The Rabbi Yosef Karo Synagogue was named for R’ Yosef Karo, master of Halacha – the Jewish law, and writer of “Shulhan Aruch" (code of Jewish Law). The synagogue was first built in the 16th century as a large Beit Midrash (house of Torah study), and was rebuilt after the 1759 earthquake, though in smaller dimensions. Hassidim who arrived in Tzfat after 1777 were accustomed to praying there, and assisted in rebuilding after the earthquake of 1837. Three men, lead by Yosef Guerta were responsible for again rebuilding the synagogue, which took 10 years. Until the beginning of the 20th century, the synagogue was used as a Beit Midrash and served as the Sephardic Rabbinical Court. In 1903, the synagogue was renovated and began to be used as a synagogue under the leadership of the Ben Shimon family, which is responsible for the building till today. Under the synagogue, according to tradition, is the house where “The Maggid”, an angel, sat with R’ Yosef Karo and related to him the secrets of the Kabbalah. From these visions came R’ Karo’s book “Magid Meishrim”. R’ Yosef Karo was one of the Jews who was expelled during the Spanish expulsion with his family, and he arrived in Tzfat in 1536. He was the chief Rabbi of
Tzfat and the head of the Rabbinical Court until his death at age 87 in 1575.
Today's visitor to Rabbi Karo synagogue , can view the collection of Torah books high on the shelves of the back walls. Many are hundreds of years old, dating back at least to the mid-16th century when R' Karo composed the Shulchan Aruch, which became the universally accepted basic text of Jewish law from that time until today. Next to it is the geniza, the place for storing damaged holy books that are no longer usable until they can be given a proper burial.
The Holy Ark is sometimes left open so that visitors can gaze and even take photographs. There are three Torah scrolls in the ark, behind secure bars. One is from Persia and is about 200 years old; one is from Iraq and is about 300 years old, and one is from Spain and is over 500 years old.