Rabbi Avraham Dov of Owrucz (Ovrutsh) (1760-1840) was a hassidic master during the formative years of the movement.
He first served in the rabbinate in Chmielnik, before moving to the city whose name he would carry. After serving for some 40 years as the rabbi of Owrucz, he moved to Zytomierz (Zhitomir) in 1825. Six years later he left Eastern Europe and set out for the Promised Land.
Upon reaching the Holy Land, Avraham Dov settled in Safed. In Safed there was a hassidic community dating back to the first aliyah of the hassidim in 1777, and Avraham Dov took up a leadership position in that community.
His time in Safed coincided with a challenging period for the city’s inhabitants. In 1834, the Jewish community suffered terribly during the Syrian Peasant Revolt – an armed uprising of the peasant classes against the rule of Ibrahim Pasha (1789-1848).
Looting and violence broke out on June 15, 1834 – straight after the festival of Shavuot. Jews were maimed, killed and raped. Torah scrolls were desecrated and property was destroyed. The large-scale looting of Safed lasted for a month. Jewish communal leaders in Safed turned to foreign consuls for assistance. Eventually, Lebanese Druse troops, acting under the orders of Ibrahim Pasha, restored order. Most of the rioters fled, though some of the instigators were arrested, tried and executed.
Three years later, tragedy struck again – this time in the form of a fatal earthquake that rocked the region on January 1, 1837. Homes in Safed were built on the slopes of the hill, with roofs of houses serving as the streets for the houses above. When the earthquake hit, this cascading style of construction caused houses to collapse on top of each other. The domino effect resulted in mass destruction: homes turned to rubble, and many people were buried beneath the debris.
William McClure Thomson (1806-1894) was an American Protestant missionary in Syria and Palestine, who later published descriptions of his time in Ottoman Syria under the title The land and the Book; or, Biblical illustrations drawn from the manners and customs, the scenes and scenery of the Holy Land.
At the time of the earthquake, Thomson was at church in Beirut, and he reported that “[t]he house was cracked from top to bottom, but no further injury sustained.” When news of the devastation in Safed arrived in Beirut, funds were collected, and a party set out to offer assistance to the needy and injured.
As the traveling party moved south though Sidon and Tyre, the damage became more and more noticeable. Safed, however, suffered the most.
“On the morning of the 18th [January, 1837] we reached Safed, and I then understood, for the first time, what desolations God can work when he ariseth to shake terribly the earth.... But all anticipation, every imagination, was utterly confounded when the reality burst upon our sight. I had all the while refused to give full credit to the reports, but one frightful glance convinced me that it was not in the power of language to overdraw or exaggerate such a ruin.”
Thomson continued describing how not one house remained standing in the Jewish half of the town. He detailed horrid accounts of people buried beneath the rubble, crying in vain for help until they drew their last breaths. Thomson beheld what he described as the “[m]ost hideous spectacle, may I never see its like!” He offered a few vignettes, but the images overcame him:
“But I have no heart to recall the sights and scenes of that morning: bodies crushed and swollen out of all human shape, and in every stage of mortification, dying hourly without hope of relief; they were crowded into old vaults, where the air was tainted beyond endurance.”
The missionary’s only respite was when the traveling party set out for Tiberias: “It was most refreshing to breathe once more the pure air of the open country, free from the horrible sights and scents of Safed. Nor shall I soon forget the pleasant ride to Tiberias, particularly in the evening, and along the shore of the lake.”
Three months after the earthquake, a London newspaper published a letter, dated January 25, 1837, that had appeared in the Gibraltar Chronicle. The letter was written by Mr. Chassebaud, the British consul in Beirut, to Judah Benoliel (1771-1839), the president of the Gibraltar Jewish community.
The consul reported the fate of common acquaintances, sadly noting their deaths “with about 500 other Israelites, and as many Christians and Mussulmans, at Saffet only.”
The newspaper, writing two months after the consul’s letter, added: “Another account estimates the whole number of victims at 3,000.” With time, it became apparent that the death toll was even higher.
It was not just the number of deaths that had caught the British consul’s attention, but he also reported on “the great many persons mortally wounded or maimed, and those who were dug out of the ruins, eight or 10 days after, alive, but starved, and in a dying state.”
It was not easy for the consul to describe what he saw: “Such an appalling scene is seldom to be met with in the annals of history, and my heart fails in attempting to give you further particulars” (The Times, March 1, 1837).
AVRAHAM DOV survived the 1834 looting of Safed and the 1837 Galilee earthquake, but he died in late 1840 when a plague struck Safed.
Some seven years after he died, a collection of his hassidic teachings was published in the Jerusalem printing press of Yisrael Bak (1797-1874), under the title Bat Ayin. This was a poignant move, considering Yisrael Bak’s career as a publisher.
After operating a printing press in Berdyczów (Barditchev) for nine years, Bak made aliyah and settled in Safed, where he continued his publishing ventures. His printing press was destroyed during the 1834 looting of Safed. Bak reopened his printing press, but in the wake of the 1837 Galilee earthquake, he moved to Jerusalem. In 1841, he opened the first Hebrew printing press in Jerusalem. It was in this printing house – originally from Barditchev, transplanted to Safed, and then moved to Jerusalem – that a hassidic work from Safed was first published.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.