Although the synagogue of the saintly
Rabbi Yosef Karo is used mostly for prayer and learning today, there was a time
when it also served as the seat of one of the world's most prestigious rabbinical
The "step of honor" -- a foot-or-so high step onto a platform
-- is the only telling sign today of the splendour of this "golden era"
in Tzfat's history. With a little imagination, however, one can picture Rabbi
Karo -- starting at age 48 -- presiding on that platform as head of the Rabbinic
The "lower" half of the synagogue -- divided only by
the platform and not by walls -- was no less buzzing in activity. Besides serving
as a House of Prayer, this half of the synagogue housed a prestigious learning
center where hundreds of Torah students were drawn to the fiery depths of teaching
permeating this city at the time.
Surrounded by some of the generation's greatest Torah sages, R. Karo
and his brilliant colleagues rendered Jewish legal decisions that were
respected around the world.
This major Torah center
was balanced by acts of kindness as well -- around the corner from the synagogue
one can still see the "soup kitchen" organized by R. Karo that provided
nourishment for all of the area's needy.
OLD SCROLLS AND BOOKS
visitor to this synagogue on Beis Yosef Street in the heart of Tzfat's Old City,
can view the collection of Torah books -- "sefarim" -- stacked
high on the shelves of the back walls. Many are hundreds of years old, dating
back at least to the mid-16th century when R. Karo composed the Shulchan Aruch,
which became the universally accepted basic text of Jewish law from that time
until today. Next to it is the geniza, the place for storing damaged holy
books that are no longer usable until they can be given a proper burial.
the floor is interesting: no four blocks ever meet at one point. This was done
intentionally in order to avoid forming a cross.
THE HOLY ARK
The Holy Ark is left open so that visitors can gaze and even take photographs.
There are three Torah scrolls in the ark, behind secure bars. One is from Persia
and is about 200 years old; one is from Iraq and is about 300 years old, and one
is said to be from Spain and is over 500 years old.
Upon entering the Karo synagogue, the arch above the door tells
the story of its rededication in 1839 after Italian scholar and philanthropist
R' Yitzchak Goyatos unstintingly helped repair this, and other Tzfat synagogues
devastated by the major earthquake of 1837.
Kissing the more than one-foot-high
mezuzah (a showpiece itself) and passing through the arch, one can look
at the wall to his left and see a map which traces R' Karo's journey before he
settled in Tzfat; although various cities in Egypt, Turkey and Greece were stepping
stones in R' Karo's life, it was his work in Tzfat -- along with his contemporary,
the Holy Ari, -- which earned Tzfat the name it still bears today -- one of Israel's
four Holy cities.
While many of Tzfat's
ancient synagogues are closed today, except for weekend and holiday prayers, the
Karo Synagogue is open most days from early morning until late at night. Daily
minyans for morning, afternoon and evening services are held, as well as the holiday
and Sabbath prayers. In addition, there is a "kollel" -- where
16 young men learn Torah every evening, and a yeshivah for young students
which is open in the mornings. The seating is around the periphery according to
Sephardic custom, and there is a spectacular picture window view of Mount
Meron to the west.
Even the original building with R. Karo's soup kitchen
has been put to modern use, providing free meals for the students who learn there.
Right next to the soup kitchen (and underneath the synagogue) is the house where
Karo learned and explored the Torah's mysteries with some of Jewish history's
Although the original
bima -- the elevated platform in the middle used for public reading of
the Torah -- was replaced by a larger one around forty years ago, and Goyotos
imported new marble floor tiles from Italy, not much else has changed over the
years in the Karo Synagogue.
Because the building was not designed to be a shul, the space
available for the Women’s Section is not nearly sufficient. This lack is soon
to be remedied, thanks to a generous grant from the well known philanthropist
Nissim Gaon, given in honor of the five hundredth anniversary of Rabbi Yosef Caro’s
birth in 1988.
The family of the
synagogue's caretaker, Efrayim Ben Shimon, including his great-grandfather, HaRav
Aaron ben Shimon, who was Tzfat's chief Sephardic Rabbi in his time, has played
a role in the Karo Synagogue since 1745 (although 200 members of his extended
family were killed in the great earthquake).
Besides helping to organize
the bustling daily prayer and study activities, Ben Shimon runs a store at the
entranceway of the Karo Synagogue selling everything from Tzfat paintings to high-quality
While other historic Tzfat synagogues remain elusive
for the unoriented visitor, those who do venture down Beit Yosef Street and into
this synagogue, will most likely be met with open doors --- as R' Karo would have
[Chana Katz, a former South Florida journalist, lives
in Tsfat. Her articles on life in Israel have reached publications throughout
Another article on the Caro
of Rabbi Caro