|For hundreds of years Safed was the unrivalled capital of the Galilee. This fortified city was built, rebuilt, and restored throughout history by numerous leaders – from Josephus to the Crusaders and the infamous Mamluk Sultan Baibars. In the 16th Century Safed, the place where Kabbalah was formulated, was the spiritual center of the Jewish People. Many works of religious law were written here, including Sefer HaMeggid and Shulchan Aruch. Still regarded as the primary center of Jewish mysticism, Safed's temperate climate has also made it a central tourist attraction in the region. Kabbalah centers, unique art galleries, impressive synagogues, and picturesque alleys are just some of the elements that make Safed seem like a separate, elevated sphere.
The first fortified structure erected here was Josephus' fortress, built during the Great Revolt. The second fortress was built 1,000 years later, during the golden age of the Crusaders. It was taken by Saladin, retaken by the Crusaders, and ultimately conquered by Baibars, who added a 200-feet high round tower. The Ottomans abandoned the fortress, which was completely destroyed in the great earthquake of 1837. Today the site contains the remains of the white tower and of a wall, archways, and the entrance gate.
Bar-Yochai Street was once the main thoroughfare of the Ashkenazi Quarter. A plaque reading House of Israel and Shoshana Chen Batit is affixed to the walls of an old house, within which a cave and an ancient mikveh (a Jewish ritual bath) are located. Several other interesting houses are located here as well, such as Rabbi Yaakov Yitzhak of Makrav's beth midrash (study hall). Other interesting spots in the Ashkenazi Quarter include mystic painter David Friedman's gallery and Messiah Alley; walking down the alley is said to guarantee redemption.
Meginei Zfat Street is mainly the work of 19th Century town developers. At its one end is the stained glass-adorned Shlomo Eliyahu House, named after the city's chief rabbi. Further down the street is the Beirav Synagogue, where prayer sermons are conducted in the finest Carlebach tradition, complete with devotional song and dance. The building commemorates Rabbi Yaakov Beirav, one of the city's most important 16th-Century clerics.
The Ari Synagogue (Ashkenazi):
This building was built in the 16th Century by Jewish exiles from Spain at what was then the edge of the Sephardic Quarter. Also known as the Synagogue of the Holy Apple Orchard, it is here that the Holy Ari, Safed's most illustrious rabbi, worshipped. The 1837 earthquake destroyed the synagogue, which was later restored. One of the most special items here is the ark, which is adorned with an elaborate wooden lion. At the back is the chair of the Prophet Elijah. Lady visitors should take care around this chair, as it is said to possess strong procreative qualities.
The Candle Store:
Upon leaving the synagogue we turn towards the candle store. The unique, colorful candles manufactured here are used, among others, in the Jewish rites of Kiddush and Havdalah.
The Abohav Synagogue:
An enchanted hall of prayer featuring a blue, canopied stage adorned with spectacular engravings houses Safed's holiest Torah scroll. The scroll is taken out only three times a year – on the Day of Atonement, the Jewish New Year, and Shavuot (the Feast of Weeks). The scroll was written by 15th-Century Kabbalah sage Rabbi Yitzhak Abohav. Four crowns adorn the canopy: the crown of Torah; the crown of priesthood; the crown of kingship; and the crown of forthcoming salvation, a unique 16th-Century tradition of the Safed community.
The Caro Synagogue:
This synagogue is named after Rabbi Joseph Caro, who arrived in Safed in 1536 and established his beth midrash on this site. Caro wrote Shulchan Aruch, still hailed as the foremost Jewish religious law composition. Below the synagogue is a cave where the rabbi is said to have meditated in the presence of an angel who dictated to him the text of his book Magid Yesharim. At the entrance is a large hall painted blue; its walls are adorned with a painting of Mount Sinai and Kabbalistic drawings.
HaMeiri House Museum:
This restored three-story house dates back 500 years. Articles of clothing, pieces of furniture, household utensils, tools, and religious items tell the story of the local Jewry for the past 200 years. The museum is divided into nine display rooms, each dedicated to a different time period.
The Ari Synagogue (Sephardic):
This is the city's oldest and most elaborate synagogue. Built on the foundations of an earlier synagogue dedicated to the Prophet Elijah, the structure dates to 1522. Tradition has Elijah appearing to the Ari and sharing with him the secrets of Kabbalah at this very synagogue.
The Ancient Cemetery:
For thousands of years the local Jewish community has buried its dead on the mountain slope facing the Amud creek. Somewhat disorderly, the cemetery holds an unknown number of graves. Many sages and rabbis are buried here, and each year thousands of pilgrims come to pray at their tombs. Among the well-known persons who rest here are the Holy Ari, Rabbi Joseph Caro, and Rabbi Pinchas Ben Yair. Tradition holds that the Prophet Hosea and the legendary Hanna and her seven martyred sons are also buried here. The city's sacred mikveh, where the Holy Ari would make his ablutions every Friday, is located here. Many believers still follow his example and flock to the mikveh to prepare for the Sabbath.
The Artists' Quarter:
Since in the 20th Century Safed has been home to many different artists, drawn here by the city's scenery, serenity, and mystic atmosphere. Following the foundation of the State of Israel, the neighborhood where many artists had their rented accommodations became the official Artists' Quarters. Galleries and artworks are to be seen across the city – from special doors with crafted handles to magnificent windows and murals.