Building Upon Ruins

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.

Hardly a building in Tzfas was left standing, and many inhabitants were buried alive in the rubble. The destruction was particularly brutal in the Jewish quarter, with an estimated 80 percent of the residents perishing. This is likely because it was built on a hillside, with each successive story — at least 20 of them — supported by the roof of the one below it, with the roofs themselves serving as walkways for the residents. The result was that the buildings all collapsed like dominoes. The rubble snowballed into an avalanche as it advanced down the levels, until a solid mountain of rubble covered the lowest homes. The families who lived on the city’s edges fared better, and there were far fewer casualties in the Muslim and Christian quarters — with only half the city’s Christians and one-sixth of the Muslims dying in the quake — though many, many were injured.

In Teveria, tsunami waves in the Kinneret crashed onto the Jewish quarter, destroying the buildings on the lower streets and killing both Jews and Arabs. According to the records of the Turkish governor, which were verified by the survivors, between 1,700 and 1,800 people died in Tzfas and about 600 in Teveria. Other reports place the total death toll at about 5,000. Of the 300 injured survivors, only a third recovered fully.

Specifically, almost all the men who were davening in the shuls at the time of the earthquake perished, though a miracle took place in the beis medrash of the Avritcher Rebbe, Harav Avraham Dov, author of Bas Ayin. When the earth began shaking, he ordered the people to come and stand with him near the aron kodesh, holding onto his gartel. They did as he instructed and watched in terror as the roof began to collapse. Inexplicably, the section of the roof over their heads remained intact, and they escaped the quake unharmed. Tzfas’s survivors also found that in the famed Abuhab shul, the southern wall and the attached aron kodesh remained standing.

Help arrives —too late for most

In the Jewish quarter, many people were severely injured and trapped under the rubble. They called desperately for help, but none was forthcoming. Those who escaped injury were stricken with fear and panic and did not know what to do when they heard the cries. They had no strength to dig through the rubble, especially because the ground was exceedingly hot and dry due to the extended drought. The air was heavy and dust-filled and there was hardly any breeze. The setting sun turned the dust blood-red, and then it was suddenly dark.

Sadly, many of the survivors suffered tremendously. The legs of a Jewish doctor, Reb Chaim, were crushed, but his head and arms were free to move. He begged others to save him, offering a prize of $200, but no one came forward. He finally took a stick and knocked on the arch over his head, hoping that the stones would fall on him and put an end to his misery. It didn’t work, only burying him deeper in the rubble while holding a 6-month-old baby in his arms. He was saved after 48 hours of suffering, but he was crippled for life and when he was finally extracted, he had gone insane.

Most of the people trapped in the rubble died of their injuries or of exposure. Later, the survivors would work feverishly to locate the victims and bury them. For days, they wandered through the piles of stones and bricks searching for some sign of life from their missing relatives or neighbors. Here and there, people were pulled out alive. An entire family was found alive after being buried for nine days and another survivor was found after eleven days.

It was several days before news of the tragedy reached Beirut and a messenger from Teveria arrived in Yerushalayim only 10 days after the disaster. The Christians in Beirut sent help, as did the Jewish community in Yerushalayim. Both groups arrived in Tzfas simultaneously, with the Beirut delegation staying for four days and the Yerushalmi delegation remaining for two weeks. Their reports, based on eyewitness accounts and collected testimonies, are the sources of our information about the earthquake.

The Chief Rabbi of Teveria paid 70,000 piasta — a veritable fortune — to have 70 bodies recovered while they still could be identified so that their widows would not remain agunos and would at least be free to remarry. The Jews of Yerushalayim and Damascus hired 100 workers to help recover bodies, but many more were needed.

Due to the scope of the tragedy, for many years, the Jews of Tzfas and Teveria observed a fast day on 24 Teves, the anniversary of the earthquake.

The waxing and waning of Tzfas

Rabi Elazar Hakalir mentions two prominent families in Tzfas named Pashchur and Yakim. Both were families of Kohanim and they apparently settled in the city after the destruction of the second Beis HaMikdash. This is possibly the earliest mention of the city’s existence.

About 2,000 years ago, during the time of the Churban, Josephus Flavius wrote that as commander of the Jewish forces in the Galilee, he fortified the city of Tzfas, setting the foundations of its wall deep in the ground. That may have been good military strategy at the time, but in the long run, the bunkers and tunnels he excavated may have contributed to the city’s vulnerability to earthquake damage.

In the Middle Ages, Tzfas grew from a tiny village called Kedesh Naftali into a large, autonomous city. Documents exist that prove that Jews have inhabited the city almost continuously since its inception. When Eretz Yisrael was conquered by the Crusaders in 1099 and later the Mamelukes in 1291, most of the Jews they found had been born in the Land, but after the Ottoman conquest of 1517, Jews who had been exiled from Spain began to immigrate en masse to Eretz Yisrael, and to Tzfas in particular, adding considerably to its material and spiritual wealth.

It was then that Tzfas became a center for the study of Kabbalah, led by such Gedolim as Harav Moshe Cordovero, Harav Moshe Alshich, the Arizal, and the latter’s disciples. Harav Yosef Karo also walked the city’s streets while he was based in Biriya, on the outskirts of Tzfas, where he composed his monumental Beis Yosef and Shulchan Aruch.

Two quakes struck in 1759, killing some 300 Jews. After that, most of the Jews moved away, fearing to remain where they were exposed to such danger, and only a few dozen families remained. Over the next decades, the city’s Jewish population once more grew and reestablished itself, so that by 1837, there was again a substantial community.

After the earthquake of 1837, the Jewish community of Tzfas yet again shrank considerably. Besides those who perished in the disaster, many others decided that they no longer wished to live in a danger zone. In addition, epidemic diseases struck the residents time and again, and there was barely any food to eat. The Bedouins and Druze came regularly and plundered the defenseless Jews, and the population dwindled to about 1,500. A large number of Tzfas’s Jews moved to Yerushalayim and founded the Sukkas Shalom shul, inscribing the names of the earthquake victims on the shul walls.

There were some Jews, however, who insisted on remaining in Tzfas even after the earthquake. They claimed that the disaster was a sign that Moshiach was about to arrive. The Jewish community of Tzfas recovered and soon began to grow until, by the year 1900, its population had mushroomed to five times the number of the original survivors. Although Yerushalayim took its place as the largest center of Jews in the Land, Tzfas was the second largest, its population making up 25 percent of the Jews in Eretz Yisrael. Together with Teveria, it was home to about 40 percent of the Jews in the Eretz Yisrael.

On shaky ground

According to a report from the University of Haifa’s Department of Geography, the Old City of Tzfas is still poised for disaster, chalilah. The professor states, “Each time an earthquake struck, the residents rebuilt their homes on top of the broken foundations of the previous homes. This is what happened after the earthquake of 1837, and again after the earthquake of 1927. Sometimes, when laying the foundations of a new road, the engineers would find entire rooms or pits that had been buried in the shallow rubble at some point and forgotten. That means that the ground is not stable. The homes are crowded together, and the method of construction was crude.”

Ilan Shohat, the mayor of Tzfas, is quite concerned about this. He points out that his city is only kilometers from the Syrian-African Rift System, making it especially prone to earthquakes. “After I see photographs of earthquake damage in other locations in the world, I have a hard time falling asleep at night,” says Shohat.

Chazal did not need university professors in order to learn about earthquakes in Eretz Yisrael. Harav Yehosef Schwartz toured Eretz Yisrael more than 200 years ago and authored several books dealing with its geography and the halachos pertaining to it. He wrote that rarely a year passes without noticeable seismic tremors, but that strong earthquakes are infrequent. He pointed out that in numerous locations, however, there is the danger of mudslides and gale winds. When people build homes on hillsides, he stated, a landslide could be catastrophic. Chazal taught in Taanis that when a dangerous landslide occurs, people must fast and blow shofars in prayer.


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.


Tzfas Today

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.

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