Jewish Studies Safed
Eli Yassif
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0030


Safed (in Hebrew, Tzfat) is a small town in the Upper (northern) Galilee, known only from late antiquity as inhabited by Jews. Until the 16th century, it was an unimportant village visited rarely by Jewish travelers and pilgrims to the many holy graves and sacred sites located in the Upper Galilee. Only in the early 16th century—after the Ottoman conquering of Palestine and the settlement of the Jews who were expelled from Spain (1492) in the Galilee—Safed started to establish its place as one of the most important centers of Judaism in the Early Modern period. In about half a century—the second part of the 16th century—almost all the important creativity of Jewish culture was concentrated in Safed: halakha (religious law), moral codes, mystical learning, religious and secular poetry, commentaries to the sacred books, newly established rituals, oral narratives—myths and legends, and foundations for new sites for pilgrimage (the holy graves). In the beginning of the 17th century, the decline of the Safed Center was underway. The deterioration of the security of the Jewish communities in and out of Safed, the decline of its economy as an outcome of the Industrial Revolution in Western Europe, the long and dangerous routs of trade, the high level of taxes—all these led to social tensions among the various Jewish communities in the town and consequently to the immigration of the stronger layers of its society to Jerusalem, Damascus, and other centers of Jewish lifearound the Mediterranean. However, the decline of Safed itself did not diminish its spiritual impact on Jewish culture in the centuries to come. The halakha developed in Safed became the basis of Jewish religious law, untilthe early 21st century. The Lurianic Kabbalah became the most influential of Jewish mystical doctrines. The Safed ethical codes remain in the early 21st century as the foundation of Jewish ethical concepts, as well as the rituals, myths, and legends developed during the golden age of Safed. The miracle of Safed lies right here: how a small and peripheral center, during a short period of about half a century, succeeded to gain such an impact on Jewish religious culture for the periods to come.

General Overviews

The importance of Safed for modern Judaism has been known for centuries; however, the broad picture, the rich and various fields of culture developed there in the 16th century and their implications were stated firmly and in a scholarly manner for the first time in Schechter 1908. This is the classic essay that opened the way for all future studies of this place and time. Later overview essays written by central political-cultural figures described Safed—from an extensive local (Ben-Zvi 1975) or political-Zionist (Shazar 1950) perspective—as a model for both future settlement and the Land of Israel. Werblowsky 1987 and Meroz 2003 presented general scholarly, balanced essays that emphasize the mystical-ritual and messianic perspective and heritage of the Safed culture for later generations. Hacker 1987 places the intellectual activity of the Safed community in the context of the Ottoman Empire and the Jewish communities acting in it. The first comprehensive bibliography on Safed history and culture is Ben-Menachem 1962, which enlists 504 entries. Although outdated, it is an important source of evidence for the impact of the Schechter essay and for the importance Safed gained during the forthcoming years in Jewish Studies.

  • Ben-Menachem, Naftali. “Pirsumim al-Tzfat: Reshima Bibliografit.” Sefunot 6 (1962): 475–503.

    The first and only comprehensive bibliography on Safed. The list includes 504 entries, including a detailed index. The importance of this bibliography lies not only in the past—the achievements until 1962—but also for the future: how the study of the various branches of study enlisted here has been developed by Jewish Studies since then.

  • Ben-Zvi, Izhak. “Tkufat ha-Zohar shel Tzfat.” In Eretz Yisrael ve-Yishuva Bitkufat ha-Shilton ha-Ottomany. Edited by Izhak Ben-Zvi, 169–187. Jerusalem: Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi, 1975.

    This essay, by the second president of the State of Israel and an important scholar of the geography and history of the Land of Israel, focuses on the space and landscape of Safed in northern Galilee, the relationships between place and habitat, and the cultural achievements of Safed. Originally published in 1955.

  • Hacker, Joseph. “The Intellectual Activity of the Jews of the Ottoman Empire during the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries.” In Jewish Thought in the Seventeenth Century. Edited by Isadore Twersky and Bernard Septimus, 95–135. Harvard Judaic Texts and Studies 6. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987.

    A comprehensive survey of the place of the Jewish communities of the 16th–17th centuries in the intellectual life of the Ottoman Empire. Hacker looks at the intellectual activity as part of the large historical and social complex of the Jewish communities of the time.

  • Meroz, Ronit. “Hayei ha-Ruakh bi-Tzfat ba-Meʾa ha-16.” Ariel 157–158 (2003): 82–90.

    An up-to-date overview of 16th-century Safed. Although with more popular intentions, it presents almost a full picture of spiritual life and creativity in Safed at that time.

  • Schechter, Solomon. “Safed in the Sixteenth Century: A City of Legists and Mystics.” In Studies in Judaism: Second Series. Edited by Solomon Schechter, 202–306. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1908.

    One of the best essays ever published in modern Jewish Studies. Schechter integrated, for the first time ever, most of the data known to us about Safed in the 16th century and suggested an exemplary interdisciplinary study of its culture. This essay was the starting point for the future almost-independent branch of study dedicated to Safed.

  • Shazar, Zalman. “Tzofayikh Tzfat.” In Kokhvey Boker: Sipurei Zikhronot u-Firḳe Masah. Edited by Zalman Shazar, 195–234. Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 1950.

    This essay by the third president of the State of Israel, and one of the leading Zionist thinkers, is an ideological-political overview. It attempts to look at Safed in the 16th century as a pioneer Zionist community, which predated the newly established State of Israel, and suggests Safed should play also as a role model for its life and culture.

  • Werblowsky, R. J. Zwi. “The Safed Revival and Its Aftermath.” In Jewish Spirituality. Vol. 2, From the Sixteenth-Century Revival to the Present. Edited by Arthur Green, 7–33. World Spirituality 14. New York: Crossroad, 1987.

    Werblowsky returns in this essay, almost forty years after his classic book on R. Joseph Karo (Werblowsky 1962, cited under Biography), to Safed. In his masterful way, he describes the spiritual life and achievements of the major figures in the fields of rabbinic halakha, Mystical Visions, messianic expectation, ethical rules, rituals, and their impact on the future of Judaism.

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