There’s something about traveling in the “Holy Land” that I’ve come to learn. There are so many influential sites crammed into tiny areas that it can start to become a bit overwhelming. And it can start to perhaps make you a little jaded. “Oh this happened here? Okay…” was the mentality I ended up with at most of these religious sites. It’s a mentality that would continue through most of my recent 6 week Middle East Adventure.
Sounds kind of odd to introduce a destination this way, but on day 2 of my time in Israel, that mentality hit me right away. Why? We were going to Tzfat (also spelled Tsfat, Safed or Zefat), the so-called birthplace of Jewish mysticism. You might be more familiar with its more common name…Kabbalah, made particularly famous in recent years due to some, well, celebrity endorsements.
Cool, right? Well, it’s cool in theory. But aside from knowing that something happened in this place, it, like many other sites in the holy land, doesn’t have much to show for its claim to fame. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not a pretty cool town regardless…
A Charming Place
What Tzfat lacks in obvious Kabbalah-related sites, it certainly makes up for in a healthy dose of charm. Built on the side of a hill, its roadways wrap around on their way up, effectively making it a city of terraces. Along the way, beautiful old-fashioned stone buildings, seemingly a trademark of all “old cities” in Israel (compare these images to those of the buildings in old Akko and you’ll see what I mean), line the stone streets, just shouting out to you to be photographed!
Among the structures that line these old fashioned streets are some seriously old synagogues, which dot the cityscape. Taking a step inside is like taking a step back in time, though with any Jewish religious site, men are expected to cover their heads.
Escaping the Tourists
Tzfat is certainly a touristy place (who could forget the memorable Lebanese flatbread maker whose cool, serious demeanor fell apart the moment he opened his mouth to hawk his wares…in perfect English, of course), but it’s amazingly easy to escape by simply walking a few levels up or just taking a lonesome looking back road. Like getting away in any city, the results can be just magical.
Here were the true Orthodox, shying away from the touristy areas. Here were pilgrims, come to spend Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, in this holy city. Here were actual slices of life, something I certainly cherish in any place. People going about their daily lives…what could be better than that??
A Few Tips
If there’s one piece of advice I can give you in Tzfat it’s to go up. The touristy part of the old city is lower on the town’s incline. Though fair warning, if you go up far enough you’ll hit the new town, which, while still plenty nice, lacks the character of the old town, but comes with some pretty sweet views. And, of course, take any street that looks even remotely interesting! My mantra with cities is that getting lost is the best thing that can happen to you!
What Tzfat Taught Me
I came out of this experience knowing that I shouldn’t approach destinations in this part of the world based on their claim to fame, particularly when that claim to fame is not some amazing thing you can see. I should view places with an open mind and form my own opinions, for if I just came in search of something that happened here, I’d probably be thoroughly disappointed!
Have you been to Tzfat or other Holy Land sites? How did you find visiting these places where something historical happened?
6 replies on “Approaching Religious History in Tzfat”
I’m really enjoying your posts from your trip to the Middle East. It’s a part of the world I know little about, so it’s really interesting to read. This looks like a neat little town to wander around in.
Thanks! Indeed it was a neat little town. In fact the Middle East is full of them! There’s so much history, even down to just how long places have been inhabited that it’s a truly fascinating region!
I’m currently living in Tiberias and have been to Tzfat several times – once as a tourist a few years back and now when I accompany my friend there for business. The last time I went I was walking down that very long set of stone stairs that lead to the Ashkenazi quarter, the Sephardic quarter, etc. when I wiped out, fell and slid down several steps. It was quite embarrassing, and I do believe my tail bone is broken. That is my most memorable Tzfat experience for you 🙂
Now THAT is quite a story! I remember those stairs…there sure are a lot of them! Must’ve been quite a fall! What’s life like with a broken tail bone? And what are you doing in Tiberias?
Life with a broken tail bone is painful, but what can I do? Tiberias is where I’ve chosen to settle down for a while and just live. I was here for seven months last year and will be here for about two this time around. 🙂
Haha I hope a tailbone heals itself… Ah I only passed through Tiberias briefly (stopped at some hot springs there I think). Enjoy!