#528 (s5768-17 / 23 Tevet 5768)

The ‘New Year’s Day’ Earthquake in Tsfat

In the deadly earthquake of 24 Tevet 5597 (January 1, 1837), 5,000 people in Safed lost their lives. In the shul of the Avritcher Rebbe, as elsewhere, panic set in, and the congregants began to bolt for the outdoors.


The ‘New Year’s Day’ Earthquake in Tsfat


In 1830, at the age of 65, Rabbi Avraham Dov of Avritch settled in the holy city of Tsfat (Safed). Shortly thereafter, he became established as the leader of Zefat's burgeoning chassidic community.

In a letter dated 13 Tammuz 5598/1838, Dr. A. Loewy, the secretary of Sir Moses Montefiore, wrote the following to his employer about Rabbi Avraham Dov. "This man is one of the most learned and esteemed people I have ever seen. It is a simple matter for him to serve the community without receiving any recompense from the communal funds. He distributes everything that he has to the poor of his people. There are always between 10 and 15 people eating regularly at his table" (Devir, Vilna 5622/1862).

In 1838 he was kidnapped by the vicious Druise who were then perpetrating a pogrom in Zefat, as they had done also in 1834. They ordered him to write a ransom note to his community, but he refused. The Druze then put him in a sack and began to beat him. It was only when they thought they heard in the distance the hoofbeats of approaching Egyptian cavalry that they fled, leaving the rabbi tied in the sack. He was later found and returned to Zefat.

But what he is most famous for (besides his monumental book of chassidic thought, Bas Ayin) is his part in the earthquake miracle of 1837.

In the deadly earthquake of 24 Tevet 5597 (January 1, 1837), 5,000 people lost their lives, of whom 4000 were Jews, more than 80% of the community. It was between the afternoon and evening prayers, a time when most of the men were in shul, that the tremors and rumblings suddenly began. Of all of Zefat's shuls only two remained standing (Ari-Sephardi and Abuhav), and many hundreds of Jews at prayer perished under the collapsed debris. In the shul of the Avritcher Rebbe, as elsewhere, panic set in, and the congregants began to bolt for the outdoors.

"Come to the ark if you wish to be saved!" shouted the Rebbe in a powerful voice. Immediately everyone crowded around him. The Rebbe threw himself on the ground, praying and weeping. Local tradition records that although the roof over nearly all of the vacated majority of the building collapsed, the part where the men were clustered remained upright and everyone was saved. A plaque outside the shul today testifies to this miracle salvation. The line between the original structure (over the Ark) and the reconstructed portion is clearly visible.

One source (Eden Zion) states that while nearly all the walls collapsed, the domed ceiling miraculously remained aloft, almost as if it were suspended in the air!

In another source (Torah Wellsprings), it is written that afterwards, those present asked him why he needed to pray down on the ground. He replied, "I saw that the stones were falling horizontally, and not downwards. This meant that the 'samech mem' (the Accuser) was executing this.”

Just before Rabbi Avraham Dov passed away in the epidemic of 1840, he announced that his would be the last life claimed by the terrible plague. And so it was.

Source: Assembled Compiled and adapted by Yrachmiel Tilles from Anaf Etz Avot, Safed the Mystical City, Zefat: A Guide for an Inner-Dimensional Journey, Ascent Quarterly, L'chaim #527, HaModia, and Torah Wellsprings.

Biographical note:
Rabbi Avraham Dov Auerbach of Avritch [1765 - 12 Kislev 1840], a Rebbe in Europe for forty years and in Zefat for ten, was a disciple of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev and the first two Rebbes of the Chernobyl dynasty. One of his disciples was Rabbi Shmuel Heller, an important chief rabbi of Zefat. His famous book, Bas Ayin, was written in Europe, but he refused to allow it to be printed until he could ‘expose’ it to the air of the Holy Land and refine it there. His meeting with the philanthropist Sir Moses Montifiore in 1840 led to the beginning of modern Jewish agricultural settlement in Israel.

Editor's recommendations:
More amazing stories about the Bat Ayin Rebbe of Tsfat

An extraordinary article based on Bas Ayin:"Yehuda & Tamar -- a Chanukah Drama.

A translation on our sister-site, KabbalaOnline.org from Bas Ayin on Genesis.

The 24th of Tevet is also the yahrzeit of Rabbi Shneur Zalman, founder of the Chabad movement and author of Tanya. Here is a good story from our archives with him that has also been "upgraded."

Yrachmiel Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and editor of Ascent Quarterly and the AscentOfSafed.com and KabbalaOnline.org websites. He has hundreds of published stories to his credit.

A 48 page soft-covered booklet containing eleven of his most popular stories may be ordered on our store site.

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