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
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.
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
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 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'.