Early Safed History
|ההיסטוריה הקדומה של צפת
|Early history of Tzfat, Israel from Biblical through Roman times.
Historians and archaeologists do not have much information about the early history of Safed and when it was first settled. Evidence from a number of different directions indicate that Tzfat has played an important part in Jewish history for over 2000 years. Falling in the portion of Naftali, this city is not the same Tzfat mention twice in Tanach. Some claim it was one of the 42 Levite cities, giving it semi 'City of Refuge' benefits. After the exile of the 10 tribes, the area was settled by the Kutim and various pagans, eventually being conquered once again by the Chashmanaim. During the Roman era Tzfat one of the cities fortified by Josephus during the revolts and served as part of the mountaintop chain used to smoke signal the declaration of the new month. There are three known Biblical figures buried in Tzfat and eighteen Tanaim.
 Early Settlement
The earliest archaeological evidence in Tzfat, notably a sword and some bracelets, have no connection to any Jewish community.
 Isralite Settlement
The Isralites conquered the Land of Israel approximately 1300 BCE. The Tzfat region was settled by the Tribe of Naftali. Historians believe that pagans lived in the area after the Assyrians exiled the Ten Tribes from the Land of Israel in roughly 726 B.C.E. but Jews returned to the area when the Hashmoni’im reconquered the region 2100 years ago.
 Biblical Tzfat
A city named Tzfat is mentioned twice in the Tanach, once in Shoftim and once in Divray Hayamim Bais (Tzfasa). This city is clearly not current day Tzfat since it is located in central Israel. Biblical Tzfat was a Canaanite city conquered early in the Battle for Eretz Yisroel by a joint effort from the tribes of Yehuda and Shimon. Unlike other conquered cities, the Jews completely and totally annihilated Biblical Tzfat, taking no spoils. They renaming the city Charama after its annihilation. This was done to rid the city from all Idolatry and impure powers, purifying it completely. This gave Biblical Tzfat immense spiritual powers. Later Kabbalists renamed the Northern Galilee city Tzfat after the original Biblical Tzfat, transferring to it its spiritual powers.
 City of Refuge
Some scholars believe that, during Biblical times, Safed was a City of Refuge. According to the Torah, Cities of Refuge provided accidental murderers a place where they could escape to live out their days. While Tzfat was not one of the six main Cities of Refuge, it could have possibly been one of the 42 Levite cities that offered partial refuge benefits.
 Cave of Shem and Ever
There is a cave in Tzfat that is said to have been used as the Bais Medrash of Shem and Ever. According to this Yackov studied in this location for 14 years. It is also possible that Shem and Ever had a number of academies across the country.
 Biblical Graves
Adino Haetzni and Yehoyada Hakohen, both from the time of King Dovid are buried right underneath Tzfat. According to some opinions the Prophet Biari, father of the prophet Hoshia is buried in the old cemetery (some people mistakenly refer to Kever Rebbe Yehoshua as Kever Hoshia ben Beri but the Arizal already said otherwise). According to the Arizal, the Tana Binyomin Hatzadik is buried at the location of the Hichal of an ancient Beit Knesset of what was once a very holy settlement.
 Talmudic References
Safed, at an elevation of 900 meters above sea level, is the highest city in Israel. The earliest known written reference to Tsfat comes from the Talmud. Talmud Yerushalmi, in Masechet Rosh Hashana mentions “Zefath” as one of the five elevated spots where the fires would be lit to mark a “Rosh Chodesh” -- new month. During the times of the Beit HaMikdash and for several centuries afterward, witnesses in Jerusalem would testify when they spotted a New Moon, as this signified the onset of a new month. A massive bonfire would be lit in Jerusalem and immediately afterward, on successive mountaintops throughout the country. This served as a kind of “smoke signal” to alert the country’s Jews that a new month had begun. The Safed Metzuda mountaintop is believed to have been the northernmost spot where these bonfires were lit, visible to the Jews who lived over the borders of the Land of Israel in today’s Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.
 Roman Era
A further reference to Tzfat comes from Josephus, the Jewish General who fought against the Romans and ultimately joined the Roman cause. Josephus wrote in Chapter 25 of his book “The War of the Jews” that he had stationed a battallion of Jewish soldiers on the hilltop of a town in the Galilee that he called “Seph” /”Zeph.” Historians believe that this refers to the area that is present-day Tzfat and agree that this description jives with existing knowledge of Josephus’s battle strategy against the Roman legions and the battles that were fought in the region.
After the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem many survivors fled to the North. Talmudic scholars and teachers, including compilers of the Talmud, settled in Tzfat.
 City of Refuge for Priests
No written mention is known of the fate of Tzfat’s citizens during the revolts against the Romans. Two Kinot, Eichah Yashevah and Zechor Eichah, which were written by Eleazar Kallir to be read on the Ninth of Av, the Jewish day of mourning, refer to Safed as a place where the priestly families of Yakim and Pashhur settled after the destruction of the Temple.
 Tanaic Graves
Tzfas and its surrounding area contain the graves of many Sages from the eras of the Mishna and Talmud, attesting to population of the area during their lives and its use for Torah study.
 Tzfat Cemetery
The Tzfat cemetery is best known for the graves of the great rabbis and kabbalists of the Middle Ages but graves of ancient rabbis and other personalities attest to the importance of the site, both before and during the Roman era. According to the testimony of the Arizal many unidentified Tanaim and earlier Tzadikim are buried in this cemetery.
 Grave of Hannah 7 Sons
Along the top northern edge of the cemetery there is a small hill. Tradition relates that this location contains the grave of Channah and her Seven Sons. According to the tradition, Hannah watched as her seven sons were killed by the Hellenist rulers in the 1st century B.C.E. She urged her sons to submit to death rather then worship Greek Gods. After her youngest son was killed Hannah killed herself and the community buried them together, on the small hilltop at the foot of Safed, at the current location of the army cemetery.
 Graves of the Tannai’im
There are a number of Kevarim of Tanaim in Tzfat, further attesting to the fact that the area was settled at that time. Rabbi Dosa ben Hurkenus is buried in the Cave of Shem Vever on the slope of the Mitzuda. Antigonus Ish Socho and Nason Ditzuzisa are buried at the edge of Canaan. Rabbi Yossi Banah is buried in the Old City. Binyamin HaTzaddik and Rabbi Nachum Ish Gamzu are buried in southern Tzfat. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya, Rabbi Shimon ben Chalafta and Rabbi Pinchas Ben Yair are buried in the Old Cemetery. Rabbi Chiya, Rabbi Abba and Rabbi Yitzchok from the Zohar as well as Yossi-ben-Yoezer, Yossi-ben-Yochanan, Rabbi Nechunya ben HaKane, Rabbi Chutzpis HameTurgeman, Rabbi Natan HaBavli and the Son of Rav Safra are buried underneath Tzfat in the Wadi Amud / Secvi area.
 Byzantine and Post Byzantine Era
Historians note that the Byzantines massacred many Gallilean Jews in 628 CE in revenge against the Jews who helped the Persians conquer the country in 618 CE. The Jews of Tzfat may have also suffered this fate.
The Cairo Genizah provides evidence that a community of Jews lived in Safed from the end of the Byzantine era until the Crusaders conquered the region in the 11th century.
Read full Zissil article on the Complete History of Safed