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As the road winds its way round and up the steep hill towards Safed, you catch glimpses of Lake Kinneret disappearing into the distance on one side and hillsides spreading out before you on the other. Then you cross a bridge that spans a deep chasm below and there, still further above, lies the magic and mystery that is Safed.
It's almost impossible to think of the place as just another town. Even in the bright glare of daylight, a special aura engulfs it. You can wander along the new pedestrian mall, buy jeans, check your e-mail, sip Coke and munch pizza knowing that just a few meters down the stairs (stairs are an unavoidable part of life in Safed) lie our most illustrious kabbalistic rabbis - and not just their remains. Even before visitors reach the ancient cemetery, they pass synagogues named in the rabbis' honor, rebuilt on the spot where the sages themselves prayed, studied and compiled some of Judaism's sacred books and composed songs still sung today.
The glory of 16th-century Safed, brought about by the influx of Jews expelled from Spain during the Inquisition, has been incorporated into everyday life. The Holy Ari (Rabbi Yitzhak Luria Ashkenazi) - the leading figure in Kabbala and Jewish mysticism - is commemorated daily. Some men use the Ari mikve (ritual bath) every day even though, unlike other modern mikvaot, it remains as it was in the Ari's time - filled with cold, sometimes freezing, water. Two synagogues (one Ashkenazi and one Sephardi) named after the rabbi are also in regular use.
Many other synagogues and streets in the Old Jewish Quarter are named for other prominent rabbis. You can visit the room where Rabbi Yosef Karo compiled the Shulchan Aruch, the main halachic guide to everyday performance of the mitzvot. In the Abuhav Synagogue you'll see the special Torah scroll that is believed to have been brought over from Toledo, Spain, by Abuhav's pupil Rabbi Yaakov Beirav. The scroll is only used on Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Shavuot, and legend has it that no one who has removed it from the ark at any other time has lived out the year. During the earthquake of 1837, when most of ancient Safed was reduced to rubble, the only part of the synagogue left standing was the holy ark housing the Torah.
But Safed's attraction extends beyond the religious and spiritual. It is also a haven for those of artistic inclinations. It's not hard to understand why. You can wander around the picturesque alleyways - lined with murals and painted doorways - and glance into the charming courtyards of the Artists' Quarter, full of paintings and sculptures, as well as hand-made Judaica, while the rolling Galilean hills are always visible in the distance. Some of the artists are religious, but many are not - they are, however, inspired by the incredible beauty of their surroundings and the spiritual atmosphere they breathe in from the neighboring quarter, with its magnificently decorated synagogues.
But for a real taste of the beauty of Safed, where the original Kabbalat Shabbat service was composed, you should be there on Friday evening as Shabbat is welcomed. Over 500 years ago, the Ari used to go to the city's outermost limits (to the place where the Ashkenazi Ari shul is now situated), dressed completely in white, and "greet" the sabbath in song and dance. One of the songs he sang is still sung today: "Lecha Dodi," composed by the Ari's contemporary, Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz. An aura of joy and holiness emanates from every corner of the Jewish Quarter as throngs of people in their best Shabbat clothes fill the ancient synagogues and singing and prayers can be heard from all around.
At sunset, as you look out of the synagogue's arched windows, the sun disappears behind Mount Meron and the sky turns from pale blue to pink, then to red, then to the deep purple of Kiddush wine before finally settling into a velvety black backdrop for the sounds of the Shabbat evening service.
If you stumble across a crowd outside a shul too small to contain the throngs who have come to pray, you're probably outside the Beirav Synagogue. It was built in memory of Abuhav's pupil Beirav, who tried to reinstate rabbinical ordination in Safed. After the destruction of the Second Temple and the Babylonian exile, the Sanhedrin - which used to ordain rabbis it found knowledgeable enough to be judges - ceased to exist, and so did ordination. Beirav tried to reinstate this in Safed with the Torah leaders of his generation, but after consultation with the rabbis of Jerusalem decided against it. Beirav's shul was "adopted" by the immigrant Anglo community of Safed, whose members started a Shlomo Carlebach-style minyan. The enormous number of participants in their Friday night service indicates how popular this synagogue has become.
Safed is also famed for its annual three-day Klezmer Festival, which this year wrapped up in early August. Festivities get going in the evening, around 8 p.m., and from every nook and cranny of the old city and new you'll hear the sound of the klezmer beat. All night long, individual performers, groups and musical families take their turns on different stages, in courtyards, in the city's parks and on the long stairways and main squares of the Jewish Quarter. Most performances are outdoors and, therefore, free to everyone, but a few are held indoors, meaning tickets have to be purchased.
Restaurants and cafÃ©s stay open through the night, and the tempting aromas of multicultural delicacies wafts from the makeshift food stands that operate along the pathways.
The Beirav Synagogue holds special Shaharit (morning) services during the festival. A tip for anyone who intends to attend next year's festival: if you want to get a parking spot in town, you'll have to arrive early in the day. Entrance to Safed is closed to private vehicles from 3 p.m. Cars are diverted to large parking lots outside town and a bus shuttle service is available in and out of Safed all night, as the city overflows with visitors and buzzes and throbs to the old-world beat.
For further information about the Klezmer Festival, visit www.tzfat.bravehost.com, and for more general information about Safed visit www.tzfat..bravehost.com/Touristinfo. When in Safed, go to the Information Center on Alkabetz Street in the Jewish Quarter and pick up a full program of the Klezmer Festival, as well as maps and leaflets, and see a short film of Safed's history.