Tragedy Strikes Safed

Steeped In Tragedy

Safed, located in northern Israel is a city steeped in history, culture, and tragedy. By dint of its topographical primacy as the highest city in the country, the various occupying nations fortified the city, building fortresses, and using the area as a battlefield. Safed also has the distinction of having been the site of more than one major earthquake. Then too, Safed has been struck many times by the plague, with each tragic occurrence almost decimating the city's population.

Plagues in Safed have been recorded as occurring in 1578 (typhoid), 1742, and in 1812. At one point, owing to the plague in 1742, combined with the effects of a major earthquake in 1769, the Jewish community of Safed was almost annihilated, with 140 people killed and only seven families surviving the combined events. These figures are striking when one considers that in 1492, the Jewish population numbered some 10,000 souls.

Like A Phoenix

A majority of the survivors of 1769 were forced to emigrate to Damascus and other cities since Safed was no longer habitable. Somehow, like a phoenix from the ashes, the city managed to rally even so, with the restoration of the city achieved due to an influx of Russian Jews in the years 1776 and 1781.

The latter group of Jews was brought over by two Russian rabbis, Loeb Santower and Uriah of Vilna. These families hailed from Volhynia, Podolia, and the Ukraine. The consuls of Russia and Austria took these Jews under the wing of their protection.

The ultimate triumph of the city was somehow always assured, though the fall of Safed, too, seemed doomed to recur once more. Fall again it did, to yet another plague in 1812. Many of the Safed Jews fled to Jerusalem at this time, including Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Shklov. These refugees to Jerusalem managed to regain an Ashkenazi foothold in Jerusalem after almost one hundred years of banishment by the local Arab populace.

Wiped Out

This 1812 Safed plague caused an approximate 80% of the Jewish population to be wiped out by the effects of the scourge. The remaining survivors of the city were held by Abdullah Pasha, the governor of the town of Acre for ransom in 1819.

As usual, the city managed to somehow regroup, taking a few steps forward until 1837 when a major earthquake killed 4000 Jewish residents, burying most of them alive inside their homes. Just as the city was beginning to emerge from the ashes of the quake, plague struck the city once again in 1847.