Safed (which has many alternative spellings: Tsfat, Safad, Zefat, Sefad to name but a few) is located in the mountains of the Upper Galilee, 3200 feet (900 meters) above sea level. It is the highest – and frequently the coldest – city in Israel. The views from Safed are magnificent in every direction: north to the Hermon and Lebanon, east to the Golan, south to Tiberias and the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) and west to Mt. Meron and the Amud Valley. Its population is about 27,000.
Safed is one of the four holy cities in Jewish tradition; the others are Jerusalem, Hebron and Tiberias.
According to one legend, Safed was founded after the Flood by one of Noah’s sons. The city is not mentioned in the Bible, and its first appearance in Jewish sources was during the Middle Ages.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Safed was Israel's art capital. Its artists’ colony drew leading artists from around the country, and several of Israel’s major art galleries were located there. During this period, the country's top nightclubs were also located in Safed.
Safed is known as the klezmer capital of the world, and its annual klezmer festival attracts musicians and appreciative audiences from far and near.
History of Safed
The Crusaders erected a citadel in Safed, which came under the control of the Muslim conqueror Saladin in the late 12th century. The Crusaders returned 50 years later and built a Christian fortress, but that fell to the Mamluks in 1266 under Sultan Baybars, who cut off the heads of the men and sold the women and children into slavery. (An aside: Mamluks were slave-warriors, higher in status than other slaves; it was they who are credited with ending the era of the Crusades in 1302.)
It was the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition that brought many Jewish religious scholars and mystics to Safed in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) reached the peak of its influence at that time, with Safed as its center. Important Kabbalists, such as Rabbi Yitzhak Luria (Ha-Ari HaKadosh), Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz (author of Lecha Dodi) and Rabbi Yosef Karo (author of the Shulchan Aruch) made Safed famous.
It was also in Safed that the first printing press in the Middle East was established, and the first Hebrew book to be printed in Israel was published there in 1578.
There are an abundance of synagogues in Safed; those listed here were chosen because they are well known and/or interesting and/or beautiful. This small selection is by its very nature totally subjective, and your friends or family may have different favorites.
HaAri Synagogue is where the Ari, Rabbi Isaac Luria, prayed. He initiated the Kabbalat Shabbat service in the apple orchard right next to the synagogue, which is open throughout the day
Abuhav Synagogue is an old Sepharadi synagogue. It has three Torah scrolls that are several hundred years old and are still in use. One of them is believed to have been written by Rabbi Abuhav himself.
Yosef Caro Synagogue was built on the site where Rabbi Yosef Caro wrote the Shulhan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law). The building is open intermittently throughout the day. To request that it be opened, phone Mr. Ben Shimon at (04) 692-3284 or (050) 560-8931.
Ari Sepharadi Synagogue is an original synagogue from the Ari's time. He is said to have studied Kabbalah in a small cave inside the synagogue with Elijah the prophet. Open from 10:00 AM until 7 PM daily.
Just a few of the interesting museums in Safed:
The Doll Museum features dolls and costumes of many countries and historical periods. It is located at the back of the Estam Building, at the entrance to Yosef Caro Street (the covered street with the galleries). It is open from 10:0 AM till 6 PM. Phone: (04) 697-2041
HaMeiri Museum is the museum of the history of the Jewish settlement in Safed during the past 200 years. It’s open from 9 AM until 2:30 PM, Fridays from 9 AM until noon. Phone: (04) 692-1939; (04) 697-1307
The Museum of Hungarian Speaking Jewry highlights the culture and the traditions of Hungarian-speaking Jews. It is located in the Saraya building and is open from 9 AM till 1 PM. Phone: (04) 692-3880
The Artists Quarter isn’t really a museum; it’s the area housing many galleries of Safed’s artists.
The General Exhibition is situated within the Artists Quarter, next to the tourist bus parking lot. Works by members of the Artist Colony of Safed are displayed at the General Exhibition.
This article is just an appetizer; Safed has many sites and places of interest. The Tourist Information Center can provide you with many more ideas for your stay in Safed, and they can also give you info regarding hotels and guesthouses.
They have a 10-minute film about the history of Safed. There is a free walk through an excavated underground building which dates to the 13th /14th century, destroyed by earthquakes and now renovated. They sell maps, guidebooks and books about Safed's history.