What to See & Do

While there is much to see in Safed, a traveler unfamiliar with the city’s crooked streets and unimpressive doorways may unknowingly pass some of the city’s best sites. Consider getting taking a guided tour. You can arrange for an informative walking tour of Old Safed with Aviva Minoff, an excellent licensed tour guide. The 2 1/2-hour tours generally leave from the Rimon Inn, Monday through Thursday at 10am and Friday at 10:30am. For information, call tel. 04/692-0901, before your arrival. Note that modest dress is required when touring the religious quarter of Safed. A

Alternatively, look for the locally published book “Six Self-Guided Tours to Tzfat,” by Yisrael Shalem (approx. NIS 35); it’s sold at Greenbaum’s bookstore on the pedestrian mall in the center of Safed.

advertisement
The Synagogues

During Safed’s golden age in the 16th century, some of the synagogues here were devoted to the study of the Kabbalah, a mystical interpretation of the Bible and other sacred writings in which every single letter and symbol in holy writ has deep, hidden significance. Hebrew words, numbers, and the names of God have mystical powers in themselves, and can be used to ward off evil and to perform miracles.

Kabbalists believed that the system originated with Abraham and was handed down by word of mouth from ancient times. Historians of religion dispute this, however, saying that Kabbalism arose only in the 600s; it continued to be a thriving belief until the 1700s. Kabbalism was, in a way, a reaction to the heavy formalism of rabbinical Judaism. It allowed for more latitude in the interpretation of holy writ and gained great popularity in the 1100s. The most significant Kabbalist text is the “Zohar,” a mystical commentary on the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures). For an interesting fictionalized interpretation of what Safed was like at the height of its glory as a Jewish religious center, I recommend the chapter “The Saintly Men of Safed” in James Michener’s novel “The Source.”

advertisement

It’s not easy to describe exactly where the various synagogues are—the religious quarter has few street names and is really a collection of alleyways and courtyards. Ask for “kiryat batei knesset,” the synagogue section.

Among the most famous old synagogues here is the one named for the scholarly 16th-century Rabbi Joseph Caro, author of the “Shulchan Aruch” (the Set Table), which is the standard codification of practical Jewish law. Nearby is another named in honor of Rabbi Moshe (Moses) Alsheich (a renowned biblical commentator) and the only fully intact synagogue to survive the 1837 earthquake. Just a few steps away is the synagogue of Rabbi Isaac Abuhav, a sage of the 1400s; it contains an ancient Torah scroll said to have been written by the rabbi himself. Nearby is another, dedicated to Rabbi Yosef Bena’a, a famous 12th-century liturgical poet also called Ha-Lavan (the White).

The synagogue quarter has two houses of worship dedicated to the greatest of the kabbalist scholars, Rabbi Isaac Luria (known as Ha’Ari, or “the Lion,” an acronym for Adoneinu Rabbeinu Yitzchak, “Our Master Teacher Isaac”). Although Luria lived, studied, and taught in Safed for only 2 1/2 years at the end of his life (he died here at the age of 38), his work changed the face of Judaism forever. The fortresslike Sephardic synagogue, graced by fine carved-wood doors, is built where the rabbi studied and prayed, at the edge of the cemetery. The Ashkenazi Ha’Ari Synagogue is closer to Jerusalem Street, at a spot where the rabbi is said to have come to welcome the Sabbath with his followers. Rabbi Luria was the author of the “Kabbalat Shabbat” (Receiving the Sabbath), the liturgical arrangement of prayers recited at the start of the Sabbath in normative Judaism.

advertisement

The original building, constructed after Rabbi Luria’s death, was destroyed by an earthquake in 1852 and later restored. Its ark, done in the 1800s, is especially notable. If you come with an official guide, you will get a better sense of how every nook and cranny has a story and sometimes a supernatural occurrence connected with it.

At the end of the synagogue area is a cemetery containing the sky-blue tombs of many famous religious leaders; they’re the ones with rocks placed upon them as symbols of love, respect, and remembrance. There is also a military cemetery and nearby is a third cemetery containing the graves of Israelis who served with the underground Stern Gang and Irgun groups at the time of the British Mandate. Buried here are those executed by the British in Acre prison, including Dov Gruner, who is one of the best known of the underground fighters.

Another holy site is the Cave of Shem and Eber (or Ever), the son and grandson of Noah. This cave, located just off Ha-Palmach Street near where the Ha-Palmach stone overpass crosses Jerusalem Street, is said to be the place where Shem and Eber lived, studied, and were buried. Legend also has it that Jacob spent 14 years here studying before he went to the house of Laban, and that here he immersed himself in a ritual purifying bath before he wrestled with the angel. Today, there is a synagogue opposite the cave; if the cave is locked, you can ask the caretaker of the synagogue to open it for you.

advertisement

20th-Century Memorials

Going down the hill from Jerusalem Street, in the area between the synagogues and the Artists’ Quarter, is a straight stairway: Olei Ha-Gardom. Stand at the top of this stairway, where it intersects with Jerusalem Street, and you’re within sight of a lot of Safed’s 20th-century historical landmarks.

Olei Ha-Gardom was the dividing line between Safed’s Jewish and Arab quarters until 1948; that’s why all the synagogues are clustered on the right-hand side as you’re facing down the stairway. The present Artists’ Quarter is in what used to be the Arab section. Look up toward the citadel, and you’ll see a small opening in the fortress from which a direct line of machine-gun fire could be sent straight down the stairway, a British attempt to keep an uneasy peace between the two communities. The same day the British withdrew, the Arab and Jewish factions went to war. Look at the walls of the old police station, and you’ll see it’s pocked with bullet holes from the fighting.

advertisement

Down Jerusalem Street from this intersection you can also see a war memorial, with a tablet describing how the fighting favored first the Arabs, then the Jews. Poised on a stone mount is a Davidka (little David), one of those homemade Jewish mortars that, though not too accurate or damaging, made a terrific noise and gave the impression of being much more dangerous than it actually was. At the top of the hill, in the beautiful hilltop park, are the ruins of a Crusader fortress (unfortunately not well maintained at present) from which you can enjoy a fine view of Mount Meiron, Mount Tabor, the Sea of Galilee, and a smattering of tiny hill villages and settlements. A war memorial commemorates the Israelis who were killed pushing the Arabs back from the heights.

The Artists’ Quarter is the area down the hill from Jerusalem Street between the Olei Ha-Gardom stairway facing the police station and the stone overpass that crosses Jerusalem Street. Here you will find picturesque houses, tiny streets, manicured gardens, and outdoor art displays. Many artists have galleries in their homes, and the homes themselves are often so charming and atmospheric that some owners charge a small admission.

advertisement

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.