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The Jewish Mystical City of Safed

Documents found in the Cairo Genizah confirm that a Jewish community lived within Safed from the 13th century.
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Safed, the mystical city located in the mountains of Northern Israel, is considered one of the four Holy cities according to Judaism and is filled with Jewish history from the Second Temple period to the present. Safed, a beautiful city in the Galilee, has rich Jewish history dating back to ancient times. Safed is not mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, but the Jerusalem Talmud notes Safed as one of the five mountaintop points from where fires were lit to announce the new moon and festivals in Ancient Israel. Historians also identify Safed as Sepph, the city fortified by Josephus in the Galilee at the time of the anticipated Roman attack in 66 CE. Additionally, two ancient poems written by Eleazar Kallir claim that Jewish priestly families’ settled in Safed following the destruction of the Second Temple.

Documents found in the Cairo Genizah confirm that a Jewish community lived within Safed from the 13th century under Mamluk rule. Samuel Ben Samson, who visited there in the 13th century, claimed that the city boasted a Jewish community of at least 50. However, according to the historian Stanford Shaw, Safed’s Jewish community rose to 7,525 souls in 1555-6; due to an influx of Jews emigrating to Safed from Central Europe, the Iberian Peninsula, and from North Africa. The Sephardic Jews took refuge in Ottoman lands after given the choice between conversion to Christianity, expulsion or death in 1492. These Jewish immigrants mixed in with the local Jewish population that had been living in the Holy Land since antiquity.

Safed-in-pre-ZionismAccording to Shaw, Safed became “a major industrial and trade center during the early years of Kanuni Suleyman’s (Suleyman the Magnificent) long reign.” He claimed, “The most important source of wealth at Safed and Sidon came from a highly developed wool industry. Raw materials coming mainly from Salonika and Istanbul were woven into cloths which were sold throughout Eretz Yisrael and Syria as well as being exported to Anatolia and throughout the Mediterranean area through the port of Sidon.” The Jews of Ottoman Safed also traded in oil, honey, silk and spices.

Yet, aside from the Safed Jewish communities’ economic contributions to the Ottoman Empire, Shaw also emphasized that Safed was the “Empire’s most important center of Jewish mystic learning and contemplation.” Great rabbis such as the Jewish mystic Rabbi Isaac Luria, known as the Ha-Ari which means ‘the lion’; Joseph Caro, author of the Shulhan Arukh, considered by many to be the ultimate compendium of Jewish law; and Solomon Alkabetz, who wrote the Lecha Dodi prayer recited every Shabbat, lived in Safed.

Yet not all of the Jewish intellectuals of Safed were men. Jewish women under Ottoman rule, living in Eretz Yisrael contributed significantly to Safed’s intellectual history. Floretta of Modena engaged in a weekly course on the Tanakh, Jewish laws, the works of Maimonides, and the Zohar. She was not the only Jewish female intellectual of Safed during the Ottoman period. Channah Rochel Werbemacher, who hosted an open table on Shabbat afternoons, and Francesa Sarah, Ari’s foremost disciple, also played an active role in the Safed Jewish community.

Jewish Safed thrived until the 1929 Arab riots, during which the main Jewish street was looted and burned and 20 Jews were murdered and many injured. After this the Jewish community in Safed experienced a decline. Despite this the Safed Jewish community successfully defended the city in the face of Arab aggression during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, resulting in Safed being absorbed as part of the State of Israel. Today, Safed is a major pilgrimage destination for Jews visiting the Holy Land, since the city is one of the four holiest cities in the Jewish religion.

Popular destinations within Safed include the Sephardic Ari Synagogue, the oldest synagogue within the city which was founded in 1522 and is named after Rabbi Isaac Luria; the Caro Synagogue that is named after Joseph Caro and possesses a Torah scroll over 500 years old; and the Alshekh Synagogue, which is named after the leading 16th century Kabbalist Rabbi Moses Alshekh and has a beautiful blue dome ceiling. In 2008, Safed had a population of 32,000 souls, of whom the majority are Jewish.

About the Author: Rachel Avraham is a news editor and political analyst for Jerusalem Online News, the English language internet edition of Israel's Channel 2 News. She completed her masters degree in Middle Eastern Studies at Ben-Gurion University. The subject of her MA thesis was: "Women and Jihad: Debating Palestinian Female Suicide Bombings in the American, Israeli and Arab media."


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