Visiting Tzfat is a challenge. It’s built on the side of a mountain, so there’s a good bit of uphill and downhill. Parking is difficult, food options are limited and the excursion too often becomes a shopping trip. The old synagogues associated with the 16th century Kabbalists were actually built in the 19th century in the wake of the earthquake of 1837 that leveled the entire town. Few authentic medieval ruins remain, and even fewer tangible links to those sages that gave us the Kabbalat Shabbat service and revived Jewish mysticism. One is reduced to pondering the lives and words of people who may have prayed in a synagogue nearby.
This is not always a bad thing: Too often, we demand perfect historical authenticity. It is important to acknowledge that some things simply cannot be served up like a scoop of ice cream, and occasionally the intangible can be more real than arches and paving stones. We must make do with considering the message of the city, its legends, and its voice. Still, the absence of touchable antiquity can be a bit frustrating, particularly if it’s cold or rainy or if the Old City is overrun with other visitors standing in line for the bathroom.
This, perhaps, is why I so love the ARI’s mikveh. The undisputed leader of the Kabbalists was Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, called the ARI (the acronym stands for “The Divine Rabbi Yitzchak” and means “The Lion” in Hebrew). In a stone building, near the old cemetery (and the ARI’s grave) is a ritual immersion bath which, according to tradition, was used by the ARI himself. Through its stone-cut basin flows an underground stream, always ice cold, always as clean as the snow, and always available ‘round the clock (unfortunately, only to men).
The structure’s authenticity is as much of a guess as that of any of the synagogues, but the stream has ever been there, from the days of the Temple when Tzfat was one of the mountains upon which the fires were lit to announce the New Moon, to the days when the Crusader fortress that loomed above was the largest building in the kingdom, to the days of the ARI, to the present.
Heraclitus said that one never steps in the same river twice, but turning that wisdom on its head, this underground stream is the one physical link to those days. As such, the ARI’s mikveh endears me to Tzfat in a way that the old synagogues never could. Whenever possible, I hike down and take a dip, and during those few moments in the icy water, I am as alone in the universe, and as new in myself as every pilgrim, every sage, and every local who has ever gone there for a pre-Shabbat ritual immersion.
The ARI Synagogue may not have been there when the ARI summoned his followers to welcome the Sabbath Bride. The steps that lead down the mountain to the mikveh may have only been set there in the 1970s. Even the stone roof of the mikveh itself probably does not date back to the 16th century. But those love-struck men of God who brought us Lecha Dodi and Yedid Nefesh bathed in that same underground stream, and shared that same icy chill that thrills me and humbles me every time anew.