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.
In 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”.
The 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.
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.
Most 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.
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.
The 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.
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.
The 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.