This city’s name is spelled so many different ways — Tzefiya (in the Talmud), Safad, Zefat, Sefad — it’s easy to get confused and think they are entirely different places. Safed is Israel’s highest town and probably its coldest. Safed did not become an important center of Jewish life until the late 15th and early 16th centuries.
It is not mentioned in the Torah and was apparently not settled until Roman times. Jews began to come in large numbers after they were expelled from Spain in 1492 . The city is most closely associated with Jewish mysticism, the kabbalah, whose foremost exponent, Rabbi Isaac Luria, lived and taught there. Known as “Ha’Ari” (the lion), Luria had come from Egypt in 1569 and died just three years later. The Zohar, a mystical book of the Kabbalists, was written by the second-century talmudist Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who believed each word and line of the Torah had a higher meaning. The author of the main part of the Zohar was Moses de Leon (12th century) in Spain.
Safad also attracted numerous other Jewish scholars and spiritualists, including Joseph Caro, the author of the Shulchan Aruch, Rabbi Moshe Cordovero and Solomon Alkabetz, composer of the Sabbath hymn Lecha Dodi.
The Jewish community thrived in Safed for more than 400 years before the outbreaks of violence in Palestine provoked many residents to leave. The 1929 Arab riots many Jews left and resulted in the Arabs becoming the majority in the city. When the British withdrew from Palestine in 1948 and handed the Citadel over to the Arabs, the remaining Jewish residents, backed by reinforcements from the Haganah, held off the Arab forces and kept the city a part of the new state of Israel.
The city is a warren of cobblestone streets that lead to ancient synagogues. In the Caro Synagogue, named after the scholar, the Ark contains a Torah scroll that is at least 400 years old. Many of the doors of buildings in the city are painted blue to remind people of heaven.
Another pilgrimage site, just outside Sefad, is the village of Meron. This ancient city is mentioned in the records of Egyptian kings who invaded the territory more than 3,000 years ago. A synagogue dating back 1,700 years was also found here. According to tradition, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai hid in a cave in nearby Peqiin and wrote the Zohar (a mystical book). Though one Jewish family claims to have lived in the town since the days of the great Rabbi, today Peqiin is almost entirely populated by Druze.
On Lag Ba’Omer, thousands of Israelis hike up Mt. Meron (altitude 4,000 ft.) to the tombs of Rabbi bar Yochai and his son Eleazer. People come to honor the rabbi, who is said to have died on this date, and many have picnics and go into the forest with bows and arrows. The following morning, three-year-old boys are given their first hair cuts. Meron is also the final resting place for the two great Talmudic sages, Hillel and Shammai.