a 10-minute audio-visual presentation on the History of Safed at the Center, walk down into 16th century excavations and walk up to an observation deck which presents a stunning view of Northern Israel. The center is operated by Livnot U’Lehibanot, a unique experiential Israel Experience Program which offers program options to young Jewish adults who are interested in participating in excavations, volunteer activities, hiking and Jewish exploration.
International Center of Tzfat Kabbalah
The Center brings the study of Kabbalah back to its Jewish roots with staff members who offer classes and tours that present Kabbalah as it developed in 16th century Tzfat – as a discipline that teaches followers how to strengthen their relationship with God and their fellow man. The Center offers a 15-minute audio-visual presentation which provides an overview of Kabbalah for beginners. The Center is located on the second floor of the Fig Tree Gallery on Alkabetz Street.
The Ascent Institute features daily classes on different aspects of Kabbalah, traditional Judaism and Hassidic thought. There are accommodations available for Jewish travelers who want to take advantage of a low-cost hostel while they learn more about their heritage. There is a library with a staff rabbi where people of any religious background can ask questions about Judaism and find out the meaning of their name according to Bible codes. Ascent is located at 2 HaAri Street. Read more at www.zissil.com
HaARI Ashkanazi Synagogue
HaARI Ashkanazi Synagogue was once called the “Grigoris Synagogue.” It was established by Jews who had converted to Christianity under duress under the Spanish Inquisition and subsequently escaped. When they made their way to Tzfat they were not immediately accepted by the Safed community so they built their own synagogue. The famous Kabbalistic rabbi Rabbi Isaac Luria (the ARI) celebrated the Kabbalat Shabbat service with his students next to the synagogue and after his death the synagogue was renamed.
The Abuhav synagogue was built, according to legend, in Spain. When the Spanish authorities wanted to convert it into a Church, Rabbi Abuhav, a 15th century mystic, transported it to Tzfat. The Abuhav synagogue still houses three old Torah scrolls, one of which was written by Rabbi Abuhav. These scrolls withstood two devastating earthquakes. Abuhav synagogue is located on Abuhav Street, below the Yosef Caro street.
The Kahal National Heritage Site
Excavations are underway near the Abuhav synagogue which have uncovered an entire 16th century Jewish neighborhood. This site has been named a National Heritage Site of Israel and will be developed into an educational village that will contain information and interactive exhibits to depict Jewish life of Safed’s Golden Age and its influences on today’s Jewish world. A sample of the excavations, along with more information, can be obtained at the Tzfat Tourist Information Center. The Kahal is being excavated by the Livnot U’Lehibanot Israel Experience Program.
Yosef Caro Synagogue
Legend relates that Rabbi Yosef Caro sat with the “maggid” – an angel – in a room below the present synagogue and wrote the Code of Jewish Law – “Shulhan Aruch” – which guides Jewish life and practice until today. The synagogue functioned as the Jewish Religious Court of the 15th century which Rabbi Caro headed. One wall of the synagogue serves as a storage area for old manuscripts which cannot be thrown out. Some of these manuscripts are hundreds of years old and were written and studied by Tzfat’s famous Kabbalists. The synagogue is located on Yosef Caro Street.
The Cana’an Gallery near the Yosef Caro synagogue provides demonstrations of the art of hand-weaving which was a major source of commerce throughout the centuries in Safed.
Safed Candle Factory
The Safed Candle Factory is located next to the Ari Ashkanazi synagogue. In addition to a wide variety of candles which are used for Jewish rituals, the shop exhibits wax sculptures of Biblical and other Jewish-themed scenes, created by the world’s only wax-sculptor, Safed resident Moshe Chaim Gress.
Ari Sepharadi Synagogue
The Ari Sepharadi Synagogue is located on Rehov HaAri, just above the Old Safed Cemetery. It was called the “Elijah the Prophet” synagogue when the ARI came to Safed in the 16th century and legend says that the ARI studied Kabbalah with Elijah the Prophet in a small cave in the synagogue.
The Stam Center is located outside of the Old Jewish Quarter on Gedud HaSlishi street, approximately a 10 minute drive from the Old City. The center shows interactive exhibitions and audio-visual presentations of the art of “sofer stam” – making the parchments which Jews place in their mezuzzas and tefillin as well as the creation of Torah scrolls.
In addition to these sites Safed offers tourists the opportunity to visit museums, wineries, workshops and art galleries. See our article about unique places in Safed, or for more information check out www.safed-home.com
Laurie Rappeport is the coordinator of the Tzfat Tourist Information Center. She writes at www.safed-home.com