Many years ago, when there were no A/Cs in the world, Israeli people would drive in the summer all the way up to Safed to enjoy its fresh and chilly air. Now, when anyone can turn on their A/C at home or at their hotel, they prefer going on vacation to the Dead Sea. But Safed has a very different experience to offer! If you’re interested in the Jewish Kabbalah, then Safed, one of the most mystical cities in Israel, is surely on your list!
Here’s a short video about Safed (not taken by me, so credit to Israel):
I’ve been to Safed last month and as always, loved it. It has a lot of stories connected to the Kabbalah and Jewish life in the Galilee, but also some historical sites, beginning in the Crusader times up until today. Before I tell you about the FREE things you can do in Safed, let’s go over some history and key terms.
A short review of Safed’s history
Safed was a Jewish settlement from the time of Second Temple. Crusaders have passed through it, Mamluks have also settled here, but Safed is most famous for being the center of Kabbalah during the 16th century. Many famous Kabbalists settled in Safed at that time, including the ARI, Rabi Joseph Karo, and Rabbi Vital. Safed was also one of the Four Holy Cities at that time.
The settlement became a mixed one, with Jewish and Arab people living beside each other, not always in peace. When the Independence War burst in 1948, there were around 12 thousand Arabs and 1,200 Jews in Safed. The Jewish insisted to stay in their homes and when the British left the area, the battles inside Safed began. The Palmach had to send a force into the city in order to keep the Jewish people safe and to try and conquer Safed. After about a month of fighting, the Palmach decided to use the Davidka, a homemade Israeli mortar. The loud noise made by the Davidka and the fact that it was accompanied by heavy rainfalls frightened the Arabs, who thought the Jews might be using nuclear bombs, and they hurried to evacuate the city. And Safed remained completely Jewish.
What is Kabbalah?
Kabbalah is a mystic method, discipline, and school of thought in Judaism. The Jewish Kabbalah is meant to explain the connection between God, the Infinite, and the people on Earth. Kabbalists (people who learn Kabbalah) dig deeper into the Hebrew Bible and the traditional rabbinic literature in order to discover their inner meaning and concealed dimensions. Want to learn more? You can try taking a Kabbalah class while in Safed.
And just before we begin – Safed or Tzfat or maybe Zefat?
Unfortunately, it seems that the people of Safed aren’t able to choose how to present themselves in English, or at least aren’t doing a good job in branding. You’ll find many types of spelling for the city’s name – Safed, Tzfat, Zefat. I’ve decided to use the name Safed in this post, because Wikipedia calls it Safed. The truth is that I like Tzfat better, because I think it’s the most precise pronunciation, but… I’ll go with Wiki this time.
Now, about FREE Things to do in Safed
Visit the different synagogues.
There are many synagogues inside Safed’s Old City, each one named after a different Rabbi and designed in a different way. I recommend getting a map of the Old City at the Visitors Center (address: אלקבץ 17) before starting your tour.
I’ll highlight two of the synagogues:
The Ashkenazi ARI Synagogue
Originally built in the 16th century by Sephardic Jews from Greece, this synagogue was later bought by a large group of Ashkenaz Hasidim who came from Europe in the 18th century. Only then did the synagogue get its current name, the Ashkenazi ARI Synagogue. It is believed that in the 16th century one of the people who prayed here was Rabbi Isaac Luria, known as the “ARI”. Every Shabbat eve, he went with his students to a nearby field, called “Hakal Tapuchin Kedishin” (The Holy Apple Field), and welcomed the Shabbat with the famous Shabbat melody, Lecha Dodi. The synagogue was rebuilt in the mid-19th century after the massive earthquake of 1837.
When you enter the synagogue, you might notice there’s no mezuzah at the entrance. That’s because there’s no real need to put a mezuzah at the entrance to a room, as long as you don’t eat and sleep inside it. After entering, take a look at the holy ark, which was carved from olive wood by craftsmen from Galicia, who didn’t really understand the Jewish laws. At the top of the ark, they drew a human face, which is against Jewish law, which forbids making a picture or statue of a human figure. There’s also a wooden chair in the synagogue, that is called Elijah’s Chair. It is believed that whoever sits on it will be blessed with a boy child within a year, so… ladies, if you’re interested.
This one is my favorite. When you enter, take a look at the inside of the dome. There are all kinds of symbols up there, including the Temple Mount, which represents the place of the Holy Temple, and four crowns, representing the Torah crown, the priestly crown, the royal crown, and the crown that is unique to Safed, the crown of impending redemption. There are also three interesting paintings on one of the walls, showing two pigeons that represent God and the Israelites. The synagogue also holds the most ancient Torah scroll in Safed, which you will probably not be able to see, as it is only taken out three times a year, on Yom Kippur, on Shavuot, and on Rosh Hashanah.
Entrance to those synagogues is free, but a donation is always appreciated. Also, consider that the synagogues might be closed when you arrive, as they don’t have fixed opening hours. You can try to check opening hours with Safed’s Visitor Center by calling: 972-4-6924427.
Check out the different art galleries and talk to their owners.
Actually, I didn’t do this during my last visit, but I have done it about a year ago when I was with my grandma in Safed. There are plenty of art galleries around the old city area and many of them sell Kabballah-related artworks. Feel free to ask the people at the art gallery about the different symbols, and hear their views and stories. It’s really a great experience! Galleries can be found both in the old Jewish area and in the old Muslim area, around what was once the Market Mosque and is today a small art museum (which is also free to enter).
Explore Safed’s Citadel.
Above the Old City, you’ll find an interesting archeological site called Safed’s Citadel. It was once one of the largest Crusader citadels in the Middle East. It was built by Benoît d’Alignan in the 13th century, upon a smaller citadel, and documents from that time describe a huge citadel, about 250 meters long and 110 meters wide, encircled by two massive defense walls. Later, when the Mamluks conquered the citadel in 1266 CE, they added a huge tower on the southern side of the citadel, a tower that was about 60 meters high and 35 meters in diameter. Underneath that tower, they dug a water reservoir. It seems like Safed was super important to those guys for some reason… The citadel was passed from one hand to another, until an earthquake, that took place on the 1st of January 1837, massively ruined it. Today you can walk around the ruins, see some of the massive walls and even enter the ancient water reservoir, which was later refurbished by the British. Today it’s dry and if you like to sing, it has superb acoustics!
The citadel is about a 15 minutes walk from the Old City and there are signs pointing towards it, so you won’t have a problem finding it. If you have a car, you can also park up there.
See the historical buildings.
Before entering the Old City of Safed, take a look at the buildings on the street above it, Jerusalem Street (רחוב ירושלים). The first historical building is Beit Busel, a complex originally built in 1904 as a hospital of the Church’s Ministry Among Jewish People. Today it is part of Safed’s Academic College. But it has a very long history. After being a hospital, it was a German military base during World War I, a Scottish college from 1921 to 1936, and even a recovery home for the Workers of the General Organization in Israel until 1984. The original complex had three buildings, but one was demolished by a contractor who didn’t understand the importance of conservation. Today, the two remaining buildings are under conservation work and maybe soon we will be able to have a closer look on them. Now (December 2018), they’re hidden behind construction walls.
Another building that you can see from Jerusalem Street is the Rothschild Hospital, which opened its doors in 1912. It is also part of Safed’s Academic College, which means you won’t be able to go inside, but you can take a look at its impressive façade.
Afterward you can keep walking another 500 meters or so along Jerusalem Street until you reach a large set of stairs leading down to the Old City, called Maalot Olei Hagardom (מעלות עולי הגרדום). At the top of those stairs, on Jerusalem Street, stands an old, narrow, brownish building, cramped between two newer buildings. This was a British guard station (Pillbox), that had a perfect view of Maalot Olei Hagardom, which was the street that divided between the Jewish Quarter and the Muslim Quarter during the British Mandate, until 1948. A huge spotlight illuminated the street at night and if someone tried to cross from one side to another after curfew hours, the British soldier on the pillbox would shoot him. Opposite the pillbox, on the other side of the street, is a monument for the Davidka, a mortar that was used by the Israeli forces during their battle on Safed in the Independence War.
Go up to Birya Fortress.
Although not exactly in the city of Safed, this place has some beautiful viewpoints and also an interesting historical story. The fortress was built on the 8th of January 1945 by the Palmach, the underground army of the Jewish community during the British Mandate. To be able to build it, they told the British that it was meant for civilian purposes, but the truth was Palmach’s main base in the Upper Galilee area. The Palmach came to this remote place for training and also turned Birya into one of the force’s biggest weapons cache. They were not allowed to carry weapons during the British Mandate. But the main story of this place is connected to February 1946, when the British find out that Birya was not an innocent civilian settlement. They found the caches and arrested all the people who lived there. A short time after their arrest, on the 14th of March 1946, around 3,000 young Jewish men and women made their way up to Birya and resettled. The next day, when only 150 of them were left to guard the place, the British came and evicted them forcefully. But the Jewish settlement didn’t give up and on the 17th of March, they resettled Birya for the last time. The British gave up and let them stay as a civilian settlement.
You can enter Birya Fortress every day between 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM. Sadly, there aren’t signs in English, but you can get the feel of the place and also climb up to the fortress’s tower for a nice view of the surroundings. Outside the fortress, there’s another viewpoint, which I personally like better.
You can reach Birya by taking bus number 20 from the main bus station to Machane Meishar Station (מחנה מישר) and then continuing by foot to the Birya Fortress. The ride costs about 5 ILS and is 20 minutes long. The bus leaves every 90 minutes.
There are many other things to see in the city and its surroundings, amongst them Safed Cemetery, some small museums, the Messiah Alleyway, and the Mamluk Khan, which is today Ruth Rimonim Hotel.
Looking for a good place to eat in Safed? I’d recommend Falafel Yitzhak (פלאפל יצחק) on Jerusalem Street, a bit farther on from the old Rothschild Hospital. Prices are great and food is great as well.
If you want to leave the boundaries of the city, an interesting place would be the Tomb of Simeon bar Yochai at the foot of Mount Meron, which you can see clearly from Safed. Simeon bar Yochai was an important Rabi who lived in the 2nd century and believed to be the one who wrote the Zohar, a foundational work in the literature of Jewish mystical. Some Jews visit his tomb to receive blessings, while others believe that it is a pagan practice as you cannot receive a blessing from a dead man. During the holiday of Lag Ba’Omer, thousands of people come to his tomb to celebrate his yahrzeit, the anniversary of death. Visiting the Tomb of Simeon bar Yochai is part of a much larger phenomenon of Jewish people who visit different tombs of righteous people throughout the Galilee. To reach the tomb, you can take bus number 361 from the central bus station to Meron1 Station. The ride costs about 5 ILS and takes around 25 minutes.
Have a great time in Safed and its surroundings!
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