March 22, 2023

What should visitors know about Tzfat’s ancient synagogues

According to local archaeologists, Tzfat is the only location in the Land of Israel that has had a continuous Jewish presence since the era of the Maccabees. Many of Tzfat’s synagogues date back to the early Middle Ages when Jews immigrating from Europe and North Africa joined the existing indigenous Jewish community that had re-established itself above the cemetery after the Crusaders were expelled from the area.

The municipality of Tzfat and Tzfat tour guides invite visitors to explore the history and significance of Tzfat’s ancient synagogues.  So put down your mobile casino play for a bit and let’s go exploring:

Tzfat History

Archaeologists believe that the original Jewish community of Tzfat was located on the “Metzuda”, the citadel area on the hilltop located above Tzfat’s current Old City. Tzfat is mentioned in the Talmud as one of the sites where fires were lit to announce the Rosh Chodesh New Moon sightings. Josephus, in his War of the Jews mentioned a city that he called Sefeth” when describing stationing a battalion of soldiers there in the war against the Romans.

When the Crusaders arrived in Tzfat in the 12th century, it’s assumed that they massacred the local Jewish population before building their fortress on the citadel – a fortress said to be the largest Crusader structure built in the Middle East. After the Crusaders’ first defeat by the Mamlukes they recaptured the city and, when rebuilding the fortress, noted that they were building “between the Jewish synagogue and the Arab mosque”  which indicated that Jews had returned to the area. The Jewish community, however, could not return to the citadel and reestablished themselves further down the hill, near the ancient Jewish synagogue.

Tzfat was already recognized as a center of kabbalistic study in the 14th and 15th century when refugees from the Spanish Inquisition made their way to Eretz Yisrael. Tzfat was a prime location for these people due to industries that had evolved there, Tzfat’s location along the Damascus-Acco trade route and the scholars who were making their homes there.

Kabbalists who came to live and study in Tzfat in that era included the Alsheich, R’ Moshe Cordovero, Rabbi Yitzhak Abuhav, R’ Yitzhak Luria (the ARI) and R’ Yosef Caro.

It was during this time that many of the ancient synagogues that continue to function today were established by these rabbaim and their students. They include:

ARI Sepharadi

The ARI Sepharadi is one of the oldest standing synagogues in Tzfat today. It is located on the road directly above the Old Cemetery. Prior to the arrival of the ARI, it was called the “Eliyahu HaNavi” synagogue and it is the synagogue in which the ARI davened.

Legend relates that the ARI studied in a small cave that’s located in the side .of the shul with Eliyahu HaNavi – that little cave is open to visitors today. After the ARI’s death in 1573  The Eliyahu haNavi synagogue was renamed “ARI Sepharadi.”.

During much of the 19th century the synagogue was closed and locked due, some said, to the presence of a demon creature. That creature was expelled by R’ Abuhatzeria (Baba Sali) in a visit in 1911.

ARI Ashkanazi

The ARI Ashkanazi synagogue is probably the most-visited shul in Tzfat. It’s located in the middle of the Old City, below the main square Kikar HaMeginim.

According to some sources, the ARI Ashkanazi synagogue was originally called the “Girogos” synagogue and was established by a group of refugees who had converted to Christianity during the Inquisition and then escaped to the Greek island of Girgoros before making their way to Tzfat.

When they arrived in Tzfat, a major mahlokot was raging in the Jewish world regarding whether such converts were to be viewed as “apostates” or “returnees.”

The Girgoros Jews established their own synagogue on the outskirts of the existing Tzfat community. When the decision was finally made to re-accept such Jews back into the Jewish community (a view promoted by Tzfat rabbis such as R’ Yakov Beirav and the Alsheich) the Girgoros synagogue was renamed the Ari Ashanazi and its congregation absorbed into the existing community.


Tradition states that the Abuhav synagogue was built in Spain by R’ Abuhav and transported to Tzfat by ruach hakodesh as R’ Abuhav sought to keep the synagogue safe from anti-Jewish mobs. Others accept the alternative explanation, that R’ Abuhav planned the synagogue in Spain and it was then built according to his specifications by his students in Tzfat.

The original Abuhav synagogue was built near the base of the city but after the 1759 earthquake, a new location was found. The Sefer Torah that had been written by R’ Abuhav moved to the new location along with two 16th century scrolls written by kabbalists.

Those sefri Torah are still housed in today’s Abuhav synagogue and taken out three times every year. The wall housing those sefri Torah was the only part of the Abuhav synagogue to survive the 1837 earthquake that devastated the city. In 2006 a missile from Lebanon fell next to the shul, directly between the Abuhav and the Alsheich shuls, but neither shuls were damaged.

Yosef Caro

R’ Yosef Caro, author of the Shulhan Aruch, was the Av Beit Din in Tzfat during the time of the ARI. The shul bearing his name was built on the site where the Beit Din stood. Below the shul there’s a cave – according to legend, that’s the cave where R’ Caro studied and where the Maggid sad with him, dictating the Shulhan Aruch.

The Yosef Caro synagogue, like almost all the old synagogues in Tzfat, was renovated in the late 1800s by the generosity of Yitzhak Guetta, an Italian Jew who donated massive funds to rebuild synagogues that had been destroyed by the 1837 earthquake.

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