Sfat - City of Kabbalah and
Jewish Mysticism

Tsfat (also spelled Safed) is one of the four Jewish holy cities along with Jerusalem, Tiberias and Hebron, and is the most mystical city in Israel. It is said that when the Messiah comes, he will pass through the city on his way to Jerusalem.

History

This historic city dates back over two thousand years, during which it has weathered plagues, battles and violent earthquakes which left the city in ruins. Most of the buildings in the Jewish Quarter had to be rebuilt after the Galilee earthquake of 1837.

For hundreds of years, Arabs and Jews lived side by side in the city. The Jewish Quarter only accounted for about 10% of the population until the War of Independence.

On 16th April, 1948, when British troops pulled out of Sfat, it was feared that the Jewish community would be massacred. The Palmach's 3rd battalion joined by field corps and IZL took up positions in the Jewish Quarter. After several battles, they succeeded in taking control of the Arab Quarter and the conquest of Tsfat was completed on 10th May, 1948. The next morning, all the Arab residents fled to surrounding Arab villages.

Today, the population of Tsfat is mostly Jewish with a large percentage of religious and Hassidic Jews.

Sfat view

The Davidka Monument

The "Davidka" mortar was a primitive, home-made weapon, named after it's designer, David Leibowitz. It was placed in front of the Ha'Ari Synagogue and was used to shell the area. Although it wasn't very accurate, it started some fires and made one helluva noise. It is credited for being the reason why the Arabs abandoned the city.

The Davidka was so important to the success of the battle for Tsfat, that a monument was erected to commemorate it - you can't miss it at the end of the main street, just past the town hall.

The Citadel Park

Sfat-memorial

Opposite the Davidka Monument you will see some steps up to the top of the hill where there's a park and another monument in memory of the fighters and civilians who died in the War of Independence.

You can also see the ruins of the Citadel (Metsuda) - once one of the largest Crusader fortresses in the Middle East.

On a clear day, you have an amazing view over the Sea of Galilee and the surrounding countryside. This is one of the peaks where, in ancient times, beacons were burned to announce the start of the Jewish months and festivals.

The Old City

Sfat-old city

From the Davidka memorial there are signposts to the artist's colony in the old Arab Quarter. The breathtaking scenery and the special mystical atmosphere in Sfat has attracted and inspired artists over the years, and you can wander around the galleries and shops selling arts and crafts.

Or stroll down the narrow cobbled roads and alleyways between the stone houses and synagogues which were once part of the Jewish Quarter. The streets are named after the Jewish sages and mystics who came to live here in the 15th century to escape the Spanish Inquisition.

Kabbalah and Ha'Ari

Among the synagogues in the old Jewish Quarter are the Ha'Ari Ashkenazi synagogue and the Ha'Ari Sephardic synagogues. These are named after Rabbi Yitzhak Luria (also known as "Ha'Ari" or "Arizal"), a Torah scholar and mystic who lived in Sfat in the 16th century. He is famous for being one of the biggest contributers to the Kabbalah, along with Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.

Today, his commentaries form the basis of Kabbalah study, together with the Zohar (Book of Splendor). His father was Ashkenazi and his mother Sephardi, which may explain why his teachings are accepted by all Jews, whatever their origins.

Until quite recently, Kabbalah was only studied by men over 40 years of age, according to Jewish tradition. Today, there are those that believe the world needs the wisdom of the Kabbalah, so the more people who study it the better. Since celebs like Madonna have helped to publicize it, it has become popular with men and women around the world, Jews and non-Jews alike. The International Center for Tzfat Kabbalah was established in Tsfat in 2006, and offers local and international programs for the study of Kabbalah.

Beit Hameiri

At the bottom of the Great Stairs - called Olei Hagardom, in Hebrew - which once divided the Jewish Quarter from the Arab Quarter, you come to Beit Hameiri (Hameiri House). This is a restored historical building which has been turned into a museum and it's definitely worth a visit. For a small entrance fee, you can learn about the lives of the Jewish community in Sfat over the past 200 years. The museum is open every day except Saturdays. Fridays and holiday eves half day. Phone: 04-6971307 or 04-6921902 for groups or more information.

Jewish Cemetery

Below the museum is the Jewish cemetery where many of the kabbalists from the 15th and 16th centuries are buried. Many people come to visit this Jewish holy site and pray at the graves of the sages (tzaddikim).

Read more about the tombs of sages in Tsfat

Read about a three-day visit to Tsfat




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