The Leg­end of Safed: Life and Fan­ta­sy in the City of Kabbalah

Eli Yas­sif, Haim Watz­man (trans.)

  • Review
By – August 5, 2019

The city of Safed (pro­nounced Tzafat), perched on a moun­tain top in north­ern Israel, has cap­ti­vat­ed imag­i­na­tions for cen­turies. Under­stood to be the epi­cen­ter of Judaism’s mys­ti­cism move­ment, The Leg­end of Safed: Life and Fan­ta­sy in the City of Kab­bal­ah, by Eli Yas­sif, is a close read­ing of the folk­lore that sur­rounds this ancient city. The author con­cen­trates his stud­ies around the year 1600, when Isaac Luria and his dis­ci­ple Hayy­im Vital devel­oped the foun­da­tions of Luri­an­ic Kabbalah.

Yas­sif, a pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of Hebrew Lit­er­a­ture and Jew­ish Folk­lore at Tel Aviv Uni­ver­si­ty, explores these leg­ends with the goal of under­stand­ing the thoughts and feel­ings of the aver­age per­son who lived in Safed dur­ing its most vibrant peri­od. Uti­liz­ing the New His­tori­cism approach, the author strives to iden­ti­fy the human beings, the human voice behind the great’ his­tor­i­cal and spir­i­tu­al events.”

The Leg­end of Safed is divid­ed into sev­en chap­ters. The author quotes gen­er­ous­ly from pri­ma­ry sources and offers detailed analy­sis, often sup­port­ed by addi­tion­al orig­i­nal sources, to bol­ster his argu­ments. Each chap­ter adds anoth­er lay­er to the author’s mul­ti­fac­eted pic­ture of Safed as both a world of mys­ti­cal reli­gios­i­ty and mun­dane, often gloomy, real­i­ty. Tak­en as a whole, Yas­sif offers a well-doc­u­ment­ed analy­sis of the com­plex­i­ty of life in Safed in the 1600s.

Chap­ter two, titled The Myth and Its Dis­en­chant­ment, shares a leg­end about an inter­change between Rab­bi Ya’akov Abu­lafia, a renowned halakhic author­i­ty, and Rab­bi Isaac Luria. Before set­ting out on a fundrais­ing trip to Egypt, Abu­lafia seeks a bless­ing from Luria, who fore­tells that Abulafia’s jour­ney is for a pur­pose beyond fundrais­ing. Dur­ing his return to Safed, Abu­lafia sees fel­low trav­el­ers trans­formed into oxen and returns to Luria for an expla­na­tion. Abu­lafia is pre­sent­ed as unable to com­pre­hend the sig­nif­i­cance of his expe­ri­ence or its reli­gious char­ac­ter. Luria pro­ceeds to explain that the trans­for­ma­tion was divine pun­ish­ment for shav­ing off one’s side­locks and that Abulafia’s con­tin­ued prayer would relieve these sin­ners from pun­ish­ment. Yas­sif under­stands this leg­end to be one of many that speak to the ten­sion been the kab­bal­ist and halakhic move­ments in Safed, ulti­mate­ly designed to show the pri­ma­cy of Isaac Luria, his dis­ci­ples, and the mys­ti­cal movement.

The Leg­end of Safed is a com­plex work, which demands both a care­ful read­ing of the quot­ed leg­ends and the authors in depth expli­ca­tion. The author’s analy­sis con­cludes by liken­ing the ten­sion found in Safed cir­ca 1600 to that of the Zion­ist move­ment and Israel today; the author also par­al­lels the con­tra­dic­tions of 400 years ago to mod­ern Safed. In today’s Safed the mem­bers of the mys­ti­cal-reli­gious sects make con­sid­er­able use of the ser­vices offered by the mod­ern city,” the author reminds us. This blend­ing, he sug­gests, is writ­ten into the DNA of the city, and make it as com­pelling a des­ti­na­tion in the mod­ern peri­od as it has been for centuries.

Jonathan Fass is the Man­ag­ing Direc­tor of Edu­ca­tion­al Tech­nol­o­gy and Strat­e­gy at The Jew­ish Edu­ca­tion Project of New York.

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