The Great Jews of Tzfat Welcoming us Back Home

The Tzfat Cemetery…

In Hebrew, Tzfat  means to “look  out.” What does Tzfat  look out  at? Tzfat looks out over the present, at  the grand mountains of  the Galilee which look like  waves  (galim  in Hebrew).  It looks out to the  future, according to Jewish tradition,  asking each  visitor and the Jewish people as a whole to think about where we are going. And, Tzfat looks out over the  past, to some great  people of our heritage in the ancient cemetery of Tzfat.

On our last trip to Tzfat, our ten-year-old son became  so fascinated  by the cemetery that he walked down there several times on his own. His excitement inspired me to think about it more deeply. I asked him why he was so attracted to the place, and he  said that he said couldn’t explain it. Something just drew him there. Perhaps he was fascinated by the blue paint on some of the tombstones.  Blue is a very inviting color, even for a cemetery. Blue is the color of the sea and the color  of the  sky;  it’s a  spiritual color, the color of eternity.  Or maybe, he was amazed to see names of famous 16th century Rabbis he  had  learned about in school and tours of Tzfat  such as The Ari, the well-known kabbalist; Rabbi Yosef Karo, the great writer of works of  Jewish  law; and Rabbi  Alkabetz, known for writing Lecha Dodi which just about every  Jewish  congregation in the world now sings  on Friday nights to welcome Shabbat. Our son was definitely intrigued by the famous mikvah (ritual bath) of the Ari where many have braved the freezing waters for a Tzfat experience they will always remember.

Throughout the Land of Israel, we have many of these blue-painted monuments. One  will usually see some religious-looking people stationed nearby them looking intently into their  books, whispering something, and rocking back and forth.  When  the people aren’t there, piles of used tea-light candles inform us that they have been there, and that more of  them  will be arriving soon to look in their books,  whisper something, and rock back and forth.

But visiting these places wasn’t always just for those inclined towards candle-lighting, praying and the like. In fact, visiting graves of our ancestors was one of the main ways in which travelers throughout the last  number of centuries would connect  to the history and land.  Remember that many places that visitors see as essential to their trip  to Israel only came into  existence since the State of  Israel  was  born. Some have only become accessible in the last 20 years. Who  could ever  have  conceived  of an underwater aquarium in  Eilat, the Israel Musuem, or Independence  Hall  in Tel Aviv before  the State  of Israel  was established? The  Western Wall tunnels, the  City of David,  Masada, and many ancient  synagogues  in the Galilee were covered in dirt, rubble, and weeds  until recent times. The Western Wall  plaza was only a narrow passageway until 1967 and for many of the last 2,000 years was inaccessible  to  Jews. When Jews  would want to see  meaningful sites in the Land of  Israel, they would  go  to  ancient graves.

The  poem  Tikvatanu — which  was  written in 1878 at the  time of the establishment of Petach Tikvah and which  later became the basis for the national anthem HaTikvah  –describes how “throngs of country men still pay homage at  the  graves of our fathers.”

I think that these visitors, and perhaps also our son, were just drawn to be  near their ancestors much in the same way that one would visit the cemetery of one’s  great-grandparents  when going back to one’s family’s home town…just needing to connect to the past, and needing the  past to welcome them home.

© 2012, Lisa (Leah) Bowman. All Rights Reserved.

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