Earthquake in Tzfas, 1837/5597
One hundred eighty-four years ago, a major earthquake struck the Galilee area, killing thousands of Jews in Tzfas. Many of them perished slowly and painfully, buried under tons of rubble with no rescue crews available to help. Arabs and Bedouins from the surrounding region came to plunder whatever they could find, followed by packs of dogs that did as they pleased with the bodies of the victims.
In the years following the earthquake, the city was rebuilt in much the same way as it was originally constructed, in many cases right on top of the existing ruins. Indeed, with each step taken in the streets of Tzfas, one might be treading upon remnants of the ruins hidden deep beneath the ground.
It was late in the afternoon of 24 Teves, 5597/January 1, 1837, and the Jews of Tzfas were gathered in the shuls for Minchah. While they davened, thunder and lightning whipped the cloudless skies into a frenzy. Seconds later, the strongest earthquake in the city’s history struck.
This was the most massive natural disaster experienced in Eretz Yisrael in the past two centuries. The epicenter of the quake was in the city of Tzfas, but it was felt as far as Beirut to the north, Damascus to the east, Chevron to the south, and Cyprus to the west. Both Tzfas and Teveria were completely destroyed, along with a series of towns and villages in the upper Galilee and southern Lebanon, taking a heavy toll in human life and property.
The tremor lasted about 10 seconds. Seismic measuring instruments did not exist at the time, but the quake is estimated to have been between 6.75 and 7.5 on the Richter scale. Geologists theorize that the homes of Tzfas had been weakened by the heavy snows of 1833, and further destabilized by a different earthquake that took place in 1834. Those conditions may have precipitated the tragedy of 1837.
When the land shakes
Earthquakes are mentioned by a number of Neviim (Yeshayahu, Yirmiyahu, Yechezkel, Nachum) and in Tehillim. The first recorded instance of an earthquake in Eretz Yisrael was during the reign of Uziyahu, king of Yehudah. Chazal taught us to recite a brachah upon experiencing a zeva’ah, which Rashi translates as an earthquake. All this is testimony that earthquakes were never a rarity in Eretz Yisrael.
Josephus wrote about an earthquake that took place during the reign of Hordus, in which as many as 30,000 people died. Since that time, historians recorded many periodic earthquakes in the land, but Tzfas is apparently the place most susceptible to earthquake damage. This has been blamed on the hillside construction of its homes, which proved to be a prescription for the disaster that took place in 1837 as well as other times. For example, four earthquakes had struck Tzfas during the century before the 1837 quake, each one destroying the Jewish quarter, but after each once it was rebuilt in the same way, leaving them vulnerable once again.
Harav Menachem Mendel Moskowitz has made Tzfas his home for the past four years. “I moved from Bnei Brak and enjoy it here very much.,” Rabbi Moskowitz explains. “The holy city of Tzfas is divided into several parts. Some areas have private, newly-built homes but in the areas where the very old homes still stand, no new houses have been built among them. Although the local officials do not want the holy city of Tzfas to be considered a religious city, it is interesting to note that it seems that only religious individuals and families are settling in Tzfas.
“While speaking about the devastating earthquake of 1837, rest assured that b’chasdei Hashem, we never feel any tremors and if you’ll ask any resident, they’ll tell you that they do not think about earthquakes.”
When asked why so many artists relocate to Tzfas and feel so at home in this city of holiness, Rabbi Moskowitz offers, “The holy city of Tzfas has a special chein. It is so quiet and peaceful here and the quality of air is far different and better than in other cities. It seems, people live their lives without having a need to worry what the neighbors will think about their homes, dress etc. Each individual is accepted as is without being judged. The standard of day to day living is held to a minimum as in the days bygone.”
Yerushalayim had taken revenge
When the Chasam Sofer in Pressburg heard news of the earthquake, he delivered a hesped in his yeshivah for the victims. He claimed that this had taken place because people who immigrated to Eretz Yisrael had forsaken Yerushalayim and chose to live instead in cities like Tzfas and Teveria. Now, he said, Yerushalayim had taken revenge.