We are standing before the grave marker of Rabbi Isaac Luria. Rabbi Luria, who is better known as the Ari, is the illustrious founder of modern Kabalah. Ari, which means lion, is an acronym meaning the Master Rabbi Isaac. The Ari taught in Tzfat during the 16th century, the most notable paragon of a mystical tradition transplanted by Spanish Jews fleeing the Inquisition. These Jews brought with them the text and the study of the Zohar, a mystical text attributed by legend to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai of the 2nd century. Most contemporary scholars believe that the text was actually written by Rabbi Moshe de Leon who discovered it in the 15th century. The Ari was the most notable exponent and commentator on this obscure text, and his charisma and scholarship spurred the development of entirely new avenues of mystical exploration, often referred to today as Lurianic Kabbala in his honor. The Jewish community of Tzfat has been noted since the Middle Ages for its intellectual contributions, especially in the realm of Jewish mysticism where the influence of the residents of Tzfat is unparalleled. In fact, the first printing press in all of Asia was set up by the scholars of Tzfat in 1563. Tzfat has long attracted spiritual and artistic pilgrims due to its location and its general ambience, and this tradition continues to the present day.
Upon his death, the Ari's body was purified in the mikve (ritual bath) which he had frequented in his life, (and which lies at the bottom of the metal staircase which you can see to your right), and interred in this very place.
As you continue to look out over this ancient cemetery in which many great Jewish heroes and scholars were buried (including the prophet Hosea) you will notice the bright blue with which many of the markers have been painted. According to a tradition common to Muslims as well as Jews of Spanish extraction, this shade of blue is effective in warding off the evil eye and keeping evil spirits from plaguing the rest of the dead...or the lives of the living.
Tzfat is one of the four holy cities of Israel according to the Jewish mystical tradition. The other three are Jerusalem, Tiberias and Hevron, which are associated with the primal elements fire, water and earth respectively. Tzfat is the city of air, which can be well understood given its position high in the hills of the Galil. In modern Israel, it is sometimes referred to as the capital of the Upper Galil, although this is somewhat misleading given Tzfat's relatively small size and easy-going lifestyle. Tzfat could certainly be considered a capital for famous graves. Most of the modern city is located over the hill behind the tomb of the Ari, and so it cannot be seen from this vantage point. Tzfat is one of the few cities in Israel that has seen continuous Jewish habitation for many hundreds of years. In fact, according to a local legend, the only Jewish family to have continuously inhabited the Land of Israel from the destruction of the second Temple until the establishment of the modern State of Israel made its home in the nearby village of Peki'in. Moving past the modern buildings, you can see a row of high mountains called the Mountains of Meron. The farthest peak to the right is Mount Meron, reputed to be the burial site of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. Its proximity to Tzfat was one of the most compelling forces that drew the concentration of Spanish mystics and helped to give Tzfat its unique character.