SAFED, Israel -- Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, is known around the world thanks to the many Hollywood celebrities who have embraced its teachings.
While Madonna and Demi Moore may be seen walking in and out of kabbalah centers in Hollywood, the roots of this ancient form of study are in Safed, a mysterious town in northern Israel and a popular destination for kabbalah followers.
Its distant location, several hours from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, doesn’t stop hundreds of thousands of people from visiting each year to get up close with kabbalah’s origins and the Jewish mystics who defined it 500 years ago.
Safed is the highest city in Israel, some 3,200 feet above sea level. The smell of jasmine greets visitors as they walk through the Old City, home to neatly kept alleys and uneven small steps. Winding from a cemetery at the bottom, bumpy, narrow cobblestone streets lead up to peach-colored stone houses and the ancient city center.
Doors on these homes are blue, associated in kabbalah with the sky and the idea of bringing heaven down to earth. Virtually every stone here has a spiritual meaning, like the blue-painted tomb of the “Holy Ari,” one of kabbalah’s greatest practitioners, or the Jewish ritual bath said to have healing powers for the body and soul. All of these sites are must-sees for kabbalah lovers.
“Kabbalah has been here for thousands of years,” said Rabbi Eyal Riess, director of the Tzfat Kabbalah Center, which offers courses, workshops and other activities (Tzfat is another spelling of Safed). “Kabbalah reveals the code of creation … Everything is like a body and soul.”
The word kabbalah comes from the Hebrew word lekabel, which means to receive. According to tradition, kabbalah was given by God to the ancient Israelites on Mount Sinai along with the Old Testament.
Kabbalah’s teachings help lead a more spiritual and meaningful existence and offer tools for a better life, Riess says.
One of the main principles of kabbalah is the sephirot or enumerations, the 10 attributes of God as he descends into the physical world and influences it.
Riess says the center receives about 50,000 people a year. Some are religious, some have no spiritual affiliation and more than 60 per cent of them, he adds, are foreigners.
Debra Jedeikin, who works as a therapist in Solana Beach, Calif., traveled to Safed with her family to celebrate her younger son’s bar mitzvah. She said the town “felt deeply spiritual to both myself and my family.” She said they belong “to a reform temple in California, so I thought that the contrast would be a good educational/religious experience.”
A one-on-one kabbalah lesson at the center costs roughly $25, a group lesson between $125 and $150. Each class lasts between an hour and 90 minutes. Although the Jewish religion is at the roots of kabbalah, “you don’t need to be Jewish to study it,” Riess says. He estimates half of those enquiring about kabbalah at his facility are non-Jews.
There are no red bracelets or bottles of the kabbalah water favored by Hollywood celebrities on sale at the center. But one can find amulets and stones for spiritual protection. The prices go from about $3 for a printed “Code of the Soul/Universe” to about $40 for a Hebrew letter necklace.