Safed (Tzfat)

Safed (Tzfat) 150 150 Sarity Gervais

The holy city of Safed, (also pronounced as Tzfat, Sefat and Sefat, is an ancient city, is located at Northern Israel, on the mountains of Upper Galilee. It’s the highest point in Israel, with stunning views of of the Golan, Hermon and Lebanon. It is west of Mount Meron and south of Tiberias and the Kinneret (aka the Sea of Galilee). It’s a rather small city, yet has played a very important role as a Centre of Kabbalah, or Jewish Mysticism. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said that when the Messiah will come, he’ll arrive from Safed on his way to Jerusalem. The Ari Hakodesh said that the Shechina (or G-d’s manifest) will rest above the city until,the Third temple is built. Sefad has been revered and cherished by observant Jews, many of whom are Baalei Teshuva, who made it their residence. It is also popular with tourists who go there for the beauty, quaint antiquity, it’s narrow cobble stoned alleys, medieval synagogues and a multitude of art galleries. The city is bathed in the purest, cleanest air, and Israel’s most comfortable temperatures in the summer, due to the city’s highest elevation. At 900 metres, or approximately 3200 feet above sea level, the city has mild, warm and comfortable comfortable summers, and cold, often snowy winters.

The magnificent Safed is mentioned in the Torah, as the place bequeathed to the tribe of Naphtali, and according to legend, was founded by the grandsons of Noah, Shem and Ever right after the great flood. They are said to have established a yeshivah there, where Jacob (Yaakov Avinu) studied for many years.

Some sources claim the town was founded in 70 AD, and from its beginning had a sacred air about it.

Safed was an obvious place as noted in the Jerusalem Talmud, as one of the five elevated spots where fires were lit during the period of the Second Temple to announce the beginning of festivals and the New moon. It is also one of the four holiest cities in Israel, together with Jerusalem Hebron and Tiberias.

Jewish sources make mention of the city during the Middle Ages, but for a period it kept changing hand, having been conquered by knights of Templar, with Fulk, king of Jerusalem, fortifying the elevated city and built a castle there. The whole area kept changing hands, with catholic crusaders like Theobald of Navarre and in1240, the Muslim Ayyubids, who reunited the kingdom of Jerusalem, Nazareth, Bethlehem and most of the Galilee.

According to Benjamin of Tudela who visited the region, there was no Jewish presence there during the 1200 A.D. The area had an abundance of castles and had both Christian and Mongol presence, up until 1260, when the Mamluk sultan, Baybars wiped out the Christian Templar population, and turned Safed into a Moslem town.

Interestingly, Samuel ben Samson, recalled in the 13th century, a Jewish community in the city, numbering over 50. The old fortress was levelled and in its place, a round tower, three stories high was erected. It was called Kullah, and had all the latest provisions of the era, with water cisterns to hold rainwater, sufficient to supply the tower with water for a year. The Kinneret, a source of fresh, sweet water, was redirected underground, to the tower, supplying an abundance of fresh drinking water. The town of Safed spread out over three hills and its population was now a mix of Moslem and Jewish families. Under the Ottoman rule it has become the capital ( in 1520’s) of the sanjak of Safed.

In the 16th century Safed became world famous as the centre of Kabbalah. The city flourished in the 16th century, when many famous Jewish religious scholars and mystics moved to the city, following the Spanish Inquisition and following Expulsion. Safed became the spiritual center of the Jewish world, where Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) reached the peak of its fame and influence. Kabbalists, such as Rabbi Yitzhak Luria (Ha-Ari HaKadosh) and Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz (author of Lecha Dodi) and Rabbi Yosef Karo (author of the Shulchan Aruch) just to name a few, made the city famous. Additionally, it was here that the first printing press in the Middle East was set up, publishing in 1578 the first Hebrew book to be printed in Israel. At that time the town was also a thriving trade center.However, Safed suffered terribly during the ensuing years due to earthquakes, plagues and Arab attacks. In modern times, the liberation of Safed was one of the most dramatic episodes in the 1948 War of Independence.

The city and it’s nearby areas, are abound by graves of famous sages, all in scenic points, which makes visiting the graves even more profoundly touching. The most celebrated of them all, that of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, whose grave isvisited by thousands every Lag Beomer. The man, student to Rabbi Akiva, was a complex man, a Torah Giant, brilliant and exceptional, wrote the Zohar, The hidden Torah, immersing himself in the depths of the Kabbalah and emerging safely.

There is a yearly celebration by his grave, and pilgrimages for a mere connection with the sacred, occur daily. Shimon Bar Yochai was according to a great many scholars, the greatest Tzadik, almost otherworldly. He had to hide from the Romans in a cave because he made a comment for which he was condemned to death, and studied both the Hidden and the Revealed Torah together with his son. During those years the Radiance or Zohar came about. When he first emerged from his cave he was in such an elevated state, that he couldn’t relate to the folly of regular folk. A voice told him to return to the cave and after a while, he re-emerged and became a great teacher of bothe Revealed and the Hidden Torah, or Kabbalah.

All in all, a visit to Sefad is a heavenly experience, with its pure mountain air, charming stone houses populated by artists and spiritual folk, steeped in a sacred atmosphere and when I first visited at age 7, I declared it my favourite place in the whole of Israel, and since my parents visited yearly, I had a standing invitation to join.

Beauty, health and elation of body and soul will be your take away gift.

And that’s a promise.