The ancient history of Tsfat is hidden in the sands of time. No clear reference to Tsfat by its familiar name is known in ancient texts. There are vague traditions that Tsfat was a walled Canaanite stronghold at the time when Yehoshua entered the Land and was only conquered after his death. Also, that it was one of the 40 cities of refuge, and a city of the Cohanim after the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash (the First Temple).
Tsfat (or Safed as it is known in Arabic and English) comes into the clear light of history only at the time of the Crusades. In the thirteenth century Tsfat was the largest crusader fortress in the Middle East. After capture by the Mamaluks in 1266 C.E. it often held the position of the capital of its district.
In Jewish history
Tsfat comes into prominence in the late sixteenth century. Supported by a lively textile industry, there flourished in Tsfat a Torah community that could rival any since the days Sura and Pumpedita in Babylon. Asking a question to the town Rabbi was to query Maran Rav Yosef Karo the author of the Shulchan Aruch (standard Code of Jewish Law). On a given Shabbat one could hear a lecture from Rabbi Moshe Alshich, the profound Torah commentator. Or one could pray Kabbalat Shabbat (a custom that originated in Tsfat at that time) with the composer of "Lecha Dodi," Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz, just to mention a few.
But the tenor of the time
and Tsfat's title of the "Mystical City" are due to the presence of Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, better known by his appellation the Arizal, and his students. By their own words he towered above even these giants. His piety, otherworldly asceticism, all-encompassing erudition, and endearing character were but the vessel for an overwhelming mastery of the sublime esoteric wisdom of Kabbala. For those who aspire to climb to this rarified air, the Arizal remains to this day their main guide.
The end of the eighteenth century
again witnessed a flowering of Tsfat, this time from the followers of the Baal Shem Tov and to some extent the followers of the Vilna Gaon. Barred from settling in Jerusalem by the libel against the Ashkenazim and attracted to Tsfat by the mystical atmosphere, they found a haven on this hilltop in the Upper Galilee. Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, a student of the Baal Shem Tov, explained why he left Tsfat and moved to nearby Tiberias. "The air in Tsfat is very pure and at night I could hear the angels calling out from heaven for the world to do Teshuva. It disturbed my sleep so much I had to leave." This community thrived until the devastating earthquake in 1837. The Tchernobler Beit Midrash, home of Yeshiva Shalom Rav, represents the period of rebuilding afterward and dates from 1865.
Today, Tsfat is a quiet town of about 35,000,
known as a destination for tourists and a center for art and music. But the influence of the spiritual greats of the past is still with us today through their sefarim and the wonderful stories about them. As we walk along the narrow winding lanes of the Old City we can picture ourselves walking in their footsteps.