The ancient city of Safed (Tzfat) is perched on a hilltop in northern Israel's Upper Galilee. During the 16th-century Jewish scholars and mystics expelled from Spain were drawn to Safed. The city became a spiritual center for Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah and home to rabbis like Rabbi Yitzhak Luria (Ha Ari HaKadosh); Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz and Rabbi Yosef Karo. During this period many synagogues were constructed, several of which have survived. In the Old Town, you can find the narrow cobbled streets lined with ancient buildings and synagogues.
Ari Ashkenazi Synagogue
This 16th-century synagogue was founded by Spanish exiles and Kabbalists who followed Rabbi Isaac Luria, known by his acronym – Ari. It was the Ari's custom to pray at this synagogue on Friday evenings and then walk into the fields to welcome the Shabbat. This tradition led to the creation of the popular Shabbat song Lecha Dodi.
In the 18th century, the congregation was joined by a group of European Ashkenazi Hasidim and the synagogue became known as the Ashkenazi Ari Synagogue. Highlights of the synagogue include the carved olive wood Holy Ark. Today the traditional welcoming of the Sabbath is still performed at the synagogue on Friday evenings.
Ari Sephardic Synagogue
The Ari Sephardic Synagogue constructed in 1522 was originally used by North African Jews. In the 16th century, Rabbi Isaac Luria (The Ari) frequented this synagogue to enjoy the view from the window overlooking Mount Meron, site of the Tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai. Legend has it that while studying Kabbalah in the synagogue one day the Prophet Elijah appeared to the Ari. During the War of Independence, the synagogue's location on the edge of the Jewish Quarter brought it into the conflict and the structure was used as an outpost against the Arab invasion into the Jewish Quarter.
Yosef Caro Synagogue
This synagogue was built in the 16th century, destroyed twice by earthquakes and rebuilt. The synagogue is named after Rabbi Joseph Caro, a scholar, and Kabbalist who wrote the Shulchan Aruch, codifying Jewish law. According to tradition, the residence beneath the synagogue was home to Caro and the site where the "Maggid" appeared to him, revealing the secrets of the Torah which he recorded in the "Maggid Meisharim."
Other Safed Synagogues Worth Visiting
The Abuhav Synagogue houses a Medieval Torah scroll and has three holy Arks instead of one. If you visit the Avrutch Synagogue with a Golan Heights and Safed tour you'll hear about how this synagogue gave shelter to the faithful during the 1837 earthquake and see the surviving Holy Ark. Stop at the 15th century Bana'a Synagogue and visit the Alsheich Synagogue which has remained untouched since its construction in the 16th century. The Beirav Synagogue is the place to visit to learn about the Carlebach Prayer.