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Descriptive Geography and Brief Historical Sketch of Palestine

By Rabbi Joseph Schwarz, 1850

A Short Description of Safed
צפת Arabic, Al Safed.

This little town is situated on the summit of a high mount, in the mountains of Naphtali, in one of the handsomest districts of the whole country, with a very wide prospect all round, and with a clear and pure atmosphere, wherefore it is naturally very healthy. The name of the town is nowhere mentioned in Scripture, and it was therefore undoubtedly built at a period subsequent to the biblical records. Josephus, in his Jewish War, Book ii. chap. 25., mentions a town Seph or Zeph, in Galilee; unquestionably our modern Safed. So also we find in Yerushalmi Rosh Hashanah, ii., a town צפת Zefath. But except in these two places, I could find no vestige of the name in any other book of antiquity. So also I find no mention of Safed in all the middle ages before 4947 (1187); since the celebrated historian, Rabbi Joseph Hakkohen (דברי הימים דרבי יוסף הכהן) relates, that at the battle of Chatun, the Christians fled as far as the fort of Safid, undoubtedly Safed, where a small and ancient castle yet exists.

In the year 4930 (1170), when R. Benjamin of Tudela travelled through Palestine, he mentions no Jews as residing in Safed. Only in the year 5250 (1490), it commenced to be inhabited by Jews uninterruptedly to the present time; and since then the most distinguished and most learned men were residents of it. About the year 5330 (1570), the number of the Jews was so uncommonly great, that they had seventeen Synagogues, among which, one belonged to the Ashkenazim; they had even a Jewish printing office, that of R. Abraham Ashkenazi, in Safed, Birieh, and En Setun, two villages yet existing near Safed, although no Jews now reside there. I myself have seen a Midrash Agur printed in Safed in the year 5386 (1626). It would appear that the Jewish population had at that time reached its greatest extent, and commenced then gradually to diminish.

In 5518 (1758), Safed was visited by an earthquake, through which 200 houses were destroyed, and 140 Jews lost their lives. Those who escaped, deprived of their shelter, left it in consequence, settled elsewhere, and only 50 Jewish families remained behind. In 5520 (1760), there were yet standing five Synagogues. In the years 5525, 5537, and 5540 (1765, 1777, and 1780), many Jews from Poland settled in Safed, and it began to flourish a little in consequence of this immigration. In 5572 (1812), all Galilee was visited with a frightful pestilence, and in Safed the mortality was so great that scarcely one fifth of the entire population escaped with life. Many fled to Jerusalem; but the plague, having been carried thither by the fugitives, broke out subsequently there also, and raged with violence. It was only after the lapse of several years that Safed recovered in a measure; and the Jews lived very happily under the protection, or rather government, of the noble R. Chayim Pharchi, of Akko, until the tyrannical Abdalla Pacha commenced his misrule there, in 5580 (1820).

In the year 5594 (1834), during the rebellion of the Arabs and Bedouins against Abraim Pacha, Safed suffered from a fearful calamity. On Sunday, the 8th of Sivan (June), a very large number of Arabs and Bedouins from the environs of Safed, aided by those from the east of the Jordan, suddenly surprised the Jewish quarter of the town, and wasted and destroyed everything to such a degree that I am not able to paint accurately the scene of devastation which then ensued. Everything was carried off which could possibly be removed, even articles of no value; boxes, chests, packages, without even opening them, were dragged away; and the fury with which this crowd attacked their defenceless victims was boundless. One of the Bedouins in his eagerness dragged off so heavy a box that he was a corpse after a few hours in consequence of the violent exertions he had made. A good old Arab woman, who lived near the Jewish quarter, reproved her son for his barbarous proceedings against his worthy neighbour, who had always shown himself so friendly towards him, and begged him to spare the same. But the Arab became so incensed at this reproof, that he gave his own mother such a blow that she soon after expired.

The Jews in consequence left everything behind, and fled into the open country, some going to Birieh, others to En Setun, and others to Meron, where they found here and there some old acquaintances among the Arabs, who had compassion enough on them to permit them to take shelter for the moment in their courts, although it was merely under the bare sky, naked as they were, and deprived of all their possessions. There lay thus a crowd of several hundred men and women, old and young, nay, women who were expecting to become mothers, or who had just given birth to a child, all intermixed, with scarcely any garments to cover their bodies, since even their clothes had been stripped from them by the savages, and with scarcely a drink of cold water to quench their thirst. Nevertheless, on account of the very old acquaintance subsisting between them and many of their protecting Arabs, who at the same time were probably moved by the hope of a hundred-fold return, they received here and there in a few days a little Bedouin bread, the so-called Pitta, which is scarcely fit to eat, and this in such small quantities, that each individual obtained daily as much as the size of three fowls' eggs.

This miserable situation continued for six weeks, to the 22d of Tamuz (July). In addition to all this suffering, they were kept in constant danger of their lives, as it was all along reported that they were all to be killed by the roving band who had first attacked them; and they had thus to dread, the whole of this fearful time, that every day, every hour, might prove their last. Several, however, of the Jews, especially the Ashkenazim, who were perfectly familiar with the Arabic language, and thoroughly acquainted with the customs and habits of these Arabs, had the courage to procure the poor dress of the Bedouins with a few arms, through which means they resembled the robbers so thoroughly that they could not be recognised, and they therefore could mix freely among the miserable rabble, and commence plundering in their turn; they had thus a good opportunity to go to their own dwellings, and recover the gold, silver, and money, which they had hidden under ground.

While thus occupied, they often were met by the real robbers, and they had then to divide the booty equally and fairly with them; and it thus happened that many a one of these pretended Jewish robbers broke into his own house, where, but a few days or even hours before he had dwelt happily as the head of the family, surrounded by those dear to him, and now sat as a marauding Arab, in the midst of such society, speaking ill, quite indifferently and in a merry mood, of his own people, in order to play successfully his dangerous part, although his heart might be torn and bleeding all the time, and being compelled, after ransacking all, to divide his own property with these bloodhounds. Nevertheless, much was saved in this manner which otherwise would have been lost.

The whole Jewish quarter was thus demolished, and was uninhabited during full six weeks, so that wild beasts began to take up their abode in the same, and on the return of our people they actually found a tiger in a ruined cellar. As might be expected, many were greatly misused during this scene of rapine, others were wounded and maimed, and several were actually slain. The Synagogues were particularly exposed to the fury of the assailants; the rolls of the law were trodden upon and cut in pieces; Tephillin and Tallethim were used as straps and coverings for their cattle; books were torn into shreds; in brief, everything was blasphemously destroyed, so that even a cannibal might be ashamed of such doings.

During nearly all this time the robber-troop remained in Safed, first, in order to be able to search often among the ruins, in the hope of finding yet something not before discovered, till at length not a bit of wood was left, and doors, windows, and boards were all torn away; and secondly, to divide, by degrees, their booty among themselves. They were perfectly safe and unmolested; for they had learned that Abraim Pacha was, at the moment, so much occupied at Jerusalem and vicinity with his enemies there, that he could not go into Galilee. They also took the precaution to guard all the roads, and placed sentinels everywhere, so that the poor prisoners could not give any information abroad of their pitiful condition.

But “behold, the Guardian of Israel slumbers not and sleeps not;” and the chiefs of the congregation succeeded, notwithstanding the vigilance of the Arabs, to send an account of all that had occurred to the consuls at Chaifa, Akko, and Beirut. These now united as one man to inform Abraim Pacha at once of these events, and they represented to him the great danger in which the poor Jews were, and asked of him to interpose by force with­out delay. But as it was then impossible for him to make a campaign in Galilee, he commanded the chief of the Druses, Amir Abshir, with whom he stood in friendly relations, to advance in all haste to save the unfortunate Jews from the power of the Bedouins.

Abshir therefore appeared suddenly in Safed on the 22d of Tamuz, with a strong force of Druses, and the Israelites were relieved; they now returned, but found everything totally ruined and destroyed. But a new scene was now enacted, as severe measures were demanded against the robbers. Many of the Bedouins belonging to the east side of Jordan saved themselves by flight; still, many of them were taken by the Druses. The most respectable Mahomedans of Safed and its environs were arrested as the authors of the outrage, and some of them were afterwards publicly executed, and whatever could be found of the stolen property of the Jews was restored. Every Jew was believed, when saying that he recognised this or that Arab among the robbers. The person so accused was instantly arrested, and punished with blows till he at last confessed and gave up his booty. Even many of the richest and most respectable of the Arabs were arrested, loaded with chains, and punished, upon the mere assertion of a very poor and common Jew. The word of a Jew was regarded as equal to the command of the highest authority, and severe punishment was at once resorted to, without any previous investigation, without any grounds or proofs. In this manner much of the stolen property was discovered; since many, in order not to be exposed to the violence of the Druses, delivered up everything of their own accord. The Jews were now required, by order of the Pacha, through the intervention of the consuls, to make out a correct list of all they had lost, of whatever they missed, and to indicate the true value of the same, and to hand it in to Abraim Pacha through means of the European consuls. The losses thus ascertained amounted to several millions of piasters.* Abraim devised a plan to collect, by force, gradually, a sum equal to this amount, from the inhabitants of the country. It was divided into several terms of payment; and the Jews actually received a part of their losses. But through later mishaps by which the land was visited, such as earthquakes and deficiency of harvest, it became impoverished; and not long afterwards Abraim lost the government, everything got into confusion, and thus the Jews were repaid scarcely one-fourth of what they had lost. The whole Jewish community of Safed is accordingly impoverished.

* For the value of these coins of account, see note, page 395; at 4 cents the piaster, the property thus lost would be at least 80,000 dollars,—a moderate estimate, even with the acknowledged poverty of the people.—TRANSLATOR.

Finally, the terrible earthquake of the 24th of Tebeth, 5597 (January, 1837), destroyed Safed completely. On this occasion 1500 Jews lost their lives, and were buried with all their possessions in a moment of time. The few who escaped alive settled elsewhere; and the town only commenced to recover a little, and to be rebuilt and again inhabited, after the lapse of several years. In addition to this, when, in 5598 (1838), Abraim Pacha was engaged in a violent contest with the Druses, these surprised Safed suddenly in the month of Tamuz, at the same time of the year in which they had appeared four years before as protectors and defenders, plundered and ill treated the Jews yet remaining there, and thus destroyed completely the last vestige of their prosperity. Under the present government, Safed is left entirely exposed to the pleasure of the surrounding Bedouins and Arabs, and its Jewish inhabitants lead a constant life of terror.

There are at present two congregations in Safed; 1, the Sephardim, numbering about 130 families, with one Synagogue; and 2, the Ashkenazim, numbering about 200 families, also with one Synagogue.