A holy tour in Tzfat

Dror Bederman

Dror Bederman

Tour Designer and Expert Tour Guide in Israel.

If you wish to tour Israel in style, the picturesque City of Tzfat offers you a spectacular tour full of amazing attractions and spiritual delight.

Tzfat, with its cool and fresh air and serenity streaming down its streets and alleys, combines the spiritual and the physical into a unique and special experience.

Tzfat’s alleys

by Yeshayahu Ashani

I loved Tzfat. How can you not love it? In every stone and hyssop, in each alley, there is a spirit telling and singing, playing and whispering of secrets, old days and people long gone, wisdom, nobility and Torah, miracles and heroic acts taking place in every corner.  Thousands of violins and wondrous flutes, legendary organs and mysterious harps play music out of each stone. And with every whisper of the mountain winds, you can hear delicate and magical sounds, telling a story. Every child with an open ear and an open heart can hear a string of breathtaking stories, unfinished, rich with taste and content.

A short telling of the history of Tzfat

Tzfat is mentioned for the first time in Yosef Ben- Matityahu’s descriptions of the cities he fortified during the fights against the Romans In 66BC, under the name Safra.   

Not much is known about Tzfat until the beginning of the second century when the Crusaders built a fortress on Mount Tzfat as part of the way to Damascus. The fortress was destroyed and has passed many hands during the fights between the crusaders and Salah-Adin and then between the crusaders and the Mamelukes.

Beibars, the Mamlukian sultan, has turned Tzfat into the capital of the Galilee commissionership, drawing to it many local residents, including the Jews who were drawn to the city due to its close proximity to many Righteous Tombs and the sense personal security the city provided.

In 1516 the Ottomans conquered the land and the Jews who fled Spain after the expulsion was drawn to Tzfat and its holiness, and so the city’s population grew.

During these years, Tzfat became the manufacturing center of high-quality wool fabrics and was known for it all around the Ottoman empire. The flourish of the wool industry has strengthened the city’s economy and its population grew to 12.5 thousand residents in 1560, half of them Jews.

The economic flourish attracted some of the greatest rabbinical and Kabbalistic scholars, who turned Tzfat into a spiritual center of Kabbalah wisdom for the Jews in Israel.  Among the scholars who came to Tzfat were Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, Rabbi Yosef Karo, Rabbi Moshe Alsheich and Rabbi Isaac Luria (the holy Ari, or “HaAri”, which means “the lion,” but is also the Hebrew acronym for “the divine Rabbi Isaac”).

The many changes in the fabric industry in Europe destabilized the city’s economy and little by little, most of Tzfat’s scholars left the city and moved to Jerusalem which, in turn, became the Jewish center in Israel. The natural disasters that hit the city during the 17th and 18th century, did not do it any good either.  

Tzfat in the 20th century

During the 1929 riots, 18 Jews were murdered by the attack of hundreds of Arabs on the Jewish establishment. On 16th April 1948, during the War of Independence, Tzfat’s Arabs, who outmanned and outgunned the Jews, sieged the Jewish quarter in Tzfat and took over of all the strategic high spots of the city, including Mount Kna’an and the Fortress Hill.

On 1st of May, the Palmach attacked the area and on 10th May, through fierce fights, conquered back these strategic spots. With the defeat of the Arab forces, most of the Tzfat’s Arabs fled the city and the whole of Tzfat was conquered by the Palmach.

At the end of the War of Independence, most of the Arab neighborhoods were destroyed to prevent from Arab refugees returning to the city. At the same time, immigrants were coming to live in the old Arabic quarter and the newer parts of the city.

During the last 20 years, more and more Hassidim came live in Tzfat, establishing religious neighborhoods and giving the city its current religious characteristics.

Sites of Ancient Tzfat

It is highly recommended that you take a tour of the old Jewish quarter, a small quarter with a maze of beautiful alleys, telling the amazing story of the Jewish establishment and its endurance during the War of Independence until it was conquered by the Palmach.
Note that during Sabbath and Jewish holidays, most sites are closed.
Here are some of the recommended sites by Israel in Style tours:

The Ari Synagogue

From the main street, Jerusalem street, there are two alleys leading to a square called “Hamaginim Square” (the Square of the Protectors). To the right of the square, you will see stairs that lead you to the Synagogue.

Named after Rabbi Isaac Luria, father of the Kabbalah and mysticism, this is a synagogue you must visit.

Inside the synagogue you will see a magnificent and unique Torah ark, with unique artistic engravings and ornaments.

The synagogue was destroyed during an earthquake in 1837 and rebuilt in 1985.

Abuhab Synagogue

The ancient Torah book inside the synagogue, a very special and sacred Torah book, was written by Rabbi Isaac Abuhab, under its pen-name Menorat ha-Or (The Lamp of light).

The synagogue is built as a dome, ornamented by blue wall paintings and ancient chandeliers coming down from its ceiling.

Maran Yosef Caro’s Synagogue

The Synagogue is attributed to Rabbi Yosef Caro, author of “Shulchan Aruch”, who died in 1575. Underneath the synagogue, there is a small curved room, where, according to tradition, an angel looking like the “Magid” appeared before Rabbi Caro and the visions from that event were written in his book “Magid Meisharim”.

The synagogue was destroyed in 1837 and restored in 1847.

The ancient cemetery

This ancient cemetery is the burial place of some of the greatest scholars: the Ari, Rabbi Yosef Caro, Rabbi Yosef Beirav and Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, the infant who according to the tradition started talking miraculously, revealing enigmas and secrets.

According to the common tradition, the cemetery holds some ancient tombs as well, such as the tomb of Rabbi Pinhas Ben-Yair, the son-in-law of Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yochai, the tomb of one of the Ten Martyrs and the tomb of Hanna and her seven sons who gave their lives on Kiddush Hashem.

This Cemetery has also the Graves of the three Lehi soldiers and nine Etzel soldiers who were sentenced by the British and the Egyptians to death by hanging. Ten of them were hanged and two of them committed suicide just before they were due to be executed.   

If you are coming from Amud stream, you will pass this cemetery on your way to Tzfat, so make sure to pay it a visit.

Printing Art museum

Going up the Madregot Street is the Printing Art museum with a thrilling exhibition for those who love the history of ancient printing machines, printouts collections, and ancient books.

The very first printing house in the middle east was established in 1576, by Eliezer and Avraham Ashkenazi.

The Tzfat Fortress

Those of you who like antiques can climb up to the Crusader fortress at the top of the hill, surrounded by tunnels and walls, with towers in its center, renovated by the Mamelukes.

The ancient fortress was overseeing the city and some say it was established by Yosef Ben-Matityahu, who was the commander in the Jewish revolt against the Romans in 66 BC.

Some excavations found portions of walls, domes, water wells and the remains of a gate from the Crusaders era and onwards. Some iron cannon balls were also found, smoking pipes as well as ceramic and porcelain vessels.

Today you can find, on the mountain top, a big park with a memorial monument commemorating the 42 Jewish warriors who died during the War of Independence fights in Tzfat and the remains of the fortress built by Dahar al-Omar on the ruins of the Crusaders fortress.

Bein Hameiri Museum

The museum is exhibiting the history of the Jewish establishment through a large collection of characters, pictures, books, working tools and housewares from the history of Tzfat.

The museum is open on Sunday – Thursday, from 08:30 am – 14:30 pm and on Fridays and holiday eves, from 08:30 am – 13:30 pm.

It is recommended to schedule the tour in advance on +972-4-6921939

The Bible Museum

The museum, located at the top of the mountain, near the Fortress Hill in Hativat Yifrah street, is a private art collection museum, presenting pictures of biblical stories.

The museum was established in 1984 by the Artist Philip Ratner and presents its various artwork.

Phone: +972-4-6999972

Artist Quarters

Close to the Jewish quarter are the remains of the Arabic quarter, deserted in 1948. The original shape of this Arabic village was fully reserved and is all made of houses built close to one another on the steep slope, entwined with vine arbors in their inner yards.

In 1948 a group of artists settled in the deserted village and during the golden era, there were 60 artists residing in the village.

A tour in the village can easily keep you busy for two or three extremely fun hours.

The highlight of the tour is the Isaac Frankel museum, located in a magnificent building with an inner yard.

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