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Safed and the Abuhav Synagogue
By Dovid Rossoff
The holy city of Safed, perched on a mountain top in the upper Galilee, conjures many images to all lovers of the city. The romantic flavor of narrow cobblestone lanes and ancient synagogues fills one's lungs with a new spirit. The rusty old houses with there domed roofs clearly identifies the city with the mysterious past of the Holy Land.
The history of Safed, in real terms, dates back only five hundred years to the beginning of the 16th century. As if out of nowhere, Jews from near and far settled there - as if answering a divine call - and built the largest Jewish settlement in Palestine. Furthermore, great scholars and mystics opened yeshivos in Safed, being an added incentive to other young men of wisdom to settle there. In one sense, the last half of the 16th century was the pinnacle of Torah grandeur which the city experienced. The author of the Shulchan Aruch (Jewish Code of Laws), Rabbi Joseph Karo, sat at the head of the rabbinical court while compiling his compendium of Jewish Law. At the same time, another saintly man by the name of Rabbi Isaac Luria revealed the mystical side of the Torah. Together these men and their disciples opened new pathways to the Torah which embedded an invisible holiness in the very rocks of the city.
Today everyone who strolls through the city is caught off guard by the hidden spirit of Safed which vibrates full of life after so many generations. Not only newcomers are surprised, but even weathered old comers as well.
The entranceway opens into a large courtyard with a large synagogue running across its whole length. The stone facade is impressive; so is the arched doorway. But a bigger surprise is waiting inside. There we stand breatheless: the synagogue towers four stories high. Its arched ceiling are painted with scenes from the Bible with a sky blue background. Some say the blue walls are a reminder of the seas, which in turn remind us of the firmaments, which in turn should remind us of the heavenly Throne. The ceiling is supported by a number of pillars which connect to one another with archways and domed ceilings.
This Sefer Torah was written nearly five hundred years ago by the hand of the famous Rabbi of Portugal, Rabbi Isaac Abuhav. Tradition has it that in reverence to the depth of saintliness with which he wrote the Sefer Torah, its reading before the congregation should be reserved for special occasions. Therefore, throughout all these generations it was taken out and read on only three occasions: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Shavuos (Festival of Weeks).
There were, however, two times it was removed "not in its proper time." The first time occurred in the wake of a tremendous earthquake in 1759 which nearly leveled the ancient city. Though the synagogue collapsed, the southern wall containing the Holy Arks remained intact. Survivors of the earthquake sought to transfer Rabbi Abuhav's Sefer Torah to safer quarters. Ten men volunteered, and after purifying themselves in an immersion pool they solemnly carried it to a sheltered place. Mysteriously, though, they all died within a year.
The second time occurred in 1930 when one of the famous Chassidic Rebbes of Hungry visited Safed. The Munchaker Rebbe came to Safed after Passover and was spellbound by the beauty of the Abuhav Synagogue. He asked permission to see the Sefer Torah, and gingerly carried it to the elevated platform. There he opened it and read from it before returning it to the Holy Ark. Fortunately, nothing happened to him or his followers.
The synagogue we see before us is not the one rebuilt after the earthquake of 1759. That one, too, suffered the disgrace of a second gigantic earthquake in 1837. Thousands of Jewish died there, and in a matter of minutes Safed became non-existent. When Sir Moses Montefiore, the great British philanthropist, visited there a year later, he was astounded to find a nucleus of survivors who were determined to rekindle the sparks of Safed. He gave them encouragement and financing, and stayed for the dedication of the first rebuilt synagogue.
The rebuilding of the Abuhav Synagogue came about through the hands of another Jewish philanthropist. An wealthy Italian scholar by the name of Rabbi Isaac Goyatos travel to Safed in the mid-1840s and was appalled at the physical state of the Jewish community. He reckoned that the Almighty had granted him wealth in order to help in the restorations of the holy sites of the ancient city. On his own inicitive, Goyatos decided to rebuild several synagogue to there former glory. The Abuhav synagogue was first on his list. He commissioned one of the outstanding architects of the Middle East to design the shul that we see today. After consulting with members of the community, he tried to remain faithful to the original dimensions of the ruined synagogue. He did not let financial considerations interfere with his project. In 1847 the Abuhav Synagogue was dedicated amidst a jubilant throng comprising the entire Jewish community of Safed.
Today, we marvel at the beauty
of the Abuhav Synagogue - and we should. It stands as a testimony
of the ancient grandeur of Safed. We feel uplifted there, as if
a portal in the heavens has opened a crack, and a ray of its divine
light has touched us. Whenever we walk there, or anywhere in the
Old City of Safed, we sense the sparks which glisten under our
feet. It is a good feeling, something we will always treasure.
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