Tag Archives: Kabbalah

Tzfat Synagogues

Visitors who are impressed with the architecture and style of the churches in the Holy Land often ask to see similar synagogues. When in Tzfat it’s worth visiting some of the synagogues.

The Ari Ashkenazi Synagogue

The synagogue was built in the sixteenth century on the northern edge of the Sephardic neighborhood by Spanish exiles who had emigrated from Gerigos, Greece. Kabbalists, mostly followers of Rabbi Moshe Cordovero frequented the synagogue and in 1570 Rabbi Isaac Luria (known by his acronym “the Ari”) joined them – for a short two years until his death. On the Eve of Sabbath, they walked to a nearby field, the Hakal Tapuchin, (apple orchard) to welcome the Sabbath bride to the melody of Lecha Dodi written by Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz. Cordovero, the Ari, Alkabetz and other kabbalists are buried in the cemetery, their graves covered in bright, sky blue paint.

Tzfat cemeteryIn the eighteenth century, a large group of Hasidim from Europe arrived and the synagogue began to be called “the Ashkenazi Ari Synagogue.” It was destroyed in the earthquake of 1837, and rebuilt in 1857. Notice the inscription in Hebrew that appears above the entrance, which in Hebrew numerology is equivalent to “and My Temple shalt thou revere”.

Ari synagogueThe Holy Ark was carved from olive wood by a craftsman from Galicia, Poland, in the style of the synagogues of Eastern Europe. The craftsman was a non-Jew who was unaware of Judaism’s adherence to the second commandment against graven images. At the top of the ark he placed a human face – this was transformed into an anthropomorphic image of a lion, alluding to the acronym Ari, which means lion.

Ark in Ari synagogue

The Ari Sephardic Synagogue

Down by the cemetery there is another synagogue, Eliyahu HaNavi, the oldest synagogue in Safed that historical sources tell us existed as early as 1522 and was used by North African Jews. The Ari frequently prayed in this synagogue, preferring this location over others because of the view of Mt. Meron and the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai. The Ari liked to sit in a little alcove on the eastern side of the synagogue studying Kabbalah, and that while he was absorbed in his studies, the prophet Elijah appeared to him.

Ari Sephardic synagogueMost of the structure was destroyed in the massive earthquakes that struck Tzfat in 1759 and 1837. In 1840, the Italian Jewish philanthropist Yitzhak Guetta donated money for the renovation of the synagogue.

Alsheikh synagogue

The only synagogue in Tzfat which was not destroyed by either the 1759 or the 1837 earthquake is the Alsheich synagogue named after Rabbi Moshe Alsheich, one of the foremost kabbalists of his day. He gave weekly sermons on the Torah portion of the week at the synagogue with kabbalistic commentaries to which the Ari and Rabbi Yosef Karo attended.

Alsheich synagogueThe Alsheich oversaw the construction of the synagogue which was erected in the style of 16th century Sephardic synagogues but had no women’s gallery. After 1759, the synagogue was renovated and the workmen inserted beams and peaked arches in the style of the Bukharan Jews of Samarkand which enabled it to withstand the devastating earthquake of 1837. One of the most valued items in the synagogue is the Torah scroll cover inscribed with the year 1434.

Abuhav synagogue

The synagogue is named after the fifteenth century kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac Abuhav, who is considered one of the great sages of Castile, Spain.

Tradition states that Abuhav, who never left Spain, designed the synagogue and his disciples erected the building when they arrived in the 1490s after their expulsion from Spain. Another legend claims that Abuhav came to Rabbi Ohana, a kabbalist from Fez, Morocco in a dream and asked for his help to transport the synagogue miraculously from Spain to Safed. The kabbalists gathered together at midnight in the House of Study, after fasting and immersing in the mikve (ritual bath) – in Toledo, a whirlwind with frightening power ripped up the synagogue from its foundations and set it down in an empty field in Tzfat.

Abuhav synagogueThe synagogue has three Arks on its southern wall, the only wall left standing in the 1837 earthquake. The bima is in the center and the benches for the congregation are arranged around it, as was customary. The interior of the synagogue dome is decorated with paintings of musical instruments that were used in the Temple in Jerusalem. The crowns mentioned in Pirkei Avot 4:13 represent the crowns of Torah, the priesthood, royalty, “a good name” and a crown unique to Tzfat, the crown of redemption. In keeping with the numerological tradition of Kabbalah, the design of the synagogue has numerical significance: 1 bima, 3 Arks, 4 central columns that represent earth, water, air and fire, 6 steps up to the bima, 10 windows in the dome represent the Ten Commandments and there are pictures symbolizing the 12 tribes of Israel.

In the rightmost ark, is a Torah scroll that is 650 years old, written by Rabbi Abuhav, conceivably the oldest Torah scroll still in use. It is only taken out for reading three times a year: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Shavuot. Among Abuhav’s pupils was Rabbi Ya’acov Beirav, who later moved to Tzfat and became one of its foremost sages. It may have been Beirav who brought the Torah scroll to Tzfat. Another Torah scroll in the Abuhav Synagogue is the scroll of Rabbi Ohana.

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Photo of the Week – Mystical Tzfat

With the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, many prominent rabbis found their way to Safed (in Hebrew, Tzfat), among them the Kabbalists Isaac Luria and Moshe Kordovero; Joseph Caro, the author of the Shulchan Aruch and Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz, composer of the Sabbath hymn Lecha Dodi. They are buried in the cemetery, their graves traditionally painted sky-blue, at the foot of the mountain south of the city.

Safed came to be regarded as one of the four holy cities along with Jerusalem, Hebron and Tiberias. Safed is associated with the element of air, a reference to the mystical/spiritual branch of Judaism, Kabbalah that flourished there.

Mystical TzfatYou can click on the image for a larger view (which may take some time to load depending on your Internet connection). Please share this post with your friends by clicking on the icons at the end of this message.

The technical details – the photo was taken with a Nikon D90 digital camera in May (ISO 3200, 29mm, F13 at 1/800 sec).

Photographs on this website are © Shmuel Browns (unless marked otherwise) – if you are interested in purchasing one of my photos or using one of my photos for your own project please contact me.

Ardon Windows

photo, Mordecai ArdonMordecai Ardon (1896-1992) was born into an Orthodox Jewish family in Tuchów, Galicia (then Austria-Hungary, now Poland) but lived a secular life. From 1921 to 1924 Ardon studied at the Bauhaus under Klee, Kandinsky, Feininger and Itten. The influence of the Bauhaus and especially Paul Klee on his artistic development was profound. After graduating from the Bauhaus he studied the painting techniques of the Old Masters, especially Rembrandt and El Greco under Max Doerner in Munich. Combining these seemingly contradictory techniques gives Ardon’s colors their depth and richness.

In 1933 he immigrated to Palestine under the British Mandate. He joined the faculty of the newly formed Bezalel Arts and Crafts School in 1935, five years later he was elected director. Through the fifties he lectured at the Hebrew University on art appreciation and was artistic advisor to the Israel Ministry of Education and Culture.

Professor Ronen, of Tel Aviv University in speaking of Ardon said:

Ardon conceived colour as possessing an absolute aesthetic and spiritual value. He therefore always strove to create the most beautiful colours possible, the deepest blue, the warmest red, the most shining yellow, the most saturated green.

Ardon believed in pure art devoid of any political or social message. He believed that a painting should be appreciated and judged solely by its inherent artistic elements, such as colour, composition and their interplay. He rejected literary, symbolic or, indeed, any other additional meaning attributed to a work of art.

Ardon loved colors and ‘pure art’ but filled his works nevertheless with mystical connotations, Jewish symbolism and enigmatic scenery. He was appalled by the horrors of war and injustice and these themes too seeped into his art. Ardon was an artist who chose to use modern, expressionistic and abstract styles, combined with a classic painting technique which created distinctly unique paintings.

As Ardon expressed in a letter he wrote to Willem Sandberg, Director of the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam in 1960:

… an odd thing happened on my palette: something foreign sneaked into the group of cadmiums, ultramarines and viridiums – it was Jerusalem – ascetic, with a sack over its head.

What is Jerusalem doing amongst the bright cadmiums? How can one scratch it off the palette? Sometimes it can be scared away and hidden behind the ivory black. But in vain – the next morning it settles down again in the midst of the cadmiums…

One cannot get away from it. The alien Jerusalem always gives orders: “Thou shalt”, “Thou shalt not”, like a black woodpecker Jerusalem keeps knocking on your bark – Thou, Thou, Thou. Thou and the orphan, Thou and the widow…

In 1963 Ardon retired and finally was able to focus solely on his artwork. During these years, moving between Paris and Jerusalem, he created eight monumental triptychs – the last ‘Hiroshima‘ when he was 92. One of these was executed in stained glass by Charles Marq (who had collaborated with Chagall 20 years earlier) at Atelier Simon in Rheims, France between 1982 and 1984. A set of three large stained-glass windows (measuring (6.5×17 meters) cover one wall in the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem, dedicated to Isaiah’s vision of eternal peace with visual elements from the Kabbalah.

And many people shall come and say, “Come let us go up to the Mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths. For out of Zion shall go forth the Law and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge among the nations and decide for many peoples and they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.   Isaiah 2:3-4

Click on the thumbnail above to display a larger image (these are quite incredible stained glass images).

The left panel depicts the winding roads taken by the nations on their way up to Jerusalem, up to the Mountain of the Lord, each road marked with its own language and alphabet (Latin, Greek, English, French, Arabic).

In the central panel Ardon represents Jerusalem, where the city’s stone walls are represented by the Isaiah Scroll (one of the Dead Sea Scrolls), a spiritual wall combined with the Kabbalistic tree of the sefirot, a symbol of the mystical divine presence, a merging of the earthly and heavenly Jerusalems.

The right panel is the vision come true, guns and shells beaten and transformed into spades which hover above.


Ardon was considered by many to be Israel’s greatest painter.
For images of Ardon’s paintings check out the website http://www.ardon.com/