Day 11: Tzfat

Trip Start May 14, 2008
Trip End Jun 17, 2008

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Flag of Israel  , Galilee,
Monday, May 26, 2008

Today is our day in Sfat.   This town, Israel's highest, is both an artists' colony and a long-established religious community.  It is the center of the mystical interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures called Cabala (Cabbala, Kabala, and Kabbalah).    In order to be prepared for a mystical experience, before leaving the states, we read a book on Kabbalah and also some material on the internet.  We have scheduled a private tour of the city and a meditation experience with The International Center for Tzfat Kabbalah (  When we told our friends that we were going to Israel for over a month they often asked what we would be doing for so long a period.   When you travel in a group you are assured of hitting the highlights, but because of the group's schedule you may miss some of the texture of the places that you visit.  We tend to travel on our own.  As a result we often get lost, end up in out of the way places and have unique experiences.  So it takes us longer than most people to visit a place.  We only have one day in Sfat and we wanted to get the most out it so we decided to have a bit more structure.  You may have thought there is a typographical error with our spelling of Sfat and Tzfat.  There are at least four ways to spell the town's name:  Tzfat, Safed, Zefat, and Zsfat.  This town with so many different spellings offers so many possible ways of exploring and discovery. 

Of course we have trouble finding the office but being very experienced at being lost we actually arrive a few minutes early at The International Center for Tzfat Kabbalah. They are surprised that we actually found it without having to call.  We had met a young man with his son who was going our way and that helped a lot.  Our guide, Mordecai, arrives a few minutes after us.  He is studying in a Yeshiva and does guiding to supplement his income.  He is the son of a hippie rabbi who moved to Israel in the 1970's.  The people in the office wore traditional black clothing.  Mordecai showed up with long hair and wearing a multicolored shirt.  He starts off by discussing the four holy cities in Israel: Jerusalem, (fire), Sfat (wind, or spirit), Hebron (earth) and Tiberias (water).  As an aside, we were in Tiberias today (May 27th) and I find it very hard to believe it is a holy city.  Anyway we are dealing with Sfat, the holy city of spirit.  Kabbalah focuses on seeing beneath the surface.  Things have deeper meaning than the obvious.  Everything has a meaning.  We talk about how people studying Kabbalah aspire to be a Tzadik.  I had always thought this meant a wise man, but it means more.  It refers to people who are not only wise and knowledgeable, but who never even have a negative thought.

At our first stop this concept is put to the test.  Mordecai is reviewing the history of Sfat and discussing one of the many synagogues when a fight breaks out between two elderly men wearing the religious uniforms.  It starts with some yelling, moves on to pushing and continues to punches.  Mordecai rushes to intervene and receives a few punches for his efforts.  A rabbi comes out to calm things down but in the end the police are called.  This is our introduction to the holy city of spirit!

After this things move along quite smoothly.  We visit a number of synagogues and discuss the teachers associated with each one.  Mordecai translates some of the texts for us.  One rabbi wrote a detailed guide for living, telling you what to do from the moment you wake up.  This proved to be too detailed for most of his students so he wrote an abridged version.  It begins with the advice to wake up with great energy and rise before dawn so that you greet the day rather than wait for it.

Mordecai is a great storyteller.  Apparently Kabbalah is often taught by using allegorical stories.  This leads us to ask about the movie we saw the day before when we visited the Talmudic village of Katrin.  Mordecai knew exactly which movie it was and remarks how wonderful it was.  When we tell him that we did not understand what it was trying to relate I think he realized that although it was a great story he did not get the point either.  Finally he says it was showing that we should be tolerant of others.

As our tour progresses we are amazed at how many of the concepts of Kabbalah we actually agree with.  For example, when we think that someone is acting in a totally illogical manner we try to look at the situation from his perspective before we tell him that he is crazy.  We totally enjoy the tour with Mordecai.  After a couple of hours he returns us to the office so that we can have lunch before our afternoon meditation experience.

Liat, from the Sfat Kabbalah Center, walks us down the street to a Yemenite lunch stand.  We have what appears to be a Yemenite pizza and sit on a couch observing the goings on.  After a few minutes we look like we are experienced locals so the tourists start asking our advice on the menu.  Without any hesitation we give sage mystical advice, like beware of the super hot chili.

Returning to the office there was a slight change of plans.  Our afternoon guide must have cancelled because Ayael, the director is going to lead us.  We leave Sfat in our car and drive to a nearby forest to visit an ancient synagogue.  Then we go to the tomb of Rabbi Shimon, a great Tzadik.  People visit his grave to pray for finding the right spouse and any other family issues.  The place is a madhouse.  There are busloads of people.  We find a relatively quite spot and Ayael leads us through some guided imagery for meditation.  It is quite peaceful even with all the sounds of tour bus engines and people calling out to each other.  We walk over to the tomb and split up with Marge going to the women's side and Harvey joining Ayael on the men's side.   In Harvey's words: The tradition is to read a Psalm of David.  The Psalm is based on your age so I got Psalm 59.  Ayael translates from the Hebrew because no English versions are available.  This reminds me why the administration of my Hebrew school found me so difficult.  I always had to interpret and comment on what I read.  In this Psalm, David keeps telling God how merciful he is and then asking Him to smite his enemies etc.  It is like reading Mark Twain's Letter's from the Earth.  Ayael points out that these were bad people.  But it seems to me that anyone who opposed King David was a bad person.  You get the idea.  Anyway Ayael is great.  He seems to enjoy the discussion and we move on.  In Margie's words:  On the woman's side, I try to find an English version of The Book of Psalms.  With no such luck, I join other women on the benches that line the room and just observe.  Women walk up to the shrine, put both hands on it as well as their head, and pray.  Some leave a piece of paper with a hope or wish written on it or a donation in the metal boxes at the top of the shrine.  Women congregate on the stairs and next to the window, some talking with one another.  This is a private personal event as well as a social one.  A woman sits down next to me and starts speaking in Hebrew, pointing at my camera and to another woman who she evidently is with.  They both motion to me to take a picture of them as well as the shrine.  I move to do this, and then a group of three other women motion to me to take their photos!  Then, another woman walks up and I manage to understand that photographs are not supposed to be taken here.  So I stop.  I sit on the side and close my eyes.  The men on the other side of the wall are chanting quite loudly.  Between the women and the men, the sounds are like a wave, sometimes loud, sometimes low.  All are the sounds of devout, involved prayer with some chatting and talking in the background.  After some time, I walk outside the shrine and join Harvey and Ayael.

After leaving Ayael, we wander around the Artist's Colony, with its winding narrow walking street with galleries of paintings, sculpture and crafts.  A photographer has images of Sfat that could only be captured by living in the community and there were interesting overlays of colors and texture.  There are also souvenir Judaica shops full of mezuzah, necklaces and other items of a less daily use.  One item that attracts interest by the busloads of students is the shofar; periodically we hear someone trying to blow through it and a friend make comments of encouragement to definitely bring that home.  We take some pictures, of course.

We walk some of the back alleys of the Old City and only one block away from the main pedestrian street of the Artists Colony, it is quiet.  It seems time to head back to Vered Hagalil, so we meander our way to our car. Enroute it seems as though the people of Sfat are ending one part of their day and beginning another, just as we tourists are leaving.  Talmudic students are sitting in a small soft drink spot.  On another alley, we pass other Talmudic students playing musical instruments.  They are just starting and seem to be playing interesting rhythms, and we are tempted to stop and listen in the small park where they are situated. But Harvey checks his pockets and we have given out our coins during the day, so we keep moving.  Just around the corner, we hear more guitar music and look up an alley and there are two more young men playing!   It might have been interesting to stay overnight in Sfat to experience the music of these students who are playing and at the same time raising some money.    That will be for our next trip to Israel!

Monday's intention is "Keep Perspective.  All things are transient.  (Subtitle:  This too will pass).  Today there were so many ideas flowing it was engrossing.  For both of us, it will take some more time to absorb our experience in Sfat.
Click here for today's photos!
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