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The increasing worldwide interest in Kabbalah has fueled tourism to Safed, a northern Israeli city known as the 'City of Kabbalah'.
The region has been associated with kabbalah scholarship since the 2nd century C.E. when Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai learned the secrets of Jewish mysticism through divine inspiration while hiding from the Romans in a cave in Peki'in, near Safed.
According to Jewish tradition Kabbalah - the word means 'to receive' in Hebrew - involves codes and mysterious messages that God put in the texts, words and even letters of the Torah when he gave the Five Books of Moses to the Children of Israel at Mt. Sinai.
Kabbalah study has always been an esoteric discipline, limited to a few exceptional scholars who share their insights with a few select colleagues. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai began to disseminate what he had learned after the death decree against him was revoked, but even he limited the information that he had learned to rabbis on the highest levels of scholarship and religious life.
Rabbi Bar Yochai wrote the 'Zohar', the seminal book of Kabbalah which is used, till today, as the central focus of Kabbalah study. Kabbalah students study the Zohar as they attempt to determine what God expects of man, and how each person can use the secrets of the Zohar to enhance his or her relationship to God and to his/her fellow man.
In the 15th and 16th centuries many of the Jews who were fleeing the Spanish Inquisition returned to the Land of Israel.
Among these people were some of history's greatest kabbalistic scholars who were drawn to the mountaintop town of Safed; where they could study kabbalah in the exact area where Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai had written the Zohar fourteen centuries previously.
Rabbi Bar Yochai's gravesite, on nearby Mt. Meron, became a pilgrimage site for these rabbis and their communities who continued to expand and develop kabbalah scholarship which, they hoped, would lead to the coming of the Messiah.
Today many tourists visit Safed where they can explore the world's most famous kabbalah-related sites.
Safed's Old City synagogues date back to the 15th century. The original structures were rebuilt after the earthquakes of 1759 and 1837 but they were reconstructed on the original sites and include many elements of the original construction.
The Ari Ashkanazi synagogue was built by Jews who fled Spain after being forcibly converted to Christianity. They lived on the island of Girigoros for several years before making their way to Safed. When they arrived, their conversion caused the Jewish community to reject them and they built their own synagogue, the Girigoros synagogue, on the outskirts of the existing community.
In 1570 Rabbi Isaac Luria, known as the ARI - the Lion - arrived in Safed. Rabbi Luria was the preeminent kabbalist of the era and remains, to this day, as one of the most highly regarded kabbalists of all time. The ARI refined the study of kabbalah to the discipline that it is today and his teachings served as an important basis for the later development of Hassidic philosophy.
The ARI established the tradition of bringing his students to a field next to the Girigoros synagogue on Friday afternoons to sing psalms and hymns to usher in the Sabbath. This service became known as the Kabbalat Shabbat and is, today, celebrated in every Jewish synagogue and temple worldwide.
Following the ARI's death the Girigoros Jews were reintegrated into the Jewish community and the synagogue was renamed the Ari Ashkanazi. It is open daily to visitors. A special chair, called 'Elijah's Chair' is located to the side of the podium. This chair is used during circumcision ceremonies. Locals believe that when an infertile couple sits in the chair, they will be blessed with a child within a year. (this author knows of several couples who, indeed, welcomed a child into their home within a year of sitting in the chair).
The Ari Sepharadi synagogue is located further down the hillside, just above the cemetery. The Ari Sepharadi synagogue was called the 'Eliyahu HaNavi - Elijah the Prophet' synagogue when it was built in the 15th century. The Ari prayed in the synagogue and, according to legend, studied kabbalah with Elijah the Prophet in a small cave located off the side of the synagogue's main sanctuary.
The synagogue was renamed Ari Sepharadi after Rabbi Luria\'s death. It is open to visitors daily where they can still see the cave, as well as the kabbalistic-inspired blue imagery of the sanctuary.
The Joseph Caro synagogue is located on Yosef Caro street, nestled in-between the art galleries of the city. Rabbi Yosef Caro lived in Safed in the 16th century (his son married the Ari's daughter). He wrote the massive Code of Jewish Law in Safed to help the Jews who had been dispersed throughout the world after the Spanish Expulsion of 1492. Legend relates that Rabbi Caro sat in a cave under the synagogue with the 'maggid' - an angel - where he wrote the compendium which continues to serve today as a basic text of Jewish law for Jews throughout the world.
The Abuhav synagogue is probably the most famous synagogue in Safed. It's known as the 'Blue Synagogue' and its domed ceiling and kabbalistic-inspired sketches dominate the sanctuary. The Abuhav synagogue has three Torah arks. One was built to house the Koran which, according to Turkish law, was required to be present in any house of worship. The Koran was removed when the British captured the Land of Israel in 1917 from the Ottoman Turks. A second ark houses the Torah scrolls which are used daily. The third ark contains two ancient Torah scrolls which were written in the Middle Ages. They are still used in the synagogue on holidays.
Safed offers other historical, cultural and religious venues for visitors including dozens of Judaica and other galleries, an International Center for Tzfat Kabbalah, two Carelebach synagogues for invigorating Sabbath/holiday celebrations, learning programs for drop-in classes and more.
I've been to Israel three times but never visited Safed. It's a 'must see' next time I'm in the Middle East.