Synagogues of Safed: The HaAri Synagogues
Rabbi Yitzhak Luria
The two HaAri Synagogues in Tsfat are both named for Rabbi Yitzhak Luria. Rabbi Yitzhak Luria was a brilliant and important Kabbalist. Born in Jerusalem in 1534, his teachers recognized him as a prodigy at the age of eight. After years of study and meditation in Palestine and Egypt, he moved to Tsfat in 1570 where he soon established himself as the chief Kabbalist. He was revered and respected by everyone who met him and heard his teachings and arguments. His colleagues and disciples referred to him as the Ari, an acronym for Elo-hi Rabbi Yitzhak. “Elo-hi” is a common preface for God, a title bestowed on no other human. The Ari (which is also a Hebrew word meaning “lion”) is also commonly referred to as the Holy Ari or Arizel (Ari, of blessed memory). The Ari’s Kabbalah writings include the Etz Chaim (a prayer still recited during the Torah service) and have been incorporated into the Kabbalat Shabbat service prayers. His interpretations and teachings were recorded by his disciples and contributed to the Shulkhan Arukh.
The Sephardic HaAri Synagogue
The building of the Sephardic HaAri Synagogue, the oldest in Tsfat, was built three hundred years before the Ari first arrived in Tsfat. Originally dedicated to Eliyahu HaNassi (Elijah the Prophet), it was renamed HaAri in 1580. Located at the bottom of HaAri Street, above the old cemetery, the synagogue looks out onto Mt. Meron and the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. In 1759 and 1837, violent earthquakes struck Tsfat and destroyed much of HaAri Synagogue. In 1840, Italian Jewish philanthropist Yitzhak Guetta donated the money for the synagogue’s renovation. A plaque dedicated to him hangs above the entrance.
Since it over looks the Arab quarters of the city, the synagogue was a strategic defensive point during the War of Independence in 1948. During the siege of Tsfat, the defenders removed the Torah scrolls and drilled holes in the walls for surveillance and shooting. The synagogue could only be accessed via trenches that originated in the Jewish quarter. This served as an effective defense to Arab invasion.
The synagogue underwent further renovation following the war and now supports a thriving minyan on Shabbat and study during the week. The main sanctuary adjoins a special holy room where, legend holds, the Ari studied Torah and Kabbalah with Elijah the Prophet, who revealed to the Ari secrets and mysteries. Legend also holds that there was a period after the Ari that anyone who entered the room died. Fortunately, the famous Sephardic Rabbi and Kabbalist Yisrael Abu Hatzeira, known as the Baba Sali, used his spiritual powers to make the room safe to enter again.
The synagogue’s facade, with two niches flanking the door, apparently for lamps, was restored by the Israel Antiquities Authority. The synagogue has three arks for its Torah scrolls. These arks are located on its southern wall, the wall closest to Jerusalem. Its bimah is located in the center of the synagogue and is raised. The synagogue lacks a mezuzah because the rabbis of Tsfat decided that the ground on which the HaAri synagogue stands is so holy it does not need one. Another interesting feature of the synagogue is an ancient well that was dug next to the bimah when the synagogue was first built. The well is over seven hundred years old, yet is still filled with water.
The Ashkenazi HaAri Synagogue
Rabbi Moshe Cordevero (also known as “Ramak,” an acronym of his name) was born in Spain in 1522 and lived most of his life in Tsfat. Ramak was a student of Rabbi Yosef Karo, the author of the Shulkhan Arukh. He was later ordained by Rabbi Yaakov Beirav at the age of eighteen. A brilliant student and expert at Talmudic law, he soon began pursuing Kabbalah and became one of the greatest Kabbalists in Tsfat. In 1570, the last year of his life, Ramak began teaching the Ari.
The Ashkenazi HaAri Synagogue was established by Sephardic Jewish immigrants from Greece in the 16th century. The synagogue was built in the place where the Ari used to pray on Erev Shabbat after walking with his disciples to a nearby field to welcome Shabbat. This tradition of welcoming Shabbat is still practiced during Kabbalat Shabbat services when Jewish communities around the world rise and turn towards the entrance of their synagogue to great Shabbat during the singing of L'cha Dodi.
After the arrival of the Hasidim from Eastern Europe in the 18th century, the synagogue began to serve the Ashkenazi community. Though it is associated by name with the Ashkenazi community, the synagogue currently serves as a popular place of worship for Jews of different affiliations.
The 1837 earthquake destroyed the synagogue. It was rebuilt twenty years later in 1857, which is the Hebrew numerical equivalent to, “How awe-inspiring is this place, the synagogue of HaAri of blessed memory.” This phrase is inscribed on a plaque above the entrance. The southern wall of the synagogue, the wall closest to Jerusalem, contains the Holy Ark, which is carved from olive wood by an artisan from Galicia in the style of Eastern European synagogues. The Ark includes an anthropomorphic image of a lion, alluding to the synagogue’s namesake. The image is followed by the commandment: “Though shalt not make unto thee any graven image.” A wooden latticework fence surrounds a column where the Ari was believed to have appeared before Rabbi Shmuel Heller.
During the War of Independence, a bomb fell in the courtyard, and a piece of shrapnel flew into the side of the pulpit while the synagogue was packed with people in prayer, yet miraculously no one was hurt. The event was considered one of many miracles that took place in Tsfat. In the courtyard of the synagogue is a column with a concave surface that in the past had been used by the sick and elderly for Lag B'Omer bonfires for they could not join the traditional procession to Mt. Meron.
Sources: Ascent of Safed, Haaretz, International Center for Tzfat Kabbalah, Kabbala Online, Safed; Photo courtesy of HaChayim HaYehudim Jewish Photo Library (Jono David Media)