Zefat (also known as Safed, Safad, or Zfat) in the Upper Galilee is Israel’s highest city (at an altitude of 2,790 feet or 850 meters) and probably its coldest.
The hilltop city of Zefat embodies great charm and quirkiness. Steeped in Jewish heritage, Safed is the home of venerable ancient synagogues and a thriving artists’ colony. According to local legend Shem and Ever, Noah’s son and grandson studied in Zfat. While a Bronze Age Canaanite burial site was discovered in the Safad and it was fortified by Flavius Josephus in 67 C.E. during the Great Revolt against Rome, Zefat only became a city in the late 12th century at the time of the Crusades.
Compared to other ancient cities, Zefat is not mentioned in the Torah and apparently was not settled until the Roman era.
Already the home of a thriving Jewish community in the 14th and 15th centuries, Zefat became the cradle of Jewish mysticism (Kabbalah) in the 16th century. Sixteenth-century Safed was also the home of Rabbi Joseph Caro, who wrote the most influential work of Jewish law – the Shulchan Arukh.
At this time Zfat made a further lasting impression on Jewish ritual when local Kabbalists (mystics) began a Friday evening practice, since adopted by Jewish communities throughout the world, of Welcoming the Sabbath (Kabbalat Shabbat). “Lecha Dodi,” a hymn written in 16th century Zefat describing this practice, is today a center piece of Jewish Friday evening services. Lecha Dodi describes the Shabbat as a bride and invokes the worshippers to go and greet her. There is an acrostic across the stanzas; that implies the author was Shlomo HaLevi. Over the years numerous tunes have been written; and in some services the tune will change mid-way through a given rendition.
If you get the opportunity to spend Shabbat in Zefat it can be a deeply moving experience – try the services at different synagogues.
Safed was the scene of fighting in the War of Independence due to its strategic position in the Upper Galilee.
Zefat consists of a warren of cobblestone streets that lead to historical synagogues and other sites of interest. In the Caro Synagogue, for instance, the ark contains a Torah scroll that is estimated to be at least 400 years old. Another synagogue, which dates back 1,700 years is also found here. Many buildings in the city have doors that are painted blue, to remind people of heaven.
Zefat has two principal attractions – the mystical Old Jewish Quarter with many ancient synagogues and the Artists’ Colony with its art and galleries. The ancient alleys and occasional views of the Galilee Mountains make for some compelling photography.
Most of the alleys are wheelchair-accessible (this is a city). However, please note that some of the inclines in Safed are very steep and many of the surfaces aren’t always great.
Getting to Zefat (Safed)
Zefat can be reached by taking Route 89 west from the Elifelet Junction on Route 90 or through the town of Rosh Pina also just off of Route 90. The best access point for the Jewish Quarter and Artists’ Colony is in the Beit Yosef and Arlozorov Steet junction. Zefat is also accessible by public transportation – Please consult the bus service for schedules and stations.
Modest dress, no shorts or sleeveless, is required for visits to Zefat’s still functioning ancient synagogues.