Rabbi Yoseph Caro
Name and place:
Rabbi Yosef Caro, one of the most important and influential Jewish scholars of the last thousand years, was the head of the Zefat Beit Din (Rabbinical Court) as well as its Chief Rabbi for over 35 years. Besides being a great posek, he was the author of many famous works among them the Shulchan Aruch and the Beit Yosef. Rabbi Yosef Caro was born in Toledo, Spain in the year 1488 only four years before the inquisition. He arrived to Palestine in 1535, and died in the year 1575 at the ripe old age of 87 .He lies buried in the Zefat cemetery.
Among R Joseph caro’s famous works are:
Bais Yosef, a summery of his own, opinion as well as other rabbinic opinions.
While he wrote many more seforim, none received the fame of the Shulchan Aruch, which translates as the "Prepared Table". It is a book in which all the laws are clearly set up in front of you in simple and clear fashion. Although his work was contradictory at first, because of the fear that people might neglect the study of the Talmud, this work is still remains of highest authority of teaching of this subject. The city of Zefat at that time was the only one in the country that had a printing press, and it was the printed word that made it possible for the world to learn about his great work. The first printing of the Shulchan Aruch was in the year 1565, and it has been reprinted many hundreds of times since then.
In addition to being a master of halachah, he was also well versed in the secrets of Kabbalah. The city of Zefat was noted for the greatest masters of Kabbalah in the world.
In Zefat proper the great Rabbi Yosef Caro had a Beit Midrash [House of Study], which was three stories high, filled with hundreds of students learning Torah. He also conducted the Beit Din proceedings there. It is said that in the basement of this building Rabbi Yosef Caro had his meetings with the angel. Indeed, the section that leads to the basement is closed, due to a local tradition that the angel still remaines there and does not want to be disturbed.
The synagogue we know today is not the one Rabbi Yosef Caro used. The original building was destroyed in the earthquake of 1759. Reconstruction was done upon the original site in 1860 (after a second earthquake in 1837 destroyed the first reconstruction!) to serve as the Beit Din of Zefat. The reason for its split level design was to allow an upper level for the rabbinical judges and a lower level for the litigants. Today the building functions primarily as a synagogue and is officially called “The Yosef Caro Synagogue”.
Tale of a Tzaddik:
Once Rabbi Alkabetz was with Rabbi Caro during one of these visitations when the following occurred. The pious one (Rabbi Yosef Caro) and Rabbi Alkebetz agreed to make a mighty effort on Shavuot night to keep sleep from their eyes, and not to stop learning for even one second. They were successful. Indeed, when you hear what transpired, it will enliven your souls.
For the night of Shavuot, this is the order of study was prepared. Verses from Scripture…* All this was chanted aloud in a spirit of great fear and awe, with melody and trepidation. But what will be told next won't be believed. After all the verses, was recited aloud they began learning the Mishnah in the way of true learning, and they completed two tractates. At that moment, the Creator graced them and they heard a great voice coming from Rabbi Caro. Many of the words were unintelligible, the syllables chopped short. The people nearby heard but could not understand. The voice was very pleasant but at the same time was growing continually stronger and we fell on our faces from the great awe; no one dared to lift his eyes and face to see. The voice began to address us, saying:
"Friends, choicest of choice, peace be to you, beloved chaverim. Happy are you and happy those who bore you. Happy are you in this world and happy in the next, that you resolve to adorn Me [i.e., the Shechinah] on this night. For these many years had My head been fallen with none to comfort Me. I was cast down to the ground [i.e., from Sefirah Binah to Malkuth] to embrace the dunghills, but now you have restored the Crown to its former place [i.e., returned Sefirah Malkut to Keter]. Be strong, My beloved ones. Be courageous, My friends. Rejoice and exult for you belong among the chosen few. You have the merit of belonging to the king's palace [i.e., Sefirah Binah]. The sound of your Torah [reading] and the breath of your mouth have ascended to the Holy One, blessed be He, breaking through many firmaments and many atmospheres until it rose upwards. The angels were silent, the [beasts of the field stood without speech and all the host of heaven heard, together with the Holy One, blessed be He, the sound of your voice. Behold, I am the Mishnah [Shechinah], the Mother who chastises Her children and I have come to converse with you. Had you been ten in number [i.e., the "minyan," a full quorum of men] you would have ascended even higher but you have reached a great height nevertheless. Happy are those who bore you, my friends, in that, by denying yourselves sleep you have ascended so far on high. Through you I have become elevated this night and through the chaverim in the great city, a mother-city in Israel . . . Therefore, My sons, be strong and rejoice in My love, rejoice in My Torah, rejoice in the fear of Me. If you could only imagine one millionth of the anguish which I [the fallen Shechinah] endure, no joy would ever enter your hearts and no mirth your mouths, for it is because of you that I am cast to the ground. Therefore, O My dear sons, be strong and of good courage and rejoice. Cease not from studying, for a thread of mercy is stretched out over you and your Torah study is pleasant to the Holy One, Blessed be He. Therefore, stand upon your feet and raise Me up, saying in a loud voice, as on the Day of Atonement: 'BLESSED BE THE NAME OF HIS GLORIOUS KINGDOM FOR EVER AND EVER.'"
Rabbi Alkabetz also wrote that the following Shabbat the Voice again came to Rabbi Caro, whereupon he again gathered the ten together to warn them and to urge them to enter the "inner place". They agreed, to refrain from meat and wine, and to mourn the exile of the Divine Presence, and the causes of Exile, and set aside every desire. This was one of the times he met with a holy angel.
Rabbi Yosef Karo passed away on the thirteenth day of Nissan
The synagogue is located in the old city. The tomb is in the old cemetary on the slope of the hill.