Exploring Old Tsfat

Yosef Karo synagogue in Tsfat
Joseph Karo synagogue in Tsfat

Tsfat is said to have been settled in the time of the First Temple. Jews supposedly lived here in the Second Temple period as well. Unfortunately, there is little evidence supporting either claim, because the city has been destroyed by earthquakes every 100 to 200 years. There is almost nothing truly ancient here. Even the Old City, with its old architecture and obviously renovated buildings is not very old by Israeli standards—most buildings were constructed after the 1837 earthquake.

The layout of Tsfat (also spelled Safed, Zefat, Tzfat, S’fath) high in the mountains of the Galil, has a logic of its own. Or illogic. There are two roads that encircle the Old City, but once you start down a side street, you are on your own. Most of the streets do have names, although street signs are rare. Even long time city residents do not know street names, but navigate by landmarks. Miri tells of ordering a cab to come to the corner of Korscak street. When the cab company said they did not know where that was, she said, “You know Yossi, with the two big black dogs? We’re at that corner.”

“Oh, Yossi with the dogs, sure. We’ll be there in 10 minutes.”

Besides the lack of street names, there is the problem of building numbers, which are not always consecutive or posted on the buildings. And the streets themselves, which may look car-friendly at one end, tend to narrow and wind, and quickly become impassable for any vehicle wider than a donkey cart. That is, the streets that don’t end as stairways. The Breslov neighborhood, which is relatively new, seems to be all stairs, and it looks like many stairways lead to only one door, which means if you go up the wrong one, you have to go back down and then up a different set. Supposedly there are passages between apartments that people who live there know about. All I could think about was trying to take the groceries home, up and down all those stairs, pushing a baby buggy and holding a toddler’s hand. And since Breslovers have large families, that is not an unlikely scenario.

The most famous set of stairs in the city is the large broad stairway built by the British to separate the Arab and Jewish neighborhoods after the 1929 Arab riots. These stairs go up and up and up, over 100 steps from the lower part of the city to the main street. At several points they widen into a landing where a road cuts across them. Just going from the level of the artists’ colony in the Old City up to the main street made me out of breath. Walking down from the main street to a level below the artists’ colony made my thighs ache.

People who live Tsfat develop strong leg muscles.

Tsfat is known as the city of mystics. Kabbalism flourished in the 16th century, when many of the great Kabbalists lived and studied here. Rabbi Isaac Luria, better known as the Ari HaKadosh, is one of the best known. He is called the Ari because it is the acronym for the “Ashkenazi Rabbi Isaac,” but the name also means the Holy Lion. Although the Ari was born in Jerusalem, he spent most of his formative years in Egypt, and moved to Tsfat in 1570. He lived and taught here for the last two years of his life, but in that short time he changed the city and Judaism itself. Some of the customs he instituted we still follow today. For example, he compiled the prayers welcoming Shabbat, taking his followers out to an open area at sunset where they recited a Psalm for each day of the week. The service culminated when they turned to the West and welcomed the bride, the Queen Shabbat. Today, Jews around the world still sing L’cha dodi, a beautiful hymn which ends with the words “Come, oh Bride; Come, oh Bride” which was written by Rabbi Shlomo HaLevi Alkabetz. The Ari did not write much himself; most of teachings came down to us because his student, Rabbi Chaim Vital, wrote them out. But such is his reputation that several of the most holy places in Tsfat bear his name. These places are not memorials to the Ari, but are in daily use today.

The Ari mikve (ritual bath) is near the base of one of the mountains on the edge of the city. The hill going down to it is very steep, and the road curves past the cemetery. Because it uses water from a mountain spring, the water is icy cold. One of my friends tells of going there with friends when they were yeshiva students forty years ago. As they were dipping in the mikve, an older man rushed in and yelled at them to get out of the water immediately. The three naked boys scrambled for their clothes and before they had time to get fully dressed, four men came in carrying a dead man on a stretcher. The boys watched in shock as the men performed the tahara, the ritual washing of the dead before burial. Although today the Ari mikve is no longer used for taharas of the dead, he said that in all the years since that incident, he has never been tempted to revisit it, even when he is spending Shabbat in Tsfat.

But others do use the mikve for ritual purification. Some Birthright groups visit Tsfat and the young men dip themselves in the mikve. They tell us that going to the Ari mikve is one of the highlights of their trip.

Aron kodesh of  Ari synagogue in Tsfat
Aron kodesh of Ari synagogue

The heritage of the Ari is also claimed by two synagogues, one Sephardi and Ashkenazi. The original Ashkenazi synagogue where the Ari prayed, on the edge of the Old City, was destroyed in the 1837 earthquake. Twenty years later a new building was erected on the same site. It has a raised platform in the middle of the room for the Torah reading, and an arched ceiling. It also has an elaborately carved and painted olive wood aron kodesh where the Torah scrolls are kept.

Top section of aron kodesh showing lion with human fact , Ari synagogue, Tsfat (Safed)
Top section of aron kodesh showing lion with human fact (bottom, center)

Unfortunately, someone sent inaccurate measurements to the German workshop where it was made. When the aron arrived at the synagogue, it was too tall to fit into the niche reserved for it. The top section, therefore, tilts forward. In the center of the tilted section sits a lion with the face of the Ari HaKadosh.

In the heart of the artists’ colony in the Old City is a Sephardi synagogue, built where it is believed Rabbi Joseph Karo studied in the early 16th century. Rabbi Karo compiled the first widely published code of Jewish law, the Shulchan Aruch or The Set Table. Today the Shulchan Aruch is still the definitive guide for observant Jews. Like most of Kabbalists in medieval Tsfat, Karo was Sephardi. He came to Tsfat from Turkey, where his family had lived since the 1492 expulsion from Spain. His book details the Sephardi way of observing the laws, so later Rabbi Moses Isserles wrote Mappah, The Tablecloth, explaining where the Ashkenazi tradition differs. Many editions of the Shulchan Aruch print Karo’s original text in regular Hebrew letters, with Isserles’ additions in Rashi script, which would be equivalent to showing the text in a regular font and the additions in a cursive one.

When we visited the synagogue, we entered through a door whose sign indicated we were entering a yeshiva. When we went in, however, we were in a store selling tourist merchandise. We walked through the store, watched by the storekeeper, through a small door into a beautiful synagogue. In 1948, when the building was the home of the Chief Rabbi of Tsfat, this room was his library. One wall is still lined with glass-fronted bookcases. We could tell it is a Sephardi synagogue by the way the benches are arranged: in a square against the walls. The benches all have long blue cushions on them and face towards the raised platform in the middle where the Torah is read on Shabbat and holidays. The two small Torahs on the platform’s railing are in wooden cases, as is the custom of the Sephardim. The ark in which the Torahs are kept is on the southern wall, the direction of Jerusalem. The room is plain, the only decorations being tall bookcases, a few prayer plaques on the walls, and the colorful lamps hanging from the ceiling. The ceiling is painted blue.

Ezrat nashim (women's section) of Joesph Katro synagogue in Tsfat
Ezrat nashim (women’s section) of Joesph Katro synagogue

A heavy curtain hangs at one end of the room, opposite the windows. This is the section designated for the women, the ezrat nashim. Several of us went through the curtain to look at it. Unlike the men’s section, the ezrat nashim has thickly upholstered chairs and wide divans. The women who pray in this synagogue might sit in comfort, but they are blind to what is going on. Despite the cushy seats, I still prefer to pray where I can see and feel more a part of the congregation.

And here’s where Tsfat is located–Google prefers to spell the city’s name Safed

2 thoughts on “Exploring Old Tsfat

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it–I’ve got a couple more posts on Tsfat that I’m working on. It’s too fascinating to include it all in one post.

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