Wearing Sandals in Sfat
By James ha Levi
I wore the wrong shoes for a day in Sfat. In Sfat when you are at the top of a hill you are at the foot of another. Hills and more hills and steps to more hills. At the end of the day my feet were bruised, blistered, and my nails were torn and cracked. No blood though.
On that sunny day in July of 2001, Jon Waybright and I along with our delightful translator, Hanna (she also wore the wrong shoes) made our way down the stone steps from near the top of Sfat to the tombs of the Tsadikim (the righteous men), "the blue tombs". In one of the tombs we met a man who, it seemed, spent all of his days, all of his beautiful, G-d created days, in the same dark tomb of an eleventh century "prophet". The man in the tomb blessed us all.
At the outside tomb of Joseph Caro in all that shiny blue we met a young girl praying for a husband and marriage. The top of Caro's grave was cluttered with candles, coin boxes, and tiny prayer books in Hebrew. It didn't look much like a prepared table.
One of the tombs farther down the hill was nothing more than a manicured hole in the side of a hill. You literally had to get down on all fours and crawl inside of it. I went in and noticed there was a clutter of candles some lit and others dead. There was a heavy metal plaque hanging on the north wall of the cave. I called for Hanna to translate. She crawled right in and we huddled in front of the plaque with candles trying to read it.
It was a block of continuous Hebrew script and at first Hanna was quick to dismiss it as nonsense. I had seen it before. It was a Kabbalistic writing formula. By altering the spaces between the letters and realizing that there are words that are overlapping and readable from all directions, an interaction between reader and text happens. After I told this to Hanna she picked up on it and in no time she was unraveling the story of the man whose tomb we were in. The plaque mentioned his name and considered him a lion at the same time considering him a lamb. The three words were comprised of one connector and multiple combinations, like a branch of a tree (temurah). We spent the whole sunny day climbing and crawling around in those tombs figuring out whose they were and what codes they contained. It was probably child's play for the wise Chasidim but for us it was magic.
We left the tombs and climbed our way back up the mountain near the top of Sfat.
Earlier that day just after we arrived, we were walking around the colorful town of artists and mystics noticing how empty it was. It was a Wednesday. Just then an excited Lubavitch yeshiva student named "Yossi" ran up to us and asked Jon and I if we wanted to come up to the yeshiva and put on tefillin and pray. Jon declined and I told Yossi at the end of our visit to the blue tombs I would come up and pray.
Now Hanna and I were off to find the yeshiva while Jon went off to retrieve the car. We walked north up a hill to a grocery store and Hanna asked the owner where the yeshiva was located. He directed us directly next door to an alley entrance. In the alley was a set of stairs leading up to a few levels with doors. An older Chasid was coming out of one of the doors and locking it. Hanna asked if this was the yeshiva. The Chasid looked at me and answered yes. Hanna then asked him if it was alright if I came up to pray and the Chasid said it was alright if I came up but Hanna was not permitted.
Hanna asked, "I wait here or the car?"
I said, "Whatever you're comfortable doing."
"I'll wait here."
The grocery store owner gave her a chair and returned to his store. Hanna sat in the slow setting sun at the entrance of the alley. I went up the stairs alone while three young yeshiva students quietly stared at this wild-haired tattooed man coming to ask to pray and put on tefillin. I probably looked like an alien to them and I was instantly reminded of a Saul Bellow quote from his book To Jerusalem and Back: "In me he sees what deformities the modern age can produce in the seed of Abraham." One of the students, Shlo, offered to take me up and the older Chasid, looking relieved, went down the stairs and out the alley.
Shlo and I walked up the stairs to the door of the yeshiva's study/prayer room. I put a shirt on and kissed the mezuzah. Shlo and I entered the room.
The room was full of students buzzing with prayer and study and argument. The room was full of books from the floor to the ceiling. Every eye came up from the word to the door and a hush went around the room then they all quickly returned to the word. We found a corner and began praying. Shlo told me during the wrapping of tefillin that G-d has many names and in the wrapping of tefillin one spells a few of the names of G-d. We prayed quietly. Yossi, the excited one from earlier that morning came noisily running up to apologize for his absence. Shlo and I dismissed him quietly and returned to our praying in Hebrew.
After praying Shlo told me he wanted to chat with me. I declined telling him I had people waiting. He smiled in an elderly way as if wise beyond his seventeen years.
I thanked him, "Todah Rabbah!"
I said my goodbyes, "Shalom, shalom."
I kissed the mezuzah as I left the yeshiva.
Hanna was still sitting in the chair the grocery store owner gave her as I descended from the stairs and out of the narrow alley. We found our way to the automobile and Jon drove us south to the Sea of Galilee. Instead of kissing the mezuzah I wanted to kiss Hanna. I can only guess as to what Shlo wanted to chat about.
from the April Passover 2005 Edition of the Jewish Magazine