Welcome to Safed

Safed, a city associated with Jewish mysticism and Kabala, is located in the mountains of the Galil (Galilee). It is one of the four sacred cities of Judaism (the others are Jerusalem, Hevron and Tiberias), and has a history that goes back to at least the second Temple period.

A Walking Tour in Safed's Ancient Jewish Quarter

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Walk back past the Tourist Information Office and down the stairs to your left. You are about to enter the ancient Jewish Quarter of Safed, home to sages, mystics, poets and miracle workers in ages past.

At the end of the first flight of stairs turn right and walk until your street (and four others) end at the plaza. This is Kikar Meginim—"Defenders' Square." Turn left and descend the stairs, following the signs to the Ari Ashkenazi Synagogue. There is a marble plaque marking the site of the Haganah command post on your left.…

The building on the left as you descend the stairs is the Beit Midrash Ha'Ari. Enter the synagogue on the right. Modest dress is required at this and all synagogues. Head coverings are available for the men at the entrance. Please return them when you leave the synagogue.

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The Ari Ashkenazi Synagogue

The area you passed through so far was forested in the 16th century. This spot was the city limit. Here at the edge of the forest, facing the setting sun on Friday afternoon, white-robed mekubalim (mystics) would greet the Sabbath. They sang six psalms describing the process of redemption; and a hymn composed in Safed by Rabbi Shlomo AlKabetz, L'cha Dodi. The poem, like the psalms (collectively known as the Kabbalat Shabbat service), describes the Sabbath as an integral part of redemption.

The belief in the imminent arrival of the messiah, central to the faith of the mekubalim, is illustrated in the following legend about the most famous of the mystics, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, the Ari. Once while his disciples were singing L'cha Dodi, the Ari suddenly turned to them and announced, "My friends, let us go to Jerusalem right now, and greet the messiah!" Some agreed at once, but others hesitated, saying that Jerusalem was too distant to reach before the Sabbath. The Ari, shuddering with anguish, replied "If you had all believed with perfect faith, the messiah would have come immediately! Because you hesitated, the moment of favor is lost, and we are condemned to return to exile." (from Shivchei HaAri)

A synagogue was built on the site where the Ari and his disciples sang the Kabbalat Shabbat service. Because the present congregation is comprised primarily of European Jews, it is called the Ari Ashkenazi Synagogue.

Ari, a Hebrew acronym of the words "our master Rabbi Yitzchak" is the Hebrew word for lion. Yitzchak Luria was born in Jerusalem in 1534. His father died when he was young, and his family moved to Egypt. There the Ari studied Torah and Kabbalah with the leading rabbis. At age 35 a vision of Elijah the prophet appeared to him, ordering him to Safed to teach Rabbi Chaim Vital. He obeyed, and Rabbi Vital became one of his students. Despite his youth the Ari had a tremendous impact on the Safed community of his day, and on the entire Jewish world to this day. His teachings profoundly influenced the Hasidic movement a century later. Many of the customs he introduced, such as Kabbalat Shabbat and the celebration of Tu b'Shvat, (the trees' new year), are now practiced throughout the Jewish world. The Ari died at age 38, three years after he arrived in Safed.

The Entrance. No mezuzah is affixed to the synagogue's entrance. According to halachah (Jewish law), a mezuzah must be affixed on a room used for eating, sleeping, or conversing. A mezuzah is not required since these activities are not permitted in a synagogue.

The bima (platform) in the middle is for reading the Torah. There are two reasons for the platform: (1) everyone can hear the Torah reading easily; (2) reading the Torah from the platform symbolizes receiving the Torah from the heights of Mount Sinai. When the Torah is read, it should be listened to attentively as if for the first time at Sinai. The Torah is read in the center of the synagogue, symbolizing its centrality in Jewish life.

There is a notch in the bima where it faces the door. During the War of Independence a bomb fell in the courtyard, and a piece of shrapnel flew into the synagogue. Because the explosion occurred during the Amida prayer at the moment when the congregation was bowing, the shrapnel flew over the head of the worshipper near the door, imbedding itself in the bima.

The ark was hand-carved over one hundred years ago. A Torah crown faces the congregation over the ark. The Ari taught that by learning and good works everyone, men and women, Jews and gentiles, can attain the crown of Torah.

Elijah's Chair. The room with the mezuzah in the back of the synagogue is used for meals. Inside is Elijah's Chair (used during the circumcision ceremony). Popular belief holds that if a childless couple sits in the chair they will be blessed with a baby boy within a year. (It works even if you already have children.)

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Exit the synagogue, turn right and walk down the stairs. Turn right and after a few yards turn left down the stairs. You will find a blue door with a plaque over it, opening into a courtyard. This is the Avritch Synagogue. Not usually open for tourists, it is in regular use on the Sabbath.

Prepared by Yisrael Shalem, licensed guide for all of Israel.
For more information contact him by e-mail.