When one visits Tzfat (Safed) today, one tends to focus on the spiritual, kabbalistic aspects of the city. Perhaps a side note or two will be dedicated to the fight over Tzfat in the week before Israel declared her independence or to the beautiful view. The booming economy of Tzfat in her Golden Age is not emphasized during most visits there; but, Tzfat, her kabbalah, art and history could not have existed without gold/money.
Although settlement in Tzfat goes back 4000 years or so, Tzfat as a regional center is only relatively recent. One-thousand years ago, the Crusaders took advantage of Tzfat’s location to build a massive fortress. Servicing the Crusaders was the first economy to take-off here, and relied on the natural resources around Tzfat. After the Crusaders were driven out, the Mamelukes occupied the fortress and the city continued to steadily grow.
After the Mamelukes were replaced by the Ottomans, two factors combined to give Tzfat a push economically – the Jews were expelled from Spain and the Ottomans united the Mediterranean basin under one government. The Jews who were banished from Spain were coming from the most advanced, enlightened area of the world, and brought with them their skills. And because there were no borders in the region, a world marketplace meant free trade. For political reasons, Jerusalem, the subject of Jewish yearning through the centuries, was off-limits. So these wandering Jews ended up in Tzfat, in the north, which has landscape and natural resources similar to Spain. Not only did Jews arrive from Spain, but also from Italy with the inclusion of the Holy Land into the empire and the possibility of open travel (and a dash of Italian anti-semitism). Travelers to Tzfat in the early 1500’s describe a flourishing city with a strong industrial base. Rabbi Moshe Bassola writes in 1522, “There are four good occupations in Tzfat: weaver, silversmith, leather worker, and tanner. Also builders, and day laborers in these occupations will be paid well. Also tailors will earn a livelihood.”
Ten years later in 1535, another Italian arrival writes, “Whoever saw Tzfat 10 years ago and sees her again today, sees a wonderful change…There say there are more than 15,000 textile products produced here this year in addition to the exclusive cloths. And there are those who are producing the same quality as Venice; and every man and woman who works in wool earns a very good salary.”
Only with this financial backing, can the giants Rabbi Yosef Caro, Rabbi Isaac Luria (Arizal), Rabbi Shlomo Alkabez, Rabbi Chaim Vital and others develop their spiritual ideas and dedicate time to writing, composing and inspiring.
Next time you are in Tzfat, walking the cobblestone streets decorated in blue, breathing the crisp mountain air, enjoying the beautiful views and focusing on the mystical, remember that the spiritual development was only possible on such a grand scale because of industry. It is amazing that a city which was a world leader in the fashion and textile industry is today known for its spirituality and learning. This lesson can guide modern life to find a balance. On a personal and societal level, we need to work hard to be financially successful, but we don’t want to be remembered for how much we make, but for what we fund with what we have.