Safed in the 19th Century

One interesting way to look at the history of Safed is to see it through the historic families who lived there. One family, the Abbo Family, traces their family heritage in Safed back five generations. Understanding their family background, and learning more about their time in Safed sheds light on the history of the region.

The Bnei Israel Affair in Safed

The first Rabbi in the Abbo line was Rabbi Shmuel Abbo. In 1817, he arrived in Israel from Algeria and settled in Safed. He traveled to India for trade reasons and stayed for several years to help to organize the Jewish community there and to be their rabbi and teacher. At this time, he came into contact with the Bnei Israel community. They wanted him to find a solution that would enable them to be recognized as Jews. When he returned to Israel, he raised this issue with the rabbis of Safed and Jerusalem. He went back to India in 1859 to verify that the Bnei Israel were fulfilling all of the Jewish obligations and religious requirements. In 1869, the rabbis of Safed wrote a ruling that stated that the Bnei Israel were fully halachic Jews. This issue is particularly interesting, since the debate that Rabbi Abbo and his colleagues answered still continues today.

French Jews

At the beginning of the 19th century, the Jews in Safed lived very difficult lives. No one was able to defend them from Arab attack. Rabbi Shmuel Abbo requested that the Jews be allowed to defend themselves. When he did not receive an answer, he travelled to Algeria, received the support of the community's leaders and then received the title of the general consul for the Galilee. This gave him the legal right to defend Safed and Tiveria's Jews in the name of France.

Jews as French Subjects

His first act as the consul was to put the Jews of Safed and Tiveria under the protection of the French government. He did this by officially registering them as French subjects. His house, the Abbo house, was seen as a refuge for all Jews who were harassed and persecuted - and for others who were as well. The Ottoman authorities never entered his house or tried to stop him since he had diplomatic immunity.

Help During the Earthquake

Soon thereafter, on January 1, 1837, the largest earthquake to hit Safed was experienced. Virtually the entire town was ruined. Only a few houses, including the Abbo home, were left unharmed. Rabbi Shmuel Abbo immediately got to work to help the people who were left in Safed. Along with the head of the Ashkenazic hassidim, Rabbi of AVritch, he had construction workers come from Damascus to repair all of the buildings. They rebuilt the Ari' synagogue and helped to make sure that regular life returned to Safed.