A town that has never grown into a large city, Safed nevertheless has had a huge impact on the spiritual and intellectual culture of Judaism. After an influx of Jews fleeing persecution in Spain in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Jewish mystical tradition of the Kabbalah underwent a major development in Safed under the influence of Rabbi Isaac Luria, whose teachings would soon spread to Europe and stimulate a wave of messianic hope among Jews everywhere. In the same period, Rabbi Joseph Karo compiled the Shulchan Aruch, which is still the most authoritative collection of Jewish law in traditional rabbinical Judaism. These two trends of kabbalism and talmudism represent the mystical and rationalist-legalist poles of Judaism even today. The first printing press in the Middle East was also founded at Safed. The area is also the tradition burial site of the great rabbinical sages of the first and second centuries, Hillel, Shammai, and Shimon bar Yochai, who themselves represent the humanistic, legalistic, and mystical trends in Judaism.
For Judaism, Safed is one of Judaism's holy cities, a site where there is "something for everybody," spiritually speaking. Overlooking the Sea of Galilee from the region's highest settled elevation, it is a special place of power, which has recently attracted not only pious Jews and spiritual seekers, but a burgeoning community of artists from throughout the world. Safed is to Israel what Taos, New Mexico, is to the United States, a place where the mystical spirit of the past mingles with the creative spirit of the present in a very special way.