Stories from the Bubba Maiser Book
The city of Tzfat, also known as Safed (and probably sixty other variations), has captured the hearts and souls of many people over the ages. Today it is home to about 23,000 residents, of which 2,000 live in the OldCity.
The area near Tzfat has archaeological remains from the beginning of civilization to modern times. From the time of the Sanhedrin and Temple in Jerusalem, Tzfat is said to have been one of the places from which bonfires were lit to announce the New Moon (Rosh Chodesh) to far-flung Jewish communities. Josephus wrote that the Jews of Tzfat prepared for war against the Romans during the Great Revolt in 68 CE. After the Bar Kochba Revolt against the Romans failed in 135 CE, many Jews moved to Tzfat and area. Years later, Christian and Moslem conquerors vied for control of this city.
Why has Tzfat been such an important place to so many people?
To begin with, the root of the Hebrew name Tzfat (tzaf) means to look out from above. Another root of the word is tzipiah, meaning hope or expectation. This reflects the Jewish idea that the Messianic age will start out from Tzfat. This article will use stories and events to give readers a taste of what Tzfat, in both of her meanings, has meant to people over the generations.
While some people have devoted years to researching and publicizing the history of the city, the present book's purpose is to give readers a flavor of what Tzfat has meant to people, especially to the Jews.
Geography is Destiny
The land of Israel is located at the junction of three continents—Europe, Asia and Africa. In order for anyone in ancient times to travel between these areas, one had to pass through the land of Israel. Every major world conqueror has either been here or has tried to get here—from Alexander the Great, in 333 BCE, to the forces of Genghis Khan in 1260, to Napoleon in l798. Even the British came here in World War II, hoping to stop Hitler's army had the Allied forces not defeated them at the battle of El Alamein in Egypt.
Jews believe that the Almighty located Israel at this strategic crossroad so that the people of the world would be influenced by the spiritual ideas, and especially by the ethical monotheistic beliefs, of the Jews who lived in the land of Israel. In fact, this is exactly what has happened throughout history. Many Africans, in the time of King Solomon, and Romans in the era of the SecondTemple, became righteous Gentiles or converted to Judaism after seeing the way Jews observed the Torah and served God. They then went back to their communities and spread their new beliefs and wisdom. This process continues today as people from around the world journey to the Holy Land, where they see how Torah observant Jews lead their lives.
Tzfat is located in northeastern Israel, in the area known as the Galilee. It is made up of three different parts: The highest point is MountCanaan (which has nothing to do with the Canaanites), named after an Arab Sheikh named Canaan who was buried there. The second area is the hill where Biriyah and Ein Zeitim are located. The third area is the main hill, which includes the OldCity and the southern, or new part of the city. Tzfat is the highest city in Israel (at least physically and possibly spiritually), rising approximately 3,000 feet above sea level. From the summit, one can see up to the Golan Heights and view almost the entire eastern Galilee, including Tiberias. Thus, for the Crusaders and Moslem conquerors, who came in the Middle Ages, Tzfat was a strategic asset. It dominated the major trade routes across the Galilee, traveled by traders from Europe and Asia, who went from Damascus to the Mediterranean city of Acco. From Lebanon south, another trade route crossed to Tiberias. For Jews, though, the city had much more going for it than simply economics.
While Tzfat looks like a sleepy, uneventful place today, it has seen its share of both man-made and natural disasters. Israel lies on the Syro-African Rift Valley, which extends from Syria through Africa. It is situated not only on the crossroads of three continents, but also atop the valley where the earth's plates meet. Approximately every ninety years, the movement of the plates against each other causes pressure which, when released, results in an earthquake.
Israel has had many earthquakes. In recent times, earthquakes that occurred on the ninth of the Hebrew month of Cheshvan, l759, and the twenty-fourth of Tevet (January 1), l837, had their epicenter near Tzfat. These resulted in almost the complete destruction of the city, with the loss of thousands of Jewish lives. The latter earthquake is said to have been the equivalent of a 6.8 on a Richter scale. The city has never again reached close to its previous prosperity.
For readers who are nervous, the last earthquake occurred in l927, with the epicenter in Shechem (Nablus). This gives us a bit of breathing space—we hope—until the next one.
Newspaper and television reports focus on the physical reasons such natural disasters occur. Jews search for spiritual underpinnings of such "natural" disasters.
The Chasam Sofer, a great rabbi who lived during the time of the 1837 earthquake, said that the reason this earthquake occurred was because all of the Jewish learning was occurring only in Tzfat, and these great rabbis were ignoring Jerusalem.
Hassidim tell the tale slightly differently. There is an idea that everything in the world is judged every day. They say that the city of Jerusalem appeared before the Holy One, blessed is He, and complained. "You promised me that I would be the splendor of the world, and that everyone would come visit me." Jerusalem got up and stamped her proverbial foot, thus causing the earthquake.
The earthquakes had a vast impact on various sites in Tzfat. We will mention their effects when we describe those places.
Four Holy Cities
The Holy Land has four holy cities—Hebron, Jerusalem, Tiberias and Tzfat. Hebron is holy because the Jewish patriarchs and matriarchs were buried there more than 3,000 years ago. Jerusalem is holy because it was the site of the two holy Temples, spanning nearly 1,000 years. Tiberias was where the Jerusalem Talmud—the Oral Law that explained the Five Books of Moses--was completed. It was also the site where the last Jewish Supreme Court, known as the Sanhedrin, sat. Tzfat is the most recent of the holy cities, made holy because of the special Jews who lived there starting in the sixteenth century.
Tzfat was a very special place in the sixteenth century. Apart from the kabbalists who lived there, the people who formed its core were special. There were Jews from at least fifteen Jewish communities around the world, and each retained its own special identity. There were Jews from Spain, Italy, Hungary, Germany…all over Europe and North Africa, as well as from Asia. Each had its own rabbi and synagogue and all of the men attended services every morning. There was even a rabbinic council composed of a representative of each of the fifteen major communities, and each of the council's decisions was unanimous! Not only that, but an "ignorant Jew" in those days was someone who only learned a two-sided page of Talmud every day!
In those days, Tzfat had a committee for public morals, but not because they were worried about problems such as murder and rape. Such problems didn't exist. Rather, they were concerned about people speaking about topics that could lead others to gossip (avak lashon hara)! How is that for living on a high spiritual plane?!
Oy Vey History
Many people learn Jewish history as "oy vey" history, meaning that they learn all about the gruesome tragedies that the Jews underwent. For example, they learn that the Jews lived in a town where the Jews were attacked by their neighbors, and the Jewish quarter was destroyed. OY VEY!!
Some time later, the Jews came back and resettled the area, rebuilt their businesses, and had a flourishing community. The Jews were attacked again. OY VEY!!
Later, the king came along and invited the Jews back…you get the point. People learn Jewish history as a huge vale of tears.
The Talmud says that the Almighty always provides the cure before the disease. It is a historical fact that whenever and wherever matters were terrible for the Jews, Jews actually flourished somewhere else. Instead of looking at the glass half-empty, we will look at it half-full. Those times when Jews flourished were the Golden Ages for the Jewish people. It might be hard to believe this looking at Tzfat today, but she was the center of the Golden Ages of the Jewish people twice.
The first time that happened was in the sixteenth century, when people known as the Kabbalists (popularly mistranslated as "mystics") studied and taught there. The second time was in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Tzfat, when Jews known as the Hassidim and Perushim lived there together. The former were students of the Baal Shem Tov, the latter were students of the Vilna Gaon. Most of each of these master's illustrious students lived in Tzfat during this time, making it the most important Jewish city of its time—even more important than Jerusalem.
One cannot discuss Tzfat, often described as a city of mystics, or Kabbalists, without discussing what Kabbalah is.
It is easier to describe what Kabbalah isn't rather than what it is. Kabbalah is not magic, hocus pocus, or pyrotechnics. It is rather a deep understanding of God's words.
The Torah can be learned on four different levels. The acronym of these layers are known as Pardes, meaning "orchard." The simplest level of understanding the Five Books of Moses is known as peshat. A deeper level is known as remez, or hint. This involves learning the Oral Tradition, also known as the Mishnah. A deeper level still is derash, which relies on homiletical stories to bring forth the deep truths in the Torah, and encompasses the Talmud. These three levels of studying the Torah are open to all Jews. The deepest level, where the sweetest fruit is to be found, is sod, or "secret." This is Kabbalah.
Once upon a time, people didn't take Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) lightly. Before one embarked on Kabbalistic studies, one had to have a deep understanding of all twenty-four books of the Jewish Bible and be an expert in Talmud. The latter required having read through, and having understood, the entire Talmud seven times. Today, many Jews learn a daily page of Talmud (known as daf yomi). At that rate, it takes seven years, two months and thirteen days to complete just one entire read-through. After mastering seven cycles of learning Talmud, a man had to be a minimum of forty years of age, married, and have at least one son and daughter. Then, perhaps, a Kabbalistic rabbi might take such a man under his wing and teach him Kabbalah privately. Such studies were never taught in public.
Due to the illustrious people who lived there, and the many miracles that occurred in Tzfat, many legends abound about both. And yet, people often disagree vehemently about some of the details of these stories. For example, around l996, Haim Sidor was telling a story in the Ari Synagogue to some eighty tourists. He described the mortar that exploded outside the building (see page ). As he told the story, one of the ziknei Tzfat ("old timers") stood at the door, listening. He screamed out, "Liar, that's garbage. It's baloney."
As all of the heads of the listeners turned toward the door, the man continued yelling, "He doesn't know what he's talking about!" Haim was mortified. He had heard, read, and told this story countless times, as has almost every tour guide who speaks about Tzfat.
The old man insisted, "It wasn't during Barchu (one of the morning prayers) that the miracle happened, as this tour guide told you. It was during modim (another part of the prayer service where the congregants bow)!"
This story illustrates the difficulty in telling stories about Tzfat. When those who know its legends tell about them, one typically hears a variety of versions about what "really" happened. We have done our best to tell over the stories as we have heard them, recognizing that there will always be someone who "corrects" our versions in light of what they "know" to be the real way things that events happened.
This article, then, will attempt to give the reader a feeling for this amazing city and the unique people who lived there. Through the stories and legends that we have written, we hope to flesh out their lives, their teachings, and how they enriched the Jewish people forever with their spiritual radiance and light.
One of the best known people who lived in Tzfat was the Ari. The name "Ari" is a Hebrew acronym for Eloki Rabbi Yitzchak (Godly Rabbi Isaac). The word "ha'ari" in Hebrew also means "the lion."
The Ari was born in 1534 in Jerusalem. His parents had an unusual marriage for those days, as the father was Ashkenazic and the mother was Sephardic. The Ari stayed in Jerusalem until he was eight years old, when his father tragically passed away. His mother then moved to Egypt to be with her well-to-do brother who supported them. It is said that the Ari entered the famed yeshiva of the RiDBaZ there—not bad for an eight-year old! Most of those who studied in that yeshiva were adult scholars. His learning partner was none other than Bezalel Ashkenazi, also known as the Shitah M'kubetzet , a major Talmudic commentary.
In 1550, at the age of sixteen, the Ari's teacher and learning partner approached him. He sadly told his student, "You've learned everything that we have to teach you."
At the age that most people today are thinking about driving cars, dating and getting through high school, the Ari had mastered all texts of revealed Jewish law and writings. Instead of leaving, he went to the study hall to review his learning. There, he saw a man in a corner learning a concealed book. The man didn't let him see it, yet the Ari glimpsed a page with strange drawings and letters. After struggling to get a look at the book, the Ari realized that the man was studying a copy of the Zohar (the main Kabbalistic text, taught by Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai in the second century).
Some months later, the Ari talked his uncle into paying a small fortune to purchase that book. For the next seven years, six days a week, at least ten hours a day, the Ari pored over that book. For those seven years, six days a week, at least ten hours a day, the Ari would sit and cry over the book because he felt that he didn't understand a word of it. He wanted so much to have the deepest attachment possible to his Heavenly Father, and it wasn't happening. If only we felt that loss today, crying over not understanding how deeply the One Above loves, and is spiritually connected, to us!)
At the end of seven years, the prophet Elijah appeared to the twenty-three-year old Ari and told him that he had merited understanding the spiritual depths of the relationship between us, the world, and our Creator. For the next thirteen years, all week long, the Ari learned Kabbalah in a cave in Egypt with Elijah the Prophet, coming home to his wife and children only on the Sabbath.
In 1570, when the Ari was thirty-six years old, Elijah told him, "You have now learned all you need to know. Elijah then said, "Take your family and move to the holy city of Tzfat, find Rabbi Chaim Vital. Teach him everything that I taught you, because that is why I taught you." (Another version of this story says that Elijah went with him.)
One doesn't fool around with the words of the prophet Elijah. The Ari packed his bags and moved to Tzfat as soon as possible. As soon as he arrived in Tzfat, he tried to locate Rabbi Chaim Vital. He discovered that Rabbi Vital was learning with Rabbi Moshe Cordovero (known by the acronym, the Ramak). Until the Ari arrived in Tzfat, the Ramak was the teacher of Kabbalah, and students came from all over the Jewish world to learn with him.
Before 1555, there was no special prayer service to welcome the Sabbath, as we have today. Today, everywhere in the Jewish world, one enters a synagogue on Friday night and the congregants sing prayers to welcome the Sabbath. In Talmudic times, though, there were no such services. The Talmud simply mentions that there was a Rabbi Yannai who went out into the fields in white garments, in a village named Akbara, just under Tzfat, to welcome the day of rest.
Kabbalists regard the Sabbath as the day when the Divine Presence itself comes to rest in this world. It is hard for us to really feel this today, but imagine having a dignified, respected queen coming to your home. When she arrives, you don't open the door, say "hi," then slam the door in her face. You need a ceremony to welcome her. It was inconceivable to the Kabbalists, especially to the Ramak and to his teacher, Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz, that there not be some special way to welcome the Sabbath.
A very important concept to Kabbalists is to prepare oneself before serving God. It goes without saying that one must prepare oneself to greet the Divine Presence in the form of the Sabbath queen!
So, early Friday mornings, the Kabbalists would all go to the ritual bath (mikvah) at the foot of the hill of Tzfat. The purpose of immersing in a ritual bath is to dissolve any spiritual barriers between oneself and the Almighty. This is the way that the Torah tells us to make ourselves spiritually pure. Unlike a regular bath, the waters of the mikvah come from a place that is untouched by humans and is connected to the Source of life.
The Kabbalists in Tzfat immersed before the Sabbath in order to 'purify' themselves (physically). That place is now known as the Ari's mikvah. He promised that anyone who immerses in that mikvah will not die without having the opportunity to do teshuva sheleimah (completely repent for all of his misdeeds). That place is so holy that Jews still come from all over the world to immerse there.
Judaism teaches that we can sanctify all aspects of life using our bodies, speech, and thoughts. Once a person has purified his body by immersing in a mikvah, one also needs to purify his thoughts to become spiritually clean. The kabbalists would leave the city (which was then located at the foot of the hill of Tzfat near where today's Breslov community is) and go to the fields above the city (where the present Ari Ashkenazi synagogue is). They would meditate in a uniquely Jewish way to connect to the Almighty, and thereby put the physicality of the city behind them. They would spend Friday attaching themselves to the holiness and unique spirituality of the approaching divine Presence.
As the sun began to set over the western hills, and the pastel colors ran together over the village of Meron, the Kabbalists could barely contain their excitement. The Sabbath Queen was on her way! All dressed in white, they gathered in the area of the field that was just in front of where the Ari Ashkenazi Synagogue is today. There is a Kabbalistic idea that if one views a place at eye level, it is like actually being there. They believed that this site was directly opposite (at eye level) the grave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. He was the one who revealed the Kabbalistic text known as the Zohar which was, and is, the basis for all Kabbalistic teaching.
As the Kabbalists prayed from this place, they felt a spiritual surge, as if they were welcoming the Sabbath queen "along with" Rabbi bar Yochai. They ecstatically recited the six Psalms, using each one to rectify its corresponding weekday. The Kabbalists chose these psalms quite deliberately, as they did all of their prayers. These psalms contain sixty-five verses because the number sixty-five is the numerical value of one of God's names.
The Kabbalists would be in what is now the courtyard of the present Ari Ashkenaz synagogue. From there, the Ramak would turn to his teacher, Rabbi Alkabetz, who would lead them in singing the Hebrew song, Lecha Dodi, that he composed for this select group of extraordinary men. Jews the world over chant these psalms and songs today as the sun sets on Friday in the service that Welcomes the Sabbath.
This group of holy men, garbed in the pure white clothing, looked like angels as they slowly made their way into and through the streets of the city of Tzfat, until they arrived at the entrance to the Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue at the bottom of the city. That synagogue is now the Ari Sephardi synagogue. There, they sang the last stanza of the song Lecha Dodi—"boi, kallah, boi, kallah (Come, queen, come queen)."--and physically escorted the queen into the synagogue with them. They had a totally different feeling then than Jews do today. We only turn toward the door of the synagogue to greet the Sabbath queen. They, as it were, walked arm in arm with her.
Adding prayers to the usual liturgy, and having them catch on quickly, was quite unusual in Jewish history. Most innovations in liturgy and custom take hundreds of years to take root throughout the Jewish world. This innovation caught on throughout the entire Jewish world in the lifetime of these Kabbalists, and is one of the only major changes that has occurred in Jewish liturgy in the last 1,000 years. This service continues to unite Jews the world over.
Pillar of Fire
Now, returning to our story. The Ari joined the Ramak's school in order to get close to Rabbi Chaim Vital. One month later, the Ramak passed away. One version of the story says that during that month, the Ari went from being the Ramak's student to being his teacher. Another version says that the Ramak told his two oldest students (without the Ari being around to hear) on his deathbed, "Bury me in the cemetery where you see the pillar of fire." Then he passed away. His students prepared his body for burial, then carried it down the slope of the hill toward the cemetery.
The Ari, who was in the rear of the funeral procession called out, "Watch out for the pillar of fire!" The students buried their master at that place, while simultaneously recognizing the Ari's greatness. The Ari then became the major teacher of Kabbalah.
Initially, the Ari taught only Rabbi Vital. As word spread of his greatness, many hundreds of Jews appreciated his greatness and wanted to learn with him.
The Ari, and very special Kabbalists, can look at a person's face and understand where the person's soul came from, and what the person has done in his life. One day, Rabbi Moshe Galenti approached the Ari and humbly requested that he be allowed to study with the master Kabbalist.
The Ari looked at him disparagingly and said, "You can't learn with me. "It's written on your forehead that you are a thief!"
Anyone less saintly than Rabbi Galenti might have felt insulted and stormed off. Instead, Rabbi Galenti asked, "What must I do to rectify my thievery?"
The Ari told him, "Ask at your factory."
Rabbi Galenti owned a factory where he employed workers who made fabrics. He asked his foreman to inquire of every worker, "Do you feel that your employer owes you any money?"
Despite the foreman interviewing everyone, no one complained. The foreman told Rabbi Galenti that everyone had been interviewed and said that he didn't owe anyone any wages.
Rabbi Galenti asked his foreman again, "Are you sure that you have interviewed everyone who works here?"
The foreman suddenly recalled, "I didn't ask the cleaning lady." Forthwith, she was called in, and she said, "On one of my cleaning days, you short-changed me a pruta (less than a penny)." Such a minuscule sum is considered negligible and not paying it is not considered theft in Jewish law.
Rabbi Galenti apologized and paid her the pruta. He then went back to the Ari and the Ari told him, "Now you can study Kabbalah."
Such was the degree of spiritual and legal rigor that one had to adhere to in order to study Kabbalah. His students who were on such a level of personal integrity and purity were known as the "gurei Ari" (the "lion's cubs)." This makes a play on the name Ari, which means "lion."
The Ari observed many of the Ramak's customs with these students, including reciting the Kabbalat Shabbat (Welcoming the Sabbath) prayers on Friday evenings.
No Mezuzah on the Synagogue
One late Friday afternoon, as the orange sun was setting below the green, forested hills, and the sky was turning hues of blue and pink, the Ari's students had finished singing the six Psalms. They were about to start singing Lecha Dodi when the Ari suddenly turned to the field, lifted up his arms, and proclaimed, "I sanctify this place."
He asked his students to build a house strictly for prayer (bet Knesset) at that spot. Since he wanted it to be a house of prayer only, the building would not require a mezuzah (parchment with the Shema prayer written on it that is customarily affixed to every doorpost in a building). That is why the Ari Ashkenazi Synagogue does not have a mezuzah to this day. Since there is no mezuzah, activities other than praying, such as eating, drinking and sleeping are forbidden there.
Bringing the Messiah
The Ari believed that one reason why the Messiah hasn't come yet is because people don't live as if every action is so important that it must occur at the proper time and be done in the proper way.
One Friday, as the sun was setting, the Ari and his students had said the six introductory Psalms and were about to welcome the Sabbath queen. Suddenly, the Ari turned around and exclaimed to his students, "Everybody come with me now! We'll go to Meron (a three-hour walk from Tzfat) and welcome the Sabbath. Then, we'll go to Jerusalem and welcome the Messiah!"
Almost all of his students were raring to go. They couldn't contain their excitement. The long-awaited Messiah was finally on his way! One student demurred, however, saying he had to go home and tell his wife. This was like pouring water on a fire, and the energy of the group fizzled out. Needless to say, the Messiah didn't come then.
Another time, he told his students that he was going to go to the Elijah the Prophet synagogue, take out the Torah scroll, and then summon seven special Jews (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and David) in turn as he read the Torah. After summoning King David, he would summon the Messiah, and that would be the end of days. He warned his students that no matter what happened, they must focus on the reading of the Torah and not do anything else. Were the students only to do that, it would spiritually rectify generations of people not acting properly.
One by one, each Jewish spiritual giant was called to the Torah while the Ari read from the holy scroll and the students kept their focus. Finally, King David was called. He entered the synagogue singing and dancing, and leapt into the air. One of the students joined in, sang and danced, and stopped concentrating on the Torah reading. Immediately, all of the seven guests disappeared.
The livid Ari stood in front of his student and told him, "For a few more seconds, you couldn't keep your focus? Your distraction prevented the Messiah from coming into the world. For your misdeed, you won't live out the week." And so it was. The student died within the week.
The man who prevented the Messiah from coming on Friday night wanted first to ask his wife's permission to leave. He was blessed with many children and great wealth. The second student died prematurely. This shows how important it is to be sensitive to your wife's feelings, even if it means delaying the coming of the Messiah.
There was once a baker who had been forced to convert. He lived guiltily as a Marrano (secret Jew) in Europe until he escaped and made his way to Israel. He made his home in Tzfat, where he lived as a simple, hard-working man. He wanted more than anything to connect to God, but he felt that his forced conversion had placed an impenetrable barrier between himself and his Father in Heaven. He studied Torah when he could. In one of the Ari's lectures, he heard that the showbread in the Temple provided complete atonement for the baker's sin. Ecstatic, the baker finally felt that he had found salvation. In his innocence, he felt that he could bake loaves of tasty, high-quality bread for the Almighty's pleasure.
Embarking on his new mission, he figured that he would bake the best bread that he could and leave two loaves in the holy Torah ark. Fairly dancing with joy, the baker came into the synagogue, timidly approached the holy ark with his freshly baked bread, and declared before the Almighty, "Please, I mourn the loss of Your holy Temple. May my small offering be as if I brought the showbread to Your holy House." With that, he lovingly placed the loaves inside the ark, and floated back to his house, rejoicing that he had made a perfect offering to God. He spend the rest of the afternoon making his final preparations for the Sabbath.
Meanwhile, no sooner had the baker left then the caretaker of the synagogue walked in to prepare the shul for the Sabbath. One of his responsibilities was to make sure that the Torah scrolls were rolled to the appropriate place so that they could be read the next morning. The caretaker was a poor, humble soul, who never asked anyone for charity. Day by day, he struggled quietly to put bread on his table, and he prayed with utmost sincerity to the One Above to provide for him. Imagine his joy and surprise when he opened up the holy Ark to prepare the Torah scrolls and saw the most beautiful bread loaves that he had ever seen in his life! He looked around and the synagogue was empty. In his innocence, he took the loaves as a gift from Heaven. After all, if the Lord wants to give a gift, where else would it be fitting to leave it, than in the holy ark?! He made a declaration to God, thanking him profusely for answering his prayers.
The caretaker completed his synagogue preparations and ran home to prepare for the Sabbath. His family was overjoyed when they saw the beautiful bread! When they ate their otherwise meager meal, never had they eaten such delicious bread in their lives. Their Sabbath was suffused with such happiness because of those loaves!
This pattern continued for some time. Every Saturday morning, the baker sat as close as he could to the holy ark so that he could peer inside when the Torah scrolls were removed. That way, he could see if his offering had been accepted. Lo and behold, every week, the loaves that he had so lovingly left in the Almighty's hands had disappeared. They had obviously been accepted!
One late Friday afternoon, the rabbi had work to do in the synagogue. As he sat way back in the synagogue, he heard the baker enter, and witnessed his little ceremony. When the baker closed the ark and turned around to leave, he was surprised to see the rabbi coming toward him.
The incensed rabbi accosted him, "What a fool you are! How dare you think that you can bake showbread!" He continued berating the poor baker for several minutes, until tears flowed down the man's flushed cheeks. The baker, head hung low, quietly removed his loaves and skulked out of the synagogue, feeling completely humiliated.
The rabbi resumed his work. A few minutes later, the caretaker arrived and rushed straight to the ark. Much to his dismay, the loaves were not there. Feeling choked with emotion, he could only imagine that his sins had blocked him from receiving the Lord's special bread. "Dear God, what sins have I done to prevent You from providing me with my Sabbath bread?"
As soon as the rabbi heard this, he marched over to the caretaker and charged, "You idiot! Do you really think that you are privileged to receive direct gifts from God?"
Wholly ashamed, the caretaker stood speechless, then silently shuffled out of the synagogue. Needless to say, his Sabbath had lost its special joy.
Soon thereafter, a messenger arrived in the synagogue and summoned the rabbi to the Ari's house. The rabbi complied. Upon entering the house, the rabbi saw the Ari standing in front of him.
The Ari asked him, "Do you have any idea how much damage you have done? To God, the offer of those loaves of bread were as pure as the showbreads in the Temple. The drama of those men giving and receiving gave such joy to the Almighty, it was almost as if the Temple had been rebuilt. You have destroyed it all. Because you couldn't suffer these men's true innocence and pure love in this world, God will not suffer you in this world.
"You had better enjoy this Sabbath, because it will be your last."
And so it was. The rabbi passed away when that Sabbath was over.
The Ari's Passing
The Ari never saw the original synagogue which bore his name. His students built it in 1575 on the site that he designated. We can't see it either, because that synagogue was entirely destroyed in the l837 earthquake, except for (some say) the wall behind the blue box where the Torah scrolls are housed. Some say that blue box is from the original synagogue.
The reason the Ari never saw the synagogue that his students built was because in on the fifth day of the Hebrew month of Av, 1572, the Ari was suddenly summoned to his Maker at the young age of 38.
Rabbi Yosef Karo, the author of the Shulchan Aruch (The Code of Jewish Law), wrote in one of his works, "The Holy One, blessed be He, figured that the world wasn't ready to receive all of the Ari's teachings, so He removed him from this world."
When the Ari was dying, he told his students, "Only Rabbi Vital can transmit my teachings." A letter attesting to this was found, many years later, in a European genizah (a place where Jewish holy books and documents are buried). It was signed by all of the Ari's students. The only version of the Ari's teachings, which he never wrote himself, comes from Rabbi Vital.
The Modern Ari Ashkenazi Synagogue
The Ari Ashkenazi synagogue was one of four synagogues in Tzfat that were rebuilt after the 1837 earthquake due to the generosity of a philanthropist named Rabbi Yitzchak Guetto. The synagogue was rededicated in l856. From then, until today, there has been at least one minyan a day there, no matter what else was happening. Neither plagues, riots nor war have kept at least ten Jewish men from praying there daily.
Until around l999, there was a group of men known as "Ziknei Tzfat," the elders of Tzfat. They were the last generation of Jews to be born in Tzfat under Turkish rule. Most had no formal education, but they were well educated by life, and were infused with spirituality. They spoke many languages, due to the influx of so many foreign powers in the area and visitors from many places who came to Tzfat.
The Grand Mufti was the supreme religious Moslem leader of Jerusalem. During his rule, he was on friendly terms with Adolf Hitler and wanted to help implement the Final Solution in Israel.
In August, 1929, the Mufti spread the rumor that the Jews wished to seize the TempleMount, destroy the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aksa Mosque, and rebuild their Temple. At Friday morning prayers on August 24, he got the Arab masses so riled up, they flooded the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem and began attacking every Jew that they encountered. The attacks spread rapidly all over Jerusalem.
The next day, when the Jews were observing the Sabbath, the Arabs started massacring Jews in Hebron. In no time, the Arabs destroyed the Jewish community, slaughtered sixty-nine Jews, and made the holy city Judenrein. Jews could not live there again until after Hebron was liberated by the Israelis in l967.
Tragically, these Arab riots soon spread throughout the land of Israel.
In Tzfat, the riots began a week later in the late afternoon. They erupted from the mosque of what was then the Arab market, and is the artists' exhibition hall today. The Arab mob rapidly flowed into all of the main alleys of the Jewish Quarter and many stormed toward the main synagogue of the Jewish Quarter--the Ari Ashkenazi Synagogue. Within, the congregation was reciting the main, silent prayer known as the Amidah. The Arab mob massed in the courtyard just outside the synagogue having already slaughtered several Jews in the streets along the way. With blood on their knives, they smashed in the windows at the front of the synagogue.
A man who was ten years old at the time described how, at that terrifying moment, his father fell on his hands and knees. He recited the final confession normally said before dying, as well as the Shema prayer, the affirmation of the Jews' belief in one God.
The bloodthirsty Arab mob stood outside the synagogue door screaming in Arabic, "Kill the Jews! Kill the Jews!" The Jews quivered and quaked inside the synagogue, fully aware of what was going on, as they awaited a horrific end.
Meanwhile, the leader of the rioters had a rifle, and he kicked in the old and rickety synagogue door. Pandemonium ensued as the Jews inside tried to flee for their lives. The rabbi, however, did not budge. He stood in place and continued reciting the silent Amidah prayers as if nothing had happened.
The Arab leader peered around the synagogue and smiled at the panic he had caused the Jews. When his eyes fell upon the unperturbed rabbi, still standing in silent devotion, the Arab lifted up his rifle and took aim at the rabbi.
Some congregants hysterically screamed to the rabbi, "Get down! They're going to shoot you!"
The rabbi calmly continued his prayers undisturbed.
The Arab, with a big grin, placed his index finger into the trigger and was about to pull it when something happened. Either he was pushed, he fainted, had a heart attack, or he slipped—and fell. The Arab went down and didn't get up.
When the other Arabs saw their leader go down, they disappeared.
For three days, the Arabs rioted in the Jewish Quarter. Every building around the Ari Synagogue was pillaged, burnt and damaged, but the Ari Synagogue itself was untouched.
By the time they finished, the Arabs had murdered seventeen Jews in the streets and had injured hundreds of others. However, no one who stayed in the Ari Synagogue was harmed.
The Siege of Tzfat
From November, l947 until May, l948, angry Arabs besieged the holy city of Tzfat, hoping to annihilate the Jews there. Fifteen hundred and seventy-five Jewish men, women, and children, of whom only 235 either had a gun or knew how to use one, lived in this city. They were surrounded by 5,000-25,000 armed Arabs, plus numerous thousands of civilian Arabs chomping on the bit, awaiting the final kill.
Kaukji's Free Lebanese army had seized Meron, a mere five kilometers away. Their artillery continuously bombarded the city. To walk the streets of Tzfat at that time meant dancing between sniper bullets, falling mortars, and artillery, taking your life in your hands. Yet, every morning, twelve Jewish men went to the Ari synagogue to pray to the Almighty.
Why twelve, you might wonder? Only ten Jewish men are minimally required to make a quorum in order to say the public prayers. (This is because when God wanted to give the Israelites the land of Israel, they sent out twelve spies to scout out the land. Ten of them returned with a negative report and disheartened the men so that the men of that generation didn't want to enter the land. The Torah refers to these ten men as an "evil congregation." Subsequently, a minimum of ten Jewish men would constitute a congregation to bring holiness into the world through daily public prayer. Since women didn't participate in the original failing, and they did want to enter the land, women are not counted as part of the quorum for public prayer.)
Twelve men went to the Ari Synagogue every day in case one or two would be killed en route. They wanted to insure that they would have a minimum of ten men!
The Torah Platform
This is called an Ashkenazic (literally, German Jewish) synagogue because a European congregation prayed and studied here. This differentiates it from the Ari Sephardic Synagogue at the bottom of the Old City of Tzfat, in which North African and Middle Eastern Jews prayed.
The prayer leader in the Ashkenazic Synagogue prays from the front of the room, on the same floor level where everyone else prays. This is based on a tradition which King David wrote about in Psalm 130:1, "From the depths I have called You, Lord."
Yet the Ari Ashkenazic Synagogue has some unique customs. For example, there is a raised platform in the center of the synagogue from which the Torah is read. This symbolizes the centrality of Torah to the Jews.
One morning, twelve men had just finished reciting the preliminary blessings and psalms in the Ari Synagogue. They were about to begin the main part of the prayer, which begins with the congregants saying, "Blessed is the blessed Lord (Barchu et hashem hamevorach)." When saying these words, it is customary to stand and bow deeply to the Almighty.
Just as the men said these words, an artillery barrage began. A man was standing next to the bimah (Torah platform), opposite the old, rickety door of the synagogue, when a shell exploded just outside in the courtyard. The door was blasted open and a shell fragment shot through the doorway and lodged in the bimah where the man's head was the moment before he bowed deeply when saying Barchu. One can still see the hole where the shell pierced the wood. In fact, some people even insert little written prayers in that hole!
The Stairs to the Bimah
Jewish law states that there should not be more than six stairs ascending to the bimah, yet there were ten steps leading up to this one. In order to comply with the spirit of the law, the stairway was divided into five steps on each side, with a platform in the middle. (It is interesting to note that the railings on the sides of the stairs have no welding—it is all made of bent metal!)
Since the synagogue was reconstructed in the twentieth century, there have been five steps ascending on the west side, and four ascending on the east side! Four more steps ascend from the platform to where the Torah is read. The nine stairs symbolize nine of the ten spiritual stages that a person can ascend as they get close to the Almighty. The tenth stage, kingship (malchut), is represented by the Torah table which sits atop them all. Chassidim who once prayed here based this structure on a verse from Psalms, "From the heights I called You."
When a man is called up to the Torah, he ascends the platform on the stairs nearest him, showing desire to hear God's words as quickly as possible. After his Torah portion is read, he leaves down the further stairs. This shows his longing not to part from the Divine Presence.
This symbolizes another idea--that a Jew should always yearn to progress with his spiritual growth. This is why he doesn't go back to his place the way he came.
A Special Place
The Beer Mayim Chayim, a Hassidic rabbi from Chernovitz, moved to Tzfat toward the end of his life. He regularly prayed in the Ari Synagogue, and had a personal seat there. When we pray, we have an intimate encounter with the Holy One, blessed is He. He cherishes our relationship with Him so much that He waits, so to speak, for us to communicate with Him. Thus, the place from which a person customarily prays in a synagogue is not merely another seat in a building. It retains a special holiness due to our yearning, on a regular basis, to find spiritual intimacy with our Creator from that place.
The Beer Mayim Chaim's seat was located under the northeast corner of the prayer platform (bimah) in the center of the synagogue, between the staircase going up to the reader's place and the platform itself. When the Beer Mayim Chaim passed away, the congregation felt that no one could ever fill his (spiritual) place, and they decided to literally retire his place so that no one else could ever sit there. Today, one can see a wooden wall that was put up between the pillar and the bimah which leaves an empty space where his seat used to be.
The Seat of Elijah
The Jewish people had many prophets. Prophets were saintly people with whom the Almighty communicated so that they would pass on these messages. In general, the messages told the Jews to follow God's will. Most of the Biblical prophets harshly criticized the Jews when they told them to correct their ways. Yet, when the prophets spoke to the Almighty, they were the Jews' best advocates, finding leniencies to absolve them for their misdeeds. Elijah the Prophet was a major exception to this rule. He would exhort the Jews for worshipping idols and then ask God, "What do you need these sinning people for?" God would then defend the Jewish people to Elijah and tell him that the people weren't that terrible.
One day, just to prove to Elijah that the Jews weren't so bad, the One Above told him, "From now on, until the end of time, you will be present whenever the Jews fulfill their obligation under My covenant." That occurs twice—the first is when an eight-day-old baby boy has a ritual circumcision. The other occurs every year when Jews celebrate the Passover seder. They pour a cup of wine for Elijah and set it in the middle of their festive table, then open the door for him.
An integral part of the circumcision ritual is to have a double chair where the baby's godfather (sandak) holds the infant for the circumcision. It is a double chair so that Elijah can sit in the other seat.
There is a special chair of Elijah at the rear of the Ari Synagogue, in the northeastern corner, near the entrance to the back room. That doorway has a mezuzah on it. It is said that the back room is located on the part of the field where the Ari would meditate before welcoming the Sabbath with his disciples. There is a mezuzah on that door post because people who sometimes study Torah in that room tend to eat, and a room that is used for eating requires a mezuzah.
There was a time when two groups of Hassidim, from Sanz and Ruczin, had a serious argument. In order to settle the argument, the daughter of the Sanzer Rebbe donated the beautiful, hand-carved chair of Elijah to the Ruczin Hassidim, whose center was in the Ari Synagogue. Since it contributed to bringing the two groups together, and the birth of a baby boy is supposed to bring a husband and wife closer, sitting on that chair with one's spouse is considered a helpful assist (segulah) to give birth to a baby boy.
Many stories have been told about what has happened to people who have sat in this special chair. Here is one that the author (HS) personally witnessed:
A rabbi and his wife, their daughter and son-in-law, and a friend plus his wife, all wished to have sons. Each couple, in turn, sat on the chair.
Nine months later, almost to the day, the rabbi and his wife had a son.
Two months later, the rabbi's daughter had a son.
A month later, the third couple bought all of the food and trappings for a ritual circumcision ceremony… and were blessed with a daughter.
The moral of the story is, we can only guarantee that the chair is 66% efficacious in having a son. If you try this and you have a baby, please let us know so that we can keep our statistics current!
The Holy Ark
The 1837 earthquake totally destroyed almost every synagogue in Tzfat, yet the old, wooden Torah ark in the Ari Synagogue and a piece of the wall behind it survived. If you look closely, you can see lots of small pieces of paper with handwritten prayers on them stuffed between the newer ark and the old, solid ark. This is similar to what Jews do at the Western Wall. In both places, people placed these prayers close to a holy place hoping that they would soon be answered.
The original ark was used in the rebuilt synagogue. The caretaker of the synagogue remarked, "This is shameful. The Ari himself asked that this synagogue be built, and all we have is this box?!"
One legend says that they then collected money and ordered the beautiful, hand-carved ark from Italy that is there today. (The person who ordered it gave dimensions that were too large, and the top was therefore bent over.)
Another version says that the caretaker took matters into his own hands. He was a woodcarver, and spent the next fifteen years making the hand-carved beauty of an ark that we see today. He intentionally had the top bent over so that the crown on top should be directly over the head of the person who comes to open the ark and take out the Torah scroll before it is read in the synagogue.
The ark was carved in a way to represent certain Kabbalistic themes. For example, there are three columns on each side of the ark, each representing one group of Jews. The one closest to the ark shows the hands of priests blessing the Jewish people. This represents Jews who are priests. The next column away from the ark has two yellow-green songbirds on top, representing the Levites, who used to sing and play musical instruments in the Temple. The furthest column has a long, blue coil, descending snake-like into the mouth of a fish at the bottom. The fish represents the leviathan, the mystical fish that will provide the final meal to the righteous at the time of the Messianic Age. This fish is devouring evil at the end of time.
When the caretaker built the new ark, it was unpainted. When the artist's colony was established in Tzfat around l950, one of the artists walked into the synagogue, saw the unpainted ark, and exclaimed, "Wow! Wouldn't that look gorgeous with color!" In those days, the synagogue doors weren't locked at night, and the artist stole in under the cover of darkness and went to work. By morning, he had covered most of the ark with paint.
Legend has it that at six o'clock that morning, the artist was completing his chef d'oeuvre. The Tzfat old-timers walked in to pray and had a communal heart attack! They stood and screamed at him and insisted that he remove the paint. He tried to follow their wishes, but the paint had bonded with the wood, and he couldn't do it.
The reality is that the humidity in Tzfat had caused the wood of the ark to rot. The community was so poor that they didn't have the funds to protect it. They were forced to hire an artist around l951 to paint it. The artist was secular and tried to "get mystical." The result is the ark as it is today. There is a lion on top of the ark that looks like it has a face on it.
The synagogue has four pillars. Some say this represents the four elements that make up all Creation. The two front pillars contain charity boxes. Even the earliest synagogues that were excavated, that date back 2,000 years, were places where charity was collected and dispensed to the needy. The boxes in the Ari Synagogue are used to collect funds for the synagogue's maintenance. It is considered meritorious to give charity before or during one's prayers.
On the innermost column, closest to the ark, a white, burlap sack hangs down. Its sole significance is that it holds the two foods that make one of Tzfat's eruvs. This is a legal technicality that permits Jews to carry in Tzfat on the Sabbath.
The pillars and the bimah were painted by the same painter when he painted the ark. He seems to have liked these colors—they have no Jewish significance!
The Wall Paintings
There are two wall paintings—one of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, and the other of Rachel's Tomb as it looked prior to the twenty-first century. These were two common paintings in synagogues of the nineteenth century.
Attempted Theft of the Torah
Some years ago, the synagogue lacked the reinforced steel window bars and safes that it has today. One evening, two thieves smashed one of the small side windows. The taller man lifted the smaller one on his shoulders, boosted him into the window, and the small thief went over to the ark. He planned to quickly abscond with one of the Torah scrolls and sell it for a handsome sum of money.
The thief smashed the lock on the ark which housed nine or ten Torah scrolls of different sizes. The thief tried to grab a small one in the front of the ark when (he later told the police) the large Torah in the back jumped on top of his hand and pinned his hand between the two wooden staves of the Torah. The thief screamed, his partner panicked and ran away, and the neighbors were alerted by the screams. When the police arrived, they found that the small thief was hysterical, and his hand was still pinned under the Torah in the holy ark.
Israel Najara Street
When one exits the synagogue, the street directly in front is called Israel Najara Street. He was one of the Ari's students, and was a poet and songwriter. Most of the songs that Jews sing on the Sabbath today were written by people in Tzfat, or people who were from Tzfat. Rabbi Israel Najara composed a well-known Sabbath song known as "Kah Ribbon."
In order to compose his songs, Rabbi Najara would wander in the hills and valleys around Tzfat to get inspired. One day, he was walking far from Tzfat. Suddenly, arms reached out of a bush, and Arab cutthroats dragged him into the bushes, put a knife to his throat, and insisted, "Your money or your life!"
As was the case with many Jews in Tzfat, Najara was a spiritually rich man to whom material possessions were not important. He apologetically offered, "I'm sorry, I have nothing to give you."
The Arabs pressed the knife a bit deeper and snarled, "Give us the name of a relative who will pay a ransom."
Najara continued, "I'm sorry, I don't have any relatives who can pay my ransom."
The knife pressed harder into his throat and began to cut, "Give us the name of a friend who will pay a ransom."
Again, Najara averred, "I don't know anyone who would give money for me."
The Arabs told him, "Well, make your peace with your God, because we are soon going to slit your throat." And with that, the Arabs laughed heartily.
In the few seconds before the Arabs would slit his throat, Najara said the Shema, the last words that a Jew says before going to his Maker. He acknowledged that there is only one God, and He is the only Force in the world. In the few seconds he had remaining, Najara took his flute and played one last melody to his Creator. He played with such feeling that the animals of the barbaric Arabs started to dance. When the cutthroats saw that, they dropped everything they were doing and ran away. Najara was so caught up in his melody, he made his way back to Tzfat, followed by an entourage of animals. He entered the city on the street that is named for him today.
The Bonfire Pillar
Directly opposite the synagogue entrance is a pillar, approximately six feet high. The top looks like it contains black ash. That is where the chief rabbi of Tzfat lights the first bonfire every Lag B'Omer, even before fires are lit at Meron, the burial place of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. On his deathbed, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai asked his students to shine the light of Torah in the world. This meant that they should study Torah, spread its wisdom, and be good examples to others of how Jews should live. His students took his words literally, and they lit bonfires every year on the anniversary of bar Yochai's death. That Hebrew date is the thirty-third day of the counting of the days between Passover and the holiday of Shavuot, otherwise known as Lag B'Omer.
The custom to light bonfires in Meron every Lag B'Omer caught on and continued for hundreds of years. In 1838, there was a Druze rebellion against the Turks. The Druze took control of the city of Meron, not far from Tzfat. The Jews in Meron ran to safety in Tzfat. The Jews expected the Druze to plunder their homes, then leave. The Druze, however, had other ideas, and they remained in Meron. Soon, it was the day before Lag B'Omer, and the Jews in Tzfat were heartbroken that for the first time in generations, they would not be able to light the fires near Rabbi bar Yochai's grave.
The rabbi of Tzfat told the Jews, "Don't worry. Light the fire here in Tzfat at the site where you can see Rabbi bar Yochai's grave. That will be the equivalent of lighting in Meron." The Jews built a pillar, and that year, they lit the fire in Tzfat and not in Meron. From that time onward, the chief Ashkenazic rabbi of Tzfat has had the right to kindle the light in Tzfat before the Jews light their fires in Meron. He has done so ever since.
After exiting the synagogue, turn left, and go up the stairs to the door which opens on the left. These stairs are named Gurei Ari stairs. You will now see the entrance to the women's gallery.
Every synagogue has a women's gallery. This is because men get distracted by women sitting next to them, and separating the sexes is conducive to holiness and helping people focus on God. Since women are considered to be naturally on a higher spiritual level than men, they are always seated separately from men, and are often in a higher place in the synagogue.
Looking at the entrance to the women's gallery, there is a carved stone near the left-hand side of the door. One can discern two names—Shlomo Meehi and Yosef Catalano. The inscription is dated 1665 in Hebrew. Some say that this was the dedication plaque for the ladies' section of the synagogue, although archaeologists
say that this stone is in secondary use, and was probably originally used elsewhere.
Continuing up the stairs, on the left, is a small park. This is all that is left of the large area where the Kabbalists used to spread out in the fields and meditate. Today, people still sit there and meditate.
The Ari Bet Midrash
The Ari Bet Midrash is on the left as one descends the stairs to the Ari Ashkenazi Synagogue. Above its main door is a plaque claiming that the Bet Midrash building was originally built in 1572. Years later, it became a Hassidic Synagogue. It was formerly headed by Rabbi Kaplan, the former chief rabbi of Tzfat. When he passed away, his son succeeded him as rabbi of the synagogue.
In the 1830's, the synagogue was used by Hassidim, led by Rabbi Eliezer Rokach. In the afternoon of January 1, 1837, Rabbi Rokach was standing at the prayer stand, leading the afternoon services. He was saying the silent prayer when he suddenly turned to the congregation, made a loud noise, and signaled that they should exit the synagogue. Everyone vacated the place while he continued his prayers. As they ran out, the earthquake struck. The entire ceiling pulled away from the roof, staying attached to the four corners only by little stones. It was virtually suspended in the air, yet the entire congregation had miraculously exited without being harmed. Rabbi Rokach finished his prayers, and slowly walked backward to the exit. As he stepped over the doorway, the entire structure collapsed. One story recounts that the doorway fell on his arm, breaking it. The other story states that the building fell on him, burying him up to his neck, yet he survived unharmed except for his broken left arm.
The congregants were told later that the rabbi took the brunt of the injuries that were destined to occur so that they would all be spared.
There are two paintings on the southern wall of the synagogue. The one to the left of the ark is of the Western Wall. Stand in front of the ark and look to your left. Now walk facing the wall and you will notice that the wall "follows" you. The artist deliberately created this effect.
In the l940's, this synagogue was used by the Jews to hide "illegal" arms for their defense, which the British had prohibited them to have. A plaque on the outer wall of the synagogue, at the entrance to the ladies' section, mentions this fact.
The Ari Sephardic Synagogue
This is the only one of the three synagogues which are named after the Ari that actually existed in his day. In the sixteenth century, it already existed, and was called the Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue. According to some, the Ari lived within walking distance of this synagogue as well as within walking distance of the mikvah. Most of this building was destroyed in the 1837 earthquake, and was rebuilt by Yitzchak Guetta in 1847. It is likely that the doorway is from the original building. Above it is a plaque honoring Guetta.
When one enters the synagogue, one goes through a hallway that is part of the ladies section. Passing through the second door gives entry into the main chapel. Just after the doorway, to the left, is a small, closed room that is said to have been the room where the Ari learned with Elijah the Prophet (some say that is also the place where the Ari taught his son).
In l948, this building was on the front lines, opposite the Arab positions on the bottom of the city. The Jewish commander knew that this area was of major strategic importance, and that it would be subject to constant Arab attack. He set up one of the few "machine guns" in the upper window over the Torah arks. A soldier on a platform overlooked the entire lower part of the city from there. He would shoot at Arabs who went up the hill to attack the Jews. The commander realized that the Arabs would eventually wise up, realize where the shooting was coming from, and shoot out the Jews' machine gun post. Then the Arabs would take over the entire city which would remain otherwise undefended. So, the Jewish commander told his men to make a peephole through both the lower part of the ark and the wall next to it so that the men could see out and shoot from there, if necessary.
Several days later, the Arabs did just as the commander feared. They attacked the window above, so the Jews placed the machine gun in line with the hole in the lower part of the ark. The Jews were instructed not to shoot until the Arabs came up the hill to attack them. When the Arabs raced up the hill to capture the Jewish positions, the Jewish soldiers held their fire until the Arabs were fairly close. When the Arabs thought that victory was at hand, they found themselves being shot down. The Arabs dropped their weapons and fled.
In an interview years later, one of the Arabs reported that the Arabs believed that the Ari (the tzaddik) was protecting the city. No further Arab attacks occurred on that part of Tzfat.
At that time, there were kabbalists learning Torah around the clock in this synagogue to provide spiritual protection for the city. One even fasted day and night for the safety of Tzfat. On the first day of the month of Iyar, l948, Tzfat was completely liberated and the Arabs ran away. The Jewish commander of Tzfat ran down the hill to tell the rabbis that their prayers had been answered. When he walked in, he found that one of the rabbis had smeared ashes on his forehead, and had torn his clothes. When the commander told him the good news, and asked why the rabbi was mourning, the rabbi said, "I'm not crying for Tzfat. I'm crying for the city of Jerusalem." Several weeks later, the Old City of Jerusalem fell into Arab hands and remained there for the next nineteen years.
There was a period of about ten to fifteen years when the synagogue was locked and no one was allowed in. Prior to that time, there were many incidents of people entering the synagogue and dropping dead! It was decided that something strange was happening and so to prevent further disasters, the synagogue was locked. On a few occasions, people forced their way in and never came out. Rabbi Abuhatzeira (also known as the Baba Sali) visited Tzfat, knew about the synagogue, and wanted to visit it. The caretakers tried to dissuade him, but Baba Sali made it clear that he wanted to go in. The caretakers finally relented and the Baba Sali spent the entire day inside. Toward evening, Baba Sali walked out and reported there had been a "ruach ra" (harmful spiritual force) that had taken up residence in the synagogue. It was the spiritual force of the sins of the community, and Baba Sali had rectified it. If they community would repent from their sins and not resume doing them, the synagogue would remain safe. And so it is to this day. There is a an active kollel (yeshiva for married men) and prayer services there every Sabbath.
If you enjoyed these stories and want further stories or information please contact me: Haim Sidor via this HUB