The terms “four holy cities of Israel” (ארבע ערי הקודש) or “four lands of life” (ארבע ארצות החיים) refer to Jerusalem, Hebron, Safed and Tiberias. It is thus customary to add the appellation “the holy city” (עיר הקודש) to the name of each of these four cities.

History of the Four Holy Cities

Each one of these four cities is considered unique and holy for different reasons. However, the term “four holy cities of Israel” was coined in the 16th century when these cities banded together for charitable purposes under the leadership of Rabbi Moshe Alshich, together with Rabbi Yosef Caro, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria and Rabbi David ibn Zimra (Radbaz).

These rabbis established that communities throughout the diaspora would raise money to support their brethren in Israel, and messengers from the four cities would collect the money and split it proportionally between the cities.

Around the year 1660, during the Druze power struggle in the Galilee, the Jewish community in Tiberias was completely destroyed, and for many years the money was split between Jerusalem, Hebron and Safed. These three cities came to be known as the “three holy cities,” or the “cities of YaCHaTZ (יח״ץ),” an acronym for “Yerushalayim, Chevron and Tzefat” (ירושלים חברון צפת). Eventually, the Jewish community in Tiberias was rebuilt and rejoined the other three cities once again.

These cities were also considered holy since the inhabitants were punctilious in their service of G‑d and took extra precaution in matters of purity. For example, these cities have the custom of not planting any trees in a cemetery, since the overhanging boughs would cause the impurity of the corpses to extend to anything under them.

There is also a long-standing custom that the names of these four cities is followed by the acronym תובב"א, which stands for “may it be built and established speedily in our days, amen” (תיבּנה ותיכּונן במהרה בימינו אמן).


Women praying at the Kotel in Jerusalem in the late 19th century.
Women praying at the Kotel in Jerusalem in the late 19th century.

Any discussion about Israel’s holy cities starts with Jerusalem, the eternal capital of Israel. Not only is Jerusalem the site where the two Holy Temples stood, our sages tell us that this is the location where Abraham built the altar on which he prepared Isaac for sacrifice. And, according to the Midrash, Adam was created from the earth where the Temple altar would later stand. Furthermore, according to the Talmud, the world itself was created from the Even Hashetiya - the foundation stone over which the Holy of Holies of the Temple was built.

Until this very day, tens of thousands of Jews visit and pray at the Western Wall, awaiting the rebuilding of the Temple and Jerusalem.

You can learn more about the Western Wall here. You can watch a video about Jerusalem and its significance here.


Safed is called the “City of Sages and Mystics” since throughout Jewish history, many great sages and mystics made Safed their home. In the 16th century, the great mystic Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, known as the Arizal, resided in Safed together with his many students, who would later spread the mystical teachings of Kabbalah throughout the world.

The mystics explain that “there is no place in Israel in which the air is as pure as it is in Safed,” and “there is no place in Israel where the atmosphere is as ripe for delving into the secrets of the Torah.”

Safed is holy not just by virtue of those who lived there, but also those who are buried there. Many great sages, such as Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his son, are buried in Safed and the surrounding areas.

Additionally, it is said that Safed was one of the “cities of refuge” in ancient Israel.

You can watch a video about Safed and its significance here.


The Cave of the Patriarchs as it appeared in 1906.
The Cave of the Patriarchs as it appeared in 1906.

Known as the “City of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs,” it is here that Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah are buried. According to the Midrash, as Abraham was preparing the meal for the three angels disguised as men, the calf he was going to slaughter fled, and after giving chase he caught up with it in the Cave of Machpelah. Upon entering the cave, he smelled a sweet fragrance and discovered Adam and Eve, as if asleep, with lamps lit over them. It was this that motivated him to purchase the cave as a burial spot for his wife Sarah.

According to the Zohar, this area is special not just by virtue of those who rest there, but because it is the gateway to the Garden of Eden, and it is for this reason that Adam and Eve are buried there.

Throughout history, Jews would come to pray at the Cave of the Machpelah. Indeed, the Talmud relates that when Moses sent the twelve spies to scout out the land, Caleb went there to beseech the Almighty that he not succumb to the spies’ plot.

You can learn more about the Cave of Machpelah here. You can watch a video about Hebron and its significance here.


The City of Tiberias on the banks of the Kinneret Sea in 1862.
The City of Tiberias on the banks of the Kinneret Sea in 1862.

The Talmud tells us that Tiberias, or Tiveryah (טבריה) in Hebrew, is related to the Hebrew word for navel, tabur (טבור), and is so named for its location in the center of the Land of Israel. Others cite a tradition that the name “Tiveryah" stands for the words tovah re'iyatah (טובה ראייתה), “her sight is goodly,” and is so named due to both its physical beauty—its beautiful gardens and orchards, and its location at the banks of the Kinneret—and its spiritual beauty, as it was a major center of Torah learning.

In the year 3789 (29 CE), the moral character of the Jewish people had declined to the point that the great Jewish court, the Sanhedrin, removed themselves from their respectful place on the Temple Mount and went into exile. This automatically downgraded their spiritual and legal status and they were no longer authorized to judge cases involving capital punishment. They traveled to ten different places in exile, the last being Tiberias. According to tradition, in the final redemption, the Sanhedrin will first reconvene in Tiberias, and only from there will they will proceed to the Temple. May it be speedily in our days!

You can learn more about Tiberias here.