Tag Archives: Safed

Golan Heights Tour

The Golan Heights, Israel’s mountainous north-eastern region, is one of the most beautiful areas of the country. In the Golan, rather than desert, we have streams and waterfalls. There are also numerous archeological sites and ancient synagogues dating back to the Roman and Byzantine periods, evidence of flourishing Jewish communities in the area going back 2000 years. The remains of 25 synagogues from the period between the Great Revolt in 66 and the Islamic conquest in 636, when organized Jewish settlement on the Golan came to an end, have been discovered – 6 have been excavated.

The Golan was settled in the modern period beginning in 1886 when Jews from Tzfat and Tiberias settled there. The Bnei Yehuda society of Tzfat purchased a plot of land in the village of Ramataniya in central Golan (4 km north-west of the present day religious moshav of Keshet) and named their settlement “Golan BeBashan” and settled there for about a year.

In 1887, they purchased lands between the modern day Bnei Yehuda and Kibbutz Ein Gev. This community survived until 1920, when two of its last members were murdered in the anti-Jewish riots which erupted in the spring of that year. In 1891, Baron Rothschild purchased approximately 18,000 acres of land about 15 km east of Ramat Hamagshimim, in what is now Syria. First Aliyah (1881-1903) immigrants established five small communities on this land, but were forced to leave by the Turks in 1898. The lands continued to be farmed until 1947 by the Palestine Colonization Association and the Israel Colonization Association, when they were seized by the Syrian army. Most of the Golan Heights were included within Mandatory Palestine when the Mandate was formally granted in 1922, but Britain ceded the area to France in the Franco-British Agreement of 7 March 1923. Consequently, the Golan Heights became part of Syria after the termination of the French mandate in 1944.

During the 1948-49 War of Independence  the Syrians army attacked the adjacent Jewish areas and managed to advance beyond the international border. After the war, the Syrians built extensive fortifications on the Heights, which were used for shelling of civilian targets in Israel. 140 Israelis were killed and many more were injured in these attacks between 1949 and 1967, and particularly in the spring of 1957. Because of this pounding, Israel Defense Forces captured the Golan Heights during the Six-Day war.

Gamla view

On a recent tour of the Golan I took clients to the archaeological park with ruins of the ancient Jewish city of Gamla to see the Second Temple period synagogue, hiked through dolmens to a 50 meter waterfall and from a panoramic lookout with a view of the Sea of Galilee watched the Griffon vultures soar through the canyon.

Griffon vulture, Gamla

From there we visited Um el-Kanatir (Arabic for Mother of the Arches) an impressive set of standing ruins of a Jewish village from the Byzantine era to see the ongoing reconstruction of the synagogue there. The ruins of a very large synagogue of local basalt stone were found, destroyed by the earthquake of 749 CE. I hadn’t visited in a year and there has been a lot of progress in the reconstruction of the synagogue, the walls extend to ceiling height now and the bima has been set in place (the work has now been completed).

Um el Kanatir synagogue

Um el Kanatir synagogue interior

Katzrin is also well worth a visit. The Talmudic Village lets us explore the 4th century CE village of Katzrin which includes a 6th century synagogue (built on an earlier more modest one) similar to the one at Um el Kanatir. The nearby Archaeological Museum displays artifacts uncovered on the Golan. One fascinating find is an 1,800-year-old door lintel carved of basalt with a Hebrew inscription “this is the beit midrash (study house) of Rabbi Eliezer HaKapar” that was  discovered in the village of Daburiye, situated near a steep ravine with a pair of spectacular waterfalls. We know of the tanna (70-200 CE) Eliezer HaKapar, whose name refers to his work, making wine from the fruit of the caper. There is a discussion in the Talmud about wearing new shoes on the Sabbath: What are new shoes? Shoes that have not “walked” a certain distance, the distance between the synagogue at Katzrin and the beit midrash of Rabbi Eliezer KaKapar.

The Golan Heights Winery which changed the world’s impression of Israeli wines and placed Israel firmly on the international wine map or one of a number of smaller wineries is definitely worth a visit if you are into wine. One of my favorites is the Pelter winery on Kibbutz Ein Zivan where you can have a tour and learn how Tal Pelter produces a sparkling white wine in the traditional way, as well as an unwooded Chardonnay and a Gewurztraminer described as “Sweet peach, liche, melon, citrus on a lively acidic background” and taste the wine along with the artisan goat cheeses that Tal’s spouse/partner makes.

Hamat Gader is the site of natural hot mineral springs with temperatures reaching 50 °C (122 °F) and includes a 2000 seat Roman theatre built in the 3rd century CE and a large synagogue from the 5th century CE.

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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.

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.