Jewish Magazine Tour of Safed


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Click on small picture to see large picture of the ruble
which remains from the Safed earthquake


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The Giant Earthquake

copyrighted by Dovid Rossoff

Earthquakes are not the most uncommon natural disaster under the sun. Everyone recalls the outcome of the big one in southern California where roads split in two and bridges bend like rubber. Although damage was extensive, human life was spared. Yet, no one likes such a rude awakening.

Eretz Yisroel has experienced dozens of earthquakes over its long history. The first recorded one occurred in the time of King Uzziah (Zech. 14:5), and another in the time of Herod in which thousands died.

The most recent one of catastrophic proportions took place in the 19th century in the Galilee. It leveled the city of Safed and seriously damaged Tiberias. Over 5,000 Jews died or were injured in a moment of heavenly wrath.

Yet within this tragedy a miracle occurred which saved dozens of lives, all on the merits of a tzaddik, a truly righteous man. This story illustrates the perseverance and steadfastness of the our people at a time of unbelievable trial and tribulation

Safed in the first quarter of the nineteenth century was a bustling town of over five thousand Jews inhabitants. Besides a strong Sephardic community, the Ashkenazic community was composed of Perushim (disciples of the Vilna Gaon) and Chassidim. The Perushim, led by Rav Yisroel of Shklov (author of Pe'as Hashulchan), worked hand in hand with the Chassidim, led by Rebbe Avroham Dov of Avritch (author of Bas Aiyn, a commentary on the Torah). They had learnt to set aside ideological differences for the sake of a common goal. The outcome was a strong unity between the groups and a prosperous Torah community.

Click on small picture to see large picture of the city of Safed before the earthquake
A Long Winter's Night

In the month of January, Sunday, 24 Teves, 1837, was coming to a close like any other winter day. With the early sunset, around four-thirty in the afternoon, the Jewish residents closed their shops and returned from the fields. Mothers called their children home for supper, and scholars and lay-men hurried to the synagogue pray the Mincha (afternoon) service.

As the sun dipped behind the mountain range of Meron, the earth suddenly shook violently. Thick stone and mortar walls twisted like soft rubber and jerked loose from their foundations, and heavy roof beams split and collapsed on top of innocent mothers and children. Majestic arched ceilings became unmarked grave stones for an untold number of people.

"The earthquake," writes an eyewitness, "was not like people imagine it to be -- a simple splitting of the earth. It was a rippling of the ground, like the sharp twitching of a horse's skin."

"The ground was jarred from under our feet," wrote another survivor, "and in a split second the city became a pile of rubble". The death toll was enormous. As the darkness of night quickly fell, the piteous cries and moans of those trapped under stones and fallen rafters could be heard. The survivors were hysterical. "Daddy! Mother! Can you hear me?" "My dear wife! My son! Where are you?"

The avalanche of debris turned the city into a graveyard. Roads and walkways disappeared. Fully ninety percent of the population perished. Two thousand Jews died, and many more were injured and crippled. It was a long dark night in the history of Safed.

The Realities of Daybreak

As the sun rose over the Golan Heights, Safed no longer existed as a city. It was merely a heap of stones.

Survivors rushed about excavating for the living prisoners trapped under stone and beams, while the injured were moved to a makeshift shelter outside the city.

Rav Shmuel Heller, who would become the Ashkenazi rav of Safed for forty years, was discovered buried up to his neck in stones. He had been standing under the lintel of the Beis Midrash Ari at the moment of the earthquake. As the ceiling and walls caved in, the lintel withstood the impact and protected him from falling debris, though other stones crushed and wedged him in. His wounds were so severe that he was bedridden for six months, and lost the use of one arm for the rest of his life.

Rav Nachman Kornel, author of Teshuvos HaGaonim, had just married two years before, and his firstborn son was a special pride and joy in his life. The infant was crushed to death that night, though his wife miraculously survived.

"Now is not the time to cry or deliver eulogies," implored the venerable Rebbe Avroham Dov. "We must do everything possible to aid the injured and rescue those still buried alive."
Click on small picture to see large picture of the synagogue which was rebuilt from the Safed earthquake

The moans and whispers of the prisoners of the earth were heard for two and three days under the tons of rubble until, one by one, their breath was snuffed out. Try as they might, the rescuers had been unable to reach them all in time.

Rav Yisroel of Shklov was in Jerusalem at the time. When the news of the disaster reached him he broke down in tears. Two hundred Perushim had perished and hundreds more were injured. He immediately borrowed money from the Sephardim of the city and set up an emergency fund. A team of rescue workers was dispatched to Safed with food, clothing and medical supplies. While the caravan made the three-day journey from Jerusalem to the Galilee, the most seriously wounded victims, hovering between life and death, could not hold on any longer, and passed away. This earthquake was a tragedy which broke the heart of Jews around the world.

A Miracle in the Night

All the synagogues of Safed collapsed that night with one exception. The tzaddik, Rebbe Avroham Dov of Avritch, had a synagogue in the middle of the Jewish Quarter. On that fateful night, the synagogue was full of men praying the Mincha service. While the earth rocked, and it seemed that in seconds the synagogue would become their common burial pit, the tzaddik yelled, "Come to me!" He quickly prostrated himself on the floor near the bimah and cried out to G-d. Congregants scrambled towards him. The doomed ceiling over their heads hovered in mid-air as the walls shook under the jolting spasm. The other half of the synagogue, opposite the bimah, collapsed.

Stunned, everyone gaped at the miracle. They had survived as the tzaddik"s prayers had been accepted by the heavenly court and their lives had been spared in his merit. Later, a plaque was hung above the entrance of the Bas Aiyn synagogue as a memorial of the miracle.

First Anniversary of the Earthquake

The aftermath of the earthquake was dismal. The Perushim resettled in Jerusalem, leaving the Sephardim and the Chassidim with the overwhelming task of rebuilding fallen stones and broken hearts into a solid edifice with a brighter future.

On the first anniversary of the catastrophe, Rebbe Avroham Dov delivered a sermon before the entire Jewish community. He concluded with a word of hope.

"This catastrophe is a sign of the redemption. The Talmud gives an allusion to the time when the Messiah will redeem us. The Messiah will come when "this gate shall collapse, be rebuilt, collapse, be rebuilt, again and again, until there shall not be enough time to rebuild it until the Messiah comes."

"The word gate in Hebrew is (shaar). These same three letters, when reshuffled, spell the word (rash), earthquake. The numerical value of each of these words is five hundred and seventy, which is the same as the gematria (numerisal equivilant) of , Safed.

"Therefore," the tzaddik concluded his speech, "over the last years there have been two major earthquakes -- one in 1759 and ours -- and many Jews have unfortunately perished. May this be the last "collapsing of the gate" mentioned in the Talmud, and may we soon see the final redemption in our time. Amen."

Rebuilding from Scratch

In those days, there were no bulldozers and cranes, and even basic manpower and tools were lacking for the gigantic task of rebuilding the city. Yet with new courage they slowly began the process of reconstruction.

Unfortunately, more misery and suffering befall the weak community in the summer of 1838 when the Druzes stormed the city and looted, beat and killed Jews witreason.

Dr. Eliezer Loewe, Sir Montefiore"s personal secretary, was in Safed at the time. He writes:

"We huddled together in Rebbe Avroham Dov's house," he wrote in his diary. "The women were hysterical and the children crying.

"The Rebbe asked me to write a note in Arabic to the mayor pleading with him not to forsake us at this desperate time. I did so, but his answer was mere lip service....

"That night, the 12th of Tamuz, I sat up most of the night, too afraid to sleep. Finally, I dozed off. Suddenly, I was awakened by screams: The Druze are coming!

"Panic gripped the huddled refugees. Rebbe Avroham Dov's solemn face turned white.

"Let"s go to their leader," he ordered me, "and ask what they want. You speak fluent Arabic and are protected by the consulate. Perhaps we can save Jewish lives."

"We met some Druze in the street and, girding myself with courage, I spoke to them. With a savage smile, the leader answered me, "I do whatever I wish. First of all, give me your money!"

"They tore my clothes to shreds searching for hidden money.

"The mayor and his militia fled the city, and the Jews become open prey for the ravenous rebels.

"As we fled helter-skelter, they called after us, "Don"t be afraid! Don"t be afraid!" They knew we had precious objects and money on us. The local Arab residents joined them, closing off the last gate of hope.

"I consoled myself by saying that it would be better to die than to see the annihilation of thousands of my Jewish brethren and remain alive."

Rebbe Avroham Dov returned to his house. The rebels first surrounded the courtyard and then stormed inside. They mercilessly beat, looted, and stripped the captives. Not satisfied with the amount of booty, they bound Rebbe Avroham Dov hand and foot, and threatened to execute him if twice as much money was not forthcoming.

Unshaken, the Rebbe asked for a glass of water before being put to death. He wished to wash his hands before sanctifying G-d's Name.

"My children," said the seventy-three years old tzaddik, "let me be, and I shall call out the name of G-d. I shall bless Him for the way He has judged me today."

The Druze held him prisoner and waited for the ransom. Meanwhile, they sat down to eat. An old Arab man came in and startled them by crying out, "Didn't you hear that Ibrahim Pasha and his troops are coming!? They'll be in the city any minute! Not one of you will be left alive!"

Unwilling to fight against trained soldiers, they dashed off for their lives. Not only did they leave the booty behind, but even the tzaddik remained untouched.
The Jewish Magazine brings you the best in Jewish interest and resources. Keep us on your book mark! Click on small picture to see large picture of the grave of Rebbe Avroham Dov


Fourteen synagogues had been destroyed by the terrible earthquake. Of them, only three were spared the disgrace of total effacement. Half of the Bas Aiyn synagogue still stood, the Rav Yossi Banai synagogue (named after the teacher from the time of the Talmud buried there), the oldest synagogue in the city, needed its roof restored, and the Ari HaSephardi synagogue survived the cataclysmic upheaval. The southern wall of the famous Abuhav synagogue, which housed the Aron Kodesh and the holy Sefer Torah remained standing.

Restoration of the synagogues proceeded slowly, due to the lack of both sufficient funds and of a highly spirited community. Survivors were still trying to piece together their lives. Rebbe Avroham Dov lived to inaugurate one synagogue before he passed away in 1840.

An Italian scholar and philanthropist, Rav Yitzchak Goyatos, visited Safed and was appalled by the state of the once glorious city, and decided to restore the synagogues. Working with architects and builders, he invested his money and spared nothing to make his dream come true.

By 1847 most of the reconstruction work was complete, and with it a new era in the history of Safed would begin. Rav Shmuel Heller would guide the community with the same mesiros nefesh that his mentor, Rebbe Avroham Dov of Avritch, had. Once again, the sound of children learning in cheder would be heard, and chason and kallahs (brides and grooms) would begin their new lives together in the mountainous city of Safed.

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