Zefat is in the Northern part of Israel. It is 900 metres above sea level and is the highest city in Israel. Zefat has warm summers and cold winters due to its height. According to tradition Zefat is one of Judaism’s Four Holy Cities, along with Jerusalem, Hebron and Tiberias. These correspond to the four elements being Hebron-earth, Zefat-wind, Jerusalem-fire and Tiberias-water. The city has been a centre for the study of Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism since the middle ages. Zefat is a popular holiday resort frequented by Israelis and foreign visitors due to its mild climate, scenic views history and mysticism.
The history of the city of dates back over 2 000 years. It has been continuously occupied since the time of the Second Temple. During the Roman period Zefat was known as Sepph. During this period it was a fortified Jewish town in the Upper Galilee. It is mentioned by the Roman-Jewish historian Josephus. Zefat is also mentioned in the Jerusalem Talmud as one of five elevated spots where fires were lit to announce the New Moon and festivals during the Second Temple period. According to the Book of Judges (1:17) the surrounding area was given to the Tribe of Naphtali. Legend has it that Zefat was founded by a son of Noah after the Great Flood.
Very little is known about the city before the Crusader conquest in 1099. During the 12th century Zefat was a fortified Crusaders’ city in the Kingdom of Jerusalem that was known by the Crusaders as Saphet. In 1168 King Fulk built a fortified castle which was guarded by the Templar Knights. Benjamin of Tudela who visited the town in 1170 does not mention any Jews as living there.
Following a long siege which lasted a year after Saladin’s magnificent victory at the Battle of Hattin he led the Ayyubids to capture Zefat in 1188. Saladin ultimately allowed its residents to relocate to Tyre. In 1210 and Samuel ben Samson visited Zefat and recorded that there was a Jewish community of around fifty living there. The Ayyubid emir of Damascus, al-Mu’azzam ‘Isa, had the fortress of Zefat demolished to prevent its potential capture by the Crusaders. In 1240, Theobald I of Navarre made a treaty with the Muslim Ayyubids of Damascus against Egypt and re-established the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem including Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, and most of the region of Galilee, including Zefat. They refortified the city and rebuilt the fortress.
Latter the Mamluk sultan Baybars declared the treaty invalid In 1260 due to the Christians alliance with the Mongol Empire against the Muslims. He attacked the crusader castles in the area, including on Zefat. In 1266, during a Mamluk military campaign against the Crusader strongholds in Baybars captured Zefat in July, following a failed attempt to capture the Crusaders’ coastal stronghold of Acre. Unlike the coastal Crusader fortresses, which were demolished upon their capture by the Mamluks, Baybars spared Zefat from destruction. He appointed a governor in charge of the fortress. It is likely the he preserved Zefat because the fortress was seen to be of strategically valuable due to its location on a high mountain and its isolation from other Crusader fortresses. Also, Baybars thought that in the event of a renewed Crusader invasion of the coastal region, a strongly fortified Zefat would be an ideal headquarters to confront the Crusader threat. In 1268 Baybars expanded and strengthened fortress. He also instigated numerous building works in the town, including markets, baths and a caravanserai. He also converted the town’s church into a mosque.
According to al-Dimashqi, who died in Zefat in 1327, writing around 1300, Baybars built a ‘round tower and called it Kullah …’ after destroying the old fortress. The tower is consists of three stories and is provided with provisions, and halls, and magazines. Under the place is a cistern for rain-water, sufficient to supply the garrison of the fortress from year’s end to year’s end. According to Abu’l Fida, Zefat ‘was a town of medium size. It has a very strongly built castle, which dominates the Lake of Tabariyyah. There are underground watercourses, which bring drinking-water up to the castle-gate…Its suburbs cover three hills… Since the place was conquered by Al Malik Adh Dhahir Baybars from the Franks Crusaders, it has been made the central station for the troops who guard all the coast-towns of that district.’
Under Baybars’ Ottoman rule, Zefat became a prosperous town and the administrative centre of Mamlakat Safad, a province in Mamluk Syria whose jurisdiction included the Galilee and the lands up to Jenin and extended to the Mediterranean coast. This sanjak was part of the Eyalet of Damascus until 1660, when it was united with the Sanjak of Sidon. From the mid-19th century it was part of Sidon. The orthodox Sunni courts arbitrated over cases in ‘Akbara, Ein al-Zeitun and as far away as Mejdel Islim. In 1549, under Sultan Suleiman I, a wall was constructed and troops were stationed to protect the city. In 1553-4, the population consisted of 1,121 Muslim households, 222 Muslim bachelors, 54 Muslim religious leaders, 716 Jewish households, 56 Jewish bachelors, and 9 disabled persons.
Zefat became known in the 16th century as a centre of Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism. After the expulsion of all the Jews from Spain in 1492, many prominent rabbis found their way to Zefat, among them the Kabbalists Isaac Luria and Moshe Kordovero. Joseph Caro, the author of the Shulchan Aruch and Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz, composer of the Sabbath hymn ‘Lecha Dodi’ also resided in Zefat. The influx of Sephardi Jews reached its peak under the rule of Sultans Suleiman I and Selim II and established Zefat a centre for Jewish learning and a regional centre for trade throughout 15th and 16th centuries. During the early Ottoman period from 1525–26, the population of Zefat consisted of 633 Muslim families, 40 Muslim bachelors, 26 Muslim religious persons, nine Muslim disabled, 232 Jewish families, and 60 military families. A Hebrew printing press was established in Zefat in 1577 by Eliezer Ashkenazi and his son, Isaac of Prague. This undoubtedly assisted the spread of the Shulchan Aruch. In 1584, there were 32 synagogues registered in the town.
The Jews were subjected to violent assaults during the transition from Egyptian to Ottoman-Turkish rule in 1517 many were murdered and looting was common place. Local sheikhs were side-lined by the change in authority, sought to reassert their control after being removed from power by the incoming Turks. There was major economic decline after 1560 and the expulsion decrees of 193 depleted the Jewish community. Jews who remained were assaulted by local Arabs. In 1589 and 1594 two epidemics further diminished the Jewish population. The Kurdish quarter was established in the Middle Ages and continued through to the 19th century.
During the 17th century the Jewish settlements including Zefat in the Galilee declined both economically and demographically. Around 1625, Quaresmius spoke of the town being inhabited ‘chiefly by Hebrews, who had their synagogues and schools, and for whose sustenance contributions were made by the Jews in other parts of the world.’ In 1628, the city fell to the Druze and five years later was retaken by Ottomans. In 1660, in the turmoil following the death of Mulhim Ma’an, the Druze destroyed Zefat and Tiberias, with only a few of the former Jewish residents returning to Zefat by 1662. Tiberias remained desolate for several decades and Zefat gained importance among Galilean Jewish communities. In 1665, the Sabbatai Sevi movement is said to have arrived in the town.
Plague decimated the population in 1742 and the earthquakes of 1759 left the city in ruins, killing 200 people. The Jewish community was revived in the 18th and 19th century by an influx Russian Jews in 1776 and 1781 and by Lithuanian Jews of the Perushim in 1809 and 1810. In 1812, another plague killed 80% of the Jewish population, and, in 1819, the remaining Jewish residents were held for ransom by Abdullah Pasha, Acre-based governor of Sidon. During the period of Egyptian domination, the city experienced a severe decline, with the Jewish community hit particularly hard. In the 1834 looting of Zefat, much of the Jewish quarter was destroyed by rebel Arabs, who plundered the city for many weeks.
In 1837 there were around 4,000 Jews in Zefat. The Galilee earthquake of 1837 was particularly catastrophic for the Jewish population, as the Jewish quarter was located on the hillside. About half their number perished, resulting in around 2,000 deaths. Of the 2,158 inhabitants killed, 1507 were Ottoman subjects. The southern, Moslem section of the town suffered far less damage. In 1838, the Druze rebels robbed the city over the course of three days, killing many among the Jews. In 1840, Ottoman rule was restored. In 1847, plague struck Zefat again. The Jewish population increased in the last half of the 19th century by immigration from Persia, Morocco, and Algeria. Moses Montefiore visited Zefat seven times and financed rebuilding of much of the town. The Kaddoura family was a major political force in Zefat. At the end of Ottoman rule the family owned 50,000 dunams including eight villages around Zefat.
Zefat was the centre of Safad Subdistrict. During the 1920s tensions between Jews and Arabs rose under the British Mandate. In 1929 during the Palestine riots Zefat and Hebron became major centres of unrest and conflict. In the Zefat massacre 20 Jewish residents were killed by local Arabs. Zefat was included in the part of Palestine allocated for the proposed Jewish state under the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine.
By 1948, the city was home to around 1,700 Jews, mostly religious and elderly, as well as some 12,000 Arabs. On 5 January 1948, Arabs attacked the Jewish Quarter. In February 1948, during the civil w