During the sixteenth century, with the destruction of the Jewish community in Spain, which was the largest and most important Jewish community, and Spain’s conquest by Christians, Diaspora Jews’ interest in Kabbalah and mysticism grew, and hopes of Messianic redemption arose. As a world center for Judaism, with thousands of scholars, writers and poets living there, Safed became a spiritual center for Diaspora Jews. Customs and prayers still in use today originated in Safed. Joseph Karo wrote Shulchan Aruch – the written manual of Jewish law – and poet Shlomo Alkabetz wrote the song Lecha Dodi in Safed; most importantly, Rabbi Isaac Luria Ashkenazi “The Ari” created his interpretation of the Kabbalah in Safed.
Ancient synagogues have been preserved in Safed, from different periods, allowing a rare peek into the depths of the city’s fascinating history. Despite the difficult eras and hardships faced by the Jewish community during various periods, the city of Safed maintained a holy atmosphere. The sense of mystery that encompasses Safed is evident in the city’s alleys, synagogues and in ancient cemetery. In the 1830s, the city boasted upwards of 50 synagogues, mikvehs (ritual baths) and places of Torah study.
The Ari Ashkenazi Synagogue
This sixteenth century synagogue was built by Jews who had been expelled from Spain and was used by Rabbi Isaac Lurai – The Ari and his students. The synagogue is located in the outskirts of Safed’s Sephardic neighborhood. After the Hasids immigrated to the city, the synagogue served the Ashkenazi community. The synagogue was destroyed in an earthquake in 1837, and it took more than twenty years to rebuild it. The synagogue’s arc was carved by a craftsman, in a style used in eastern European synagogues. During the 1948 War of Independence, a munitions shell was fired near the synagogue; its shrapnel cut off the metal grate and struck the bimah, but did not hit a single individual, even though the synagogue was filled with worshippers seeking refuge. The synagogue’s courtyard houses a rock pillar, used by elderly and ill individuals who could not make the pilgrimage to Mount Meron on the holiday of Lag ba’Omer and participate in the bonfire ceremonies alongside the Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s burial place.
The Ari Sephardic Synagogue
The Ari Sephardic Synagogue, built in the 16th century, is the oldest synagogue in Safed. It is considered the synagogue of Rabbi Isaac Luria, where he chose to pray because of the view of Mount Meron and the proximity to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s burial site, visible from the synagogue window. The synagogue was destroyed during the great earthquake of 1837 and was rebuilt by Jewish Italian philanthropist Yitzhak Gueta.
The synagogue served as an important Haganah position in the days preceding the 1948 War of Independence due to its location, opposite the city’s Arab quarter. Despite the building’s beauty, it is closed to visitors most days of the year.
The Rebbe Avreitsh Synagogue
The synagogue is named after Rabbi Abraham Avreitsh, who immigrated from Ukraine in 1833 and settled in Safed. Rabbi Abraham Avreitsh greatly assisted the Jewish yishuv at the time, which suffered many hardships following the robberies and violence taking place. The Rebbe and his wife assisted and offered financial support to Jewish survivors for several months. Though the synagogue was filled with worshippers during the 1837, which destroyed the synagogue’s western section, no injuries were sustained and miraculously the holy arc remained standing.
The synagogue is named after Rabbi Joseph Karo, who compiled the Shulchan Aruch and was one of the greatest rabbis and Jewish law adjudicators. Karo’s family left Spain due to the Spanish Inquisition introduced by Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand II and Isabella, and moved to Portugal, from which they were also expelled. Caro’s family then moved to Istanbul and Edirne, in Turkey, where Karo was appointed head of the yeshiva. In 1536 the rabbi arrived in Safed and established a place of Torah study, where he delved into the topic of halakha, Jewish religious law.
The Abuhav Synagogue dates back to the sixteenth century. According to popular belief, it is named after Rabbi Yitzhak Abuhav from the fifteenth century, considered “the last gaon of the Castile” who dealt with Jewish thought and Kabbalah, and taught Rabbi Yaakov Biruv. The Torah scroll at the synagogue is attributed to Rabbi Abuhav and is the most ancient Torah scroll in Safed. The Torah is taken out and read from only three times a year: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Shavuot. The second Torah scroll is that of Rabbi Suleiman Ohana, who immigrated to Safed from Morocco and befriended The Ari’s students. For years, holidays and ceremonies were held at the synagogue because of its ancient, important Torah scrolls. On the synagogue’s domed roof are decorations depicting different musical instruments used in the Temple in Jerusalem, symbols of the tribes of Israel and the four crowns from the Mishna: The crown of the Torah, the priesthood crown, kingship crown, and the crowd of the good name. There is another crown, unique to Safed: The crown of the impending redemption, to mark the waiting for the Messiah. Paintings drawn by Tziona Tagger hang on the synagogue walls.
The Beirav Synagogue dates back to the nineteenth century, and was initially named after Rabbi Yaakov Beirav, one of the greatest and most respected rabbis in Safed in the sixteenth century. For many years the synagogue served as a place of worships for those who had immigrated to Safed from Hungary. Several years ago the American community in Safed began using the synagogue, and these days many visitors from around the world come to the synagogue to take part in prayers. On Saturdays and holidays, many worshippers attend the synagogue and congregate in the courtyard.
The Ancient Cemetery
Some of Judaism’s greatest scholars are buried in Safed’s ancient synagogue, attracting thousands of visitors throughout the year. Among the Jewish scholars buried in the synagogue: The Ari, Rabbi Joseph Karo, Rabbi Yaakov Beirav, Rabbi Moshe Cordovero and the “Yanuka” baby from Baram, who according to tradition began speaking miraculously and revealing secrets and enigmas. According to popular belief, the ancient burial sites of Rabbi Pinchas Ben-Yair, the son-in-law of Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yochai, one of the Ten Martyrs and the grave of Hannah and her seven sons, who died for Kiddush Hashem, or sanctification in the name of God, are in Safed’s ancient cemetery. The cemetery is also home to the burial sites of Olei Hagardom, members of the pre-State of Israel underground movement, who were tried in British Mandate courts and hanged in 1947.