Safed's Jewish Population: From the First Temple to Modern Times / DR.R.S.Lissak

Safed was a Jewish city until the Crusaders period when Christians settled in Safed. Muslims began to settle in the 13th century by invitation of the Mamelukes who conquered the country from the Crusaders around 1260 CE. Jews lived in Safed most of the time between around 1000 BCE and today.

Today Safed is a Jewish city numbering about 28,600 residents. Since the establishment of the State of Israel Safed’s Jewish community has been enlarged by Jewish immigrants from various countries.

The name Safed (Tzfat in Hebrew) seems to be derived from the fact that the city is located on high mountains and looks down or observed the area around.

The First Temple (1000 BCE – 587 BCE)

Sefad was located in the territory of the Tribe Naftali. It is assumed that it was founded sometime between 1200 to 1000 BCE. It was part of the northern kingdom of Israel after the kingdom of king Solomon was divided into Israel in the north and Judea in the south. It became part of the province of Megido after Tiglath Pileser the 3rd, king of Assyria, conquered the Galilee in 732 BCE. There is evidence that Safed was settled by Phinicians. No evidence on what happened to the Israelis of Safed. Assyria expelled only the upper class, so maybe some Israelis survived the expulsion.

The Second Temple Period (538 BCE – 70 CE)

Jews resettled Safed, sometime after the Cyrus Declaration (538 BCE) that enabled them to return from exile in Babilonia. During the Second Temple period Safed was a Jewish city, named Safaf, and was fortified by Josephus Flavius in preparation for the Great Revolt of 66CE.

The Roman & Byzantine Periods (70 – 640 CE)

The city continued to be an important Jewish city through the Roman and Byzantine periods. Following the Great Revolt (70 BCE) the Yakim and Peshahor priestly families settled in Safed. (Some historians believe that happened after the Bar Kokhba Revolt, 135 BCE). Many Talmudic teachers and scholars settled in Safed during the Mishna and Talmud period. The move of scholars and priests to the Jewish towns in the Galilee turned the region into the centre of Jewish life after the revolt.
There is no evidence what happened to the Jewish residents of Safed by the end of the Byzantine period, except a poem written by Eliezer the Kalir, from the 6th century, who mentioned the destruction of Safed. The Byzantines massacred many Jews in the Galilee (628 CE) in revenge for helping the Persians to conquer the country in 618 CE. This might have been the fate of the Jews of Safed.

The Arabic Period (640 — 1099)

Safed was a small Jewish town during this period. There is evidence (the Cairo Genizah) that Jews lived in Safed in the 11th century
The fort of Burj el Yattim was built there following the Arabic conquest.

The Crusader Period (1099 – 1260)

Safed became an important city during the Crusader period, with a fort built in it in 1102 or 1140. Up until the Crusader period Safed was a Jewish city. Following the settlement of Crusaders its population became mixed.
The Templars were stationed in Safed. Safed changed hands several times as Muslims and Crusaders fought for control over the Land of Israel,
Benjamin of Tudella, who visited the city in 1170, tells that the Jews fled the city during the battles between the Crusaders and the Muslims. The Muslim conquered Safed before or after the battle of Hittin (1187) and destroyed the city.
According to another traveler, Yehuda Elharizi, Jews returned to Safed in 1216. He visited the city and found a Jewish community.
The war between the Crusaders and Saladin's successors continued and the fort was destroyed in 1220.
It was rebuilt after Safed was returned to the Crusaders according to a peace treaty signed in 1240. The city's population at that time ranged from 1,700 to 2,200 among them 300 Jewish families (about 1,500 people). Around Safed there were 260 villages with a population of 10,000.

During the 13th century Safed became the cultural center of Jewish life and the Eastern Galilee was still the center of the Jewish population.

The Mameluke Period (1260 – 1516)

The Mamelukes conquered Safed in July 1266 and massacred its Christian population, including the Templar knights. They restored the fort, which was damaged during the wars, and built a mosque, public baths, and a market place. The Mamelukes divided the country into three districts, and Safed became the capital of the Galilee district (including areas in today’s Lebanon).

Safed became a government centre. Muslims settled in it during the Mameluke period. The city attracted new people, including settlers from its surrounding farming areas and Jews from the Arabic world. The Mameluke Sultan Baibars (1260 –1277) invited Muslims to settle in the city. The Mamelukes continued the building works, constructing a second mosque (the “Red Mosque”), an inn and a water pipe line from the near-by spring.

The small Jewish community survived and in the 14th century a few Sephardic scholars settled in Safed. Rabbi Obadya from Bartenoura, who settled in Jerusalem, did not visit Safed but heard that most of its Jews are poor peddlers who make their living from small trade. He reports the existence of Jewish settlements in the environs of Safed, such as Dalta, Jish, Pir’im, Biriya, and Kfar ‘Anan. Following the expulsion from Spain in 1492 Sephardic Jews arrived in Safed and the number of Jewish families rose.

By the end of the Mameluke period, Jerusalem and Safed had become the two main Jewish centers in the country.

The Ottoman Period (1516 – 1918)

Safed’s Jews suffered greatly during the war between the Mamelukes and the Ottomans. The retreating Mameluke army, aided by Arabs from the neighbouring settlements, plundered and robbed the Jews and forced them to flee. The Jews rehabilitated later with the aid of the Egyptian Jewish community.

The Ottoman rule, which was known to have been kind to Sephardic Jews who settled in Turkey, was well received by the Jewish population in the Land of Israel. Safed continued as capital of the region (including, as previously mentioned, the Galilee and parts of Lebanon) under Ottoman rule.
The Ottomans carried out census between 1525 and 1573, showing that the population of the Safed grew to 5,500 in 1525 and to 10,800 in 1573.

The number of Jews grew from 1,165 in 1525 to 3,658 in 1573. The Jewish community grew and absorbed more Sephardic Jews from Turkey. According to Ottoman archived lists from 1525-1526, the Jewish taxable population in Safed numbered 224 families: 130 Moustarabi, 40 Franks, 21 Portuguese, and 33 Moughrabi families. Yitzhak Ben Zvi believed the list was incomplete because it omitted all the bachelors and the Sephardic Jews who continued to move into Safed.

The Safed district grew from 231 villages in the first census to 275 in the fourth. The area was settled by Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmen.
Throughout the Ottoman period the city continued to absorb Arabic and Kurd settlers, as well as Mameluke soldiers who resigned their military service.

Moshe Bassoula visited Safed in 1522 and found more than 300 Jewish families and three synagogues – Sephardic, Moughrabi (from North Africa), and Moustarabi (the Jewish community whose ancestors never left Israel). The economic conditions in the city had improved greatly and he found merchants, a variety of artisans, and peddlers who travelled among the neighbouring villages.

David Hareuveni and Shlomo Molkho (on his way to Damascus) visited Safed in 1525. Travelers who visited Safed gave varying data for its Jewish population. A Spanish traveler visiting Safed in 1551 reported 8,000 – 10,000 Jews. Yihye Al Sahari from Yemen who visited Safed in 1567 reported 14,000 Jews and 18 Yeshivas. Ludwig von Rauter visited Safed in 1568 and gave the number 2000 (it is not clear whether he referred to individuals or families). As a result of the Sephardic immigration wave the Jewish share of the city’s population grew from 25% to 35%. In 1568 Jews comprised 50% of the city’s population.

In 1577, the Ashkenazi Brothers established in Safed the first Hebrew printing press in the Middle East.

The Jewish community’s economic situation improved with the arrival of Sephardic Jews who set up a wool textile industry that contributed to the economic prosperity of the city as a whole. Safed textiles were renowned in Europe for their quality. Jewish merchants developed the local commerce.

A Kabala center was established in Safed by Rabbi Isaac Luria, who settled in the city. Safed became the city of the Kabalists. Joseph Caro, author of the halakhic codification “Shulhan Arukh”, and his students settled in Safed (Caro then moved to Biriya). Rabbi Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz, author of the liturgical poem “Lekha Doddi”, lived in Safed.

From the late 16th century and through the 17th and 18th centuries, however, the city and its Jews suffered worsening conditions as a result of battles among local leaders. The Galilee suffered greatly from the fights among the Bedouins, Druze, and Ottomans, who fought for control over the region. Hunger, locust, disease, and robbery caused an economic crisis resulting in the move of the textile industry to Thessaloniki. The Jews’ economic conditions deteriorated, the political situation was unstable, and the Jews left Safed around 1665. They returned after some time, and in 1730 there were about 1,800 Jews living there.

The Bedouin Sheik Dahar El Omar conquered the Lower Galilee, including Safed, in 1740. In 1759 Safed was hit by an earthquake, many Jews left the city and its Jewish population dropped to 250. Rabbi Simcha Ben Joshua of Zalazitz visited Safed in 1764/5 and found 40 or 50 families there. The region continued to suffer from the political instability, and Rabbi Simcha reported the Jews of Safed and Acre were victims of Muslim pogroms. Rabbi Moshe Yerushalmi visited Safed in 1769, finding 6 existing synagogues.

Things began to stabilize after the Ottomans regained control in the Galilee in 1775. Followers of the Baal Shem Tov (leader of the Hasidid movement) immigrated to Israel in 1778 and settled in Safed.
Instability reigned again when Napoleon arrived in 1799 – his soldiers plundered the Jewish Quarter in Safed and the Arabs completed the destruction: they murdered many Jews and destroyed the Jewish Quarter.

According to a Palestinian source (the Nakba web site) Safed’s population numbered about 5,500 in 1800, half of them Jewish. Students of the Vilna Gaon (leader of the Mitnagdim movement) immigrated to Israel in 1810 and settled in Safed. The followers of the Baal Shem Tov and the students of the Vilna Gaon turned the city into “The City of Scholars”.

Safed was ravaged by disease between 1812 and 1814, and the Jews left it temporarily. In 1822 Safed was hit by an earthquake. Rabbi David Dveit Hillel visited Safed in 1822 (probably before the earthquake) and found 2,000 Jewish families residing there.

Rabbi Menachem Mendl of Kaminitz immigrated to Israel in 1833 and settled in Safed. He reported 2,000 Jewish families (some from Lithuania and Poland), i.e., about 6000 individuals. He reported that in 1834 Arabic farmers plundered Safed and robbed its Jews.
In 1835 the city’s population was 7,300, half of them Jews.

An earthquake hit Safed again in 1837, destroying large parts of the city and killing about a quarter of its population. The Jewish Quarter was situated on Safed’s West side and its houses were built of earth (in contrast to the Arabic Quarters whose buildings were built of stone), and so it was completely destroyed. Most of the casualties were Jews (1,500 according to one report, more than 2,000 according to Rabbi Mendl’s report, and 4,000 according to another report). Most of those who survived decided to move to Jerusalem, leaving some 1,500 Jews in Safed. Judith and Moses Montefiori visited Safed in 1839 and reported the pogrom that the Druze, who rebelled against Ibrahim Pasha, carried out among the Jews of Safed in 1838. According to Montefiori’s census, following the pogrom there were about 1,357 Jews left in Safed, mostly Sephardic and a few Ashkenazi.

The city was gradually rebuilt and in 1880, according to the Nacba web site and was home to 8,300 people, 4,300 of them Jewish. Safed’s Jewish population was comprised of Moustarabis, Sephardic Jews who moved there after the Spanish expulsion, and Ahkenazi Jews who settled in Safed during the 18th and 19th centuries. Most of Safed’s Jews lived off the ‘Halouka’ – donations collected abroad, and only a few Sephardic Jews made a living from trade and handicrafts.

According to the Nacba web site, Safed’s population numbered some 13,500 on the eve of World War I, 7,500 of them Jews, who suffered hunger during the war when donations were stopped. The city surrendered without a fight to the British on 26 September 1918.

The British Mandate Period (1918 – 1948)

When the British took over, Safed’s population numbered 7,600 and 2,600 of them were Jewish. The Arabic population grew during the Mandate period while the Jewish population declined. The 1922 British census reported 8,761 residents, 3,000 of them Jewish. The 1931 census reported 9,441 residents in Safed, but only 2,547 Jews. The Jewish population in Safed continued to decline and in 1945, according to a Palestinian source, they numbered about 2,400, compared to 10,210 Arabs. The Jewish population of Safed declined because the Jews were often harassed by the local Arabic population.

The Pogrom of 1929

On 29 August 1929 pogroms broke all around the country as Arabs attacked their Jewish neighbours in mixed-population cities. During the pogrom in Safed 18 Jews (21 according to another source) were murdered, dozens wounded, the Jewish Quarter was plundered and many houses set on fire.

The Hagana historians (the Hagana was a Jewish undergrpound who challenged the British rule) note that “the defense of the Jewish Quarter which was populated by Old Settlement people relied on defenders from Ayelet Hashahar and Kfar Giladi rather than a local defense group”. According to the Hagana Book, the defense was disorganized when the pogrom broke out, its small weapons store was kept outside the city for fear it would be seized, and therefore the Arabs were unhindered in their murder, pillage, and destruction of the Jews and their residences.

The British Police arrested Fouad Hijazi and he was sentenced to death by hanging. The pogrom survivors turned down a suggestion by the British governor to leave the city.

The Arabic Revolt, 1936 – 1939

Tensions between Jews and Arabs in Safed were never relieved and during the Arabic revolt in 1936 – 1939 the Jews were again harassed by their Arab neighbours. But, this time the Arabs were stopped by the Hagana, and only one Jewish family was murdered.


When hostilities began and the War of Independence broke out, the Arabs in Safed prepared by acquiring weapons and training for the fight. In January 1948 the second battalion of Kaukji’s army, the Yarmoukh battalion, arrived in Safed.

A guard force comprised of the Jewish Hagana and Irgun undergrounds members arrived to fortify the Jewish Quarter. Forces were also concentrated on Mt Canaan, in Biriya, in Eyn Zeitim and in Rosh Pina. In April 1948 a Palmah unit of the Hagana underground managed to reach the Jewish Quarter and was reinforced at the beginning of May.

The British left Safed in April 1948, although the first clash between Jews and Arabs occurred on 13 December 1947. From that time on the two sides were at war in Safed and its environs. Safed was conquered on 10 May 1948 during the Yiftah Operation by the Israeli army and the city’s Arabs fled. Palmah soldiers, carrying out a search in the Arabic Quarters, discovered that they had been almost completely deserted. The few people left were sent to Haifa and most of the buildings were demolished.

After the war was over Jewish refugees from Europe and Arab countries settled in Safed and the population grew from 2,300 in 1948 to 28,600 today.

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