Tourist Tip #369 / Visiting the Sages at Safed's Old Cemetery

A stroll through its graves provides a glimpse of the religious rock stars of yore.

While the Good Lord made a point of having Moses laid to rest in an unknown location in order to avoid his grave becoming a focus of worship, the tombs of great latter-day rabbis have become destinations for pilgrims. From New York (Menahem Mendel Schneerson) to Uman (Nachman of Breslov) and Mt. Meron (Shimon Bar Yochai), these deceased rabbis draw crowds like rock stars.

Safed, with its narrow streets and hilly landscape, provides a beautiful background for a visit to its old cemetery. Situated in one of the four holdy cities of Israel, it offers a Who's Who of the city's Kabbalistic history and a glimpse into the influence of some of its rabbis.

The most prominent grave belongs to Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572), who is credited with the revival of Jewish mysticism known as Kabbalah. Known as the Ari, legend has it he learned its secrets while studying in a cave with Elijah the Prophet. The synagogue named for him lies just above the cemetery.

The Kabbalist rabbis developed a tradition of walking into the fields of Safed to greet the Sabbath queen. The body of Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz, who composed the Lecha Dodi prayer recited every Friday night, is buried not far from Luria.

Below the Ari lies the author of the Shulchan Aruch, Rabbi Yosef Caro (1488-1575). Concerned with the dispersal of Sephardic Jewry after the 1492 expulsion from Spain, Caro, who was born in Toledo (Spain, not Ohio), wrote the Shulchan Aruch, which literally means the arranged table,  in order to simply Jewish law and make it more accessible to the masses. Ironically, it is Ashkenazi Jewry that has embraced the Shulchan Aruch and turned it into a reference for Orthodox stringency.

Several rabbis are buried in the Cave of the Elders, above which lies Rabbi Moshe Alshich, a disciple of Rabbi Caro known for delvering great sermons.

A striking feature of the cemetery is the plethora of blue-painted stone tombs. Rabbi Caro is credited with saying that the blue represents heaven, and so prayer at the light-blue graves, reserved for the great rabbis, may be directed in the right direction.

Many blue graves belong to rabbi's whose stories are buried in the annals of the Safed community or of travelers to the Holy Land over the centuries. One such rabbi was Ya'akov Dov Berish, known as the Rav from Roman (in Romania), who was a prominent community leader in Safed in the 1840s. On May 6, 1852, on the eve of the Lag B'Omer holiday, he was interviewed by Prof. Horatio Balch Hackett, a scholar in Hebrew and classical literature and Baptist minister. Prof. Hackett published excerpts of the interview in a Christian journal, in which he inquired about the Jews' view of the Messiah.

The Rav from Roman, whose grave is about 20 meters from the Ari, answered him that the world "in fact is never without a Messiah, though he has never yet made himself known as such." The reverend then asked him "where the Messiah would first show himself in this manner."

"Certainly in Galilee," replied Ya'akov Dov according to Hackett, "but whether in the holy city of Safet (sic) or of Tiberias was a point disputed among them."

Steven Klein
Steven Klein
Steven Klein
Steven Klein