The Ashkenazi HaAri Synagogue

Who Was HaAri?

The Ashkenazi Ari Synagogue was built in the sixteenth century on the northern fringes of the Sephardic neighborhood in the Old City of Safed. It was originally founded by Spanish exiles who had settled in Greece and then immigrated to Safed, earning it the name "Gerigos". Its congregation were Kabbalists, mostly followers of Rabbi Moshe Cordovero and they were joined in 1570 by Rabbi Isaac Luria (known by his acronym "Ari"). His custom was to pray in the synagogue on the Eve of Sabbath, proceeding from there with his disciples to a nearby field (Hakal Tapuchin) to welcome the Sabbath. It is said that it was during these sessions that popular Shabbat melody, Lecha Dodi, was created.

The History

In the eighteenth century, with the arrival of a large group of Hasidim from Europe, the congregation changed and the HaAri Synagogue began to be called "the Ashkenazi Ari Synagogue." It was destroyed in the earthquake of 1837, and its reconstruction was completed in 1857, which in Hebrew numerology is equivalent to "and My Temple shalt thou revere" - the inscription in Hebrew that appears above the entrance.

The Holy Ark was carved from olive wood by a craftsman from Galicia and was created in the style of the synagogues of Eastern Europe. The craftsman of the Holy Ark was a non-Jew who was unaware of Judaism's laws against picture or statues of human figures in the synagogue. At the top of the ark he placed a human face which the Jewish congregation then transformed into an anthropomorphic image of a lion, alluding to the acronym Ari, which means "The Lion." Notice how lion appears to have a human face.

During the 1948 War of Independence. The synagogue was packed with worshippers seeking shelter from the battles raging around the city and just as the congregants bent forward in prayer, shrapnel tore through the synagogue, flying over the heads of the bent worshippers and embedding itself in the base of the bema. You can still see the hole in the bema where the shrapnel hit. Miraculously, no one was hurt. This event was considered one of many miracles said to have occurred in Safed.

Though the synagogue is associated by name with the Ashkenazi community due to its use by Hasidim 200 years ago, today it serves as a place of worship for both Ashkenazi Hasidic Jews and Sephardic Jews. It also serves as a popular place of worship for people from many other different affiliations.

The Ari's tradition of welcoming the Sabbath outside is still echoed in every Kabbalat Shabbat service today when, during the singing of Lecha Dodi, the worshippers turn toward the entrance of the synagogue.

Also worth visiting is the Sephardic HaAri Synagogue.