Synagogues of Safed

The town’s mystical shuls were built following the 1492 expulsion from Spain.

The Ari Ashkenazi shul  (photo credit: MIRIAM KRESH)
The Ari Ashkenazi shul
(photo credit: MIRIAM KRESH)
Safed’s beautiful old synagogues have survived earthquakes, riots and mortar fire – by miracles, say the townsfolk. They were built in the years following the Jews’ expulsion from Spain, when surviving communities settled in the peaceful hilltop town. Legends cling to the very stones of the medieval structures in a town where mysticism runs like spring water.
Among Safed’s ancient synagogues is the Yosef Caro, named after the sage who supervised a rabbinical court on the premises in the 15th century. Rabbi Caro was one of a family who fled to Turkey during the Spanish Inquisition.
A great Torah scholar, he settled in Safed to deepen his studies in Kabbala. His great work on halacha, the Shulhan Aruch, was written in Safed. Legend has it that a maggid, or angelic teacher, would meet with Caro every night in an underground room. Man and angel studied mystical texts aloud so that people in the building heard voices coming out of the walls at night. Visitors may view the room, which is around the corner from the synagogue.
The synagogue was partially destroyed in the mammoth earthquake of 1837. An Italian benefactor, Isaac Guetta, donated funds to rebuild it. According to another urban legend, Guetta set aside half the money for renovations and buried it under the synagogue’s floor to await the coming of the Messiah.
Things to notice in the Yosef Caro Synagogue are the floor tiles of imported Italian marble, placed so that no corner touches another. This was done so that none of the tiles would form a cross. In the Holy Ark are Persian Torah scrolls that date back 200 and 300 years, as well as one that traveled with refugees from Spain 500 years ago. The walls of the synagogue are lined with shelves containing books that also date back centuries. With its picturesque recessed seats that run around the interior, it’s worthwhile sitting down to rest, look out at the peaceful view and just contemplate for a while. The synagogue is located on Beit Yosef Street and is open for visitors every weekday. There are services on Shabbat.
The Ari Ashkenazi and Sephardi synagogues are both named after the 16th-century Kabbala master Rabbi Yitzhak Luria, known as the Ari. But they are located in different places and have different histories. The Ari Ashkenazi Synagogue can be approached by a stone stairway descending from Hameginim Square in the Old City or from Ari Street. It is said that the Ari and his students would stand in a field near the synagogue at sunset on Fridays to greet Shabbat with joy as a groom welcomes his bride. The caretaker will tell you miracle stories about the synagogue and solicits donations as well, all of which go to the upkeep of the place. One legend of note is attached to the wooden Eliyahu Hanavi fertility chair, where couples having trouble conceiving sit together and pray for a child. Spanish Jews who had fled to Greece built the synagogue some 50 years before the arrival of the Ari from Egypt. In the 18th century, hassidic Jews took over the semi-abandoned building. While today it serves Jews of all affiliations, its name still reflects its Ashkenazi past.
The Ari Sephardi Synagogue is even older, having been established in the 13th century. It is said that the Ari studied there with Elijah the Prophet.
The place is deemed so holy that there is no mezuza on the door frame as decreed by Safed’s rabbis. Italian benefactor Guetta funded the renovation of this building as well after the 1837 earthquake. The synagogue is located on Ari Street, above the cemetery.
A synagogue known only by word of mouth is the Nadvorna Rebbe’s Shul, which is a five-minute walk from Safed’s central bus station. It is an old-fashioned European shtiebel, established after World War II by the Rabbi Aaron Liefer, a scion of the hassidic Nadvorna dynasty. The current rabbi lives there as did his parents before him. A self-contained world, the complex has the family home, a synagogue, a mikve for men and rooms where visiting rabbis and friends stay, all built around a central courtyard.
You get the feeling that you’re standing in a pre-WWII shtiebel in Hungary or Romania. Indeed, the late Rabbi Leifer and his wife, who built it, were Holocaust survivors. The shul is famous for Kiddush after Shabbat services, when cholent is served to anyone who has prayed there or just walked in. It’s not uncommon to see scenes like a dusty backpacker with a borrowed kippa perched on his head sitting down and sharing a platter of hot, savory cholent with a famous rabbi enrobed in white brocade. The synagogue holds services every day.