Safed 1759 Earthquake
|רעידת האדמה בצפת של שנת 1759|
|Destruction and after-effects of the 1759 earthquake in Tzfat.|
By the mid 1700s the Jewish community in Tzfat had declined from its height of the 16th century. New Jewish immigrants preferred to establish their residence in Jerusalem or Tiberias. The destruction wrought by the 1759 earthquake cemented Tzfat’s decline as a center of Jewish life in Palestine.
A 1730 census counted 1800 Jews living in Tzfat. A small wool textile trade existed in the city and some of the residents made their living from light trade. The population consisted mainly of Sepharadi Jews whose origins were from Mediterranean countries including Spain, Italy, Portugal, Turkey and Greece.
The epicenter of the 1759 earthquake was the Beeka Valley in Lebanon, but Tzfat was severely affected. The earthquake triggered a landslide which accounted for much of the destruction in the city built on the slope of a mountain. Two hundred homes were destroyed in the earthquake and 140 Jews were killed. Some people blamed the earthquake on Tzfat's attempt to override Yerushalaim as the central Jewish settlement in Eretz Yisroel.
 Abuhav Synagogue
Some historians believe that the original Abuhav synagogue was built in the 15th century near the base of the mountain, above the cemetery. They claim that it was rebuilt in its present site, on Abuhav Street further up the mountain, after the 1759 earthquake. Others cite the legend that the original synagogue existed in its present site, was destroyed in 1759 and rebuilt in the same spot. Both versions relate that the southern wall which held the Ark of the Torah scrolls did not collapse after the 1759 earthquake.
One of the Torah scrolls in the Ark had been written in the 15th century by Rabbi Abuhav. According to Safed legend, Rabbi Abuhav warned that the Torah scroll was “not to be removed not in its proper time” -- meaning that the scroll could not be removed from the Ark other than ritual Torah-reading times.
After the 1759 earthquake, ten men immersed in a mikve -- ritual bath -- so as to remove the Torah scroll and place it in a safe place as the synagogue was rebuilt. They succeeded in moving the scroll to safer quarters but within a year, all ten men died.
Read full Zissil article on the Abuhav Synagogue
Following the earthquake most of the Jews left Tzfat, leaving only approximately 50 families. Early Hassidic immigrants who began to arrive in 1764 assisted with reconstruction efforts. Some synagogues were rebuilt after the earthquake but others were only rebuilt after the 1837 earthquake when a major donor, Yitzhak Guetta, financed the reconstruction of Tzfat’s great synagogues.