By: Sara Schatz
Introduction: What Makes Tzfat So Different?
Since our nation’s inception, we’ve maintained a long and enduring connection to our homeland, Israel. In modern-day Israel, It’s still rather confusing how certain cities have become a haven for some Jews, despite their vague descriptions in the Torah. This is particularly the case in one of the most mysterious cities in Israel: Tzfat. There are few mentions of specific Israeli cities in the Humash, Hevron aside. Of course, once the Jews arrive in and settle Israel, city names abound. Some no longer exist, but some have become touchstones and symbols of Jewish life and Torah. But the word “Tzfat” (or “Tzfata”) is only mentioned twice in the Tanakh[i] as a city within Naftali’s colony. Since then, it has been proven that the Tzfat we know today is not the same as the one mentioned in Tanakh.[ii] In the Torah she-be’al peh, the only time Tzfat is mentioned is in the Talmud Yerushalmi[iii] with reference to the hilltops where the hakhamim lit fires to signify Rosh Hodesh. How has Tzfat gained such an outsized reputation of holiness despite having minimal mentions in the Tanach and Talmud?
Other than that, there are a few mentions of Tzfat here and there from Rabbi Elazar ha-Kalir, in two of his Tish’ah be-Av kinot[iv], which hints to some resettlement of the Levi’im who lived there following the destruction of the first beit ha-mikdash, as well as some recordings from the famed non-religious Jewish historian, Josephus.[v]
Tzfat became populated with figures who endowed it with mysticism around the time of the Crusades. Mekubalim (kabbalists) moved there due to its adjacency to Har Meron, home of the gravesite of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, author of the Zohar, the key kabbalistic text. Though we know of Tzfat as one of the “Four Holy Cities”, this is a relatively recent application, only coined in 1640 as part of a tzedaka movement.[vi]
Despite plague, earthquakes[vii], and frightening battles with their British and Arab enemies during the War of Independence[viii], the Tzfat population has remained steadfast in their unwavering faith towards their city. Since its Golden Age in the Middle Ages, Tzfat has become a leading municipality of tourism, artistry, and a plethora of mostly Hassidic Jews and Baalei Teshuva, all with dreams to ignite a renewed, raw link with God.[ix]
Even atheists and people from other faiths trek far and wide to visit this obscure settlement. In 2015, journalist Eric Weiner was astonished to note in a BBC News article[x] that “Tzfat is one of those places people visit for a few days, on a lark, and, next thing they know a lifetime has passed.” And prominently, renowned American pop artist Madonna put Tzfat in the papers when she visited the city in 2009[xi] to find oneness with God.
Why this city? Why is this mysterious apex in the middle of Northern Israel such an important landmark in our history; one that many treat at a holier level than Jerusalem, the place that held our former Temple? What is it about this mystical land that brings so many such revitalization?
A Substitute for Jerusalem
Northern Galilee, 1538: Rav Yaakov Beirav, already wise in both years and experience, steps down from his rabbinical position in Cairo in search for a community where he could feel belonging. Throughout his entire life, since being expelled from his home in Spain as a teenager, Rav Beirav had lived in constant flux. After stints in Fez, Damascus, and Jerusalem, he courageously left his comfort zone and made aliyah to a small and underpopulated mountaintop known as Tzfat. It was there where he made his mark in history; soon after his arrival, he reestablished the concept of semikhah in the Land of Israel.
Rav Beirav jump-started an era in Tzfat known as the “Golden Age”. His disciple, Rav Yosef Karo, gained inspiration to compose his famed Shulchan Aruch in Tzfat. Around that time, a man known by Rav Isaac Luria (also known as the Arizal) arrived to join the school of Rav Moshe Cordevero, popularizing the Zohar and replacing previous Maimondiac rationalist ideals with a more mystical, kabbalistic approach in Judaism. These risky readjustments in both halakhah and hashkafah marked intense transformations in the Jewish tradition.[xii]
For a generation that had very recently suffered the Spanish Expulsion, most of the Jewish community wanted a blissful life. Though Jerusalem was the go-to destination theologically, it faced difficult measures during this time; Jews there lived quite impoverished lifestyles in addition to persecution from there Muslim neighbors. Though Tzfat wasn’t much better economically, the religious zealotry and strength was a strong appeal to numerous Jews. [xiii]
Since the days of the Sephardim in 1492, Ashkenazic Hassidim set up camp to flee persecution from their Eastern European host countries beginning with the voyage of early hassidic leaders, Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk and Avraham of Kalisk, and their three-hundred followers, in 1777. They too entered this land with similar hopes and aspirations.[xiv]
But Is Tzfat Holy?
As stated in this introduction, Tzfat doesn’t have the most religious significance masoretically. However, people still often treat it on par with Jerusalem, which has been traditionally the holiest place in Israel.
Oftentimes, the people of Tzfat’s hippie-esque and out-of-the-box ways of connecting to God may often cause many sects of Judaism to feel uncomfortable. But there is something universal to say about the citizens of Tzfat that most can’t say about a community of Jews.
Tzfat’s history is uniquely amassed with legends that bring them pride and joy.[xv] Its old city abounds with Breslov hassidim dancing to the tune of “Rabi Nahman me-Uman,” while local citizens from vast ends of the earth are found a block away selling their expressions of Judaism through art and other commodities, both with the common goal to connect to their creator.[xvi] Tzfat’s current mayor, Ilan Shohat, refuses to accept a political position elsewhere, describing Tzfat as “a very special city in Israel, where everyone gets along and respects each other.”[xvii] As any city, it has its flaws; yet the rich passion and dedication embedded within it is something incomparable.
And in that sense, Tzfat is in fact one of the holiest places in Israel. Though conventionally the shekhinah might not have been dwelling on it from the times of our forefathers, it doesn’t matter. God created a home for us to sanctify; and it seems that specifically in Tzfat, they observe this to a tee. One can only imagine how much easier it is to have kavanah in tefillah and keep daily halakhah in sheer joy when there are others surrounding you doing the same thing. 19th-century German writer Johann Wolfgang Goethe was once attributed[xviii] to saying, “Energy is the basis of everything. Every Jew, no matter how insignificant, is engaged in some decisive and immediate pursuit of a goal… It is the most perpetual people of the earth…” Let us utilize the lesson of Tzfat to bring those passionate energies to our own communities. As we’ve seen from some tragic times in our history, it’s the refuge that truly seems to renew our nation’s continuity to (both physical and spiritual) greater heights.
Sara Schatz is a junior at Stern College and is double majoring in Jewish Education and Psychology.
[i] Shoftim 1:17 and Divrei HaYamim II 14:9
[ii] Early Safed History. (Zissil: Encyclopedia of Tzfat: 2015)
[iii] Rosh ha-Shanah 11a
[iv] “Eichah Yasheva” and “Zechor Eichah”
[v] Wars, 2:573
[vi] Only Jerusalem is mentioned in Tanakh as “holy”. Tiveria didn’t join as the fourth city till 100 years later.
[vii] Tzfat is one of the highest ancient cities in the world, which, according to the Geological Survey of Israel (GSI), is subject to numerous earthquakes. This has been a particular threat to Tzfat for years, specifically in 1769 when earthquake and plague (which were also unfortunately plentiful at numerous times) resulted in only seven surviving families, and in 1837, when 4000 people were brutally destroyed.
[viii] Tzfat is famed for being the site where Jewish soldiers used an ineffective artillery piece known as the “davidka”, whose unique and booming noise scared away Arab civilians. For more information on Tzfat’s rich and miraculous history, visit safed.co.il.
[ix] Safed. (Safed.co.il: 2018)
[x] Weiner, “A City That Will Teach You to Be At Peace” (BBC: October 2015)
[xi] Ashkenazi, “Mystical Madonna Visits Safed Tomb of Kabbalistic Great” (Haaretz: September 2009)
[xii] Mindel, Nissan. Rabbi Jacob Berab. (chabad.org: 2018)
[xiii] Rabbi Beirav and His Legacy. (Safed.co.il: 2018)
[xiv] Ottoman Rule of Safed: 1760-1918. (Zissil: Encyclopedia of Tzfat: 2015)
[xv] Legends of Tzfat. (Safed.co.il: 2018)
[xvi]Hassidic Messianic Beliefs. (Safed.co.il: 2018)
[xvii] Ilan Shohat: The Mayor. (Safed.co.il: 2018)
[xviii] Though he is credited for saying this, it is unclear whether he actually stated it or not. However, we do know based off of his numerous poems and plays involving Israel that he was a major fan of Jewish culture.