Israel's Mystical Blue City of Safed (Tzfat)

City of the Heights

Tradition says that Safed was founded as long ago as the time of Noah, by one of Noah's grandsons Shem.

This makes sense, if you consider how high Safed is, making it one of the most elevated areas in Israel after the flood.


The New Moon was announced from the five highest cities in Israel, we are told in the Jerusalem Talmud, by lighting fire-sentinels. Safed, again, was included in this group of 'cities on the heights.'

Certainly Safed is closer to Heaven geographically at some 3000 feet above sea level, quite the reverse of say Tiberias, which lies 650 feet below that point.

It is to be noted that Safed is also spelled 'Tsfat', 'Tzefat', and 'Zfat'. The name comes from the Hebrew word 'tzafa' meaning 'Lookout'.

Crusaders In Israel

Prized by many invaders over the centuries, precisely because it is so elevated and hence an excellent outpost for military advantage, peoples as diverse as the Baybars, Ottomans,Crusaders and of course the ever-present Romans have taken possession of Sefad, and in the process, often destroyed the indigenous population.

A frequent target for earthquakes and plagues, Safed has seen it's share of misery and hardship. Many of the city's buildings and 4000 of the inhabitants perished in 1837 in a massive earthquake, for example. In some ways it is a miracle that, like the Jewish people themselves, it has survived at all.

But survive it did and in the present day it is a thriving city, full of culture, life and religious families, living out their dreams in a Jewish homeland.

Blue is the Colour of Heaven

Some homes have blue doors and often steps and lintels are painted blue. In addition some tombs in the cemetery are blue and buildings are seen everywhere in Safed coloured blue--all for a simple reason--because blue symbolizes Heaven, according to the Kabbalah. (White symbolizes Earth). Not to forget the holiest places, synagogues, which frequently have beautiful blue ornamentation.

Sephardi Ari Synagogue

Cemetary of Safed

The oldest synagogue in Safed is the Sephardi Ari which was founded in 1522 and was the favourite synagogue of the great Ari ( Rabbi Yitzhak Luria) who loved to pray and study the Torah there. (More about him below.) He also found the view inspiring as it looked out on the tomb of a great scholar named Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, not to speak of Mount Meron as well. And there is even a story that while Ari was praying one day, the Prophet Elijah appeared in this synagogue.

The Sephardi Ari Synagogue was one of those buildings that was decimated during two earthquakes, the first in 1759 and the second almost one hundred years later, but was restored by a beneficent Jewish philanthropist from Italy.

The synagogue went on to prove it was worth the restoration, many years later, when it acted as a strategic military fortress used by the Jews to defend Safed against an Arab onslaught in 1948.

A real center of culture and art, Safed holds the distinction of being the first place, not only in Israel, but in the entire Middle East to have a printing press, printing it's first Hebrew book in 1578.

Beit Hameiri Museum

Beit Hameiri Museum
Beit Hameiri Museum

Museums are also part of the cultural life of the city. These museums include: The Beit Hameiri Museum, which focuses on life of Safed from the past 200 years, The Israel Bible Museum, which focuses on plastic and other art forms, and the Ytshak Frenel Museum, originated with the home and works of art of the renowned French/Israeli artist Frenel a member of the Ecole de Paris together with such great painters as Soutine, and Mogdiliani.

Kabbalah

But there is a yet higher level to Safed than the level of aesthetics, and the level of it's geographic position, and that is the spiritual level. This level is represented by the great 16Th century Kabbalists, the foremost exponent of which was the Rabbi mentioned earlier in connection with the Sephardi Ari Synagogue

Issac Luria (The 'Ari')

Hermitage Hut on the Nile

This was a man of truly magnificent influence in the Jewish world, having founded the Kabbalistic school we know as Lurianic, through the writings of his pupil/disciple,Rabbi Hayyim Vital.

Issac Luria, although born in Jerusalem, grew up in Egypt, and had a retreat there on an island on the Nile river, where he spent 13 years meditating on the Zohar. Truly passionate about his studies, he would sometimes meditate on a single verse of the Zohar for an entire month or more before he drew from it what he considered it's meaning.

Illuminated Hebrew Manuscript

In 1570 he moved to Safed. Just prior to this was a massive expulsion of Jews from Spain and Portugal and one of the few places that allowed Jews to settle was the Ottoman Empire, which at that time controlled Israel.

The north of Israel was, as a result, seeing a true renaissance and Safed is now fully matured community of spiritual renewal. It was percolating philosophically, mystically and religiously with great men and great ideas with a concentration unparalleled in Jewish history.

Issac Luria appears in the middle of this hotbed of intellectual activity,not as a student but as a teacher amongst teachers. People like Rabbis Cordevero and Hayyim Vital recognize in him very quickly a man who has been transformed.

Transformed how?

Transformed by revelations of the divine he had discovered in the Zohar. Revelations so powerful that he was at a loss as to how to write them down, so instead, he spoke them to Rabbi Hayyim Vital.

Vital made copious notes before the great 'Ari' (Rabbi Issac Luria) passed away at the age of only 38. In total Luria was only resident in Safed for a mere two years before his death, but so powerful was his charismatic personality and intellectual power, that he alone is the only rabbi allowed the sacred Hebrew letter 'Aleph' (as in Ari) to be part of his name.

From the mystical light in the sky that is so pure and clear many believe it aids in meditation and prayer, to the medieval sages buried in it's blue cemetery tombs, to the mystical origins of the most esoteric of books, The Kabbalah, Safed is truly a remarkable Israeli city, and as such holds great promise for the ongoing culture and religious development for the nation and for the People, the 'yihudim'.

Map Safed Israel

What Is Kabala ?

Tree of Life

Who Was Rabbi Cordevero? (Safed tomb)

Holy Men Dancing in Safed Synagogue

More by this Author


Comments 26 comments

In The Doghouse profile image

In The Doghouse 8 years ago from California

Woody,

This was an amazing Hub about the sity of Safed. I need to revisit it to really comprehend all that it has to offer. Have you been there?


Woody Marx profile image

Woody Marx 8 years ago from Ontario, Canada Author

Doghouse: Thank you! Glad you were able to re-discover Tzfat...I did myself in writing this. I did not, however have a chance to visit it when I was there...I have read that it is one of the 'best kept secrets' in Israel', which may acccount for my over-looking it.


Annette Rozen profile image

Annette Rozen 8 years ago

Great hub, well researched and well done. Ive actually been to tzfat 4 or 5 times and just wanted to add in one major aspect of the city you overlooked mentioning - its artists! Tzfat is filled with wonderful art galleries and artists selling beautifu l paintings and pieces of artwork. The city is lined with coobelstones and filled with little passage ways where you can find unique artwork , and even more unique people. Definatley wortht the visit.


Woody Marx profile image

Woody Marx 8 years ago from Ontario, Canada Author

Annette:  Your comments are very appreciated!  I plan to write many more hubs on aspects of Israel...it is so intriguing to me.  Thanks for your insightful notes!


cgull8m profile image

cgull8m 8 years ago from North Carolina

I would love to visit Safed, they look great and the buildings look wonderful they still maintain the tradition.


organized living profile image

organized living 8 years ago from Magnolia, AR

Safed is indeed a wonderful place. Not only is it home to a rich kabbalistic tradition but is also a center for the Sufis of the region. I visited Safed in 1985. Even in the land of 'milk and honey' it is a definite standout.


Woody Marx profile image

Woody Marx 8 years ago from Ontario, Canada Author

organized: Thanks for your comments! I didn't know about the 'sufi' population of Safed. I will look into that as I am also interested in Sufi religion.


Guru-C profile image

Guru-C 7 years ago

Such a beautiful, wonderful, mystical page!!! I will read this again and again!


likeme-likeyou profile image

likeme-likeyou 7 years ago

thanks about your hub - i leave in israel - and visit zfat  3 times -very mystical and very nice city - i wish all jewish will make aliya - we have nice place and its our place from god that wrote it in the bible.


Woody Marx profile image

Woody Marx 7 years ago from Ontario, Canada Author

likeme: Wonderful! I wish also that all Jews could make aliya and wish you all the best. How fortunate you are to visit 3 times a year! Shalom!


reebs419 7 years ago

Is there anyone from Safed that is familiar with all of the stores there? I'm desperate to find a store's information that I went into while I was there back in February. If you feel that you are knowledgeable enough to figure out the name (possibly get me a phone number, or website address) of a store based off of a rough description I can give you, please write to me at : reebs419@hotmail.com. Thank you!


My Inner Jew profile image

My Inner Jew 7 years ago

Great hub! Really enjoyed reading about Safed...it is a very beautiful city!


Woody Marx profile image

Woody Marx 7 years ago from Ontario, Canada Author

Inner Jew: great to have excited fans! :)


Guru-C profile image

Guru-C 7 years ago

Once again, I love this hub!


Yafiah 6 years ago

Thank you for this hub. I am very interested in Safed and the Jewish mystics/kabbalists who lived there but I am especially interested in the interaction between them and the Muslim mystics/Sufis who also lived there. I think quite a few of both must have come to Safed from Al-Andalus after the expulsion from the Iberian Peninsula by the Catholic monarchs


organized living profile image

organized living 6 years ago from Magnolia, AR


organized living profile image

organized living 6 years ago from Magnolia, AR

one of my favourite places on earth truly a magical place and also a center of sufism bye the bye. nice hub, evoked some happy memories.


Paper Wolf profile image

Paper Wolf 6 years ago from Texas

Thank you for this hub. I am very happy to have found it. I dream one day to visit Israel.


Larchinski profile image

Larchinski 6 years ago from Northern California

Beautiful article. The Kabbalistic tradition is very interesting and has a very meditative and calming spiritual effect on the student, much like Buddhism.


Woody Marx profile image

Woody Marx 6 years ago from Ontario, Canada Author

Larchinski: Thank you for your comments!


Woody Marx profile image

Woody Marx 6 years ago from Ontario, Canada Author

Yafiah: Interesting comments you made, thank you!

Paper: Thanks Wolf! :)

Organized: Great to have thoughtful readers!


Chana Cotter 6 years ago

I visited Tzfat 5 years ago. I has been in my heart ever since. I hope to return.


Woody Marx profile image

Woody Marx 6 years ago from Ontario, Canada Author

Chana: Thanks for reading. Glad I could spark your nice memories.


SpecialKids profile image

SpecialKids 4 years ago from Miami Beach and Jerusalem, Israel

Thank you for this article on Tzfat. My son lived there for a year and we were privileged to visit him there. In fact, visiting Tzfat is what convinced me to make aliyah. We live in the north, but not in Tzfat. However, it is close enough to visit.


Woody Marx profile image

Woody Marx 4 years ago from Ontario, Canada Author

Special: I can't think of a better thing that to have a true Israeli approve what I tried to bring to light in this little piece. How do you explain any city in Israel, much less Tzfat...they are all magical in their own ways and anyone who makes aliyah is a part of the wonder of the land. Shalom!


Deborah Sexton 2 years ago

I lived in Savyon for 18 months when I was a young woman. I loved it and wish I was there

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