For travelers who are interested in exploring some of the history and cultural sites of Northern Israel, Safed — also known as “Tzfat” or “Zefat” — is a fascinating city. Safed’s history dates back to the times of the First Temple and Safed was mentioned by Josephus in his War of the Jews , written in the 1st century A.D.
Safed grew from a sleepy northern hamlet to a significant Jewish community in the 16th century when thousands of Jews, fleeing the Spanish Inquisition, made their way to the town. Among these refugees were some of the greatest Kabbalistic scholars of the era including Rabbi Moshe Alsheich, Rabbi Yosef Caro, Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz and the preeminent Kabbalist Rabbi Yitzhak Luria. The presence of these great rabbis earned Safed the name “City of Kabbalah” by which it is still known today.
Safed’s Synagogue Quarter
Much of Safed’s history can be experienced through a walk in the Old Jewish Quarter where the city’s ancient synagogues are located. There are four synagogues that are open daily for tourists — the ARI Ashkanazi, the ARI Sepharadi, the Abuhav and the Yosef Caro. These synagogues all existed in the 16th century but were destroyed by the earthquakes which devastated Safed in 1759 and again in 1837. All four synagogues were rebuilt in the 19th century in keeping with their original style.
In Sephardic tradition the bima — podium — of a synagogue is located in the center of the sanctuary and the congregants sit on chairs and benches that surround the bima. The Safed synagogues all exhibit this style of seating. The bimas of the two ARI synagogues and the Abuhav synagogue are set 7 steps above the main sanctuary in keeping with the Kabbalistic tradition of remembering the six days of the week which culminate in the crowning glory — the Sabbath.
There are many unique items of interest in the Safed synagogues. A carved Elijah’s chair in the ARI Ashkanazi synagogue is rumored to bring fertility to couples who sit in it There are 500-year-old Torah scrolls in the Abuhav synagogue which survived both Safed earthquakes as well as a katyusha attack that destroyed the building next to the synagogue in 2006. A small cave on the side of the main sanctuary in the ARI Sepharadi synagogue is, according to legend, the cave where Rabbi Isaac Luria — the ARI — sat and studied Kabbalah with Elijah the Prophet. Along the walls of the Yosef Caro synagogue visitors can see ancient texts which have been preserved in a visible “geniza” — depository.
See also Zefat – The Mystical City
Safed Tourist Center
In addition to maps and other tourist information that can be obtained at the Tourist Information Center, visitors can descend into excavated subterranean tunnels that exist below the center. These “tunnels” are actually homes of Jews who lived in Safed in the 1600s. The rooms were buried by the landslides which were triggered by the 1759 and 1837 earthquakes but they are structurally sound, enabling visitors to walk through and experience the homes of Jews who lived during the Golden Age of Safed.
The Tourist Center also displays exhibits that describe Safed History and offers a 10-minute movie about the History of Safed. Visitors with smartphones can log onto the “Lanes” guided tour that brings tourists from site to site with full explanations and stories of each location. Travelers who are planning their trip can also watch the “Lanes” videos online before their visit. There is no charge for the smartphone/videos tour or for the visit into the tunnels.
There are two museums in Safed. Both are open during morning hours. The HaMeiri Museum is located near the foot of the Old Jewish Quarter, above the cemetery. Its exhibits depict Jewish life in Safed including various periods of immigration, religious life, pogroms and interactions with the ruling Turks and British. A large exhibit is dedicated to the central position that Safed played during the War of Independence.
The Museum of Hungarian Jewry (open 0900 – 1300) can be found in the Saraya building on the outskirts of the Old City. This museum offers visitors the chance to learn about the history, culture, religious life and day to day existence of Jews who lived in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The museum is also engaged in research related to Hungarian Jewry and presents visual and audio-visual exhibits that present detailed information about the great community.