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One last Shabbat in Tzfat

By Jacqueline Mai

I’ve spent nearly 3 weeks in Israel, and each Shabbat experience has been different. After the first week, my roommate invited us to a Shabbat dinner on the lawn of a Hebrew University dorm, and I spent that Saturday walking around Jerusalem’s Old City and praying at the Western Wall. The following week, a few classmates and I embarked on a weekend excursion in which we explored Nazareth, Tiberias, the Sea of Galilee, Tzfat, Masada, Ein Gedi, and the Dead Sea. We ushered in Shabbat in Tzfat, making shakshuka in our small Airbnb kitchen. The next morning, we raced down the country to make it to Ein Gedi—a nature reserve—and Masada before both parks closed.

Though both weekends were memorable—in that they allowed for the fostering of friendships and exploration—they lacked the restfulness that is commonly associated with Shabbat. I realized that I craved time and aloneness for introspection, so I decided to spend my last Shabbat in a way that would make those things possible. Though I had only spent a very short amount of time in Tzfat—enough to walk around the Old City—I realized how much I liked it, and vowed to return. There was still so much to see. I also understood Tzfat to be a very spiritual city, home to respected Jewish mystics from centuries ago. As a person in the process of converting to Judaism, I felt that it would only be right that I spend the holiest of holidays in the one of the holiest of cities.

I arrived in Tzfat a little after noon on Friday, and checked into my hotel. My partner had suggested that I find a nice place for myself in order to feel some semblance of a vacation, so I opted for the Rosenthalis Hotel, which lies on the edge of Tzfat’s Artist Gallery. My room—which was atop a series of cobblestone steps, allowing me to see the rolling hills of the Galilee—contained curated paintings by Moshe Rosenthalis, an 20th century Lithuanian-Israeli abstract artist.

By the time I arrived, most businesses were already closed. This was rather unexpected for me, as I anticipated stores closing perhaps 3 or 4 hours before Shabbat started—as they do in Jerusalem—not 6 or more hours before. However, I wasn’t worried because I had already arranged for home-cooked food to be delivered the week prior. It seems that ordering large amounts of homemade food through email in advance is somewhat unique to religious Jewish communities. Perhaps it was because she had heard I was eating my Shabbat dinner alone, or because I sounded like a poor student (over email?), but the woman catering my food made me extra portions, at no extra charge. It’s the little things that count.

Shabbat starts similarly to how it does in Jerusalem; loudspeakers throughout Tzfat play a low horn-like sound to let observant Jews know it’s approaching. However, what’s particularly magical about Tzfat is that the same loudspeakers will also play “Shalom Aleichem” prior to the horn. This song resonates with me in part because it was the first song I learned when I fell in love with Judaism. It originated here, in Tzfat, in the 1600’s, and is sung almost universally in synagogues before Kiddush—the blessing over wine—in Friday night services.

I decided to visit the Ari Ashkenazi Synagogue in the Jewish quarter of Tzfat for Friday night services. This synagogue is important to observant Jews, as it was built in memory of Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572)—a famous kabbalist—and may be the oldest synagogue still in use in Israel. Another Jewish tradition originating in Tzfat is the act of turning to face the entrance of the synagogue when “greeting” the ‘queen’ of Shabbat as the sun sets during the singing of “Lecha Dodi.”

While there are many acts prohibited on Shabbat, it is nevertheless experienced as the best part of the week for many observant Jews. I took part in a free afternoon tour arranged by a local organization, Livnot U'Lehibanot, which had excavated many tunnels and ruins hidden beneath and around the city’s oldest quarters, including five-hundred year old structures that once held its bakeries and mikvahs. During the week, the area around the ruins operates as a marketplace.

The tour had been recommended to me by an American (now Israeli) woman whom I met while at the synagogue the night before. She also invited me back to her hotel to take part in seudah shelishit, the last meal before the end of Shabbat, with a group of students she was mentoring. Unexpectedly, what followed the meal was an emotional evening of singing liturgical hymns and celebrating the beauty of life with empowered and passionate young women from all over the world. I didn’t expect these women to listen to my story or take me in as their own, but it felt completely natural for them to do so. As I walked back to my hotel tonight, I wondered if this is what it feels like to truly be part of a global community, and to always feel like you’re home wherever you go.