Safed and the Kabala

This post is part of my Israel travel series Scrolls from the Holy Land: Travel stories | Photo gallery

Safed is one of Judaism’s 4 holy sites and is the center of Kabbalah, the mystical aspect of Judaism.

Note: This post is going to be superficial since I just ‘touched’ Safed. Honestly, I underestimated its importance, since most guidebooks (and people) recommended spending only few hours at this optional site. In my opinion, spending one night here is highly recommended. This town is the best place to ‘do nothing’, and get soaked in nothingness.

A typical street in the old town

This travelogue is about Safed, Zefat, Tsfat, Zfat, Safad, Safes, Safet, Tzfat!! Relax, all these are names of the same city. Like in India, the English spelling of the town becomes crazy. Actually its still a mystery for me to correctly pronounce this town as Israelis – who have different accents – pronounce it in a number of identical ways. Safely, we can call it – स्फात. Interestingly at first look, स्फात town looks सफेद (Safed = ‘White’ in Hindi/Marathi, alluding to white stones used in its construction). (Ok enough play of words)

There are infrequent direct buses from Tiberias and the bus drops you at the central bus station, which is the right place to start exploring. However, since I am a wise guy, I got off the bus early, got lost in the city, tried to ask people but nobody could read the map I had. Usually I can tell directions of a city better than the residents themselves, but here my GPS got screwed due to the twisting and winding roads. So finally I simply shrugged, told myself ‘whatever‘, and went for a giant Falafel at one of the roadside cafes on Yerushalem जेरुशलेम street.

Tsfat (I am going to use different names each time to confuse you) is a little town located north of Tiberias on a hilly terrain. The old city is made up of narrow cobblestone alleys revealing artists’ galleries, medieval synagogues, private homes and small guest houses. A citadel is located at the top of the central town is actually a war memorial. There are a number of Synagogues and museums hidden in the town.

History:
In 12th century, the Crusaders built a castle here. After its destruction by Saladin it was rebuilt by French Templars, who were forced to surrender it to the Mamelukes in 13th century. Zefat started to get populated mostly after Spanish Inquisition, an event at the end of 15th century that saw the expulsion of Jews from Spain and many parts of Europe. It became a Jewish town in the 16th century, under Ottoman rule. During the 18th century Jews from Poland arrived. The town was pillaged by Druze raiders, and in 1837 it was destroyed by an earthquake. Towards the end of the 19th century new settlers came to Safed, and it had about 6000 Arab and 6000 Jewish families. When Israel became independent in 1948 there were 12,000 Arabs and only 1700 Jews. In May 1948 a group of Palmach fighters stormed the Arab positions and drove the Arabs out of the town, which since then has been purely Jewish.

The old town has a number of distinguishing flavors depending on the population there. Some of the walls are distinctly blue, while others have a different style. More time must be spent to understand this.

Kabbalah:


This is a mystical branch of Judaism that refers to a set of esoteric teachings and mystical practices meant to define the inner meaning of the Tanakh (Hebrew holy books), traditional Rabbinic literature, and Jewish religious observances.

At the Kabalah information center, I met an interesting person. He was an orthodox Jewish person (dressed in black) who was simply overjoyed to meet someone from India. (I got so used to this reaction, that it became predictable.) This guy spent 3 years (phew!) in Haridwar and Rishikesh studying Hinduism. From the little conversation I had with him (it was 30 minutes actually), he seemed to have had tremendous knowledge about Hinduism, Buddhism and eastern philosophy in general. Over some (free) tea and bakery snacks, he gave me a ton of information about Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism. The interesting part was, he was relating most of it to the Hindu philosophy, so I could understand it much better and faster. I was a bit surprised to see that this gentleman never tried to tell me ‘Judaism is greatest religion’ and stuff like that which would have ticked me off immediately. Later, I learnt that, just like Eastern religions, preaching religion is not a practise sanctioned by Jewish laws. cool 🙂

I desist from talking more about it here. Mom says ‘little knowledge can be dangerous thing!

I wanted to stay longer in the town, and the 3-4 hours spent there were grossly insufficient. However, it was time to go.


Synagogue

Hitchhiking:
The sun was setting, I had no clue when the next bus was and I had to get back to Tiberias. I usually plan most of my travel but this day I overran my schedule. With heavy heart, I ran towards the bus station hoping that it wasn’t late.

There were no buses to Tiberias. So the only people at the bus stop were a bunch of soldiers, me and some kids playing. I started thinking about finding a place for the night. The other way was to go to Rosh Pina and then to Tiberias, but it was getting dark to do all that. In a way I was happy that I missed the bus, because then I could stay longer in Safed. Seeing clearly the panic and confusion on my face, one soldier screamed (just like Indian style) at me and asked if I was looking for something. Generally, Israelis are no-nonsense people who will leave you alone and never bother you, so I was a bit surprised. I explained my situation to the group.

Expectedly, I hesitated, I wasn’t sure. 3 soldiers, barely 20 yr old army guys, with large guns on their backs, in a foreign country, not knowing Hebrew.. hmm… what could happen? Before leaving I asked questions on Trip Advisor forum about hitchhiking and I was firmly advised against it, except if there was a soldier with me. (The concept of security is rather strange in Israel, I noticed in many places and will post about it later) I didn’t have much cash on me, and I wasn’t useful from an abduction point of view because Indian Government wouldn’t care anyway. Most people thought that I looked Jewish (attractive for kidnapping) but I told these guys I wasn’t. They were soldiers so they couldn’t be Palestinians (I mean the brainwashed types, no offence).

So after quickly evaluating all those complex conditions, I decided to go with them. One of their non soldier friends was driving them to Tiberias for their next day reporting to a military camp somewhere around. The ride in that car was interesting – it was like a smoke chamber, with loud incomprehensible Hebrew songs (with occasional English words) and lot of shouting (talking) and laughing amongst each other.

Finally this interesting day (Beit She’an and Safed) ended on a fantastic and memorable evening.

This post is part of my Israel travel series Scrolls from the Holy Land: Travel stories | Photo gallery