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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 900 meters (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 clamber up and lead 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.
On the shelves sit one of the founding texts of kabbalah, the Zohar, containing a spiritual commentary on biblical scriptures, a must-have for all students of this discipline.
Walking through Safed, it is easy to explore the origins of Jewish mysticism and learn about the sages who moved here 500 years ago. Their teachings still form the basis of kabbalah philosophy today.
In the early 16th century, some of the Jews who were expelled from Spain by the Inquisition found a new life in Safed. Soon enough the town became a magnet for kabbalist sages like Rabbi Isaac Luria, Rabbi Chaim Vital, Rabbi Moshe Cordovero and Rabbi Eliahu de Vidas.
A kabbalah tour can't leave out the Ari Mikveh, a ritual bath with natural spring water said to have special powers.
For that, one needs to leave the town center and head back to cemetery with its long row of tombs. Those painted in bright blue are dedicated to the most important rabbis and kabbalah sages.
Located right above the cemetery is the Ari Mikveh. Legend has it that it was regularly used by one of the most revered kabbalists of all times.
Riess said tens of thousands of people immerse themselves in the bath each year. Some well-heeled visitors even fly into town by helicopter, visit the bath and leave. He said he has arranged private visits for some celebrities, but declined to reveal any of their names, saying secrecy is at the core of what he does.
Rabbi Isaac Luria, known as the Ari, or lion, lived in Safed in the 16th century and is one of the most important figures of kabbalah, a spiritual leader who brought new insights into the studying of Jewish mysticism.
Two ancient synagogues in Safed bear his name, including the Ashkenazi Ari Synagogue where he used to pray on the Jewish sabbath.
Centuries have passed since his death, but hundreds of thousands still flock every year to pray at the Ari's gravesite, which is placed on a special platform that makes it stands out among all others in a peaceful slope at the bottom of the Old City.
From the top, the Old City offers an impressive bird's eye view of the ancient cemetery and the landscape surrounding it, from Mount Hermon on the nearby Golan Heights to the Sea of Galilee.
"When you learn kabbalah it affects your life totally," said Doron Tal, a teacher at the Kabbalah Center. "It affects all of your life, from when you go to sleep, when you're eating, everything gets another vision."
If You Go...
TZFAT KABBALAH CENTER: http://www.tzfat-kabbalah.org/. In Safed, Israel. A center of teaching for Jewish mysticism, called kabbalah. Private lesson, $25. Located 130 miles (210 kilometers) from Jerusalem.
GETTING THERE: From Jerusalem to Safed, 130 miles (210 kilometers), two and a half to three hours by car, depending on traffic; direct bus from Central Bus Station, three and a half hours. From Tel Aviv to Safed, 100 miles (160 kilometers), two to two and a-half hours by car depending on traffic; direct bus from Central Bus Station, three and a half hours.