The land of Israel’s holiness features four cities that are singled out as exceptionally holy, and which are imbued with special qualities. I have had the good fortune to visit all four – Hebron, Jerusalem, Tiberias and Safed – if only for a short time. Each of these cities is associated with a particular kind of holiness, corresponding to the four basic elements: Jerusalem – fire; Hebron – earth; Tiberias – water; and, my favorite, Safed – air.
Why is Safed my favorite? After all, Jerusalem was home to the two Holy Temples, and the Western Wall is accessible to us even to this day. The matriarchs and patriarchs are buried in Hebron. Tiberias housed the last seat of the great Supreme Court of Jewish Law, and is the burial place of the Torah giant Moses Maimonides.
I can say without reservation, though, that Safed is the most beautiful and spiritual place that I have ever encountered. The stone streets with the drainage depressions down the middle, the beautiful ancient architecture, and the ubiquitous blue building walls are all stunning. But it’s not just Safed itself. It is also the view, that beautiful view of the mountains. And the sunsets. It’s easy to see why kabbalah began and developed there. There is something very special about the air. The holiness of Safed’s air is palpable. You can stand in the center of town, surrounded by noise, sights and smells, and still breathe in the holiness. You can tune everything else out.
In 1997, I visited Israel for the second time. At that point in my life, I was on what I call the cusp of becoming more observant. I was taking it very slowly, which is the best way to do it. I had just bought a place in a largely Jewish neighborhood back home, feeling that if I were to move forward in my observance, I would want and need support.
I stayed with a friend in Rehovot, and rented a car for the duration of my three-week stay in Israel. Many people – Israelis and Americans – thought that I was out of my mind for driving in Israel. But I like my independence.
One day I drove to Safed – not an insignificant trek – and stayed in the nicest hotel in the city, figuring that since I was paying nothing to stay with my friend in Rehovot, I would treat myself. It was Friday night, Shabbat, and I was watching television in my room. I even remember what I was watching.
Dinnertime arrived and I was hungry. However, the dining room was filled with families, and I felt self-conscious sitting by myself. I went back to my room and planned to order room service. The problem: the only thing that the hotel would deliver to my room was chocolate cake. Why, I don’t know. This is not ordinarily a problem; I like chocolate cake as much as the next person – but I wanted a real dinner. So I decided to drive to a nearby city, one with – unlike Safed – eating establishments that would be open despite it being the Sabbath.
Now, in addition to being the most beautiful city in the world, Safed is the most confusing city in the world. I drove around and around, out of the old city and into the new – while 12-year-old boys yelled at me for driving on the Sabbath. It felt like I was in the eye of a storm.
Finally, I was out of Safed. Since Safed is located way up on the top of a mountain, the drive down is quite precarious. There are no streetlights and no guardrails. But I was determined to get dinner. Suddenly, my engine cut out. Nothing worked. Nothing. No brakes, no motor, no power steering. I was rolling down a mountain, helpless.
Almost reflexively, straight from my soul, I said, “God, if you save me, I will keep your Sabbath.” And somehow, while I’m not sure why, I wasn’t scared. If God chose not to save me, I believed that there was a reason. I tried to steer uphill, without the power steering. Nothing. Not knowing what to do, I turned the engine off, and then turned it on again and hoped for the best.
The engine started working. My life was no longer in danger. God had clearly intervened in a very open and miraculous way. He quite literally saved my physical life – and my spiritual life as well. We often miss smaller moments of intervention in our everyday lives, but you couldn’t miss this. There was clearly a sign here, an open miracle, and it changed my life forever.
I gave up my quest for dinner. I went back to the hotel and had my chocolate cake. It was the best chocolate cake I had ever eaten.
The screaming boys were right: I needed to keep Shabbat. And I have done so since my return to the U.S. a few weeks after this experience.
There is truly something in the air in Safed. Temima (Donna) Gorshel Cohen grew up in a suburb of Boston, and attended Wellesley College and Boston University School of Law. She and her family currently live in Brookline, MA. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.