Tag Archives: Tzfat

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.

Earthquakes in History and Archaeology

Israel and Jordan lie along the African Rift, that runs from the heart of Africa through the Red Sea, Dead Sea and Jordan River valley, the deepest known break in the earth’s crust. The rift was formed by adjacent continental plates. As the plates move, stress accumulates gradually which is relieved periodically through sudden jolts, experienced as an earthquake. There are many events in the Bible that can be explained by major earthquakes. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah on the eastern shore of the Dead Sea in the time of Abraham about 1900BCE is vividly described (Genesis 19). Archaeological research suggests that a great earthquake opened the earth’s crust releasing “brimstone” (sulfur) and volatile petroleum gases which caused a horrific firestorm. The fall of Jericho in 1400BCE was probably associated with a double earthquake. As Joshua and the children of Israel crossed the Jordan River to enter the land, an earthquake-produced landslide at the town of Adam (15 miles to the north) dammed the Jordan.  Historically known quakes have dammed the Jordan River repeatedly, sometimes for several days, in 1160CE, 1267, 1534, 1834, 1906 and 1927. Then God arranged a second tremor, or aftershock, to topple Jericho’s walls (Josh. 6). A major earthquake is reported “in the days of Uzziah king of Judah, and in the days of Jeroboam son of Joash king of Israel” (Amos 1:1), sometime between 760BCE to 749BCE. Geologists believe they have found evidence of this major earthquake in sites throughout Israel and Jordan:

“Masonry walls best display the earthquake, especially walls with broken ashlars, walls with displaced rows of stones, walls still standing but leaning or bowed, and walls collapsed with large sections still lying course-on-course. Debris at six sites (Hazor, Deir ‘Alla, Gezer, Lachish, Tell Judeideh, and ‘En Haseva) is tightly confined stratigraphically to the middle of the eighth century BCE, with dating errors of ~30 years.…The earthquake was at least magnitude 7.8, but likely was 8.2…This severe geologic disaster has been linked historically to a speech delivered at the city of Bethel by a shepherd-farmer named Amos of Tekoa.”

QumranQumran, where the Dead Sea scrolls were found, bears unmistakable evidence of major earthquake destruction in 31BC during the reign of Herod the Great where 10,000 people lost their lives (Josephus). Photo shows staircase to mikve (ritual bath) damaged by seismic activity.

When Jesus died on the cross, the end of his life was punctuated by a severe earthquake, following a strange three-hour darkness covering the land (Matt. 27:50-54) and a second great earthquake occurred on Easter morning at the time of the resurrection (Matt. 28:2). Researchers know that there was an earthquake on April 11, 33CE making it a possible date for the crucifixion. The prevalence of earthquakes during the Second Temple period caused the High Priest when he went into the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur to include in his prayer a special intention (kavana) that the people who lived on the Sharon plain (a populated area to this day) should be spared the fate of “having their houses become their graves” (Yoma 5b).

A powerful earthquake (7.0 on Richter scale) in 363CE, which caused widespread havoc throughout ancient Israel, destroyed Antipatris (Tel Afek) and Tzippori.

Bet Shean, one of the major Roman cities known from Hellenistic times as Scythopolis, suffered major damage in 363CE and was devastated in the Golan earthquake (6.6 on Richter scale) on January 18, 749CE and never recovered. Photo from the archaeological site at Bet Shean shows toppled columns in a row along the Decumanus, think of a tablecloth jerked under wine bottles. Also on the northeastern side of the Sea of Galilee the other Decapolis city of Sussita and the nearby monastery at Kursi were destroyed and abandoned.

Jerusalem suffered a severe earthquake (6.7 on Richter scale) January 15, 1546: the dome on the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was completely destroyed as were many other buildings. The Dome of the Rock was seriously damaged; the Al-Aqsa Mosque was damaged or destroyed in 749CE, 1033CE, 1546CE and in the 1927 earthquake. The three most destructive earthquakes in Israel since the 18th century happened in 1759, 1837 and 1927. Check out my article about the Nimrod fortress to see a photo of the result of earthquake activity. On January 1, 1837 at 2pm an earthquake “obliterated” Safed, Tiberias and damaged neighboring Arab villages causing more than 5,000 fatalities. Another major quake (6.4 on Richter) occurred on July 11, 1927 at about 16:00 local time. The epicenter of the earthquake was on the western shore of the Dead Sea (31.6, 35.4) just north of Metsoke Dragot. Besides Jerusalem, the cities of Ramle, Tiberias and Nablus were heavily damaged and at least 500 people died. In Jericho, a number of houses collapsed, including several relatively new hotels. In addition, the Allenby Bridge collapsed and the Jordan river was blocked for about 21 hours following the collapse of the marl cliffs on its banks.

Earthquake in Jericho, 1927.  Photo: Matson collection.
Jericho, 1927 earthquake, by American Colony photographer

The last major earthquake to hit Israel was 1927 and on average, there is an earthquake approximately every 80 years. That and the large amount of unrelieved stress (~10 meters) along the African Rift today tells scientists that we are overdue for a major earthquake.