With its ancient stone houses and narrow alleys, Safed is one of the most picturesque towns of Israel. It’s ideal for those who enjoy spiritual experiences, religion and the Kabbalah, but the bucolic settlement with its culture, inheritance, culinary specialties, fresh mountain air even in the summer, beautiful landscape and suitability for a good snowball fight is more than beneficiary for anyone…
All of my three sons were born in Safed; it’s a miracle that none of them have turned out to be a rabbi yet. I’m afraid that in 20 years the whole of Israel will be like this, where not everyone is religious, but no one is secular. At the local college Mysticism and Spirituality majors have been introduced recently.
Safed is beautiful and ugly, amazing and irritating at the same time. It could gain the title of “the most confusing town of Israel,” solely based on its various names appearing all over the place: Tzfat, Safed, Tsfat, Safad, Tsefat. Is this an ancient, peaceful settlement, or the tower of dark, religious bigotry? Is it the home of the oldest and most beautiful synagogues in the country, or that of worn-down labor-district housing estates, which cannot really be found anywhere else anymore?
The town carries an interesting contrast, intertwined of contradictory messages, which make it a peculiar place, where the mixture of the spiritual and the profane create a unique experience.
In the dark of the night you can hear silence radiating, while the town is abundant with underground spiritual activities. Every piece of stone, each alley encompasses a spirit telling a story, singing, making music, or whispering – of ancient history, secrets, wisdom, Torah, miracles and valor deeds.
Enchanted violins and miraculous flutes, fabulous organs and mysterious harps are buried within the stones, but children and open-hearted people can hear the unfinished stories they reveal.
Safed is covered by a myriad of secrets, and in this spirit one needs to struggle a little to find the interesting places in this town of the Cabbalists. It is worth wandering around in the old town, not necessarily with any specific destinations. On Sabbaths and holidays everything is closed, and the town is desolate; one can see people on the streets coming and going from and to the synagogues only at the beginning and end of the devotionals.
Out of the many ancient synagogues, three have become touristic spectacles, where hundreds of visitors gather not for the sake of prayer, but to enjoy the colors, murals, stone sculptures and history. Here you are allowed to take photos, and men and women may even enter together. How refreshingly blessed and normal!
All three synagogues are entirely different from each other.
The Ha’ari Hakadosh synagogue built in the beginning of the 16th century is a small, crowded one, with stone pillars painted in bright colors in its center. Rabbi Ha’ari (Isaac Luria, one of the fathers of the Kabbalah) lived only three years in this town, until his death when he was 38 years old. The place is characterized by modesty and joyful colors in spite of its importance. The peculiar atmosphere is partly due to the boards hanging in the space all over, filled with requests, reminders of silence, notices of devotional times, spiritual interventions, and, of course, asking for donations.
The most compelling and beautiful synagogue is that of Rabbi Avuhab, who lived in the 14th century. The great earthquake of 1759 demolished the whole building, except for the Ark of the Covenant on the eastern wall. The Torah scroll thus salvaged and hand-written by the rabbi himself, is in use to this day.
The dome-shaped building is covered by naive murals of fruit trees, Torah scrolls and musical instruments.
The spacious synagogue of blue hues located in the heart of the old town, and bearing the name of Rabbi Yosef Karo, author of the Shulchan Aruch, accommodates an antique book collection. Below it lies the little dome-shaped chamber, where an angel appeared for the rabbi in the form of a ghost according to the traditions.
Such – moderately bizarre – experiences are absolutely normal in Safed, which is quite charming and enchanting.
In 1948 a group of artist settled in the deserted Arabic village that has become today’s artistic district with numerous galleries scattered all over the place. From the outside it is sometimes difficult to decide whether it’s a tourist trap souvenir shop or an artistic gallery of genuine quality. The original form of the place has been preserved, with its inner courtyard houses interlaced by vine-arbors, lining up on the steep slope of the mountain.
We climb up to the Crusader fortress on the mountain top, surrounded by trenches and walls. The towers erected in the center were renovated by the mamelukes. Some think that the citadel was built by Josephus, commander of the Galilean region during the Jewish resurrection against the Romans in 66 AD. The ancient fort, around which the town was built, would have become a central attraction anywhere else in the world already. But not here. The citadel and its surroundings are unfortunately severely neglected.
The culinary of the town is very much like the exciting history of Safed. It requires exploration. After all, the knowledge of the specialties prepared for generations for weddings, Sabbaths and holidays has been preserved, only it is folded and tucked away in the alleys. If you get hungry, calzones are the local specialties, but you can enjoy various Jewish cuisines, including spinach, cheese and pretzels.
Safed used to be known for its dairy processing plants too. The “Safed cheese” is not just a marketing slogan. Due to the restrictions and the dairy industrial giants only two small plants have survived. One of them is Meiri, who claim to be “the first Israeli dairy produce factory” and to have been producing cheese for more than 160 years.
Just a few restaurant names to give you a taste: Tree of Life, Source of Drinks, Coffee Opposite the Mountain, We Eat and Paint, Garden of Eden…
Many could be interested in the Museum of Printing Art – the first printing-house of the Near East was opened in Safed in 1576. One can find an exciting exhibition of ancient printing machines, print collections and antique books.
The Meiri House introduces the history of the local Jewish community with the help of its vast and varied collection of images, photos, books, artisan and household tools.
The Doll Museum enchants its visitors with its special atmosphere and wide selection of artisan porcelain dolls dressed in historical outfits.
But you can also find a Bible Museum, a Hungarian Jewish Museum, boutique hotels, unmarked bakeries, glass-blowers, graves of aged wise men and righteous men radiating inner light, and we haven’t even mentioned the annual klezmer festival with its violins and clarinets.
No doubt, a town blessed with such characteristics has a bright future, and it could easily become a precious touristic pearl with some smart governance, being the touristically already attractive spot it already is. Would the locals be more open and welcoming, and sell carrot or pomegranate juice instead of withdrawing, the whole of Galilee, and even the world as such would be a better place.
Numbers: nearly 1 million visitors per year, 30,000 residents, 900 meters of altitude, 700 guest rooms, 100 galleries, 26 antique synagogues, 1 restaurant open on Sabbath.
This post is also available in: Hungarian