Blog  The Crusades & The City of Kabbalah, Tzfat

The Crusades & The City of Kabbalah, Tzfat

Yesterday was a long all-day tiyul to a Crusader fortress and to the city of Tzfat. Our first stop was the Crusader fortress named Kokhav HaYarden (Star of the Jordan), more commonly known as Belvoir, which means beautiful view.

True to its name, we did have a beautiful view. We could see all around us, all the way to Jordan and to the Golan Heights. For the Crusaders this height was strategic so the Crusaders could see everyone down below, and shoot at any attackers. The Crusaders put a lot of thought into the structure of the fortress, which I thought was really cool. The walls were smooth, flat, and really tall, making them impossible to climb up without being shot at or having hot oil poured on you. There were lots of sharp corners in the hallways which meant that any attackers would have to leave one of their sides exposed as they maneuvered through the fortress with their shields. The Crusaders even designed a hidden staircase out of the fortress so they could leave and get food while under siege.

We started the day by learning about the history leading up to the Crusades. In the late 9th century in Western Europe, tensions were growing between the Emperor and the Pope as both individuals struggled to be the dominant power. In his famous speech, Pope Urban II claimed that the Muslims in Israel were violently oppressing the Christians, and that it was Christians’ god-given duty to march to Jerusalem and reclaim the city and the Holy Sepulcher. Urban claimed that anyone who went on the Crusade would be rewarded with wealth and everlasting life. Even though it was a false narrative, many people were inspired to go on the Crusades, and were willing to wipe out anyone who got in the way, including Jews. Jews were generally living well as merchants outside the feudal system. But as the Crusaders passed through Europe they ravaged thriving Jewish communities.

The Crusades can be seen as a turning point for the Jews living in Christian Europe during the Middle Ages because it marks the beginning of modern anti-Semitism. The first massacre of Jews, known as the Tatnu Massacre, occurred during the Crusades. The hateful feelings towards Jews continued after the Crusades. We learned about the various claims against Jews that arose after the Crusades, including blood libels, desecration of the host, and poisoning of the wells.
Next we went to Tzfat, one of the four holy cities in Judaism. Tzfat is known for being a center for Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism. Kabbalah is all about transcendence onto the deeper, “secret” level of Jewish understanding. It’s centered around the connection between body and spirit, and connection to God through intense learning and meditation. Honestly it is kind of confusing, but I guess I don’t get it because I’m just not on the same spiritual level.

We learned that Kabbalah emerged in Spain. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai wrote the Zohar, an extremely important book on Kabbalah in Spain. However, during the Spanish Inquisition, Jews were forced to convert to Christianity or were forcibly expelled from Spain. The theory was that the Spanish Inquisition happened because of Chevlei Mashiach, “birth pangs of the Messiah”: because the Jews underwent such a terrible thing in Spain, it was only logical that the Mashiach would soon be coming to fix the world. Some Jews went back to Israel, and by 1550 Tzfat had become the major center for Kabbalah.

The Rabbis of Tzfat tried to bring about the Mashiach in different ways. Yosef Caro believed that through strict practice of halacha, Jews could bring the Messiah. Caro wrote the Shulchan Aruch, one of the most important books of halacha, which is still referred to today. Moshe Cordovera established the philosophical foundation of Kabbalah. He came up with Pardes analysis, the four levels of textual understanding. To truly understand Kabbalah, you have to be on the “secret” level of Pardes. Cordovera also came up with the Ten Sefirot, the ten aspects of Kabbalah. You must touch all ten to connect to God and bring about the Messiah. Finally, Yitzchak Luria believed that Caro and Cordovera’s combined philosophies would bring about the Messiah. Luria was also notable because he gave us Kabbalat Shabbat, which lets us joyously celebrate the coming of Shabbat.

I loved Tzfat; I think it’s a really beautiful city. I loved walking down the narrow streets and looking at all the beautiful Jewish art. Everything is painted blue, which was so pretty and gave everything a happy, airy vibe. The synagogues were really beautiful and I loved learning about the history of the artifacts in the synagogues.

Eliora Goodman is a junior from Lexington, Massachusetts. She belongs to Congregation Beth El and was a member of Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing!.