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HOW SAFED BECAME ONE OF THE FOUR HOLY
CITIES OF ERETZ ISRAEL IN THE 16TH CENTURY
Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, Israel
In 1492, in the wake of the Expulsion from Spain, Jews began
migrating eastwards towards the Ottoman Empire. In 1516 the
Ottomans conquered Eretz Israel and after that the stream of Jews
coming to settle there and particularly in Safed increased. In fact
the period of ﬂourishing in the city from 1525 to 1575 is known as
‘the golden age of Safed.’ The Jewish population of the city, which
at its height—according to cautious estimates—was about 5,000 (out
of a total population of 10,000), made it the second largest aggre-
gation of Jews in the world (after Salonika). Other estimates give it
more than twice that number. (Schechter 1908; David 1993, 108–110;
Shur 2000, 49; Avizur 1983, 353–360). For comparison, in Jerusalem,
which was the second largest Jewish community in Eretz Israel, there
were only 1,000–2,000 Jews and that number remained unchanged
in those years, as did the populations of other Jewish centers in Eretz
Israel. Beside the impressive demographic growth, it is important to
note the characteristics of the immigrants: one of the outstanding
features of this population is that it included several hundred sages
who reached Safed in those years, most of them involved in mysti-
cism. Among them were the ﬁgures that became the leaders of the
Kabbalists of Safed, R. Isaac Luria (Ari), R. Haim Vital, R. Joseph
Karo, R. Moses Cordovero, R. Solomon Alkabez, R. David Ibn
Zimra and other inﬂuential Kabbalists. That ‘holy inhabitants’ made
Safed ‘the city of Kabbalists’, the main popularity and importance
of which in the Jewish world derived from spiritual fermentation that
took place there at that time.
I wish to thank my colleagues at Schechter institute, Dr. Doron Bar and Prof.
Renée Levine Melammed who read the article and commented on it.
The purpose of this article is to discuss the intriguing question as
how a small and remote mountain town, almost unmentioned in
ancient sources (except for two marginal mentions) became in a short
time such an important Jewish center and even received the title of
being one of the four ‘holy cities’ of Eretz Israel. Was the strong
attraction to Safed the result of historical-economic conditions alone
that brought about the ‘sanctiﬁcation’ of the town, or were there
more spiritual reasons or unknown traditions in the background of
the exceptional attraction of that ‘holy inhabitants’ to the town and
these caused the dramatic change in its status?
This question will
be considered from a relatively new inter-disciplinary point of view
combining the methodologies of historical-geographical research and
the study of the history of mysticism in the 16th century, which is
called cultural-historical geography (Baker & Biger 1992; Ben-Arzi
Discussion of Historical-Geographical Conditions
Most of the researchers involved in the historical background and
geographical-economic conditions of 16th century Safed follow in
the footsteps of the studies by Ben-Zvi (Ben-Zvi 1976) and Avizur
(Avizur 1963; For the historical background see Rozanes 1933,
168–208). Specialists in the history of Kabbalah in Eretz Israel also
generally rely on Avizur with regards to the centrality of Safed at
that time (e.g. Zak 2002, 51–52 and the references there). Avizur,
on the basis of industrial infrastructure in the Safed area at that
time, concludes that there were 18,000 Jews living there out of a
total population of 25,000 (Avizur 1983, 358). He cites four primary
factors that brought about this dramatic prosperity: The stable secu-
rity situation of the Ottoman Empire in the sixteenth century; the
low cost of living; (relative) proximity to the port of Sidon; the attrac-
tive economic base of the Safed area (in particular the springs as a
basis for the wool industry). He concludes: ‘The waters of Safed
The expression ‘four holy cities’ is particularly noticeable in Izhak Ben-Zvi’s
studies, but is common in the terminology of the history of Ottoman Eretz Israel
and diﬀers from the more routine expression ‘holy community’ which was attached
to every Jewish community, such as Jaﬀa, Gaza or Shechem. The question of the
unique growth of Safed is sharpened in the light of the rapid decline of this glo-
rious period in the history of the city, in the last quarter of the century.
norv ixn\ni+\x+s or \ norv ci+v 239
were, therefore, a valuable resource, which as a result, became the
greatest industrial center in Eretz Israel, and perhaps the largest and
most technically developed in Eastern Turkey’ (Avizur 1963, 46). At
the same time a comparative examination of the two geographical
advantages cited will demonstrate that they are very relative and
partial, and they cannot explain the motivation for concentrating the
process speciﬁcally in this area.
Avizur himself admits that Safed was a ‘wondrous’ meeting point
between natural resources that arrived from a distance of thousands
of kilometers; wool brought from Western Europe or the Balkans
because the local wool did not suit the demands of this industry and
dyeing materials from the Orient. The manufacture and processing
did indeed take place in the city and the (relatively few) springs in
its vicinity, however, the emigrants from Spain could have easily
found other sites that were much more accessible to the sea and
had far better water supplies. That was the case, for example, in
Salonika, which was much closer to the source of raw materials and
also more accessible. And in fact an expansive wool industry devel-
oped in Salonika, in which a signiﬁcant part of the local Jews took
part. Safed, on the other hand, was a remote mountain town, and
a full year elapsed from the shearing of the sheep until the wool
arrived there in a circuitous route. The wool had to be transferred
a number of times, by land and by sea, which quadrupled its price,
an enormous increase in the economic terms of the 16th century.
This, together with various customs levied on the wool or on the
textiles, could have cast a doubt on the ability of Safed to compete
with other centers. Only a unique qualiﬁcation, that included excep-
tional additional value would have justiﬁed taking such an economic
risk. In fact Avizur does point out that the dyed woolen cloth indus-
try was considered a high-ranking economic branch in the 15th–17th
centuries and that it was a popular occupation among Jews, but the
greedy tax policies of local rulers and a variety of custom levies
brought about its decline in the 17th century.
Thus it seems that the wool industry in Safed did not develop
due to natural advantages, but despite problematic geographical con-
ditions. Therefore it would seem that the central factor that brought
about the enhanced development of this branch in Safed was the
human factor. The exiles from Spain came to Safed carrying the skills
of their ancestors in Castile and Aragon—human capital and knowledge
in the treatment of wool. This together with their little independent
capital and the donations that they invested in the industrial infra-
structure enabled them to develop a competitive economic branch,
despite diﬃcult opening conditions. Avizur himself points out ‘the
longing of exiles and former conversos who had returned to the open
practice of Judaism to settle in Eretz Israel, and the many needy
people who started to look for a way to get into this profession (per-
haps hoping for better conditions than they had found in Salonika)
led to the development of the textile industry in Safed’ (Avizur 1963,
45). Avizur himself points out ‘the longing of exiles and former con-
versos who had returned to the open practice of Judaism to settle
in Eretz Israel, and the many needy people who started to look for
a way to get into this profession (perhaps hoping for better condi-
tions than they had found in Salonika) led to the development of
the textile industry in Safed’ (Avizur 1963, 45).
Nevertheless it turns out that the economic prosperity was short lived;
tough international competition as well as crises that hit the Jews of
Safed at the end of the century brought about the rapid decline of
the town’s economic base. The crisis in Safed preceded the world
crisis (in the wool trade) by about half a century, and in fact its
causes were local. We can conclude that the ‘wonder’ cited by Avizur
was not derived from geographical factors but from initiatives and
the human ability of Spanish exiles to make links between markets
for natural resources at the ends of the earth, develop sophisticated
industry on the basis of a shaky foundation and ﬁnally to ﬁnd mar-
kets for this expensive product far away from Safed, presumably with
the help of ramiﬁed connections with their communities of origin.
After all this is said, the question still remains what attracted so
many Jews, among them a disproportionate number of Kabbalists,
during a short and deﬁned period of time, to migrate to this remote
mountain town in Eretz Israel?
There is an hypothesis that the preponderance of tombs of the
sages of the Mishnah, and in particular that of Rabbi Simeon bar
Yohai (Rashbi), to whom the Book of the Zohar was attributed, were
the source of attraction. However this assumption cannot stand on
its own. The fact is that we have no information about an attempt
to settle in Meron itself (where the tomb of Rashbi itself is located),
or even of an aspiration that was nipped in the bud because of con-
temporary conditions, while at the same time there were Jews dwelling
norv ixn\ni+\x+s or \ norv ci+v 241
in a number of villages in the Galilee (such as Alma, Ein Zeitim,
Kfar Kana and Pekiin).
Some researchers have suggested that what attracted scholars and
Kabbalists to Safed was the exemption they received from payment
of the Qaraje, a general tax on the community, as opposed to the
poll tax which was imposed on individual non-Muslims (Benayahu
1964, 106). However an analysis of the case shows that this exemp-
tion was given to many communities, including Jerusalem, and there-
fore its inﬂuence was not critical. The community of Jerusalem did
not expand at the same time.
The Changes in the Mystical Status of the Galilee
It is interesting to note that the remarkable growth of Safed already
attracted the attention of sermonizers at the time. At least one contem-
porary source tries to provide a theological-geographical explanation:
Why did the town of Safed deserve to be settled with the help of God
by the splendor of the Holy People more than the other cities of Eretz
Israel? Regarding the settlement of the town of Safed, may it be built
speedily and in our days, because it is the ﬁrst town that was conﬁscated
after the death of Joshua and it was call Hahorma, (i.e. conﬁscation),
and they did not spare any soul and removed every impure object
from the town, totally and for ever until the Messiah comes by com-
mand of God, may He be praised, and we did not ﬁnd that they did
this in any other city after the death of Joshua, throughout the period
of the Judges . . . Therefore the Holy One Blessed Be He rewarded it
as the place most settled before the other towns of Eretz Israel, may
they be built speedily in our days, and the name of Safed (zadi, pe,
taf ) is a hint that Zion will be built speedily in our days, the initials
of zion peer tiferet [‘Zion the splendor of splendors’], which is pronounced
by the Ashkenazim the zion bamishpat tipadeh [‘Zion will be redeemed
through justice] (Yehiel 1576, Ch. 1; Glorious, 1972).
This explanation merges two midrashic sources that are cited here
in order to link Safed with the concept of Redemption; one is an
interpretation of the verse ‘until Shiloh comes’ (Genesis 49:11) accord-
ing to which the year shin, lamed, he (335 = 1575) should be the
date of the Redemption; the other suggests the role of Safed as
the place where the Sanhedrin would renew its operations before
the coming of the Messiah (see below). It may be that the expla-
nation for this extraordinary attraction on the part of the leading
Kabbalists and their students speciﬁcally for the area of Safed and
the Upper Galilee is to be found in their unique spiritual under-
standing of this region and the connection they made between sym-
bolic ideas and the concrete vistas of the Galilee. Scholars studying
this period have already pointed out that at the same time we are
witness to a multiplicity of phenomena, events and processes related
(or interpreted as being related) to an increase in Messianic tension
and expectation of the Redemption. This subject has been investi-
gated from a number of points of view, primarily by means of ques-
tions about the time factors leading to Messianic expectations (Scholem
1967, 244–286). However a notable fact is that a signiﬁcant part of
these events and phenomena are related to the important Jewish
center developing in Safed and in the Galilee at that time, and we
will present here ﬁve examples:
1. The prophecy of the child: Around the time of the conquest of Eretz
Israel by the Ottoman Sultan Salim I (1516) a rumor spread that
a Galilean child prophesied about the conquest of the land, the
end of time and the appearance of the Messiah, but his prophecy
was diﬃcult to interpret (Eisenstein 1915, 396–398). The Kabbalist
Rabbi Abraham Halevy tried to interpret the prophecy of the
child, Nahman b. R. Pinhas of Kfar Baram, near Safed, on the
basis of historical events in the period. In his opinion the Messiah
would appear in 1530 or 1531 ‘in the gate that turns towards
Rome, and it is a city in the land of the Galilee, called Rome,
near Sephoris.’ He emphasized that the Messiah would appear
in the Upper Galilee (Scholem, Qiryat Sefer; Vilnai, Ariel, s.v. Rome).
2. David Hareuveni and Solomon Molcho: These two fore-runners and
preachers visited Safed and Jerusalem in the course of 1523–1525
predicting that in the year 1540 the Redemption would take place.
Their visit aroused many echoes and expectations. The burning
of Solomon Molcho on the stake only increased these expecta-
tions and some people connected this event to appearance of the
Messiah son of Joseph (Aeshcoly-Idel 1993; Idel discusses, in his
introduction to the second, expanded edition of Aeshcoli’s book,
Reuveni’s messianic pretensions and the expectation of the Messiah
son of Joseph between 1535 and 1540). For example R. Joseph
Karo arrived at Safed in the wake of a prophecy by his ‘Maggid’
[the voice of the Mishnah that spoke to him] that he would have
norv ixn\ni+\x+s or \ norv ci+v 243
spiritual achievements there, culminating in death as a martyr
‘like Solomon Molcho’ (Werblowsky 1958).
3. In the early 1560s a wealthy Jewish woman named Donna Gracia
received a license from the Turkish sultan to build the city of
Tiberias. Donna Gracia was very close to the Kabbalistic circles,
supporting them ﬁnancially, and they inﬂuenced her views and
initiatives. Her son-in-law Don Joseph Nasi was entrusted with
carrying out the project, and rumors spread rapidly in many
Jewish communities and were linked immediately to expectations
of a mystical process that was expected to commence in Tiberias
(Tamar 1958, 61–88, esp. 63). Indeed these rumors of a Jewish
‘prince or king’ [nasi ] named Joseph who was bringing the redemp-
tion of the Jews close stirred feelings of worry among the Muslims
(Ben-Zvi 1976, 196–202, esp. 198). Joseph Nasi completed con-
struction of the walls of Tiberias circa 1564.
4. The Story of Joseph della Reina: In the Galilean version of this famous
story it involves Joseph who went from Safed to Meron, to the
tomb of Rashbi, where angels of the Lord appeared to him and
opened an opening to bring about the Redemption, but he failed
in his struggle against the evil spirit and the Redemption was lost
(Dan 1962). According to Dan the background for the creation
of this Galilean version is related to the atmosphere of Messianic
expectation that was pre-dominant in the area of Safed in Kab-
balistic circles at that time.
5. Rabbi Isaac Luria and his disciples: The year 1575, as mentioned
above, had also been predicted to be the year of Redemption
(Tamar 1958). Rabbi Isaac Luria (Ari) arrived in Safed in 1570
and his charismatic personality made a great impression, how-
ever his sudden death of the plague after only two years, led to
frustration and disappointment on the one hand, but also a secret
mystery on the other. Some tried to explain his untimely death
as a necessary stage in the process of redemption and even to
see him as the Messiah son of Joseph. His foremost disciple, R.
Haim Vital wrote: “On the word ‘and the seat of David your
servant’ [= the hiding of David (Hebrew)] warned our teacher . . .
that the future Messiah son of Joseph would die and we did not
understand his words, and God knows secrets and in the end
proved the beginning—that my pious master, may his memory
be a blessing, died for the sins of the generation” (Vital, 1782,
Amidah, Ch. 19:43a; Tamar 1964, 170). Tamar stresses that Ari
and his disciples not only expected the coming of the Messiah
son of Joseph, but also took active measures to bring it about. Below
we will discuss further the connection between the Messiah son
of Joseph and the Galilee.
What all of these sources have in common is connecting the con-
cept of ‘the beginnings of Redemption’ with a speciﬁc territory and
a given time period. However, it seems that the most notable and
active use of this combination was that made by the charismatic
rabbi of Safed, R. Jacob Berav. In those years a harsh controversy
took place between the rabbis of Safed and Jerusalem over restora-
tion of ordination in general and the role of Safed in particular in
that restoration (Katz 1986, 213–236). The study of that controversy
has revolved primarily around the competition between these two
leading communities of Eretz Israel in the sixteenth century, Safed
and Jerusalem. However, it seems that the background behind and
motive for R. Jacob Berav’s eﬀorts to renew ordination in Safed
speciﬁcally were related to the opinion that Safed and the Galilee
had a central role in this stage of ‘the footsteps of the Messiah’ or
‘the beginning of Redemption’, and in this context it was even sug-
gested that R. Jacob Berav intended to declare himself ‘Nasi’. His
proposal to renew ordination was based on a homily in the Babylonian
Talmud (Sabbath 139a; Sanhedrin 98a): ‘And I will restore your
judges as of old’ and then ‘Zion will be redeemed in justice’, i.e.
renewal of ordination and the resumption of the Sanhedrin as con-
ditions for Redemption (as suggested in the ﬁrst source that we
quoted). Nevertheless, the question still remains: why Safed?
More explicit remarks on the immanent link between renewal of
ordination in general and the importance of doing so in the Galilee
itself were made by one of R. Jacob Berav’s disciples, R. Moses de
Castro. In a letter from Jerusalem he hints at the view of his teacher
regarding the Redemption: ‘He will fulﬁll in our day the words of
the prophet, saying shake oﬀ the dust, arise and sit up, beloved land,
heritage of the deer, for our brethren who dwell in the Galilee have
sent to us saying we have the law of the redemption, the three lands
of the Galilee, and Tiberias among them, and there the Sanhedrin ceased
to exist and it will ﬁrst return to there in the future’ (Dimitrovsky
1966, 112–132). In other words, the residents of Safed declared a
tradition according to which the Sanhedrin would return ‘there’ ﬁrst:
norv ixn\ni+\x+s or \ norv ci+v 245
‘there’ by way of hermeneutics meaning Tiberias and all of the
Galilee. What is the source of this tradition regarding the place of
The ‘Revival’ of Ancient Homilies
Clearly the hints in this letter refer us to a Baraitha in the tractate
Rosh Hashanah (31b) which traces the peregrinations of the Sanhedrin
from one place to another, until it reached its ﬁnal residence in
Tiberias: “And Tiberias was the lowest of them all as it says ‘and
lower than the land and the dust ’ (Is. 29)”, regarding which R. Yohanan
(an Amora of Eretz Israel, 3rd century) says: “And from there they
will be redeemed in the future, as it says ‘shake oﬀ the dust, arise and
sit up’”, (Is. 52) i.e. from the lowest point (also topographically) the
renewed growth will rise. This homily is based on a sporadic cita-
tion of the verse ‘. . . arise, sit up Jerusalem’, but the homilist seeks
to connect deep humiliation (and the humiliation of dust) signiﬁed
by Tiberias and the shaking oﬀ of the same dust at the time of the
Analysis of De Castro’s letter makes it clear that he is quoting
from an additional tradition, preserved in Maimonides’ Commentary
on the Mishna (12th century). Maimonides, dealing with the resump-
tion of the Sanhedrin before the coming of the Messiah, writes: ‘And
it is a tradition that it will return ﬁrst to Tiberias, and from there
move to the Temple (Hilkhot Sanhedrin 14:12). The term tradition
(qabalah) as used by Maimonides is of course not identical with its
use in Safed, although it does refer to traditions that have no for-
mal source, but do have great importance for him. The members
of the community of Cori in Italy cited Maimonides’ remarks about
Tiberias with reference to the enterprise of Yosef Nasi (Tamar 1958,
63; Ben-Zvi 1976, 199). These exceptional, but dormant, traditions
gained new momentum with the appearance of the Book of the
Zohar on the Jewish scene and its arrival in the Galilee with exiles
from Spain. In fact, the Zohar, which mentions many geographical
locations in the Galilee, cites the Land of the Galilee explicitly as
the location of the appearance of the Messiah (without pointing out
a particular locale): ‘In sixty-six the king Messiah will reveal himself
in the Land of the Galilee’ (Zohar I [Gen.] 119a and II [Ex.] 7b).
Elsewhere the Zohar suggest why at the time of the revival of the
dead a great army will gather speciﬁcally in the Galilee: ‘and they
will gather in the Holy Land and armies will go up all of them to
the land of the Galilee because there the Messiah will reveal him-
self because it is the portion of Joseph’ (Zohar II, 20a). Even though
it is diﬃcult to identify geographical references in the Zohar (cf.
Liebes 2002, 31–44), the Zohar clearly stresses the importance of
the Galilee in the framework of a stage in the appearance of the
Messiah son of Joseph, bringing us back again to the words of
R. Moses de Castro quoted above. R. David b. Zimra (Radbaz),
one of the most inﬂuential rabbis of Eretz Israel in the 16th cen-
tury (Safed, Jerusalem and Cairo), writes in his commentary on the
aforementioned quote from Maimonides that the Messiah ‘will appear
in the Galilee and then disappear once again’, which is closed to
Vital’s remarks mentioned above. And as we have seen that is how
R. Haim Vital perceived the death of R. Isaac Luria in the Galilee
a short time after he arrived there.
Other early sources also make a more speciﬁc geographical dis-
tinction, speaking of ‘the Upper Galilee’: ‘A star rises from Jacob . . . it
smashes the brow of Moab’ (Num. 24:17)—R. Huna said in the
name R. Levi: ‘it teaches that Israel will be gathered in the Upper
Galilee, and the Messiah son of Joseph will look out [ yizpeh—per-
haps a word-play on Zefat] upon them from the Galilee and they
will go up from there and all of Israel his people to Jerusalem’ (Pesiqta
Zutrata, Balaq, 58; cf. Jellinek 1938, 141 and Eisenstein 1915, 386).
With a few diﬀerences this midrash also appears in an additional
anonymous source: ‘At that time a man from the descendents of
Joseph will arise and be called the Messiah of the Lord and many
people will gather around him in the Upper Galilee and he will be
their king . . . and then the Messiah son of Joseph will go up together
with the people gathered following him from the Galilee to Jerusalem’
(Talmi 1955, 179; Idel 1998, 382 n. 8).
In conclusion a number of Talmudic, midrashic and medieval
sources (e.g. the Zohar) discussing the beginnings of Redemption
indicate that its ﬁrst stages will take place in the Galilee, and more
speciﬁcally cite two locations; the ﬁrst—Tiberias and the second the
Upper Galilee. Similarly these sources stress (as they were interpreted)
the necessity of resuming the Sanhedrin speciﬁcally in the Galilee
and even the oﬃce of Nasi there as well, and also that the Galilean
redemption will have a preparatory stage under the leadership of
the Messiah son of Joseph.
norv ixn\ni+\x+s or \ norv ci+v 247
The sense of ‘the footsteps of the Redemption’ in the 16th cen-
tury, together with the increasing centrality of Kabbalistic literature
at this time, motivated many Kabbalistic sages to move to Eretz
Israel out of Kabbalistic ideology, and following that ideology—to
settle in the area of the Galilee. In this way it is possible to explain
the ﬁrst stage in the migration of Kabbalists (and other penitents
seeking ‘correction’ for their souls) to the Upper Galilee and to its
Redemption in the Upper Galilee: Concretization of an Idea
The Kabbalistic sages who settled in the Galilee were joined, as
mentioned above, by former conversos who sought to repent and
atone for their sins, as part of their preparation for the Redemption.
It is possible that the attraction of many of them to the wool indus-
try was not derived only from the necessity of creative ways to solve
problems of making a living in a new environment, but was anchored
immanently in a Kabbalistic outlook. As mentioned, one of the unique
characteristics of the Kabbalistic teaching is that of identifying abstract,
symbolic ideas with the concrete world, whether the world of action
and creation or the private and even intimate world of family life.
This view led, in contradistinction to other trends in Judaism, to the
idealization of concrete action and daily work. Many Kabbalists took
part in the wool industry and other occupations, even though they
could have made a living from donations and that also inﬂuenced
their large following. It seems that this phenomenon encouraged the
rapid development of the wool industry (and attempts to develop
silkworm cultivation and the planting of mulberry orchards).
However the Kabbalists were not satisﬁed with ‘arriving’ in the
Upper Galilee, but as mentioned, as part of their unique perception
and practical method, they started to take active measures (or par-
tially active ones) in order to prepare the way for the coming of the
Messiah and for them the Upper Galilee had its own value, more
than just a place to live. Liebes put it this way: ‘The Kabbalists
were attracted to Rashbi and his colleagues, both to adhere to their
souls that hovered over their tombs and to follow in their paths, and
by that I mean literally the paths where they walked, the paths of
the Galilean hills . . . the stage on which their heroes walked, i.e.
Eretz Israel, has signiﬁcant meaning and is not only a ‘framework’
and a literary conceit’ (Liebes 2000, 32–35). Thus in the course of
the ﬁfty years of the Golden Age the concrete familiarity of the
Kabbalists with the trails of the Upper Galilee and its landscape was
intensiﬁed. This exposure sharpened their tendency to oﬀer a sym-
bolic interpretation to a visible panorama (alike Bar-Gal 1983). Below
we will provide a few examples of the concretization of the link
between the Galilee and the Redemption.
1. Attraction to Rashbi and his colleagues, as mentioned above,
which grew stronger with the dissemination of the Zohar and the
rise in its importance as a source of Messianic prophecy, together
with the tradition that its author was Rashbi—led to the new
fame of another remote location, the village of Meron. Following
a single reference in the Jerusalem Talmud the tomb of Rashbi
was identiﬁed there (until that time pilgrims had visited Meron
as the site of the tomb of Hillel and Shammai). From this time
on the tomb of Rashbi becomes one of the popular pilgrimage
sites (although not the central one and clearly not an exclusive
one) for the Kabbalists of Safed and a number of redemptive
practices developed around it (Vilnai 1986, 121; Benayahu 1962;
Vilnai, Ariel, s.v. Meron, Rashbi).
2. At the same time there developed among the Kabbalists a gen-
eral phenomenon of ‘touring’ in order to locate and identify addi-
tional tombs of Tannaim and Amoraim (the sages of the Mishnah
and Talmud). One of the most important books that describes
this phenomenon is Haim Vital’s Sefer Hagilgulim, about which
Ben-Zvi said that it reveals ‘a remarkable knowledge of the topog-
raphy of the Upper Galilee’ (Ben-Zvi 1976, 189). These expedi-
tions throughout the Galilee strengthened their familiarity with
the region and their attempts to identify places and various objects
in the landscape with names mentioned in the Book of the Zohar
and in earlier sources.
3. An additional phenomenon, evidently found only among the
Kabbalists of Safed, was that of going out to nature for study
and for carrying out mystical ceremonies, which they called ‘gerushin’
(lit. expulsions; cf. Zack 1995, 34–54; 299–317). The ﬁrst two
who mentioned this practice were the brothers-in-law Cordovero
and Alkabetz, although the most famous group that performed
gerushin were the Ari and his disciples.
norv ixn\ni+\x+s or \ norv ci+v 249
4. The customs of Ari and his disciples (‘the lion’s whelps’): Despite
the short time that Ari lived in Safed he left his impact with a
number of special practices and one of the most famous of them
(attributed to him, even though it actually preceded him) was
going out into a ﬁeld in order to receive the ‘Queen’, i.e. the
Sabbath. The Sabbath symbolized the connection between the
real world and the Upper Sephirot and functioned as a focus and
a propitious time for the beginning of Redemption (Halamish
2000, 332–355). This was realized and demonstrated by going
out to the Galilean countryside and by performing a ceremony
in which attention was given to every detail (see below).
5. Evidently the Kabbalists were proud of their location in the Upper
Galilee and of its eschatological context and emphasized it. For
example the famous Kabbalist R. Shelomo Alkabez concluded
one of his books saying: ‘. . . and this book was completed here
in Safed, which is in the Upper Galilee, may it be rebuilt speed-
ily in our days, on the third day of the month of Kislev, in the
year 313 [= 1553] and may he reveal himself to us Amen and
Amen’, and he does not make do with the ordinary idiom ‘the
Holy Land’ or ‘the Holy Community’ (Pachter 1987, n. 36).
Likewise R. Elijah de Vidash takes pride ‘and we have already
seen here in the Safed in the Upper Galilee sages . . . who were famil-
iar with the science of physiognomy’ (Vidash,  1926, 2,6,70c;
Halamish 2000, 339). Similarly a few generations late the printer
of Hemdat Yamim took pride in how the book was published: ‘when
I went up the mountain, the holy mountain of the Upper
Galilee . . . and behold a man stood opposite me carrying this
book from the house of Rav’ (preface by the printer R. Jacob
Algazi, Izmir 1731).
The Hymn Lecha Dodi as an Expression of the Connection between
Mysticism and Landscape
One of the most famous literary works composed in this period in
the Upper Gaililee is the hymn Lecha Dodi (‘Come by Beloved’) by
the Kabbalist R. Solomon Alkabez. Continuing the line of reason-
ing above, we shall try to analyze some of the topographical expres-
sions incorporated in the stanzas of the hymn, and to give them a
new interpretation in this context.
Alkabez (b. Salonika 1500–d. Safed 1576) immigrated to Eretz
Israel and settled in Safed in the year 1536, one of the years identiﬁed
as a year of Redemption (Tamar 1958, 62; Pachter 1987; Zack
1977). Just before his immigration he even gave a sermon in his
community, in which he explained the ideological motive behind his
move—messianic expectations (Pachter 1987, 253). As other Kabbalists
in Safed he used to tour the hills of the Galilee, and this fact left
an impression on his literary work. Zinberg, an expert on Hebrew
literature, relates, in the name of one of Alkabez’s disciples, that
Alkabez ‘used to go out for walks in barren ﬁelds, in which he would
isolate himself in holiness. On the eve of every Holy Sabbath all the
members of the group would gather together, confess their sins and
before the sunset go out to the ﬁelds to receive the Sabbath
Queen . . . and in this ecstatic atmosphere, on one his walks, he com-
posed the immortal hymn, ‘Lecha Dodi ’ (Zinberg III: 56; cited in
Cohen 1970, 337, identiﬁed the student as Cordovero, mentioned
above). Despite this somewhat romanticized description, it is possi-
ble to identify a number of topographical inﬂuences in the hymn,
as we shall see below. This is highly likely since Alkabez composed
the hymn around the year 1548, i.e. after twelve years of walking
the paths of the Upper Galilee (Cohen 1982, 349). The hymn is full
of hints and ideas of the Redemption and may be analyzed in a
number of linguistic and ideological ways (Cohen 1982; Kimelman
2003 and bibliography there; Bazak 1989). Despite the tendency to
regard the hymn as mystical, there is still a level of ‘plain sense of
the text’ that cannot be ignored, and it contains unique expressions
that need to be understood against the background of the Biblical
and Talmudic context from which they are drawn. This follows the
assumption that the world of the sages of Safed (like that of all ser-
monizers) was suﬀused with semantic associations from the Bible and
the Midrash, to which they added deeper exegetical interpretations.
As is well known, most of the stanzas of the hymn involve the
Redemption, but two of them diﬀer somewhat in character. The
third stanza in translation: ‘Shrine of the King, royal city, arise!
Come forth from thy ruins. Long enough have you dwelt in the vale
of tears! He will show you abundant mercy. Come my beloved to
greet the bride, let us receive the Sabbath.’ The fourth stanza: ‘Shake
oﬀ your dust, arise! Put on your glorious garment, my people, and
pray: Be near to my soul, and redeem it through the son of Jesse,
the Bethlehemite. Come my beloved to greet the bride, let us receive
norv ixn\ni+\x+s or \ norv ci+v 251
the Sabbath.’ (Birnbaum 1977, 245). Both include ‘topographical’
expressions that suggest a transition from a lower status to a higher
one. The third stanza says ‘Long enough have you dwelt in the vale
of tears!’ and the fourth uses the expression ‘shake oﬀ your dust,
arise.’ It is noteworthy that the author of Hemdat Hayamim sensed
that these expressions were out of place in a hymn devoted to crown-
ing (or as other scholars claimed, do not express accurately that
author’s Sabbatean view), and consequently he oﬀered a ‘revised’
interpretation that replaced the ‘negative’ expressions in both stan-
zas (Cohen 1982, 352; Fogel 2001, esp. 381).
In our opinion the ‘lowly’ expressions are not coincidental, but
are anchored in his world view of the stages in the redemptive
process, both in terms of the concrete landscape and the Biblical
and Midrashic sources from which the expressions were drawn.
Let us turn ﬁrst to the expression ‘shake oﬀ your dust’ which
Alkabez uses in other places as well. As we have pointed out, this
expression has Biblical, Midrashic and Kabbalistic levels of mean-
ing. On the Biblical level it concerns the redemption of Jerusalem,
e.g. ‘Shake oﬀ the dust, rise and sit up, Jerusalem’, but Alkabez
quotes only part of the verse, omitting the name of Jerusalem. He
did this clearly intentionally since he did the same to three other
truncated verses that are incorporated into the hymn: ‘awake, awake,
arise, Jerusalem;’ awake, awake, don your strength, Zion;’ ‘don your
glorious garments, Jerusalem’ (Isa. 51:9–52:2). In fact the entire chap-
ter in Isaiah is a panegyric to the Redemption of Zion and Jerusalem,
but Alkabez explicitly and intentionally omits all reference to Jerusalem.
A similar truncated allusion may be found in the expression ‘He will
show you abundant mercy ( yahmol 'alayikh)’ which is clearly based
on Jer. 15:5: ‘Who will have mercy on you ( yahmol 'alayikh), O
Jerusalem’. Was there a political reason for this omission? There
does not seem to be any external reason for the omission of the
name of Jerusalem or Zion or a textual reason (meter or rhyme)
either. It does seem that Alkabez was playing a double game here;
He uses expressions that are clearly identiﬁed with Zion and Jerusalem,
but by omitting the name of Jerusalem, he allows the listeners to
think that he is leading him in another direction. One may not
ignore the fact that just two years after Alkabez arrived in Safed a
severe controversy broke out between the leading rabbi of Safed,
R. Jacob Berav and R. Levi b. Haviv of Jerusalem over the resump-
tion of rabbinical ordination. This controversy continued for many
years. Alkabez wrote the hymn against a background of this con-
troversy, in which competition over hegemony was involved as well
as an ideological dispute over the site of the beginning of the
Redemption, as we have pointed out. It is likely that Alkabez, a
Safed Kabbalist, who believed in the major role of the Upper Galilee
in the ‘Beginnings of the Redemption’ and evidently an adherent of
R. Jacob Berav, would refrain from writing a panegyric to Jerusalem,
especially while this bitter polemic persisted. On the other hand it
would have ‘politically incorrect’ to ignore Jerusalem entirely. Perhaps
that is why he chose an expression that had already undergone a
geographical metamorphosis and truncation in the Talmud. In fact
the source of the truncated expression that Alkabez chose leads us
back to the passage in tractate Rosh Hashana (see above) that describes
how the Divine Presence shakes oﬀ its dust and the depths of its
disgrace in Tiberias (and its going up to the high hills of the Galilee?)
as the ﬁrst stage of the redemptive process. By doing so he receives
‘approval’ to use the expression ambiguously; it hints at Jerusalem,
but brings us directly to the redemption of Tiberias! In this way
Alkabez can sing a song of redemption of the Galilee without stat-
ing explicitly the name of Zion or of the Galilee.
To complete the topographical picture we should point out that
the third stanza, which mentions ‘The Valley of Tears’ also has a
geographical meaning. This expression, in Hebrew 'emeq habakha ﬁrst
appears in Psalms, and the reader of modern Hebrew immediately
recognizes it as a negative expression. That is because it is used reg-
ularly to express negative descriptions in modern Hebrew literature
(references to Europe at the time of the Shoah, the name given to
a valley in the North of Israel where a tough battle took place in
the Yom Kippur War et al.). These literary sources follow in the
footsteps of Midrashim of the sages, as we shall see below, however
on a Biblical level the meaning of the word bakha (bet, khaf, aleph) is
a tree or bush (cf. e.g. II Sam. 5:24—‘tree tops’) and indeed the
context in Psalms also leads us to a valley covered with bushes, in
which springs are discovered: ‘as they pass through the valley of
bushes, they ﬁnd water from a spring’ (Ps. 84:7–8).
In the Talmudic period they were unfamiliar with a bush called
bakha, but interpreted this unusual word according to its homonym
(bet, khaf, he) as weeping, and the ‘spring’ as a source of water made
from tears (B.T. 'Eruvin 19a; Shemot Rabbah 7:4—‘Weeping and cry-
ing like a spring’).
norv ixn\ni+\x+s or \ norv ci+v 253
In an entirely diﬀerent context the Zohar describes Rashbi sitting
with his son and a disciple in the Galilean hills and they see ‘a tube
of ﬁre coming down into the waters of the Sea of Galilee’ and the
entire area trembles. Seeing this remarkable sight, Rashbi said ‘surely
this is the time when the Holy One Blessed Be He remembers his
children and sheds two tears into the great sea.’ The meeting of the
ﬁre and tears (apparently in the Sea of Galilee) causes the tremor
(Zohar II [Exodus] 9a).
Evidently Alkabez combined in his poem the magniﬁcent land-
scape that he saw before him (surely out of identiﬁcation with the
point of view of Rashbi in the Zohar) with the three early sources
we mentioned; the expression 'emeq habakha as the vale of tears;
Tiberias as the point where Israel reached its lowest state on the
one hand, but its redemption will begin on the other (‘shake oﬀ your
dust’); and Sea of Galilee as the sea of God’s tears, which causes a
tremor in the entire area when the arrival of the hour of redemp-
tion is remembered.
This associative and complex integration of ancient sources could
only take place in the unique combination created by three factors:
one—the dramatic landscape of the high Galilean hills on the one
hand and the lowly Sea of Galilee on the other ('emeq habakha in
both of its meanings); the second—the time factor, the fervent expec-
tation that in this landscape and at that time the process of redemp-
tion was about to begin; the third—Alkabez’s romantic and unusual
personality and the landscape-oriented interpretation he gave to
ancient sources. It is interesting to note that Alkabez’s use of the
rare expression 'Emeq ha-bakha is not sui generis. At the same time a
physician and historian from Avignon named Joseph ben Joshua
Hacohen wrote a book about the tribulations of the Jews from their
Exile until after the Expulsion from Spain and called it 'Emeq Habakha.
Written between 1513–1563, it was ﬁrst disseminated within a small
circle (ﬁrst published in 1575), and I have found no evidence that
Alkabez knew it and adopted the expression from it.
In this context we cannot ignore an additional interesting histor-
ical connection. If the assumption that Alkabez composed the hymn
about twelve years after his immigration to Eretz Israel is correct,
then it was just at the time when the wall was under construction
around the ruins of the citadel of Safed, a wall that was meant to
protect the Jews of the town in times of emergency (regarding two
such events in the late 1540s cf. Ben-Zvi 1976; Cohen 1982, 349).
Thus it is possible that the expression ‘and the city shall be rebuilt
on its mound’ in the sixth stanza does not refer to Jerusalem at all
(may be alike Jer. 30:18), but hints at the restoration of Safed, the
purpose of which was to provide refuge or in Alkabez’s language:
‘The aﬄicted of my people will be sheltered within you.’
The Encounter with the Landscape while Receiving the Sabbath
Evidently for Alkabez and his group (and later on for Ari and
R. Haim Vital) the verbal connection between landscape and ritual
did not suﬃce. They created a highly evocative ceremonial act, linked
in a unique and intentional way to the landscape of the Upper
Galilee. By this we refer to the custom of going out of the town
every Sabbath eve, to nature, in order to receive (or to greet) the
‘Sabbath Queen’. Much has been written about the origins and
meaning of this custom and the symbolism of Queen/Bride/Divine
Presence/Redemption (Cohen, Halamish 2000; Kimelman 2003).
A number of elements in the ceremony, cited by those who have
described it, emphasize this trend:
1. Stressing the position in which one should stand when perform-
ing the ceremony: ‘When you go out to the ﬁeld, choose a place
that is higher and there should be open space behind you and
on your right and left, at least four cubits should be clean before
you as your eyes can see’ (this and other instructions are from
the prayer book of the Ari—Cohen 337). In other words, seek
an open space and especially where you can look in front of you.
2. The unusual emphasis on standing in ‘a high place’ (in some ver-
sions ‘on a high mountain’) was meant to obtain a view of the
surrounding area (as opposed to the accepted custom of praying
from a low point, particularly in the practice of Oriental Jewish
communities). One may presume that the purpose of the vantage
point was actually to see 'Emeq habakha, i.e. the Valley of Tiberias
and the Sea of Galilee, and in the opposite direction the high
Mt. Meron. This may be done easily if you go out to one of the
hills outside Safed, and it certainly could be done from the hill
of the citadel, which was the place at which it had long been the
custom to carry out the Tashlikh ceremony on the New Year
(Rosh Hashanah) in Safed, with a view to the Sea of Galilee
norv ixn\ni+\x+s or \ norv ci+v 255
3. The direction of prayer in this ceremony is not towards Jerusalem,
as was the usual practice, but towards the west ‘and face the west
and close your eyes’. This change raises two questions: ﬁrst of all
the apparent abandonment of Jerusalem and secondly the choice
of looking towards the west. Some connected it to the presence
of the tomb of Rashbi in the west. However, this is diﬃcult to
accept since it negates the approach that one does not pray
towards the dead, nor is there any source for it, to the best of
my knowledge. On the other hand, if we continue the line of
reasoning above, according to which Alkabez sought to hint at
replacing Jerusalem with the Galilee, then this act of facing west
also says that ‘Jerusalem’ is no more than a point of cosmic con-
tact between man and the upper worlds, and even the physical
Jerusalem was only a stage in a more abstract direction, expressed
even in the Temple by facing west (Stepansky 2002). Thus, at the
sublime moment of contact with the Divine Presence at the
entrance of the Sabbath, Alkabez is saying that there is some-
thing beyond the geographical location of the Temple in Jerusalem
(For a parallel idea from modern times, cf. Paz 1997).
4. White garments: It is stressed that the Kabbalists wore ‘four white
garments’. In fact this does not entail a topographical element,
but does create an association with the priests performing ritual
in the Temple.
5. Scholars have pointed out that the custom to go out in a pro-
cession to the ﬁeld took place almost exclusively in Safed (except
for one testimony by the author of Hemdat Yamim to the eﬀect
that it was practiced in his time in Jerusalem as well). Indeed
there was a controversy among sages of the time regarding whether
going out of town was an act of ‘the pious or the eccentric’ as
Cordovero put it, ‘since the Sabbath does not come through the
ﬁeld but from above’ and the context of the controversy may
have been intellectual or educational (Cohen 1982, 336–342;
Halamish 2000, 336–339). Nevertheless the hypothesis that explains
the fact that this practice did not spread to other communities
for considerations of safety is unlikely since in Safed itself the sit-
uation was not always ideal and conversely we do not know of
serious attempts to imitate the ceremony in other lands. Evidently
without the natural ‘backdrop’ of Safed and the Galilee and with-
out the mystical-topographical link the ceremony of receiving the
Divine Presence in the ﬁeld loses its point. If we may assume
that the hymn Lecha Dodi was part of the ceremony of going out
to the ﬁeld, we may conclude that without the immanent con-
nection between the hymn and the landscape, going out to the
ﬁeld becomes meaningless.
Thus, ﬁnally it seems that the hymn Lecha Dodi and the practices
that developed in Safed for receiving the Sabbath express the sec-
ond stage in the sanctiﬁcation of Safed. Unlike kabbalistic writings
composed outside Eretz Israel, here a clear connection with the land-
scape ﬁnds its expression, not only because these individuals were
living in this area with its dramatic landscape, but from an ideol-
ogy that here, in this picturesque landscape the beginnings of
Redemption will take place, and, moreover, the awaited Redemption
is already suggested by the concrete landscape. These were prima
facie optimal environmental conditions for signiﬁcant kabbalistic lit-
erary creativity and they merged well with the concretization of the
landscape and turned it into a symbol, one of the principles of the
In the course of the spiritual metamorphosis conducted by the
Kabbalists an emphasis was put on the centrality of the Upper
Galilee, even at the expense of the centrality of Jerusalem, both as
a temporary stage (the beginnings of Redemption) and as an idea
(turning towards the west).
The ability to take the congregation to ‘a high place’ out of town,
from which they could see the valley of the Sea of Galilee in one
direction and Mt. Meron, with the tomb of the author of the Book
of the Zohar in another, was a rare geographical-historical coinci-
dence. Since then a rich tradition of Kabbalistic customs developed
(going out to the ﬁeld of holy apples to receive the Divine Presence;
ceremonies at Meron on the anniversary of Rashbi’s death etc.) which
comprise an entire series of acts shrouded in mystery the purpose
of which was to bring about the coming of the Messiah and his
appearance in the Upper Galilee.
The arrival of many Kabbalists in Eretz Israel at the beginning of
the 16th century and their settling speciﬁcally in Safed was not an
accident and did not result from its economic attraction. Transforming
Safed into a ‘city of the holy’ was ﬁrst and foremost connected with
norv ixn\ni+\x+s or \ norv ci+v 257
the role of the Upper Galilee in mystical and kabbalistic literature,
particularly that of the Zohar, and this process took place in two
primary stages. The ﬁrst stage was connected with the general phe-
nomenon of increased expectations for Redemption in kabbalistic
circles at the end of the 15th century and the beginning of the 16th,
in the wake of the Expulsion from Spain, which drew many immi-
grants to Eretz Israel, particularly among the activists among the
Kabbalists. Nevertheless many expressions in mystical literature led
to the conclusion that the ﬁrst stage of the Redemption, the appear-
ance of the ‘Messiah son of Joseph’ would take place speciﬁcally in
the Upper Galilee (and not, for example, in the Jerusalem area).
This alone made the Galilee a magnet for groups of eschatologically
oriented mystics, who translated these ideas into operative steps to
reach the Galilee. It seems that the most notable example of that
and perhaps the end of the ﬁrst stage was the immigration of
R. Solomon Alkabez to Safed in 1536, a year of keen messianic
expectation. From this point on two parallel processes took place,
and both are intrinsically connected to the character and the views
of the immigrants; one is related to the creative eﬀort to develop
new and sophisticated sources of income, which would take good
advantage of the human capital and knowledge that the Kabbalists
and their followers brought with them from Spain and Italy. This
was done in order to provide a livelihood for them and their con-
gregations, both as an immediate need and as part of a general ide-
ology to develop a full life in Eretz Israel.
The second process was fundamentally spiritual and began as a
natural result of the encounter with the concrete landscape of the
Galilee, and the beginning of an intimate romance with that land-
scape. In this stage the tradition of spiritual expeditions into nature
and the groups that walked all over the Galilee, a phenomenon that
was evidently unique to this time and place, and became a funda-
mental element in the teachings of Ari and his disciples. This stage
led to the literature of gerushin of Cordovero on the one hand and
the composition of the hymn Lecha Dodi and other similar ones on
This was evidently the stage at which Safed and the Upper Galilee
became the concrete backdrop and played a role in the process of
the beginning of Redemption bringing about a dramatic increase in
the religious and mystical importance of the area. This found its
expression in the desire to renew the Sanhedrin, speciﬁcally in this
area; in the development of new local practices related to nature
and the landscape, such as going out to receive the Sabbath Queen
and the Redemption, and in the kabbalistic literary creativity that
was sustained on this landscape.
From all of this it is clear that behind the sanctiﬁcation of Safed
and the messianic ideas associated with it were two causes: the mys-
tical tradition that goes back to the Talmud, but is primarily found
in the Zoharic literature, and the concrete landscape of the Galilee,
including the deep valley of Tiberias on one side and the high moun-
tains of Safed on the other. Together they created a powerful cat-
alyst that transformed a forgotten and remote town into one of the
most important spiritual and economic centers in the Jewish world
of the time.
The aspiration to create an exemplary religious society (Schechter
1908) i.e. ‘a holy people’ or a ‘holy community’ worthy of receiv-
ing the Messiah (including the renewal of ancient institutions such
as the Sanhedrin or the Nasi) will be better understood only in the
context of the tradition of the ancient sanctity of the place. This
sanctity was expected to be revived with the coming of the Messiah.
The case of Safed ﬁts prima facie the models of Eliade and Turner
regarding the sanctiﬁcation of places outside existing centers and on
mountain tops (Eliade 1961; Turner 1987). However what is unique
about this case is the integration of ‘seductive’ topographical features
together with ‘revival’, development and enrichment of ancient, dor-
mant traditions of a people seeking to renew its connection with its
former land temporarily in an alternative location.
The crisis and the rapid decline which this process witnessed at
the time (the death of Ari and the economic collapse) were inter-
preted as a planned and foreseen process, related to the stages of
the Redemption, and the temporary appearance of the Messiah son
of Joseph in the Galilee. In this context it is important to empha-
size that in the next generations no similar phenomenon of spiritual
ferment and creativity occurred in any other community in Eretz
Israel or the area. However, centuries of decline have not dimin-
ished the sanctity that Safed attained in that generation and which
left it shrouded in mystery, awaiting its role as the harbinger of the
Redemption of Israel.
norv ixn\ni+\x+s or \ norv ci+v 259
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A Holy People
Jewish and Christian Perspectives
on Religious Communal Identity
Marcel Poorthuis & Joshua Schwartz
LEIDEN • BOSTON
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