The city of Safed in the northern Galilee is one of Israel’s most popular tourist destinations. One of its primary draws is its magnificent synagogues whose congregations date back to the Middle Ages and the era of the kabbalists (mystics). Many of these famous synagogues, however, were actually rebuilt in the mid-nineteenth century, after their original buildings were damaged or destroyed by a powerful earthquake on January 1, 1837, the 24th of Tevet. In a city known for holy synagogues, the stories of what happened to these buildings provides insight into the city’s communal priorities.

The Abuhav Synagogue was built by Jews expelled from Spain who had been disciples of Rabbi Isaac Abuha (14th century Spanish Talmudic scholar). Among the synagogue’s prized possessions is a Torah scroll written by Rabbi Abuhav. After the earthquake, the only wall of the synagogue left standing was the southern wall in which the Torah scrolls were stored.

The Avritch/Beit Ayin Synagogue was completely destroyed except for the area immediately near the Torah scrolls. The earthquake occurred at the time of Mincha (afternoon service). A minute before the quake, according to legend, Rabbi Avraham Dov of Avritch called out, “Whoever wants to live come to me!” His congregants ran to him, and when the rest of the building collapsed, they survived.

The ARI Ashkenazi Synagogue, which had been built in the 16th century by Greek Sephardim but had become a chassidic synagogue, was destroyed by the earthquake. Among the rubble, however, Rabbi Shmuel Heller (1809-1884) was discovered alive but buried up to his neck in debris. (He was bed-ridden for 6 months and never regained the use of one arm.) Rabbi Heller remained a leader of the Ashkenazi community, even after the quake that killed his wife and children.

Over 2,000 residents of the city’s Jewish quarter were killed by the quake and resulting landslide, along with hundreds of other victims in the northern Galilee. While many survivors decided to move, many others heeded the pleas of leaders like Rabbi Avraham Dov to stay and rebuild the community.

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