Israel travels

In Safed’s fabled synagogues, myth and reality intertwine

Beautiful houses of worship star in tales, centuries old, of wondrous miracles befalling devout rabbis and faithful congregations

Ceiling at Abuhov Synagogue (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Ceiling at Abuhov Synagogue (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

One fateful day in 1837 the Avritch Rabbi brought all of his parishioners into their Safed synagogue. As they worshipped together he suddenly admonished them to run to the Ark, and just before a terrible earthquake shook the building, he cried out, “Hold onto the scrolls and you shall be saved!” Much of the synagogue collapsed in that quake; only the portion which held the Holy Scriptures remained intact.

Fact or fable? Like so many stories about Safed there may be some element of imagination involved. But no one can deny that the synagogue was destroyed — and the Torah scrolls were unharmed.

Anything written about mystical Safed, with its enchanting lanes and unique houses of worship is bound to be laced with folklore, tales of wondrous miracles, and fascinating historical tidbits. Like the story about how the Avritch Rabbi made it to Israel.

One day in the early 19th century, when the rabbi was still living in Europe, a messenger from Safed came to see him. “There is gold in the city’s alleyways,” said the messenger.

Soon afterwards the rabbi moved to Safed but, once there, he complained to the messenger that he couldn’t find the gold. Just then, two yeshiva students went by. The Avritch Rabbi and the messenger followed them to a synagogue and listened to them study for awhile. “Now you see the gold of Safed,” said the messenger. “It is the study of Torah. ”

Streets of Safed (photo: courtesy Shmuel Bar-Am)
Streets of Safed (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Some time ago the synagogue fell into disrepair and the Avritch Rabbi, long deceased, appeared in a vision to a patriarch of the Hameiri family in Safed. If he didn’t fix up the synagogue, the rabbi told Hameiri, his days were numbered. It was, of course, immediately repaired.

Spectacular events befell this particular rabbi and his family. In 1834 local Arabs attacked Safed and its Jews fled the city. Using synagogue collections that she managed to smuggle out with her, the rabbi’s wife was able to buy food from friendly Arabs and feed the Jews during the month they were in hiding.

It was the Avritch Rabbi who, you will recall, enjoined upon his fellow worshippers to hold on to the Torah scrolls during the 1837 earthquake. Visitors looking into the synagogue from outside can see where the building was cut in half; the area where the ark stands is still the original construction, while the rest of the synagogue has a flat modern ceiling with steel girders. It is said that everyone in the synagogue that day was saved.

Alsheich Synagogue (photo: courtesy Shmuel Bar-Am)
Alsheich Synagogue (photo: courtesy Shmuel Bar-Am)

Local Druze attacked Safed the very next year and held the rabbi for ransom. However, when they took him into the hills and ordered him to write a ransom note, the rabbi refused, explaining to the bandits that the community didn’t have the money to buy him back. Even if they did, he wouldn’t ask them to pay the ransom, he said, for Jewish law doesn’t permit payment of exorbitant sums to redeem a rabbi — to prevent other Jews from being kidnapped. The rabbi asked for water with which to wash his hands, so he wouldn’t be impure when he died. The sound of horses in the distance led the Druze to believe the Egyptian cavalry was on the way. Leaving the rabbi tied up high in the hills, they fled and the rabbi was later found and returned to the city.

Nearby, the Alsheich is the only 16th century synagogue in Safed which still stands on its original foundations. It also features the oldest Torah Crown in the city — and it may even be the most ancient Torah Crown in the entire land of Israel. It was donated in the year 1434, predating the expulsion from Spain and containing the inscription “Those who have repented” — or ba’alei tshuva. As early as the 14th century the Jews of Spain had already been subject to severe religious persecution and widespread attacks and as a result many had converted to Christianity. On Yom Kippur, however, they came to synagogue to pray. It was for their benefit that the Kol Nidrei prayer — whose verses declare that certain vows are no longer valid — was composed.

Jews praying at the Holy Temple came in through an outer gate and an inner door. According to Jewish Law, synagogues must offer worshippers two entrances. The reason, say the Kabbalists, is to provide the opportunity to organize their thoughts, and to ready themselves for speaking with God.

Not far from the Alsheich Synagogue, the Abuhov is a monument to Safed’s history of construction, destruction and reconstruction. Light colored stones on the bottom of the outer walls and up to the first arches are all that are left of the original synagogue, for the edifice collapsed during an earthquake in the 1700s. A darker stone used for rebuilding the synagogue reaches up to the windows. After a major quake in 1837, the upper parts of the wall had to be completely reconstructed.

Near the end of the 20th century, members of the congregation decided to renovate the synagogue (with modern materials, of course) so it would look exactly as it did in the 16th century. They began working from right to left. Along came officials from the Antiquities Authority, who declared that if the synagogue is redone — even if it ends up practically identical to the original — it will no longer be authentic. Although a court order stopped the renovations in the middle, one portion was already complete. Thus one side of the facade is totally reconstructed while the other contains the early layers of stone.

Jews praying at the Holy Temple came in through an outer gate and an inner door. According to Jewish Law, synagogues must offer worshippers two entrances. The reason, say the Kabbalists, is to provide them with the opportunity to organize their thoughts, and to ready themselves for speaking with God. The Abuhov synagogue fits the bill nicely, for the courtyard gives worshippers plenty of space and time in which to examine their souls. A pomegranate tree in the courtyard is symbolic of the commandments God ordered the Jewish people to follow, for it is said to contain 613 seeds.

Painting by Ziona Tajar, Abuhov Synagogue (photo: courtesy Shmuel Bar-Am)
Painting by Ziona Tajar, Abuhov Synagogue (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

All kinds of legends have sprung up concerning this elegant, impressive house of prayer which was built by students of the renowned Spanish rabbi Yitzhak Abuhov. One story holds that after the rabbi’s death his students had a collective dream.

In the dream the rabbi complained to his pupils that his synagogue back in Spain was surrounded by churches. After they awoke the students prayed together and the Spanish synagogue miraculously appeared in Safed the next day.

Although the synagogue collapsed twice during severe earthquakes, the southern wall, which faces Jerusalem and holds the Torah arks, remained intact and is still made of the original light colored 16th century stone. Benches are plush and the decorations in the synagogue, including some wonderful paintings by Ziona Tajar, are beautiful.

Perhaps the most famous rabbi to have his name on a synagogue in Safed was Isaac Luria, known by the acronym Ha’ari. Born in Jerusalem in 1534, he grew up in Egypt and only returned to the Holy Land, some say, after the prophet Elijah ordered him to Safed. Considered the leading mystic of his time, Ha’ari and his disciples would usher in the Sabbath from among the trees that covered the mountaintop. In one version of a famous legend, late one Friday afternoon, Ha’ari suddenly told his students to accompany him to Jerusalem for the redemption that awaited them.

Stunning colored pillars at the Ha'ari Synagogue, Safed (photo: courtesy Shmuel Bar-Am)
Stunning colored pillars at the Ha’ari Synagogue, Safed (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

He expected them to follow him blindly to the Holy City. But when one young man hesitated, protesting that there was no time to reach Jerusalem before the Sabbath, Ha’ari turned melancholy. “Your doubts have delayed the return of the Messiah,” he is reported to have said.

Built on the spot where Ha’ari joyously welcomed the Sabbath, the beautiful Ashkenazi Ha’ari Synagogue features stunning colored pillars. Fabulous olive-wood carvings around the ark are European-made but show a definite oriental influence. Note the grapes, a picture of spreading fingers, and a lion with the face of a human being.

Under the platform (bima) there is a hole. During the War of Independence a mortar shell hit the bima just as a worshipper swayed forward in prayer. Thus, his life was spared.


Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.

Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed, tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.

All rights reserved.


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