The recent upsurge of interest in Kabbalah has brought new waves of tourists to Safed, known as the City of Kabbalah.
Yet most tourists are unsure exactly what Kabbalah is or how Safed is connected to the discipline of Jewish mysticism.
According to Jewish tradition "Kabbalah" means "to receive" and refers to the mystical secrets that are accessible through the readings of the Five Books of Moses -- the Torah. God provided Man with these secrets, Kabbalists teach, so that Man can use those secrets to strengthen his relationship with God and with his fellow man.
The study of Kabbalah expanded in Safed during the 16th century when the great Kabbalistic rabbis of the era settled in the city after fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. During the 1500s Safed became known as the City of Kabbalah and was recognized as one of Judaism's Four Holy Cities.
If you're preparing to visit Safed you should plan your visit for the morning when you'll be able to see all of the synagogues that open for visitors during the daytime. (Some close mid-day for the afternoon "siesta").
In addition, as you wander around the city you'll have plenty of time to explore the windy alleys and little art galleries that dot the Old City area. There is no dress code in the city but synagogue caretakers will request that women cover their shoulders and legs (they provide shawls) and that men wear a head-covering (also provided by the synagogues) while visiting the synagogues.
Two of the synagogues that remain open for tourists during the week are named after The ARI -- Rabbi Isaac Luria -- who was the foremost Kabbalist of the 16th century. The ARI's teachings continue to influence kabbalah study today and played a great influence on the development of the Hassidic movement.
The ARI Sepharadi, at the base of the Old Jewish Quarter near the cemetery, was a functioning synagogue when the ARI lived in Safed. Legend says that he sat in a small cave in the synagogue and studied kabbalah with Elijah the Prophet. The cave is still visible today on the side of the ornately-decorated sanctuary.
Further up the hill the ARI Ashkanazi synagogue is open to visitors who can view the synagogue where the ARI stood with his students and initiated the Kabbalat Shabbat -- Welcoming of the Sabbath -- ceremony which is sung today in synagogues and temples throughout the world.
The Abuhav synagogue, a three-minute walk from the ARI Ashkanazi, is known as the "Blue Synagogue" because the perimeter of it's blue domed ceiling features pictures and etchings of animals and flowers in kabbalistic imagry.
Almost next door to the Abuhav Synagogue is the Yosef Caro synagogue where, according to tradition, Rabbi Yosef Caro sat with an angel and wrote the massive Code of Jewish Law -- the Shulhan Aruch. The cave is located below the present-day synagogue and both are open periodically throughout the day.
Visitors can take a self-guided tour of Safed using a smartphone app that guides them from site to site and provides in-depth historical, cultural and religious information about the city and its historical sites. The videos are also available online for travelers who want to view them before their visit.