The Israeli city of Tzfat (Safed in English), located in the northern part of Israel, holds a special place in Jewish history. Tzfat’s unique importance for the Jewish people grew out of a brief period lasting less than a century long. During this time, the city enjoyed a veritable explosion of religious energy and creativity, leaving an indelible mark on Judaism throughout the world.
From Ancient History to the 16th century
Tzfat existed as a small townlet from 930 BCE-586 BCE, also known in history as the First and Second Temple Periods. Tzfat was also a town of Jewish priests during the time of the “Mishnah” and “Talmud” from 70-200 CE. Tzfat, however, did not achieve a level of pre-eminence until the Crusaders conquered the land of Israel in the 11th-12th centuries CE. The Crusaders established castles and fortresses throughout the country, both to protect against military attack, and to establish internal security and encourage trade and agriculture in important areas. One of the places where the Crusaders decided to establish a fortress was Tzfat. This city provided the Crusaders with an important position of control over the Huleh and Kinneret regions of northern Israel.
The establishment of the Crusader’s fortress near the town of Tzfat helped Tzfat’s sizable Jewish community flourish. The presence of a prominent Jewish community within the city during the 12th-15th centuries CE led to the establishment of a large institute for Jewish learning, known in Hebrew as a “yeshiva”.
The Golden Era of Tzfat
Tzfat reached its true peek in Jewish history in the 16th century. This achievement was due to a combination of factors, the first of which being The arrival of Jews who had recently been expelled from Spain and Portugal made an important contribution to the culture and learning that took place in Tzfat. These Jews arrived with a wealth of knowledge and resources that helped the city reach a true Golden. Another main factor that contributed to the city’s successes was the Ottoman conquest of the land of Israel in 1517. As a result, 16th century Tzfat experienced critical developments in the field of Jewish religious law, as well as the establishment of one of the most important schools for Jewish mysticism or in Hebrew, “Kabbalah”.
However it is important to note that Tzfat flourished primarily due to trade – specifically between the city of Damascus, located in Syria, but also between Tzfat and other nearby countries. The most important and influential trading material was wool. To their good fortune, Spanish Jews brought with them wool-making skills which greatly helpled improve the city’s economic welfare, especially within Tzfat’s Jewish community. Many of the great sages who resided in Tzfat at the time made their living from trade and manufacture. Additionally, the first printing press in the Middle East was brought to Tzfat.
Influential Jewish Figures in Tzfat in the 16th century
Rabbi Joseph Karo (1488-1575) – known in Hebrew as both “Maran”, meaning our teacher, and “Hamechaber” meaning the author. Rav Karo wrote a definitive commentary called the “Beit Yosef”, or House of Joseph, on a previous code of religious law entitled the “Arba Turim”, or four columns which was originally written by Rav Yaakov son of Rav Asher. Eventually, R. Karo condensed his commentary into a definitive code of religious law called the “Shulchan Aruch”, or set table. This code was widely and swiftly accepted throughout the Spanish Jewish communities.
Unlike in the Spanish Jewish communities and among religious authorities, the “Shulchan Aruch” was not originally accepted by the Jews of Northern and Eastern Europe. It was only after Rabbi Moses Isserlis of Poland (1520-1572) added a commentary to the “Shulchan Aruch” that incorporated the views of Northern and Eastern European Jewish religious authorities, did the “Shulchan Aruch” gain authoritative acceptability of all Jews.
Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572) – also known as “Ha’Ari Hakadosh”, or the Holy Ari (Ari being an abbreviation of Rav Luria’s name and titles). The Ari’s primary contribution was the development of a unique and highly influential Jewish mystical doctrine and the creation of the most influential schools of “Kabbalah” in the Jewish world.
According to the Ari, and in contrast with previous Jewish mystics, the world was not solely created as a direct outcome of God’s infinite light, but rather as a combined effort of creation and God’s withdrawal from the world (known as “tzimtzum” or minimizing). This withdrawal of God’s light was done in order to allow the world space to develop and exist. However, God’s withdrawal also left damaged elements (“broken vessels”) in its wake, which are responsible for the evil and chaos within the world. The philosophy propounds that it is incumbent upon human beings to help repair these broken vessels through self-perfection, good deeds, and mystical introspection.
Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz (1505-1584) – was a “Kabbalist” (Jewish mystic) and a renowned Jewish poet. Alkabet’s poem, “Come My Beloved”, was written to honor the holy day of rest which occurs every Friday sundown to Saturday sundown, known to the Jewish people as “Shabbat”. Alkabet’s poem welcomes in the “Shabbat” as a metaphorical bride. This poem has now been universally adopted by Jewish communities, and it is sung to a variety of tunes on Friday nights in synagogues today throughout the world.
Rabbi Israel Najara (1555-1628) – is another highly influential Jewish poet. Rav Najara’s Jewish poetry includes a unique combination of holiness, mysticism and secular life which allowed his songs to penetrate Jewish communities all over the world. Another important element in Rav Najara’s work was his fusion of Jewish folk tunes with religious poetry. This provided less educated Jews the opportunity to encounter higher level of religious rhetoric and thought in an accessible way.
From the 17th century until today
Towards the end of the 16th century The Golden Age of Tzfat came to a swift conclusion. Although the Jewish community has continued to experience ups and downs, it never again achieved the level of greatness and religious creativity that it saw in the 16th century. Today, Tzfat is a city that lives off of its past, as it remains a mystical place, still imbued with the energies that pervaded it during its time of glory.