Ottoman Rule of Safed 1517 to 1759
|צפת בתקופה האוטומני
|Turkish Era, Golden Age of Tzfat, Kabbalist Era
|Development and history of Safed during the first part of the Turkish-Ottoman rule, years 1517 - 1759.
In 1517 the Turks defeated the Mamlukes, starting almost 400 years of Ottoman rule in Safed. After the Spanish Expulsion many of the fleeing Jews immigrated to this city bringing with them many kabbalists and sages including the Arizal and the Beit Yosef who came to live, study and teach in Tzfat, earning it the everlasting title of the “City of Kabbalah”. Throughout the years of Ottoman rule, Tzfat’s fortunes varied widely. A thriving textile industry and location along an important trade route contributed to its success. The scholarship, innovations, laws and customs that emanated from Tzfat during this period continue to reverberate in today’s Jewish world. The first part of the Ottoman Rule were known as Tzfat’s Golden Age. Following the Druze attack in 1660 and the 1759 earthquake most Jews left Tzfat, once again making Jerusalem the capital of Jewish life in Israel.
Up until the early years of the 16th century Tzfat was a small Jewish-Arab village which showed no hint of it’s important future. Rabbi Moses Basola found 300 Jewish families in Tzfat when he visited in 1522. The community was composed of Sephardim -- Jews from the Mediterranean area, Moriscos -- Jews who had been forcibly converted to Islam and maintained their Judaism secretly -- and Jews from the Maghreb -- Jews who were descended from families who had never left the Land of Israel.
As Jewish exiles from Spain searched for a hospitable place to live after the Spanish Expulsion of 1492, Ashkanazim and Italians joined the existing Safed community together with settlers who came from Spain and Portugal. By 1548 a Turkish census shows 716 Jewish families living in the town.
 Attraction of Safed
Although Safed was a small and insignificant town, by the late 15th century, some of the most revered and well-known sages and scholars were settling in the town, together with their families and students. This, in turn, influenced others to come. Historians estimate that by the early 17th century there were 20,000 Jews living in and around Tzfat. Visitors wrote that the city had 17 active synagogues as well as “yeshivas” -- rabbinical seminaries and other study options. There were three main reasons that new settlers chose to settle in Tzfat.
Many kabbalah scholars were drawn to the city because of it’s proximity to the area where kabbalah flurished during the era of the Mishna and Talmud. During the Roman era, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was forced to go into hiding from the government. He hid in a cave near Peki’in with his son and there, through Divine visits, he learned the secrets of the Torah. When he was able to leave the cave he traveled in the area, teaching kabbalah. He also wrote the “Zohar” -- foundation of kabbalah -- at this time. Kabbalah scholars of the Middle Ages wanted to learn and study in the same atmosphere as Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.
The existing Jewish community of Safed provided a cushion for the new settlers. The new immigrants were able to get a toehold in the city due to a welcoming community that could provide services and economic opportunities for the newcomers. Fulling mills offered opportunities to become involved in the textile industry while the location of Safed, along the Damascus-Acre and Damascus-Cairo road, meant that many residents could become involved in various forms of trade.
 Thriving Town
There were few other options for settlers who came to Israel in the 1500's and 1600's. The Jews of Hebron had difficult relations with their Arab neighbors and the economy of the town was severely depressed. The population of Jerusalem was smaller than that of Safed in the 16th century. In addition, the Jerusalem Jewish community had communal tax problems with the Turks and struggled with social issues among the various groups. For many immigrants Tzfat offered the best living conditions coupled with the Torah atmosphere that they sought.
Some of the era’s greatest rabbis and kabbalists made their way to Tzfat during the 16th and 17th centuries. Rabbi Yakov Beirav, an influential rabbi and Talmud scholar came to Safed in approximately 1537 and attempted to reintroduce the Sanhedrin, the Great Rabbinnical Court. He failed in this effort but some of the changes that he had envisioned the Sanhedrin making came about as a result of his efforts.
 Rabbi Yosef Karo
Rabbi Yosef Karo was already a recognized sage when he came to Tzfat in approximately 1538. He wrote the “Shulhan Aruch” as a commentary on the “Tur”, a organized and summarized text of halachic rulings written in the 14th century. Rabbi Caro gathered the decisions and opinions on every halachic issue, cross-referenced them and then ruled on the correct halacha for each situation. This work continues to serve as normative Judaism’s halachic reference on all isues.
 The Arizal
Rabbi Isaac Luria -- the ARI -- studied, taught, brought new insights and redirected kabbalah study in Tzfat. He arrived in Safed in 1569 and initially studied with the great kabbalist Rabbi Moshe Cordevero. The ARI only lived in Tzfat for under three years but during this period he taught and refined the study of Jewish mysticism. His synthesis of kabbalah, the Luranic system, influenced the Hassidic movement. Kabbalah scholars study mainly Luranic kabbalah today.
 Other Kabbalists
Other great rabbis and scholars who came to Tzfat during this time include the Ridbaz, Rabbi Moshe Alsheich, Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz, Rabbi Moshe di Trani, Rabbi Moshe Galante, Rabbi Elazar Azkari and Rabbi Chaim Vital.
The population of Safed engaged in active competition with Jerusalem to attract the new scholars, a fact that disturbed rabbis throughout the world. They felt that Safed was upsurping the rightful place of Jerusalem as the center of the Jewish world. This changed in the early 1600's and the majority of scholars who came to Israel were again choosing to move to Jerusalem.
 Printing Press
The scholars of Safed produced a tremendous amount of written material and they published their books in Venice, Constantinople and Salonica. This was extremely difficult and expensive. A printer who came to Tzfat from Prague, Eliezer bar Yitzhak, established the first printing press in the Middle East in 1577. He wanted to print the works of the rabbis, not only the rabbis of Tzfat but of all of Israel. A supporter, Avraham bar Yitzhak Ashkenazi, went into partnership with bar Yitzhak which allowed him to bring the printing press to Safed. For many years all printed material in Israel came from Tzfat.
 Destruction and Decline
By the 1600's the Golden Age of Safed had effectively ended. The most important scholars were again settling in Jerusalem and the Jews of Safed were at the mercy of raids by local Bedouins and Druze who were fighting with the Ottomans for control over the region. The textile industry had fallen into decline when Sultan Selim II deported 1,500 Jewish families, individuals who had been the mainstay of the textile trade, from Safed to Cyprus in 1576. Even after he recalled the families, uncontrolled banditry in the area resulted in the trade’s permanent move to Thessaloniki. A small wool textile trade did resume in Tzfat.
 Raid and Plunder
In 1660 Druze tribesmen from Lebanon raided Safed. They utterly destroyed the town and the Jewish inhabitants fled to nearby villages. After the raid most Jews left Tzfat. By 1730 the population numbered 1,800 residents.
Read full Zissil article on the 1660 Destruction of Safed
The rabbis of Jerusalem scolded the rabbis of Tzfat for trying to compete with Jerusalem for the “crown” of the Jewish world. They suggested that this behavior was to blame for the 1759 earthquake which leveled Tzfat. The earthquake destroyed 200 homes and killed 140 Jews. Almost the entire surviving population left Tzfat after the earthquake, leaving only 50 Jewish families in the city. All the great synagogues of Safed collapsed during the earthquake. Only the Alsheich synagogue remained standing and the Torah scrolls from the Abuhav Synagogue emerged unscathed.
Read full Zissil article on the 1759 earthquake in Tzfat