The Abuhav Synagogue is located in Safed, a sacred Jewish city situated in the hills of Galilee. The synagogue was built in the 15th century by Kabbalist Rabbi Yitzhak Abuhav. There were two well-known rabbis with this name. One Yitzhak Abuhav is attributed with writing the Meorat Hama’or, an important book of ethics. However, it is more likely that the synagogue was named after Rabbi Yitzhak Abuhav a 15th-century great sage of Castile and member of the Toledo rabbinate. This rabbi ran a yeshiva for the study of Kabbalah and Jewish philosophy. One of his students was Rabbi Ya’acov Beirav who went on to become one of the great sages of Safed.
The Synagogue Torah Scrolls
It was Rabbi Ya’acov Beirav who is thought to have brought the synagogue’s famous scroll to Safed. The Abuhav Synagogue scroll is the oldest in Safed and is associate with many legends and traditions. This precious scroll is kept locked in the synagogue Torah Ark and is only used three times a year at Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and Shavuot. The synagogue has a second precious Torah scroll brought to the synagogue by 16th century Moroccan Kabbalist Rabbi Solomon Ohana.
Design of the Abuhav Synagogue
The synagogue is thought to have been designed by Abuhav while still in Spain before traveling to Safed. The design was created according to Kabbalah principles. Kabbalah is an esoteric school of Judaism that includes the study of numerology where there is a mystical relationship between numbers, our lives, and events. For this reason, each element of the synagogue design has numerical significance – there is 1 bima, 2 steps, and 3 Torah Arks. Using Kabbalah symbolism the bima has six steps representing the 6 days of creation before reaching the top level symbolizing the Shabbat, Torah, and spiritual enlightenment.
As you approach the synagogue there is an outer entrance, then a courtyard, and then an inner entrance. The prolonged entrance and courtyard are designed to give the visitor time to compose himself and prepare to enter the place of worship. The synagogue has three Arks (special cupboards that hold the Torah scrolls) against the southern wall which is the only part of the original building still standing.
Other parts of the synagogue were destroyed over the years by earthquakes and wars and subsequently rebuilt. Facing the southern wall and the arks is Elijah’s Chair, an elaborately decorated chair used during the circumcision ceremony. An adult sits in the chair and the baby is placed in a small chair attached to the larger Chair of Elijah.
A raised platform or bima where the leader of the congregation stands to read from the Torah is positioned in the center of the synagogue. The benches for worshipers are arranged around the edges of the room rather than being lined up as in a modern synagogue or church. The inner surface of the synagogue’s domed ceiling is adorned with images of musical instruments that would have been played by the Levite choir in the ancient Temple; symbols of the 12 tribes of Israel and four crowns – the Torah Crown, Crown of Kingship, Priestly Crown and Crown of Impending Redemption.
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