Tzfat, or Safed as it is also commonly spelled, located high in the forested hills of the upper Galilee, is the city of air. What's in the air of this holy city are the secrets of the Torah. During the late fifteen hundreds, Safed was the world center of kabbalah, and from here, the kabbalah of the Ari z'l went forth. These days, Tzfat is perhaps better characterized as a city of Chassidic dynasties, since now not only Chabad chassidut but also Breslav and several other Chassidic courts have found a welcome home in Tzfat. It's no longer secret: it's all there for the asking, you only have to put yourself in the right place. For Shabbat hospitality, call R' Chaim Clorfene, at (04) 697-2533, and he'll help you get organized.

Here is a good place to give a brief history of Kabbalah. First of all, the word itself. Many people claim that kabbalah is based upon the Hebrew word lekabel, meaning "to receive," and they explain that kabbalah is a "received" tradition, handed down from generation to generation. However, that explanation ignores the fact that all Jewish law and tradition is "handed down" and comes to us through a process of reception. Therefore, a more accurate etymology may be that the word is related to hakbalah, meaning "parallel," or "corresponding."  For, one of the characteristics of kabbalah is that it draws parallels and correspondences between related topics, demonstrating the hidden unity and underlying structure of the Torah.

Kabbalah is part of the oral Torah, given to Moshe on Mt. Sinai together with the written Chumash (written Torah) and the Mishna (laws and revealed section of the oral Torah). But, while the Mishna was taught and transmitted orally to all of the Jews of the generation, the Kabbalah was passed on orally to a minimum number of Jews in each generation, anywhere from only one to ten Jews. Since the Kabbalah contains the secrets of the Torah, it was not appropriate to reveal and teach this hidden tradition to all of the Jews. This situation continued from the days of Moshe until the Jews were exiled from Israel after the destruction of the second Temple.

With the galut (exile) of the Jews after the destruction of the Temple, it became necessary to write down the oral tradition, in order to maintain the integrity and continuity of Jewish learning among a highly dispersed and troubled people. The discussions that took place among the sages regarding the laws of the Torah were recorded in the Talmud. Among the same sages (who included R' Akiva, known as the "father of the Talmud") were some who were also versed in the secrets of the Torah, and their discussions were recorded in the Zohar (in fact, R' Akiva taught kabbalah to R' Shimon bar Yochai, who wrote the Zohar). So, in fact the kabbalah was written down in the Zohar, and transmitted to a select few sages in every generation (the Talmud, in contrast, was taught and transmitted to all the Jews of every generation, though of course, not every Jew had the patience and ability to learn it). 

The Zohar itself contains a prophecy that it will be revealed in the year 1270, and so it was. R' Moshe de Leon, in Spain, revealed the Zohar to the Jewish world in the year 1270, and from that time on, it became the task of kabbalists in those years to understand and "open up" the secrets of the Zohar. This was their occupation for the next three hundred years, and it was largely successful. By the time of the Ramak (R' Moshe Cordovero) in the mid to late 1500's in Tzfat, the Zohar was well understood, aside from one section called the Safra d'tzniyuta - the "Book of Modesty." Here, there was "code" that it seemed even the most accompished kabbalists could not "crack."

That is when the greatest kabbalist of all times, known as the Ari z'l (the Ashkenazi R' Yitzhak, or R' Yitzhak Luria) came on the scene. Born in the old city of Yerushalayim to an Egyptian Jewish mother, the Ari was orphaned from his father at an early age, and went with his mother to live with her father (the famous sage, R' Bezalel Ashkenazi, author of the Shita Mekubetzet on the Talmud). He grew up learning in the Talmudic tradition, but soon developed a special skill in the secrets of the Torah - the Kabbalah. His skill was not merely intellectual; he was a tzadik, or righteous person of the highest caliber, with special abilities that transcended our ordinary understanding and perception of the world. However, even he was unable to "crack" the Safra d'tzniyuta, until he performed some special spiritual rituals. Fasting throughout the week and returning to his wife only on Shabbat, he learned, prayed and meditated on the banks of the Nile, until he received gilui Eliyahu - revelation of Elijah the prophet. There, Eliyahu the prophet taught and revealed to the Ari the secrets of the Safra d'tzniyuta.

At this point, it was time for the Ari z'l to pack up his belongings and travel to the city of Tzfat, in the far north of Israel. It was time for him to join the "band" of great kabbalists who had already migrated to Tzfat after the girush Sfarad - the expulsion from Spain in 1492. Some eighty years later, there was a thriving band of sages in Tzfat who continued the tradition, both halachically and kabbalistically, that had occupied them for over a thousand years in Europe. The Ari z'l joined them, but at that time (1558 or 1559), the Ramak was still teaching and the last thing the Ari z'l wanted to do was interrupt or interfere with the teaching and instruction of this great sage and teacher. In fact, the Ramak was the culmination of the great line of "early kabbalists" whom taught and uncovered the secrets of the kabbalah in the Zohar after it was revealed in the year 1270. He brought together all of their approaches and summarized them in his book, the Pardes Rimonim - "the Pomegranite Orchard." But, the Ari z'l had something new to teach, and that would have to wait...

The Ramak passed on, and the Ari z'l eulogized him...and then began to teach. His main student was R' Chaim Vital, formerly a student of the Ramak and an accomplished kabbalist in his own right. In fact, after the Ramak passed away, R' Chaim Vital was convinced that there was nothing left for him to learn in Tzfat, and he traveled north to Damascus to learn and teach in the great Jewish academies that were there at the time. It was only after a persistent series of dreams that he returned to Tzfat and met the Ari, whereupon he became his devoted disciple. In fact, the Ari said that his soul came down from Above solely for the purpose of teaching the secrets of the Torah to R' Chaim Vital, and he was obligated to answer any question that R' Chaim Vital asked, even if, as was sometimes the case, the question was innapropriate.

What the Ari z'l taught was what he learned from Eliyahu Hanavi - Elijah the prophet. And that was a new "theory" of kabbalah, that took into account not only how the sephirot (holy emanations, with which G-d created and maintains the universe) interact in a linear fashion with each other, but also how they form "3-D structures" that interact. To bring the concept a little closer to home, this was a little like (lehavdil) discovering that not only is there something called "atoms," that bounce off each other, but there are also "molecules" formed of different atoms, that interract with one another (the "example" is way off the mark, and bears no real relationship to the teaching of the Ari z'l, which was purely a spiritual teaching; nonetheless in this way we may gain insight into the contrast between his new teaching and what preceded it). Armed with this new "theory" of kabbalah, the Ari z'l was able to unlock the secrets of the most "closed" section of the Zohar - the Safra d'tzniyuta - and pass them on to his students (mainly to R' Chaim Vital who dedicated the rest of his life to writing down his teachers's lessons). From now on, kabbalah "belonged" to the Ari z'l - all subsequent kabbalists base their understanding, their interpretations, and their writings upon the kabbalah of the Ari z'l.

That did not mean, however, that the historical development of the "inner dimensions" (secrets) of the Torah did not continue. As the kabbalistic teachings of the Ari spread to Europe, and were even taught in the European yeshivot (academies of Jewish learning), new challenges arose. In the main, the European Jewish population was impoverished and persecuted. As a result, Jewish education was nearly extinguised, and with it, the light and beauty of the Torah itself. A tiny percentage of "educated" rabbinic scholars ignored the needs of the Jewish masses, instead focusing their energy upon their own learning and spiritual development. If it weren't for a small and dedicated band of "hidden tzadikim" - quiet righteous people who dedicated themselves to other Jews for no other reason other than to improve their lives and education - Judaism may have been lost to history. This modest and yet dedicated group got their start in the yeshiva of the Maharal of Prague, from whom they learned the secrets of the Torah, including the kabbalah of the Ari z'l, in the late 1500's and early 1600's. They formed the nucleus of the secret band of tzadikim known as ba'alei shem - "master's of the Name" - who could use their knowledge of kabbalah and the secrets of the Torah to help the Jewish people, both physically and spiritually.

Eventually, this band came to light in the mid 1700's when their leader, R' Yisrael Ba'al Shem, known famously as the Ba'al Shem Tov, revealed himself. He did so at the behest of his own teachers, who determined that now was the time to reveal the great light of the Chassidic movement, which would move the Jews beyond the study of Talmud alone, and introduce the secrets of the Torah back into the mainstream studies of Judaism. This was necessary because, with the passage of time, the overall spiritual condition of the Jews descended. Only with the light of the secrets of the Torah, as presented by the Ba'al Shem Tov and his followers, and in particular in the literature of Chabad chasidut, was it possible to expose all Jews to the deepest, most essential levels of the Torah. This is what was necessary to elevate the spiritual level of the Jewish nation.

And that is why Tzfat, once upon a time a "kabbalistic" town, is now a Chassidic city. Although the study of kabbalah certainly thrives in Tzfat, only a few people will find their way to classes and instruction in kabbalah (and it is questionable whether it is a fruitful endeavor in our generation). But anybody who wishes may find a Chassidic Rebbe or a Chassidic court in the alleyways and back roads of Tzfat these days, and it is the study of Chassidut, and in particular of Chabad chassidut that will take the Jews out of galut and return us all to the holy Land with Meshiach - the Jewish messiah!