Oryana Angel joins Hollywood pilgrims and scholars in the holy town where Kabbalah began.
It is often said that Kabbalah should be studied only by men over the age of 40 who have had a child. If more of Zefat’s residents abided by this Jewish commandment, the mountainside town in the north of Israel would not be nearly as interesting. Virtually the entire population is connected to the study of mysticism and Kabbalah.
It’s Friday night and I’m wandering around Zefat before the Shabbat begins. One lonely car slides down an otherwise empty main road to a barrage of abuse from residents, most of whom abstain from driving on the day of rest.
Meanwhile, in the Old City the ancient cobblestone streets of the Synagogue Quarter are alive with activity: eyes downcast, groups of yeshiva students clad in black robes and hats hurry to worship; rabbis with curling payot (sideburns) stride purposefully alongside their modestly dressed wives, ahead of clusters of children wearing their festive best.
Zefat (also spelled Safed, Szfat, Tzfat and Sfat) is considered the birthplace of Kabbalah and, after Jerusalem, is regarded as Israel’s holiest town. Situated in the Upper Galilee, it has been home to some of Kabbalah’s greatest mystics during the past 2000 years.
Kabbalah is the study of the mystical aspects of Judaism. And according to rabbis in Zefat, Kabbalah is to the Torah (Jewish bible) what philosophy is to science; in other words, it is the study of the hidden and the spiritual aspects of God’s commandments.
The most famous Kabbalist to have a strong connection with Zefat was Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, who wrote the Zohar, considered the chief work of Kabbalah. During the second century he spent 13 years living and studying in a cave near Zefat with a group of his students.
Fast-forward 1400 years and other great Kabbalists who lived here include Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, known as “The Ramak”, and Rabbi Yitzhak Luria Ashkenazi (“The Holy Ari”), who founded a new school of Kabbalistic thought called the “System of the Ari” or “Lurianic Kabbalah”, which is followed by millions of Hassidic Jews today. And with the Kabbalists have come generations of pilgrims. Even the most famous Hollywood Kabbalists – Madonna, Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore – have travelled to this small town of about 35,000 people.
Nearly every antediluvian synagogue, hidden spring and overturned stone you stumble on in Zefat is believed to have been the site of a miracle. One of these so-called wonders is the legend of the “fertility chair”. In a corner of the ornate Ha Ari Synagogue is a wide, tattered chair. Originally used for circumcising babies, it has became famous for blessing women who sit in it with miraculous pregnancy, specifically a son within the year.
Rumour has it that the charming Abuhav Synagogue nearby was built in Spain and tele-transported to Zefat one night; sceptics believe it was built by followers of Rabbi Yitzhak Abuhav in the 1490s. Whatever the case, the synagogue is designed according to a Kabbalah-based plan. It’s fascinating to hear the story behind every detail in the room: the predominant colour is blue, suggesting a link to the heavens; a courtyard creates a separation between the inner and outer gates, allowing worshippers to compose themselves and enter the synagogue in an appropriate frame of mind; and four central pillars represent the elements of creation (earth, fire, water, air).
There are plenty of other impressive synagogues but if you’re pressed for time, the other one worth seeing is the Karo Synagogue. Rabbi Yosef Karo, another great Kabbalist who lived in Zefat, is most famous for writing the Shulhan Aruch, a detailed blueprint of Jewish law. The synagogue was built in the 16th century as a place of study; it was later rebuilt after an earthquake in 1759. Many of the books lining the back wall date from Rabbi Karo’s days.
It’s worth getting a tour guide to lead you through the Synagogue Quarter at least, so intriguing is its history. The International Centre for Tzfat Kabbalah, an educational outpost overseen by a Jewish group in Florida, runs Kabbalah tours led by expert local guides.
Most of modern Zefat is a ghost town on Shabbat, so if you’re not praying, head to the Artist Quarter. Zefat is set on a series of mountaintops, so navigation can be confusing. The best way to find the Artist Quarter is by locating a broad stairway that runs almost the length of the Old City (called Ma’alot Olei HaGardom). Once you’re on the southern side of this landmark, you’re officially in the Artist Quarter. Anyway, you’ll know you’ve reached it by the abundance of galleries and artwork displayed in the streets. Formerly the Muslim Quarter, many Arab mosques have been converted to galleries and studio spaces. Much like a hillside Italian village, alleyways join narrow streets, boxes of vibrant red flowers contrast with ancient stone, colourful doors invite passers-by into spacious galleries – and just when you think you’re totally lost in the maze, you stumble on a plaza flooded with sunshine.
Being Zefat, most of the artwork has Kabbalistic significance. My favourite gallery belongs to Avraham Loewenthal; the former American artist creates classical Kabbalah designs with Hebrew letters and images. Like many of the resident artists here, he is happy to talk about the complex meaning behind each work. Nearby is an artist with the look of the Grateful Dead, who creates his own style of trippy cosmic Kabbalah art, incorporating bubbles and lots of layers. And all around are hole-in-the-wall galleries selling everything from menorahs to mezuzahs, hats to handmade textiles. Zefat is famous for its unique Kabbalah jewellery, which often incorporates symbols such as the six-pointed, three-dimensional star called the merkavah.
Like many places in Israel, you can follow in the footsteps of biblical heavyweights. In Jerusalem’s Old City, I was amazed to stumble on the house where the Virgin Mary was born. In Zefat there is a cave where Noah’s son (Shem) and grandson (Ever) supposedly studied.
Further down the mountainside is the Ari Mikveh – a mikveh is a place where people immerse themselves in water for spiritual purification. This natural spring hosts thousands of pilgrims each year. Fridays are the most popular time for men, who will be dunking in preparation for the Shabbat. They won’t be impressed to see women, though.
For more than two centuries the western slope of Zefat has served as the town’s cemetery. The number of graves here is unknown because documents vanished about 70 years ago and earthquakes and landslides over the years added to the confusion. But the graves of some of the most important figures in Jewish history can still be distinguished, such as the great third-century scholar Rabbi Pinchas and the Holy Ari, Rabbi Yosef Karo.
Since most of the people who live here are kosher, following strict dietary rules including the complete separation of milk and meat, you can safely assume most of Zefat’s restaurants are kosher. Simple meals are the best; my choice is shawarma (shaved meat in pita) and falafel.
In the 16th century, one of Rabbi Karo’s students wrote: “Zefat was the ideal place for attaining the deepest secrets of the Torah and its foundations, because there is no cleaner or purer air in all of the land of Israel.” It’s Israel’s highest town, perched on a huddle of hilltops 8000 metres above sea level. At this height, you cannot help feeling closer to the heavens, and wandering in the ancient synagogues and through the winding streets it’s hard not to feel the spiritual aura of generations of mystics and the devout.
Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport is the main gateway into Israel. El Al has a fare for $1768 – fly with Qantas or partner airlines to Bangkok or Hong Kong and then with El Al non-stop to Tel Aviv. Royal Jordanian Airlines has a fare for $1540 where you fly with Qantas, BA or Cathay Pacific to Bangkok or Hong Kong and then with RJ, with an aircraft change in Amman. (All fares are low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney and do not include tax.) Australians require a visa for a stay of up to 90 days, which is issued upon arrival at Tel Aviv airport. The best way to reach Zefat is by car from Ben Gurion Airport (which is roughly halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem); this takes 2 1/2 to 3 hours.
There is a good choice of hotels and hostels. Among my favourites are Ruth Rimonim Hotel in the Artist Quarter, built in the ruins of a palace belonging to a 17th-century Turkish khan (see http://www.rimonim.com) and Ascent of Safed, a hostel with Kabbalah courses (see www.ascentofsafed.com).