Two thousand years ago, when the Roman army occupied the Land of Israel (then called by its Roman name, “Palestine”), one of the leading Rabbis who spoke out against the Roman rule was Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.
Not surprisingly, the Romans issued a death decree against the Rabbi, and together with his son, Rabbi Elazar, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai fled to a cave near the northern town of Peki’in to hide.
Safed is the highest city in Israel, some 900 meters (3,200 feet), above sea level. The smell of jasmine greets visitors as they walk through the Old City, home to neatly kept alleys and uneven small steps. Winding from a cemetery at the bottom, bumpy, narrow cobblestone streets clamber up and lead to peach-colored stone houses and the ancient city center.
Doors on these homes are blue, associated in kabbalah with the sky and the idea of bringing heaven down to earth. Virtually every stone here has a spiritual meaning, like the blue-painted tomb of the “Holy Ari”, one of kabbalah’s greatest practitioners, or the Jewish ritual bath said to have healing powers for the body and soul.
All of these sites are must-sees for kabbalah lovers.
“Kabbalah has been here for thousands of years,” said Rabbi Eyal Riess, director of the Tzfat Kabbalah Center, which offers courses, workshops and other activities (Tzfat is another spelling of Safed). “Kabbalah reveals the code of creation … Everything is like a body and soul.”
The word kabbalah comes from the Hebrew word lekabel, which means to receive. According to tradition, kabbalah was given by God to the ancient Israelites on Mount Sinai along with the Old Testament.
Kabbalah’s teachings help lead a more spiritual and meaningful existence and offer tools for a better life, Riess says.
One of the main principles of kabbalah is the sephirot or enumerations, the 10 attributes of God as he descends into the physical world and influences it.
Riess says the center receives about 50,000 people a year. Some are religious, some have no spiritual affiliation and more than 60 per cent of them, he adds, are foreigners.
Walking through Safed, it is easy to explore the origins of Jewish mysticism and learn about the sages who moved here 500 years ago. Their teachings still form the basis of kabbalah philosophy today.
In the early 16th century, some of the Jews who were expelled from Spain by the Inquisition found a new life in Safed. Soon enough the town became a magnet for kabbalist sages like Rabbi Isaac Luria, Rabbi Chaim Vital, Rabbi Moshe Cordovero and Rabbi Eliahu de Vidas.
Rabbi Isaac Luria, known as the Ari, or lion, lived in Safed in the 16th century and is one of the most important figures of kabbalah, a spiritual leader who brought new insights into the studying of Jewish mysticism.
Centuries have passed since his death, but hundreds of thousands still flock every year to pray at the Ari’s gravesite, which is placed on a special platform that makes it stands out among all others in a peaceful slope at the bottom of the Old City.
From the top, the Old City offers an impressive bird’s eye view of the ancient cemetery and the landscape surrounding it, from Mount Hermon on the nearby Golan Heights to the Sea of Galilee.