So many synagogues – Safed

Today, Safed’s synagogues fall into three categories: old, hassidic, and more modern.

So many synagogues –  Safed (photo credit: JACOB SOLOMON)
So many synagogues – Safed
(photo credit: JACOB SOLOMON)
Situated high in the Upper Galilee, Safed’s cool, clear mountain air and forested surroundings create the environment that has been attracting generations of individuals seeking intimate connections with the Divine. Safed’s spiritual space for the beautiful-but-intangible is expressed in the mystical atmosphere of the Old City, its long-established community of artists, and – for a city of 36,000 residents – an enticing variety of synagogues, each in its own way offering a spiritual experience. Indeed, the Ari, Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572), the father figure of contemporary Kabbalah and resident of Safed, declared that the Divine Presence continues to be at its most intense in Safed until the Messianic Age and the rebuilding of the Temple.
Around the period of worsening conditions and expulsion of the Jews of Spain after 1492, many learned and spiritually sensitive Jews found the mystical environment of Safed very much to their liking, as well as its closeness to the grave of R. Shimon bar Yochai of the Talmudic era who presented teachings that were to find their expression in the Zohar. These include Rabbi Joseph Caro (1488-1575), kabbalist and author of the Shulhan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law), standard on bookshelves in Jewish homes today; Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz (1500-1576), whose practice of going out into the fields to welcome the Sabbath finds its spirit in his composition of “Lecha Dodi” of Friday-night services; and renowned mystic and Torah commentator Rabbi Moshe Alshich (1508-1593), whose homiletic commentaries on the Torah continue to be studied today for kabbalistic insights and practical exhortations to virtuous life.
Many worshipers come to Safed as a part of their personal journeys toward connecting with the Creator. It follows that choice of synagogue is essentially which one best fits the individual’s quest for spirituality and prayer, a serious matter. (The same applies to the numerous Kabbalah programs on offer in the locality.)
The Rabbi Joseph Caro Synagogue has been rebuilt on the original site following the 1837 earthquake, and still contains a 500-year old Torah scroll from Spain. Its many visitors include people in distress who come to pray, and stories of Divine intervention are plenty. For example, a century ago the father of a desperately poor family placed a jar of oil in the cellar beneath the synagogue. Whatever oil he took from the jar was mysteriously replenished the next day. This small beautiful synagogue, open to visitors, holds Sephardi-rite services on Shabbat only.
NEARBY, THE beautifully maintained Abohav Synagogue breathes symbolism in the artwork and color scheme. In daily use in the Sephardi style, it is at its best during the Slihot prayers before Yom Kippur. It is distinguished by its three arks. It is said that the plain one on the left once contained the Turkish-mandated Koran that was required at every non-Islamic place of worship, though it is now used as depository for holy volumes beyond repair.
The middle one has the Torah scrolls for regular Shabbat and weekday use.
The ornate ark on the right is opened on three occasions only: Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It houses the Torah scroll that was personally written by Rabbi Isaac Abohav of Spain, a Talmudist whose writings conveyed its teachings and spiritual values to the learned and less-learned alike. Possibly the oldest complete Torah scroll in existence, it is not to be taken out of the ark at any other time. When it was removed from the ark after the 1759 earthquake, all 10 people involved reportedly died with one year.
Near to that is Rabbi Moshe Alshich’s place of prayer. The Alshich Synagogue is the second-oldest synagogue in Safed, and survived the earthquakes of 1759 and 1837. It is closed to visitors following recent thefts of valuable artifacts, though you may be able to glimpse the proceedings on Shabbat morning. Both the Alshich and the Torah scrolls of the Abohav synagogues also survived a Katyusha rocket that exploded in between them during the Second Lebanon War in 2006.
There is no shortage of stories about Safed’s synagogues. The Banai Synagogue, named after the Talmudic sage Rabbi Yossi Bannai, was renamed the Tzadik HaLavan, the White Sage. Long after his death, “the miracle of the white chickens” was attributed to his merits. The local Ottoman governor had demanded that the Jews of Safed bring him several hundred white chickens within three days, “or else.”
Almost no chickens were found, and they were all multicolored. The Jews prayed and fasted for three days, and on third night, it is said, one of the residents who was asleep in the synagogue met Rabbi Yossi Saragosi, the former rabbi of Safed, in a dream. He advised him to immediately tell the community to bring the chickens to his grave. By the next morning, all the chickens turned white. On seeing this miracle, the Turkish governor was duly impressed and relaxed his harsh rule.
ANOTHER STORY tells of a time during morning prayers at the Avritch Synagogue – whose community transferred from Ukraine to Safed – when Rabbi Dov of Avritch, their spiritual leader suddenly stopped the service and ordered his followers to move next to him by the front wall. As they stood there, the 1837 earthquake struck the town and killed a quarter of the population, but all those at the synagogue survived.
Today, Safed’s synagogues fall into three categories: old, hassidic, and more modern, though there can be some overlap.
The old ones include the Abohav, Alshich, Caro, Banai, and Avritch (more recently turned Sephardi) synagogues already discussed. In addition, be sure to visit the Ari Ashkenazi and the Ari Sephardi synagogues. The latter has regular services on Shabbat and Festivals only. There is a small alcove in the eastern wall, the spot where tradition holds that the Ari would study and the Prophet Elijah would appear before him.
Hassidic communities have grown fast in recent years. The Breslov Synagogue is the largest in Safed. Beautifully maintained, its handcrafted gold-colored ark perfectly complements the sky-blue-and-white-clouds ceiling to inspire the feeling of praying outdoors in the solitude of the natural environment.
Go on Friday night for the singing or Shabbat morning for kiddush and story-telling sessions. Try the Kosov Synagogue for Friday-night services, including enthusiastic dancing. It is run by Biala Hassidim. For the late risers, there is the Tzemah Tzedek Chabad Synagogue, with Torah study sessions throughout the day. If relaxing and enjoying the service is your thing, visit the recently-renovated Sanz Synagogue. And for a more Sephardi flavor, there is the Vishnitz-Tunis Synagogue, which changed hands from the Vishnitz Hassidim to the community with roots in Tunisia.
Moving to the more modern environment, the atmosphere in the Noam Synagogue is particularly warm. It attracts congregants from all backgrounds and traditions, spanning from hassidic to newly religious and not-yet religious. In addition, the highly popular spiritual approach of the “singing rabbi,” Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (1925-1994), has found its own niche in Safed, initially in the Beirav Synagogue (Shabbat and Festivals only), the oldest one in the city.
The Carlebach-inspired way has grown in popularity since Carlebach’s death. It presents Torah teachings with stories and innovative music, to reach out to Jews of all kinds including the disenchanted and those far away from their roots. And in Safed, it finds its expression in being combined with the deeply spiritual nature of the town. Visit also The First House of Love and Prayer, a development of the Beirav congregation, which runs its services and all-inclusive activities designed to enable Jews of all ages and backgrounds to feel at home within their people.
Anytime is good to visit Safed’s synagogues and associated activities. Shabbat is particularly recommended, but weekdays are also good, particularly close to sundown, when afternoon and evening services go into in full swing.