Things to see and do in Safed
Safed (Tsfat or Tzfat) is a quaint city perched on the highest hill top in the Galilee.
Safed Old City
Since the 16th century the city has attracted spiritual and religious leaders and is considered one of Israel’s Four Holy Cities. It is also known as the birth place of Kabbalah, a mystical Jewishdiscipline and school of thought.The picturesque city with breathtaking views has attracted many artists who come here to capture the serene scenery and spiritual atmosphere. Wednesday is market day when the streets come alive with an outdoor market. Foodies visiting Safed should find out about wine tasting tours of local wineries like Abouhav, Dalton and Golan Wineries and about tours of the local cheese factories including HaMeiri and Kadosh Cheese.
Safed Tourist Board Visitors Center
Make your first stop in Safed at the Tourist Visitors Center here you can pick up maps and details of any special events. You can also see a short film about the history of Safed in Hebrew, English or French. In addition the Center has an excavation site underneath the building. Here you can see several layers of the city which has been repeatedly rebuilt following destruction by war, earthquakes etc. You can walk through a tunnel which was once street level and see rooms on either side including one with an excavated Jewish ritual bath (mikvah).
The Artists’ Quarter is a network of narrow cobbled lanes with ancient stone buildings on either side; within each of the small entrances to the buildings are stores, artists’ workshops and galleries selling unique Safed art work. The art is primarily paintings, silverwork, weaving, Judaica and jewelry – all handmade. Bet Yoseph Street is the main street of the Artists’ Quarter here you can watch the painters, sculptors and jewelry makers at work. One of the most popular and unique forms of art you will find here is micro-calligraphy. Artists use tiny Hebrew letters (often text from a sacred book or the Bible) to form the shapes of the images they are creating. Using only the letters of the Hebrew alphabet they create a picture. Many of the art in the Artists’ Quarter incorporate symbols of the Kabbalah. Some of the galleries are collectives where the work of several artists is displayed together. These include the Olive Tree Gallery and Soul Art Gallery. The Canaan Gallery displays woven pieces (prayer shawls, scarves etc) made using traditional loom-weaving and brightly dyed yarn. These traditional methods were brought to Safed by the Spanish Jews when they arrived here escaping persecution in Europe.
International Center for Safed Kabbalah Visitor Center
If you are interested in finding out more about the mystical beliefs of Kaballah then you can find all the answers here. The center is in a restored historic building in the Old City of Safed. The center screens audio visual presentations entitled: What is Kabbalah; The Holy Ari; Safed in the 16th Century; The Zohar and Kabbalah in the Modern World. There is a 15 minute film about the history of Safed and the Kabbalah in Safed. The Code of the Universe presentation introduces visitors to positive thinking and the code of Hebrew letters. The center provides arts and crafts workshops about Kabbalah art and ways of expressing yourself through visual arts. From the roof top you can get brilliant views across the region. The center offers meditation sessions, exhibitions of local artists, interactive media stations and the sale of Kabbalah products.
This 15th century synagogue is named after the Spanish Rabbi Isaac Abuhav from Toledo and the architectural design is according to Kabalistic tenets. Rabbi Abuhav didn’t personally come to Safed but designed the synagogue while still in Spain. His follower and pupil Rabbi Ya’acov Beirav built the synagogue according to the Rabbi’s instructions when he arrived in the city in the 1490s. Beirav became one of Safed’s leading sages. The synagogue suffered damage from an earthquake in 1837 but the southern wall where there are three Arks (where Torah scrolls are kept) survived. The bimah (stage where the reader of the Torah stands) has six steps representing the six working days of the week. One of the synagogue’s Torah scrolls which is kept in the Ark is said to have been written by Rabbi Abuhav and to be the oldest Torah scroll in the city. Another of the synagogue’s scrolls was written by 16th century Moroccan Rabbi Solomon Ohana a Kabbalist from Fez. The synagogue decoration includes frescoes of musical instruments used in the Temple of Jerusalem, the symbols of the 12 tribes of Israel and work by artist Ziona Tagger.
Ashkenazi HaAri Synagogue
Sephardic Jews who arrived from Greece in the 16th century constructed this synagogue in honor of Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572) who was known as Ari. Luria was a leading Kabalistic sage who arrived in Safed in 1570 and prayed at this synagogue. This is considered perhaps the oldest synagogue in the country. During the 18th century East European Jews (Ashkenazi) arrived in Safed and began using the synagogue, hence the name. In 1837 the synagogue was destroyed by an earthquake and only rebuilt 20 years later. The synagogue’s main feature is a colorful Holy Ark (where Torah scrolls are kept). The Ark is carved from olive wood in the style of Eastern European synagogues. The craftsman was a non-Jew and unaware of the Jewish law against creating images of the human form. So he carved a human face on the Ark. To make the Ark “kosher” the face was changed into the face of a lion, in reference to Ari (Aria in Hebrew is Lion).
Sephardic HaAri Synagogue
This synagogue is one of the oldest in the city; it was constructed as early as 1522 and was originally used by North African Jews and called the Eliyahu HaNavi Synagogue. The same Rabbi Luria as mentioned above, who was associated with the Ashkenazi Ari Synagogue also enjoyed praying here. He would especially enjoy the view of Mt. Meron from the synagogue window. It is said that the Ari would like to sit in a small alcove in the synagogue studying his Kabbalah and that the Prophet Elijah would appear before him. The name of the synagogue was changed in the 17th century to honor the Ari. Most of the original synagogue was destroyed by earthquakes in 1759 and 1837 but then rebuilt in 1840 thanks to donations by Italian Jew Yitzhak Guetta. During the War of Independence and the siege of Safed in 1948 holes were drilled in the wall of the synagogue facing the surrounding Arab villages. The holes were used of observation and shooting.
Stam Center Safed (Otzar Hastam of Safed)
According to Jewish law the ritual texts, Torah scrolls, tefillin and mezuzah parchments must be written in a specific way, by a specific person and with specific materials. A Sofer Stam, is the name given to the person trained to write the Holy texts. Stam is an acronym of the words Torah, Tefillin and Mezuzot. There are hundreds of laws related to the writing of Stam texts. The laws dictate the type of ink, shape of each letter, type of quill and even that the scribe must be pure, having just come from the ritual baths (mikvah). At the Stam Center you can learn about the laws related to the writing of Holy texts and even try your hand at writing the text yourself using a 3D practice quill, parchment and ink. There is a multi-sensory audio-visual presentation to give visitors an overview of the Kabalistic properties of the Hebrew letters and the laws and customs related to the writing of Holy texts.
Meiri House Museum
Following the 1837 earthquake the Meir Mizrachi family from Iran immigrated to Safed and settled in this 16th century house. The family changed their name to HaMeiri and established a dairy in the bottom half of the house. The Meiri family established the first dairy in Israel and this house museum was founded by a member of the Meiri family, Yehezkel Ha’Meiri. Over the years the house was also used as the Beit Din (Rabbinical Court); as an orphanage during WWI and as a non-religious Hebrew school funded by Baron Rothschild. Prior to the establishment of the State of Israel the house served as an arms depot for weapons of the underground Jewish organizations Haganah, Etzel and Irgun. The building was also used to train the underground fighters and as a guard post between the Jewish Quarter and Arab villages. On display are objects related to life in Safed in the 19th and early 20th century. To help get a better understanding of the city’s history there is a timeline of key events in the Safed Jewish community over the years. There are furniture, documents and household items. You can see portraits of key personalities from the history of Safed. Visitors can see the museum displays, recreated rooms and the dairy. During holidays there are guided tours and reenactments.
Safed Candle Factory
The history of the Safed candle factory goes back more than 18 years. Candles are made here from beeswax and sculptured into artistic shapes and figures. The candles are hand-dipped and some are made into the traditional woven candles used in the Jewish Havdala ceremony and into Hannuka candles and Shabbat candles. The factory also makes paraffin candles which are brightly colored and decorated. The sculptured beeswax candles by artist Chaim Grees are particularly popular. There are candles resembling Biblical scenes and Biblical figures. The candle makers pride themselves on the use of environmentally friendly materials. You can see the candle store next to the Ari Ashkenazi Synagogue.
Rozenfeld Doll Museum
The Doll Museum is located in the artists’ Quarter, here you can see dolls dressed in traditional costumes from around the world and from different eras. The displays are divided into three sections, Jewish costumes, folklore costumes from around the world and European costumes. The owner of the museum hand-crafts the porcelain dolls taking three months to produce each one. She creates them in proportion to a natural human body. She then paints the dolls and puts the doll’s body parts together. All of the dolls’ body parts are movable. The costumes are also hand-made and hand-sewn and trimmed. In all there are about 100 dolls on display at the museum in the Estham building at the entrance to Joseph Caro Street.
The highest point of Safed is Citadel Hill. There are well maintained walking paths going through Citadel Park which covers the hill and amenities like toilets and playgrounds have been provided. The views from Citadel Hill are breathtaking. It is also an historic site where you can see the remains of a Crusader castle. The remains are now part of an archeological park and excavations are still under way. Archeologists have uncovered a round tower from 1188, a bell-shaped cistern, a Crusader water cistern, a Mamluk gate tower and a hidden passage. Since the Roman era the hill has been a sought after strategic point and ever since there have been several battles between forces fighting for control of the hill. There is a memorial for fighters who died in a battle here during the War of Independence.
At the top of Aliyah Bet Street is a 300 year old white stone building which was originally built by D’har El Omar, a powerful Bedouin leader when he ruled over the Galilee in the 18th century. He chose to build his residence on this strategically high piece of land. His rule came to an end in the 1700s and the Turkish took possession of the “Saraya” and later it became their headquarters until the British took over. Under the Ottomans the clock tower was added. The Saraya became the British headquarters following WWI and Jews were given shelter here when the Arabs plundered the city. The Saraya became the Arab seat of authority until 1948 when the Lehi organization bombed the building breaking the Arab hold on the region. Following Israeli independence the Saraya was rebuilt and became the Israeli Army Headquarters. Today the Saraya is a community center where there are the Noam Synagogue, a music conservatory, Hebrew language lessons, a museum on Jewish life in Hungary before WWII and a courtyard which is used as a concert venue. The bells in the clock tower have been restored and can be heard across the city every 15 minutes.
This synagogue was once the seat of the most important Rabbinical court or council in the country. The only clue we have today of the synagogue’s glory days as a Rabbinical court is the 30cm high step up to the Bamah (stage/platform). The head of the Rabbinical council was Rabbi Karo best known as author of the Shulchan Aruch; a book which lays out Jewish laws for daily living. This book is still the go-to authority for many Jewish households. In the lower part of the synagogue hundreds of students would gather to study Religious texts. Together with other great Jewish Rabbis the religious council would make Jewish laws which were respected throughout the Jewish world. Karo also organized a soup kitchen around the side of the synagogue to feed the poor. The kitchen is used today to provide meals for Torah students. One of the highlights of the synagogue today is the set of Torah books which line the book shelves covering the walls. Many of the books are 100 years old and some date back to Karo himself in the 16th century. The synagogue’s Holy Ark holds three Torah Scrolls from Persia, Iraq and Spain which are on display to the public. The synagogue has many points of interest from the entrance way to the layout of the furniture.
Museum of Hungarian Speaking Jews
Jews from around the world have come to settle in Israel, one of those groups are the Hungarian Jews. For 1,000 years Jews lived peacefully in Hungary; following the Holocaust the Hungarian Jewish communities were devastated. The museum is dedicated to showing Jewish life in pre-war Hungary. It highlights the activities of Jewish resistance movements during WWII and the Soviet occupation. There are photos of Hungarian Jewish communities, artifacts, uniforms, arts and crafts, Judaica and a model of the Dohany Great Synagogue in Budapest.