Filming in Safed (Tsfat) Israel

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Nestling in the lush mountains of the Upper Gallilee and basking in the cool, fresh mountain air is the charming city of Safed.

Situated in between Mount Canaan and River Amud, this stunning, ancient location is the highest city in Israel and affords breathtaking views of Galilee and the snow-capped peak of Mount Hermon.

A City of Artists and Torah Scholars

Safed is one of the four holy cities in Israel alongside Jerusalem, Hebron and Tiberias. It is full of ancient character and charm, and still today retains an air of mystery. The old part of Safed contains a Jewish quarter and what was previously the Arab quarter but is known today as the Artists’ Quarter. The city is famous for the local artists, who work in their studios, located within the narrow, cobbled alleyways. They display their paintings and other works of art to catch the eyes of passers-by. Craft stalls, Judaica shops, book stalls, souvenir stands and even a handmade candle shop line the cobblestone streets, each exhibiting its colorful goods.

A Centre for Natural Health

Sefad is not only known for its mysticism and artists’ colony but also for its healers. Many people practicing alternative medicine are attracted to Sefad by the special atmosphere and clean air. There is all sort of natural remedies on offer in Sefad. One well-known healer is Esther Eliezer, whose customers come from afar to experience her healing powers.

As well as having healers and practitioners of natural medicine, Sefad is famed for its herbal remedies. Pigam (‘Pi Jaan’ in Arabic) is a plant that grows in the gardens of Sefad; it has a strong smell and is believed to protect houses against bad spirits. It is used to treat headaches, and stomach pain and for general relaxation.

A Place to Purify the Soul

The Jewish Quarter’s narrow, stepped streets and concealed passageways are lined with traditional stone houses and lead pedestrians through ancient, archways. Dotted about the quarter are medieval synagogues, many of which are incredibly ornate, with high ceilings, intricate carvings and colorful decoration. Many contain ancient Torah scrolls and all offer an inspiring setting for prayer or contemplation.

The whole area has an ancient feel to it and it is easy to see why the town has a reputation for being steeped in mysticism and spirituality. The combination of the clear, fresh air that cleanses the body and the holy aura of the place that purifies the soul, leaves you feeling spiritually uplifted.

The Origin of Biblical Texts

The town of Safed is synonymous with the work of ancient mystics who lived in this beautiful and inspiring town, taking their Torah learning to another level and penning interpretations of the Torah known as the Kabbalah. The most famous text from the Kabbalah is the Zohar, which is written in Aramaic and provides deeper meaning than Biblical texts. These Biblical commentaries are traditionally studied by very learned Torah scholars and are considered to be masterpieces. Shrouded in mystery, these holy tomes somehow manage to pick apart seemingly standard items and events from the Torah and add an extra dimension to them, identifying symbolism and meaning that adds to the spiritual messages inherent within the Bible.

Ancient Graves of Great Rabbis

Because Sefad has attracted learned rabbis and scholars for tens of generations, the area contains many famous graves. There is an ancient cemetery where great rabbis have been buried for hundreds of years which has become a site for pilgrimage and prayer. Close to Sefad is Meron, the place where the Zohar was written by the famous Rabbi Simeon Bar Yohai in the first century. Rabbi Bar Yohai is said to have contributed to the Mishna and is often quoted in the Talmud. He is buried in the village of Meron and, each year, thousands of Jews come to celebrate Lag Ba’Omer by his graveside. They pay homage to his life and works but apart from offering prayers, there is a joyous feeling in the air, with thousands of religious Jews singing and dancing in celebration of the great rabbi and the body of work he left behind.

Celebration of First Haircut

It is traditional for religious Jews not to cut boys’ hair until the age of three. This custom comes from biblical verses which compare a man to a tree. They state that a tree needs three years to mature before it can bear fruit and likewise a child needs to be allowed to grow unhindered within the same timeframe. As the bar mitzvah is a move from childhood into adulthood, so the ‘upsherin’ (first haircut) is considered to be a move from babyhood into childhood. It is the age when the study of the Hebrew alphabet and Torah commences.

The ceremony can take place anywhere but it has become customary for many to locate the first haircut, or ‘upsherin’ or their sons at Meron on Lag Ba’Omer. It is a joyous occasion with guests all being given the chance to snip away at the boy’s long locks before hairdresser steps in and makes sure he’s neat and tidy at the end. It is also traditional to give boys their first tzitzit (fringed vest) at the upsherin.

The joyous ceremonies, rituals and celebrations that take place at Meron make it a unique filming location in Israel.

Famous Synagogues

If you are interested in filming synagogues then Sefad has a lot to offer. The oldest synagogue in Sefad is the Sephardic Synagogue HaAri which was built in the 14th century. It has a turbulent past, having been damaged by an earthquake in 1759 and later destroyed by a massive quake in 1837. The synagogue was reconstructed each time and in modern times has seen further renovations. It looks out onto Mount Meron and the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai.

Synagogue Caro is named after Rabbi Josepha Caro who was a Kabbalist and is most famed as being the author of ‘Shulchan Aruch’ (The Set Table). This important work deals with issues of halakha (the interpretation of Jewish law). It breaks down how a religious Jew should deal with many issues and situations and it took him a total of 32 years to write. It is considered one of the most important books in Jewish orthodoxy today.

According to tradition, Rabbi Caro lived in a residence beneath the synagogue and it was there that he saw a vision of the ‘Maggid’ who revealed the secrets of the Torah to him. He later detailed his apparitions in his book, ‘Maggid Meisharim’.

Another noteworthy synagogue is the Abuhav Synagogue where a Torah scroll from the Middle Ages can be viewed.

Finally, Sefad is also renowned for their passion for music. At the Beirav Synagogue congregants combine their love of music and prayer. There are ‘Carlebach’ minyans held here (which involve lots of songs, dance and participation). The interesting thing about this particular synagogue is that it is not affiliated with any particular strand of Judaism. It attracts a diverse group of visitors and on Sabbaths and festivals congregants spill out onto the surrounding lanes and square. It is common to find ultra-orthodox, Hassidim, tourists and secular Israelis all singing and praying together. It has a truly unique, unforgettable and inspiring atmosphere.

Sefad’s Scribe

Sharon Schaveet, Biblical Productions owner and producer has filmed in Safed many times. She has gotten to know the town well and can recommend some interesting places to film. She talks of some of the town’s characters, “In the center of town you will find Mr. Zalman sitting next to his table. He is an expert in writing biblical texts, using careful, ornate strokes with his old ink pen.”

The job of a scribe is called a ‘sofer’ in Hebrew and can only be undertaken by someone who is religiously observant, understands the laws relating to the task (of which there are thousands) and has undertaken an apprenticeship. Scribes all need to be of good character and have a lot of patience – each document has laws relating to the size, style and layout required.

Torah scrolls must be handwritten in order to be kosher. Every letter needs to be written with pure thoughts and intentions in the mind of the sofer and extra care needs to be taken. Should a mistake be made whilst writing any of the names of G-d, it cannot be corrected as Jews are not allowed to blot out His name. Therefore the whole sheet of parchment becomes impure and must be discarded (for burial, not destruction), leaving the scribe to begin that section of the scroll all over again.

As with many soferim, Mr. Zalman learned his expertise from his family; this method of writing passes down from one generation to the next. He writes Torah scrolls, tefillin (phylacteries), mezuzot and other religious documents that need to be hand-written, such as ketubot (marriage certificates). Many of the documents created by soferim are written on special parchment made from lambs’ skin. The job of a scribe is fascinating and a documentary looking into this ancient art, with the back of Sefad would make a captivating documentary.

Filming in Sefad

At Biblical Productions we don’t just recommend filming locations; we explore them ourselves to find out specific places that would enhance your documentary or film. Here are some of our recommended film locations in Sefad.

On the second floor of the HaAri Street center, there is a nice spot for filming interviews which has panoramic views of the surrounding mountains. Those wishing to document the natural health side of Sefat should visit Madison Street, which has many organic and herbal shops. In terms of capturing religious shots, the many ancient synagogues as well as the more modern but very distinctive Beirav Synagogue, are sure to provide impressive visuals and capture the very special atmosphere of Sefad. Filming in the Jewish Quarter is also a great way to capture the splendor and character of Sefad. If you are lucky, you may spot a Kabbalah master strolling through the cobbled streets, donning a traditional white gown.

There are certain times of the year that we recommend filming in Sefad:

During Chanukah, the houses along the tiny alleyways display menorahs on their window sills. Each menorah, filled with Chanukah candles, spreads its soft glow onto the street, evoking a wonderful, warm atmosphere.

Biblical Productions recommend that if you want to film at Meron that you do so during Lag Ba’omer in order to capture the pilgrimages and upsherins.

Sefad hosts many musical and artistic events throughout the year, including the famous Klezmer festival, all of which would be interesting to include in any documentary or travelogue filmed in Israel. Sefad is an exceptional location to film in Israel. From its winding cobbled streets, decorated gates, ornate synagogues and ancient burial sites to its artist’s colony, musical festivals and natural medicine community; Sefad has an atmosphere all of its own. It is an eclectic mix of old and new, giving filmmakers many topics to choose from.