The ancient synagogues of Safed encompass Tzfat history, and some of the most famous of them are outlined below. All the synagogues we describe here are located in the Old Jewish Quarter of Tzfat and are fully-functioning synagogues complete with regular prayer times. Taking a walk through the ancient Tzfat synagogues is like taking a walk back in time, and should be a part of any Jewish heritage tour.
The Abuhav Synagogue
Rabbi Yitzchock Abuhav was a Spanish Rabbi whose loyal students immigrated to Tzfat in the 15th century, upon the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. One version of the Abuhav legend claims Rabbi Abuhav constructed his synagogue in Spain before his students mystically moved it to Tzfat upon coming to Israel. Another version claims that Rabbi Abuhav designed the synagogue in Spain and his followers built it upon arriving in Israel. Rabbi Abuhav hand-wrote a Torah scroll which is still used on special occasions. The synagogue was originally located near the ARI Sepharadi synagogue where it was destroyed in the 1759 earthquake. Survivors moved the location higher up on the mountain, however some maintain that had always been its location. Despite another earthquake and a close brush with damage during the Second Lebanon war, Abuhav’s scroll remains in-tact.
Among the oldest Shuls in Tzfat, the Alsheich Synagogue was the only one saved from destruction during the earthquakes of 1759 and1837. Its construction was led by Rabbi Moshe Alshich and his congregation of Turkish immigrants. For higher level of purity, this Beit Knesset was built without a women’s section or restrooms. Some say these efforts saved it from destruction during the earthquakes.
The ARI Ashkanazi Shul/Synagogue
Located along the Ma’alot Gur Aryeh stairway that descends from the main public square of Tzfat’s Old City, “Kikar HaMeginim — Defender’s Square,” the ARI Ashkanazi synagogue was originally called the “Grigoros Synagogue.” It was established by Sepharadi Jews who arrived in Tzfat from the Greek island of Grigoros upon escape from the Spanish Inquisition. Rabbi Isaac Luria, the great Kabbalist known as The ARI, developed the tradition of “Kabbalat Shabbat” in Tzfat. Luri would welcome the Sabbath by singing and dancing with students in the field next to the Grigoros shul. After The ARI died, the synagogue was renamed “ARI Ashkanazi” in honor of The ARIZ’L.
The ARI Sepharadi Shul
The ARI Sepharadi is the oldest standing synagogue in Safed, although it was rebuilt after both the 1759 and 1837 earthquakes. It is perched on the road above the ancient Safed cemetery and overlooks the cemetery and surrounding valley. This synagogue was called the “Eliyahu Hanavi” (Elijah the Prophet) shul when the ARI came to live in Tzfat in the 16th century. The ARI prayed and studied in the synagogue, sitting with Elijah the Prophet in a small room within the synagogue as he expanded on the existing knowledge of Kabbalah through Divine Inspiration. After the ARI’s passing Tzfat residents renamed the synagogue “ARI Sepharadi.”
The Yosef Karo Shul
YosefKaroSynagogue can be found in the location of the former Tzfas Beit Din where Rabbi Yosef Karo served as Av Beis Din. Rabbi Yosef Caro came to Tzfat in the early 1500’s from Turkey, after his family escaped the Spanish Inquisition. He authored the Shulhan Aruch and the Beit Yosef, and at least some of his writing was completed in a room underneath the Karo Synagogue. Destroyed by the earthquake in 1837, the Karo Shul was rebuilt by an Italian philanthropist by the name of Isaac Guetta. Today, it contains a number of old Sefri Torah and a ‘Geniza’ section of important ancient manuscripts.
The Avritch Synagogue
Close to the northern perimeter of the Old Jewish Quarter, the Avritch Synagogue is also called the “Bat Ayin” shul. Rabbi Dov who immigrated from Avritch, Ukraine, led his Hassidic followers in this synagogue. During prayers one morning in1837, Rabbi Dov spontaneously called his followers to stand with him at the front wall. As the men rushed to their rabbi, a strong earthquake struck. Nearly 1/4 of the city’s citizens perished, yet the men at the Avritch Synagogue survived.
Rabbi Ya’akov Beirav lived in Tzfat in the 16th century. Best-known for his attempts to re-establish the Sanhedrin, the Jewish court of the Temple era to accept Jews who had converted to Christianity under the Spanish Inquisition, Rabbi Beirav believed that a Sanhedrin would provide the authority to convince the Jewish leadership to welcome these Jews back to Judaism. Those who fled the inquisition made their way to Jewish communities where they tried to return to their ancestors’ faith. A majority of Jewish leaders refused to accept the returnees, arguing that their Christian conversion excluded them returning to their Jewish faith. While Rabbi Beirav failed in his efforts to establish the Sanhedrin, together with Rabbi Moshe Alsheich, also of Safed, the accepting of returnees to the Jewish community prevailed.
The Banai synagogue
Located at the base of the Old Jewish Quarter, the Banai Synagogue is home to the grave of the 3rd century sage, Yossi Banai. The synagogue has also come to be known as the “Tzadik HaLavan.” It’s the result of a miracle that was apparently performed in the name of Rabbi Yosef Banai. During Turkish rule, the local Turkish ruler mandated that if the Jews did not bring enough white chickens, they would be forced to pay a hefty fine. The impoverished community prayed at R’ Banai and Rabbi Yossi Saragosi gravesites. When the community awoke the next day, all their chickens had miraculously turned white.
A walk through Tzfat’s ancient synagogues is a vital part of Jewish heritage tours in Israel. This kind of journey is a special and historical one that would make a welcome addition to the understanding of ancient Jewish history. Each synagogue holds it’s own place in history and is worth exploring to learn more about the faith and history of the Jewish culture.
David Ben-Sira knows every trail and every stone in Israel. A passionate traveller, full time tour guide at Kenes Tours and part time history teacher. Favorite hero – Indiana Jones.