Today’s tour was a very nostalgic one as I returned to the northern city of Tzefat (also known as Safed), where I lived for three months while on my gap year in Israel. I had a great time in Tzefat where I lived with a group of friends and volunteered in the local community. To a certain extent, my return felt like I was coming home.
However, as always on the guiding course, I was surprised by how many of the local sites I was completely unaware of while living here. We began our day at the Akhbara viewpoint, a lookout over the modern day Arab village which was a Jewish settlement in the 2nd temple period. We heard how Napoleon’s soldiers reached here during is 18th century campaign, in a fruitless search for the treasures of the Jewish temple in the nearby cliff face. We also gazed with awe upon the highest bridge in the middle east, over the Amud river bed, which has been engineered especially to withstand even major earthquakes (which do happen in our region).
We continued up to the city of Tzefat, passing through and arriving at Mt Canaan. Here, from a vantage point over Tzefat itself, we heard the story of the city during the 1948 Arab Israeli War. It is a very dramatic tale and I shall not attempt to do it justice here; I look forward to retelling it to tourists in the future!
From here we headed into the city of Tzefat itself, and after brief stops in the more modern town we entered the area of the Old City. For Jews, Tzefat is one of the four holy cities of Israel (together with Jerusalem, Hebron and Tiberias). Beginning in the 16th century, here developed many of the ideas that make up the Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism; on the other hand (and even in contrast) it was here that the Shulchan Aruch, the definitive codification of Jewish Law, was written.
We began our visit at the Ashkenaz Synagogue of the Ari. Known as a leading kabbalist (mystic) despite his brief time in Tzefat, he is credited with creating the kabbalat shabbat service which to this day is recited in synagogues around the world on Friday evenings. Tradition says that at the site of the synagogue, he would go out into the fields around Tzefat on Friday nights to welcome the Sabbath Queen, together with his followers. We learned about the history of the synagogue and some of the miracles believed to have taken place within it.
Moving on, we descended into recent excavations of parts of the city covered under rubble in an 18th century earthquake. We found a 17th century mikve (ritual bath) and then descended further into a large, probably communal, structure from the 16th century. Perhaps this was frequented by some of the leading kabbalists of the time?
Our next stop was at the Synagogue of Rabbi Yitzchak Abuhav. He was a leading rabbi and mystic in Spain in the 15th century, although he was never in Tzefat in person. In one of the arks in the synagogue is a torah scroll written by Rabbi Abuhav, who dipped himself in a mikve 26 times each time he had to write the name of God. It is considered so special that it is only used three times a year.
As we continued through the alleyways of the Old City, our guide entertained us with a myriad of stories about various miracles that have happened in Tzefat over the centuries. Eventually we reached our final synagogue for the day, that of Rabbi Josef Caro, the great scholar who wrote the Shulchan Aruch.
After a brief look-out over the Tzefat cemetery (which contains the tombs of many of these famous rabbis), we concluded our day on the peak of the hill on which Tzefat is based, dealing with an entirely different topic. Here are the ruins of what was once the largest Crusader citadel in the Middle East, constructed in the 13th century. Later, after the fortress was taken by the Mamluks in their conquest of the area, their leader, Baibars, constructed a huge tower on the site – it was possible to see its ruins and even to wander into its cistern.
The citadel is now part of a park, and I’m not sure the various couples who were spread out among the area to enjoy the sunset particularly appreciated our group passing through. As interesting as the history was, I’m not sure it added to the romantic mood. I’m pleased to say that after the explanations finished, there was just time for us to also enjoy the sunset over Mount Meiron, and the tomb of Shimon Bar Yochai (the original mystic, considered author of the Zohar), before beginning our journey back to Tel Aviv.