Tzfat's Ancient Cemetery: The Story of a City
Arutz Sheva takes you on a special tour of the ancient cemetery in the Galilean city of Tzfat (Safed), led by the cemetery director Rabbi Eliyahu Ben Tovim. The feeling you get during this tour is as if you have gone back in time 500 years to the days when Tzfat, one of the four holy cities of Israel along with Hevron, Tiberias and Jerusalem, was the center of Kabbalah study and vied with Jerusalem in importance.
After the 15th century Spanish Inquisition, many of the rabbinic figures who fled Spain and reached Israel had settled in Tzfat, situated across the valley from Mount Meron where the 1st century mystic, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, is buried.
Each of the thousands of tombstones huddled on the rocky slopes south of Tzfat’s Old City tells a bit about that period of the history of the city and its inhabitants. A walk through the narrow paths and climbing steps of the old cemetery is truly the best way to experience it.
The inscriptions reveal the names of the city’s sages and mystics, most notably the Arizal, Rabbi Isaac Luria, considered the greatest Kabbalist of all time, who instituted the Kabbalat Shabbat, [Welcoming the Sabbath] prayers which he recited with his students, often going out to the fields to do so in the hope of greeting the Messiah.
Also buried in the ancient cemetery, alongside later residents, are victims of earthquakes that struck the city in the 17th century and 18th century, putting an end to its centrality to Jewish scholarship.
One special section of the cemetery is dedicated to those who gave their lives when Tzfat was besieged in the 1948 War of Independence and in subsequent battles. Over the centuries the population of Tzfat became more varied and differing funeral customs caused the cemetery to be divided into Sephardic and Ashkenazic sections.
Among the tombs of the Kabbalists who lived in Tzfat in the 16th century, many of which are traditionally painted sky-blue, there are separate areas for men and women to pray, light candles and give charity. In addition to the Arizal, other Torah sages are buried in the cemetery: Rabbi Shlomo Elkabetz, author of the Friday night prayer comparing the Sabbath allegorically to a bride, Lecha Dodi, and Rabbi Yosef Caro, author of the Shulchan Aruch [Code of Jewish Law, a ], Rabbi Elazar ben Moshe Azikri, who composed the piyyut [liturgical poem] of longing, Yedid Nefesh, sung at the seuda shlishit [third Sabbath meal] and on Friday night before prayers begin.
Other popular tombs for pilgrimage are the tombs of Rabbi Leibel Ba’al HaYissurim, Talmudic scholars such as Rabbi Pinchas Ben Yair and graves of historical figures such as Hannah and her seven sons or the tomb of the prophet Hosea son of Beeri.
Over the years, the cemetery expanded and spread over the entire slope at the foot of Tzfat’s Jewish Quarter. Burial in the ancient cemetery was suspended in the sixties and a new cemetery at the foot of the slope opened instead.
A second option is to start the tour at the stairs at the entrance to the cemetery, which are located under the Ari Sephardic Synagogue. At the bottom of the staircase is a path leading towards the Ari Mikveh. The Mikveh is built on a spring in which tradition says the Ari would dip. Entrance is for men only.
At the edge of the cemetery is a large square in which there is a large tree on which hang fabrics and plastic bags. This is the tomb of Rabbi Pinhas Ben Yair. It is traditional practice to circle around the tomb seven times while praying.
From there, turn back towards the grave of the Ari and take the path going north. The path passes through the military cemetery in which victims of the siege of the city of Akko during the War of Independence are buried.