Safed was named as one of CNN’s ten most beautiful towns in May 2012. The charm of the mountaintop town is, however, only one of the many reasons it attracts enthusiastic visitors. Safed is known as one of Judaism’s Four Holy Cities due to its history as a center of Jewish Mysticism.
Safed’s ancient history is shrouded in mystery, but with the arrival of the Crusaders in the 11th century, historians have documentation to ascertain the existence of a small community of a few dozen Jewish families in the area. The Crusaders built their fortress on the peak of the mountain and a subsequent Mamaluke structure was so high that it was possible to see the Mediterranean port city of Acco (Acre) from the Citadel.
Safed is located next to Mt. Meron, the gravesite of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai who, believers say, wrote the “Zohar” — the book on which almost all Kabbalah study has been based over the past 2000 years. Safed’s location, along with the temperate climate, good economic base and cordial relations with the ruling Ottomans made the town a popular destination for Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition of the 16th century. Among the Jews who immigrated to Safed were the great Kabbalistic rabbis of the day including Rabbi Isaac Luria (the ARI), Rabbi Josef Caro, Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz, Rabbi Moshe Cordevero and Rabbi Moshe Alsheich. These rabbis and their students lived, studied and taught in Safed which became known as the City of Kabbalah.
Following the 16th century the Jewish population of Safed plummeted due to raids from neighboring tribes and two catastrophic earthquakes but following Israel’s 1948 War of Independence the city began to revive with new immigration and the development of a bohemian Artist Colony that included many of Israel’s greatest artists.
Today visitors can wander around the narrow lanes and alleyways of the city to experience religious, cultural and historical sites of the area.
The great synagogues of Safed, including the Ari Sepharadi, the Ari Ashkanazi, the Joseph Caro and the Abuhav synagogues were destroyed by earthquakes. The synagogues that exist today were built after the 1837 earthquake.
The southern wall of the Abuhav synagogue, which houses the Torah scrolls, is the synagogue’s original wall. The Abuhav Torah scrolls, written in the 16th century, survived both the 1759 and 1837 earthquakes and are still taken out to be read on specific holidays. The ARI Ashkanazi synagogue was built on the site of the original Girigos synagogue which was named for a group of Jewish immigrants who survived the Spanish Inquisition and moved to the Greek Island of Girigos before they immigrated to Safed.
The synagogues are open daily for visitors. Many close to the public for a few hours on Mondays and Thursdays when Bar Mitzvah ceremonies are held. All sites (and galleries, commercial enterprises and eateries) close mid-day on Fridays before the Jewish Sabbath. The synagogues are open to individuals who wish to pray on the Sabbath. All of the synagogues in Safed follow the Orthodox traditions of separating men and women during prayers so women are asked to enter through the women’s section. Modest dress is requested throughout the Jewish Quarter.
During the ’50s and ’60s Safed was the center of much of Israel’s avant garde artist community, but today, most galleries exhibit more traditional art including various forms of Judaica. Some of the artists are Safed-based while others only exhibit in Safed while maintaining galleries in other parts of Israel. The main gallery street is located on Joseph Caro alley near the synagogues and other historical sites.
Many of Israel’s best-known artists exhibiting in Safed include sculptors Tolla Inbar and Ruth Bloch at the Mikedem Gallery, painters Raphael Abacias, Moshe Bernstein and Danny Azoulai at Sarah’s Tent Gallery and artists Nonna Weisberg, Oz El Hai and George Petrov at the Nonna Gallery.
In addition artists Gabi Cohen, Robert Rosenberg, Gadi Dadon, Asia Katz and Idit Aharon live and work in Safed where they maintain their permanent exhibits.
A visit to Safed isn’t complete without tasting some of the delicious ethnic food that the city offers. Some of the best falafel (fried chickpea balls and salad in pita) and schwarma (roasted meat and salad wrapped in a laffa bread) can be found in the Old City’s Kikar HaMeginim — Defender’s Square — next to the Tree of Life restaurant of vegetarian healthy foods.
On Bar Yochai Street the Eshel restaurant serves Eastern European cuisine with an emphasis on Hungarian goulashes, spicy soups and filling side dishes.
At the end of Joseph Caro Street, near Safed’s Candle Factory, a Yemenite “Lachuch’ street vendor creates the Yemenite pancake filled with herbs, vegetables and grated goats cheese.
Most visitors come to Safed for a 2-hour stop on a bus tour but the city presents multiple opportunities for visitors who want to stay in the town. Aside from the sites and galleries there are numerous learning opportunities including short, one-hour classes and longer, multi-day experiences.
Regardless of the time of year or the length of the stay, visitors to Safed can look forward to a high quality Israel experience.
About The Author: Laurie Rappeport made aliyah to Safed, Israel 30 years ago from Detroit. She works in a wide range of projects which are aimed at bringing visitors to Northern Israel, specifically to the towns of Nahariya and Safed.to enjoy the religious, historical, cultural and artistic sites and experiences that the cities have to offer.
Photo Credits: Wikimedia Commons