Shul-Hopping in Safed: a Simhat Torah Treat
JNS.org – On Simhat Torah, it is said, the Torahs long to celebrate. But since they lack feet, we Jews need to lend them ours for 24 hours so they can dance.
Late on the night of Simhat Torah two years ago, Rabbi Dovid Klein of the northern Israeli city known in English as Safed (and in Hebrew as Tzfat) was strolling home from synagogue decked out in his trademark black coat and shtreimel (the round fur hat favored by many Hasidic men). Suddenly, he heard music and saw the crowd at the Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach-inspired House of Love and Prayer dancing up a storm on the patio overhead. “Looks like fun,” he thought. “So why not?” And without further ado, Klein climbed up the stairs and joined in.
The sight of a Hasidic fellow whirling arm-in-arm with his less traditionally attired co-religionists sums up nicely what Tzfat is all about. And at no time of the year is this lively interplay of religious expressions in such full display as on the holiday of Simhat Torah (Oct. 5-6 this year in the Diaspora, and Oct. 4-5 in Israel). That’s when Jews of all stripes come together to celebrate the completion of one year of reading Torah and begin it all over again.
“Home of the Mystics” is one way of describing Tzfat, which saw the evolution of modern Kaballah. In fact, no less than the Arizal or Holy Ari (Rabbi Isaac Luria) lived and died here back in the 16th century. His grave in Tzfat’s Old Cemetery is a popular spot for visitors interested in history or to ask the Arizal to put in a good word for their personal requests and the Jewish people. Indeed, many Jewish notables are buried here, including Rabbis Yosef Caro and Chaim Vital. And the cemetery is just down the hill from the Ari Sephardic Synagogue where the mystic master himself regularly prayed with his fellow Kabbalists and is said to have met with Elijah the prophet. Note to budding Kabbalists: 2nd-century Kabbalist and sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s grave in nearby Meron attracts thousands amid bonfires and song on his yartzheit (anniversary of death) each Lag b’Omer.
These days, some 35,000 men, women and children call Tzfat home, and a brisk tourism business supports both its historical sites, an array of artists and galleries and plenty of shops and restaurants.
But on this night and the following day, these businesses take a break, and a number of holiday traditions abound. The intrepid shul-hopper will find the occasional rabbi in front of the congregation shouting, “Tziom kiddushim (holy flock)!” He then tosses out candies and the kids come running up to collect them, bleating like sheep. None of the parties tires of the game which goes on between prayers and songs all evening long. A far cry from the sedate parade around the sanctuary with apple-topped flags, as many of us were raised on.
“What do we do? We dance and we pray,” says Aryeh Simana, who, like his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, was born in a house behind the Ari Sephardic Synagogue. The oldest in Tzfat, the shul dates back to the 15th century and both Rabbi Luria and Rabbi Caro regularly prayed here.
Both of these great Kabbalists would no doubt be surprised to see the women at the House of Love and Prayer, one of two Carlebach shuls in town, dance with the Torah. “We give a rare opportunity for women to dance with the Torah,” says longtime synagogue member Reuven Goldfarb. “It really does answer the need for women to participate more fully. But, whatever you prefer, Tzfat offers a lot of shul-hopping you can do in a few blocks. Everyone is enjoying themselves since it’s the final holiday before winter sets in.”
Tziviya Reiter has been a part of the Breslov synagogue in Tzfat nearly since her family arrived in town 28 years ago. “I discovered that, where Jerusalem is the best place for learning in Israel, Tzfat is the best place for prayer…the prayers really go up here, so Simhat Torah is very special here; all five of our kids want to be home for it,” says Reiter.
At the Breslov synagogue, she says, the men dancing is “dignified, not wild,” and the women crowd in to watch. Her favorite holiday tradition, Reiter says, is when the men tie their talises together and cover the children for a blessing. “With all the blessings we give each other on this holiday it can carry us all for the rest of the year,” she says.
Folks also come in from around Israel for the holiday, staying in the many tzimmerim (bed-and-breakfasts) that fill the city. Two years ago, when Bracha Sukenik left her Ra’anana home to celebrate Simhat Torah in Tzfat, it was the same Breslov synagogue that impressed her the most.
“It was a real, genuine spiritual experience,” says Sukenik. “The building was like a palace with high ceilings and all the Torahs dressed with heavy silver ornaments. Everyone was dressed in their best. You really felt the sense of royalty and their love of God.”
Another lasting impression was that of the Ari Sephardic Synagogue, where Sukenik and a friend were welcomed in and offered an array of Sephardic delicacies for Kiddush.
“But the best part was joining the women in this small cave in the shul where they came to light candles and pray to Hashem,” Sukenik says. “We felt a very real presence of something there, a feeling that your prayers were really wanted and came alive! There were women crying, women beseeching, women hugging each other, everyone with the faith that their prayers were received.”
Rabbi Klein likes to tell a story about Tzfat on Simhat Torah, one he heard from another rabbi in town. Some tourists came to Tzfat for the holiday after touring Jerusalem, he recounts. “They said, ‘In Jerusalem, everyone was so serious and dressed in white, and here in Tzfat you’re all dancing and singing and having a great time. Is that because you are the mystical city?’”
He continues: “Of course, the joke is that they happened to be in Jerusalem for Yom Kippur and here for Simhat Torah. But still there was something to what they saw. We have it all here: Sephardic and Chassidish, Sanz and Carlebach and everything in between. Everybody does Simhat Torah their own way, but everyone is doing it with utmost spirit, and in some way we’re all doing it together, too.”