iPlayer Radio What's New?
Image for A City on a Hill

Sorry, this episode is not currently available on BBC iPlayer Radio

A City on a Hill

45 minutes
First broadcast:
Sunday 12 December 2010

The city of Safed, which perches on the top of the hill in the Northern Galilee, is virtually unknown outside Israel and Judaism. Yet it has been home to an extraordinary school of scholars and mystics who redefined Jewish faith and law and attracts thousands of tourists, artists and modern-day mystics.

Among the towering figures from Safed's past is Isaac Luria, known as 'the Lion', an Egyptian rabbi and master of the mystical tradition of Kabbalah. His teachings were disseminated after his death and have become central to the Hassidic movement of Central Europe, which is growing ever stronger in modern Judaism. Another revered rabbi is Joseph Caro, known as 'The Master', a Spanish rabbi who became the supreme legal authority of the Jewish world, ruling on disputes brought to him from France to Turkey. He distilled his learning into the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) which remains the central text on the interpretation of Jewish law.

Safed today is home to just 30,000 people. Yet it is one of the few places in Israel that has been continually occupied by Jews since biblical times. The city's story mirrors that of Israel's past as a whole. In the 1920s, Safed Jews were massacred by local Arabs: in 1948 it was conquered by the Palmach forces who forced out the Arab population. Among those who left with their families was Mahmoud Abbas, now president of the Palestinian Authority.

The city proudly proclaims itself to be the world centre of spirituality and Jewish culture. It is central to the practice of Kabbalah or Jewish mysticism and home to religious scholars and artists from all over the world. Teenagers from Europe and America travel to Safed for a particularly Jewish experience and hundreds of tourists visit each day. Mayor Ilan Shohat was even dragged out of bed earlier this year for a visit by the popular music star Madonna, who has recently embraced Kabbalah.

The Jewish commentator Clive Lawton explores Safed's streets and alleyways arriving in time for Shabbat, the weekly festival of the Sabbath, the glue that holds all Jews together. He visits the synagogues and joins in the joyous ceremonies, singing the famous love song to Shabbat known as Lecha Dodi, which was written in Safed. He wanders among the tombstones in the city's cemeteries and witnesses the ultra orthodox venerating the rabbis who were drawn to the area so long ago.
Producer: Mark Savage.


Discover Dylan Thomas

Dylan Thomas season

Explore the life, work and legacy of the Welsh poet on the centenary of his birth.


  1. Image for BBC World War One

    BBC World War One

    BBC Radio brings you stories of the war that changed who we are, with documentaries exploring the…

  2. Image for Music and Culture of WW1

    Music and Culture of WW1

    Highlights of BBC Radio 3’s special programmes to mark the WW1 centenary. Classical music, art,…

  3. Image for Ravel Revealed

    Ravel Revealed

    Maurice Ravel revealed through guides to his work and life. Ravel and Jazz, Ravel and literature,…

  4. Image for The Radio 3 Documentary

    The Radio 3 Documentary

    In-depth documentaries which each week explore a different aspect of history, science, philosophy,…

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Added. Check out your playlist Dismiss