Birthright Day 3: Tzfat & Jewish Mysticism

We spent more time in the north of Israel on our third day, starting off our morning in the city of Tzfat (also transliterated as “Tsvat” or “Safed”). It’s a very notable place for quite a few reasons: it’s the highest city in Israel, is one of the four holy cities in Israel (Jerusalem, Hebron, and the nearby Tiberias are the others), and it’s also the birthplace of Kabbalah.

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We began our day in Tzfat at a place called Ascent, which serves as both a Jewish learning center and hostel, and a guy with a really impressive beard gave us a presentation on the two different Torahs (the written Torah and the oral Torah) as well as related books of Kabbalah like the Zohar and the Tanya. It was actually fairly interesting for what was essentially just a lecture on Jewish laws and spirituality, but of course it benefits Taglit to have only very charismatic and humorous speakers on their itinerary.

We also learned about a recent controversy in Israel, the story of Gilad Shalit. Shalit was an IDF soldier who was kidnapped by Hamas in 2006 and held prisoner for over five years, only being released when the Israeli government agreed to release over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners (many of them convicted terrorists) in exchange. So we had a big debate about whether or not they did the right thing.

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Our classroom time over, we took a short walk into the old quarter of Tzfat, where we wandered a little bit through the beautiful streets before sitting down in a shady square and listened to two men play music using various traditional Jewish instruments. I wish I had thought to take video but unfortunately I only have a few photos!

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Afterwards we visited the Ashkenazi Ari Synagogue, a 16th-century house of worship that’s filled with stories. The Holy Ark that houses the Torahs there is quite ornate and a bit unusual: for one thing, it was apparently built to the wrong dimensions, so it is too tall for the ceiling they had to bend the top of it to fit. The ark is also decorated with a slightly creepy lion that has a very humanoid face, which is said to resemble Ari, the man the synagogue was named after. It is also said to be the site where a miracle occurred in 1948 — apparently in 1948 the synagogue was filled with people praying while war waged on outside, and a huge piece of shrapnel flew straight into the bimah but no one was hurt. You can still see the hole, and there is now a plaque above it to commemorate the event.

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Afterwards we got some time to visit the Safed Candle Factory, eat some crepes (nutella and dulce de leche FTW!), and wander around the Artists’ Quarter. Unfortunately this was also our only time to eat lunch, so I barely saw anything. I think I might have to go back to Tzfat on my own later.

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