Israel Sites – Tsfat – Safed

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Safed/Tsfat

Wandering through the lanes and alleyways of Tsfat today, you may be struck by the simple beauty of the place. It is this beauty which inspires the many artists who have settled here during the last decades and have turned Tsfat into a center of Israeli art. In every corner and on all sides you can see the galleries of the Tsfat artists. It is not hard to understand what draws them here. Beyond its beauty, the city holds a long and fascinating history, encompassing a wide variety of human activity.

But 400 years ago, Tsfat drew Jews of a very different kind, who came to find beauty of a different sort. For one moment – a brief generation – some of the greatest scholars, spiritual leaders and religious thinkers of the Jewish world, were drawn to this small Galilean village. The discussions which took place in the narrow streets, and the books written as a result, revolutionized the thinking of much of the Jewish world.

Why did they come here? To understand, we have to go back to Europe, specifically to distant Spain.

From the 11 – 15th centuries, the Jewish community in Spain was the premier Jewish community in the world. This was the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry. Poets and philosophers, writers and musicians, diplomats and statesmen, doctors and scientists, soldiers and engineers, emerged from this Jewry. This was the community which produced Maimonides, Judah Halevi, and Solomon Ibn Gavirol.

But as control gave way to Christian rule, the condition of the Jewish community changed dramatically. Finally, in the last decade of the 15th century, the condition of the great Spanish Jewish community became intolerable. Under pressure to convert or die, many fled Spain. In 1492, what remained of the community was suddenly expelled. Within four months, at least 150,000 people were forced to leave. The community vanished.

Most attracted to Israel were the Jews of a more spiritual inclination. During the last period in Spain, Jewish mysticism had flourished, as many Jews found a refuge from their troubles – and often explanations for them – in the mystical books of the Kabbalah. This ‘underground’ stream of Jewish study tried to bring people not just to live a Jewish way of life, but to actually feel God; to make contact with the Divine Spirit.

No book was more important to the enthusiasts of Kabbalistic ideas than the Zohar, the holiest book of the Jewish mystics. The Zohar came to light in I3th century Spain, although it was claimed to have been written by Shimon Bar Yochai in the cave in Peki’in a thousand years earlier.

As people read the Zohar, some directed their thoughts and then their footsteps to the Upper Galil, the birthplace of its alleged author. Here they assembled, one after another – the greatest mystics of the Jewish world: Isaac Luria, Moses Cordovero, Joseph Karo and others – and formed the basis of a community in Tsfat. Within a short time, Tsfat had expanded from a small Jewish community of 3 synagogues and one Talmudic study house in the early 1500’s, to a center of some 18 study houses and 21 synagogues by the end of the century.

Guided by the Zohar and their desire to live a life of spotless purity, many of the sages indulged in unique spiritual exercises. They felt they were reaching into the very mysteries of life and experiencing a closeness to God which provided them with a deeper understanding of existence than most people had. They created and synthesized new mystical religious ideas about the coming of the Messiah. In Tsfat, a new mystical ‘Torah’ was developed which commented on and supplemented the original.

By the last years of the century, the city of Tsfat was declining. As its old masters died, the community died with them. Why did this community disappear almost as quickly as it rose? To get at the real reason for the rise and fall of Tsfat, we must dig a little deeper, beneath the mystical surface.

As the Exiles poured into Tsfat after the Ottoman conquest, they brought with them more than unique religious passions. Many brought with them valuable technical knowledge of the process of cloth weaving and manufacturing, knowledge which had provided an important economic basis for the Spanish Jewish community. Within a short time, by using their know-how and the natural resources of Tsfat (especially the plentiful sources of running water), these returnees turned Tsfat into one of the two major cloth weaving centers in the Ottoman Empire.

But Tsfat’s success rested on a narrow base. When European countries began producing their own cloth, Tsfat simply could not compete. As the markets for its industry faltered, Tsfat declined. These troubles were compounded by the natural problems of life in Israel – droughts, epidemics, and a dangerous and uncertain security situation.

By the end of the century, Jews were leaving Tsfat. The scholars died or left; few came to replace them. And as the brightness of the community faded, Tsfat became just a quiet little village in the hills of the Galillee once more.

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