To Jewish people, Safed – or Tzfat – has a special significance as the home of the Kabbalah. That is the mystical secrets believed to be contained within the five books of Moses otherwise known as the Torah. But it was once the site of a castle built by the Knights Hospitaller and occupied by the Knights Templar. Long after Jerusalem had fallen, the warrior monks continued to hold Safed until Sultan Baybars launched a ferocious attack and leveled the castle.
Baybars was furious that the Templars and crusaders were making overtures to the Mongol armies that had crashed through the Middle East – the idea being that if the Mongols could be won over to the Christian cause, they might crush the Saracens once and for all. Baybars was not going to tolerate that and so devastated Safed.
Safed was always a city very holy to the Jews and in the Kabbalistic view – Jerusalem embodied the earth, Tiberias was water, Hebron was fire and Safed was air.
The Kabbalah originated in Jewish Al-Andalus and was brought to what is now Israel by Jews fleeing the persecution of the Catholic monarchs of Spain – the newly created country that overwhelmed the caliphate of Al-Andalus and ended the long co-existence of Christians, Muslims and Jews on the Iberian peninsula.
Many of the once prosperous Jews of Al-Andalus had long drifted in mystical thought – many think as a sign of despair at their deteriorating social condition under the Catholic Spanish monarchs. Forced to convert or flee in the 1490s, they found solace in a very other worldly belief system.
Kabbalist thinkers like Moses Cordovero and Joseph Caro made their home in Safed – an already holy town and well situated in Galilee. They were succeeded by a rabbi who would become a leading beacon of the Kabbalist movement – Isaac Luria (1534-1572).
Lurian kabbalism is almost impossible to understand – deliberately so one suspects – but in a nutshell, God was everywhere but was required to contract in order to create a space for Creation to take place. The void was filled with light and in part created man out of whose mouth, nose and eyes this light flowed creating vessels.
Now I’m probably going to make a superficial mess out of this explanation – but basically, some of these ‘vessels’ couldn’t cope with or resisted the divine light and broke thereby bringing evil in to the world. OK -that’s probably an awful explanation but it’s the best I’m going to do here! You can read more about Kabbalah at your leisure – one blog post is not going to unlock the secret.
Here are the synagogues where the Kabbalah was articulated from my visit to Safed this year – hope you like my photos.