Tsfat was founded sometime in the 2nd century BC as a masu’of (beacon) village – one of a chain of hill-top fire sites stretching to Jerusalem. The beacons were lit to mark the beginning of a new month or holy day. During the First Revolt (AD 66–73), Tsfat was fortified by Josephus, leader of the Jewish forces in the Galilee.
The Crusaders, led by Fulke, King of Anjou, also chose to site a citadel here to control the highway to Damascus. Fulke’s fortification, known as Saphet, was destroyed by Saladin, rebuilt by the Knights Templar and destroyed once again by the Sultan Beybars in 1266.
During the 15th and 16th centuries the Jewish community of Safad, or Safat, as it was called, was enlarged by an influx of immigrants fleeing the Inquisition and persecution in Spain. Many of the new arrivals were Kabbalists, or mystical truth seekers. The name comes from the Hebraic root kbl, meaning ‘to receive’, and the movement originated in the region of Tsfat around the time of the First Revolt, before being carried abroad with the Diaspora. It flourished particularly among the Jews of the Iberian Peninsula, and for a time Spain was a world centre of Jewish learning and culture. With the relocation of the Kabbalists that mantle passed to Tsfat.
In the latter part of the 18th century Tsfat welcomed a further influx of Jewish Hasidim, this time from Russia. However, in 1837 an earthquake destroyed much of the town, killing up to 5000 people and levelling many of its 69 synagogues.
As throughout all of Palestine, increased Jewish immigration was intensifying Arab hostility to the newcomers. Violence between the two had been sporadic but with the growth of nationalistic aspirations on both sides, clashes became increasingly frequent. During the 1920s and ’30s there was rioting in Tsfat with loss of life on both sides, culminating in a pitched battle for the town in 1948. Though outnumbered, the Jews prevailed and the Arabs were forced to flee.
From 1951 the former Arab quarter became a flourishing artists’ colony with many of the Arab properties, including the main mosque, being turned into gallery spaces and studios. Over the last few years many of these galleries have become home to large Hasidic families who again started flocking here from Jerusalem and North America during the 1980s. Newly arrived immigrants mostly from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia live clustered in sterile apartment blocks outside the old city.