Remembering the Tzfat Plunder of 1838
The Great Earthquake of 1837, which devastated Tzfat, is frequently mentioned as one of the major disasters that befell the city in the 19th century, contributing to the decline of the city’s population and its loss of status as a Jewish population center. However, two other events played an equally devastating role in the city’s wane, the 1834 Arab Pogrom and the 1838 Druze plunder.
Between the years 1831 and 1841 the Ottoman Turks lost control of a large portion of Palestine, including the area surrounding Tzfat. The area was claimed by the Egyptians though its governor, Ibrahim Pasha, was not able to exert effective control of the area. The local Bedouin and Druze tribes engaged in a continuous revolt against Pasha and in July 1838 they attacked the Egyptian garrison in Tzfat. Abd al Haji, the brother of Acre’s governor, sent soldiers to defend the Jews of Tzfat but the Druze tribesmen managed to overcome these soldiers as well and they swarmed into Tzfat to plunder the city.
The Druze rebels entered Tzfat on July 5th and proceeded to desecrate the synagogues and plunder the Jews’ homes. They, aided by the local Safed Arab population, chased the Jews into the cemetery where they stripped them of their clothes and beat them, demanding that the Jews tell them where their valuables were hidden. Many of the Jews fled to the ancient synagogue in Ein Zeitun where the local Druze continued to beat and harass them.
The Druze rebels located Tzfat’s illustrious rabbi, Rabbi Avraham Dov of Avritch. They kidnapped the rabbi and demanded that he write a ransom letter to his people but the rabbi refused. The Druze covered Rabbi Avraham Dov with a sack and beat him but they became frightened when they heard horses approaching and, in one of the miraculous stories of the pogrom, abandoned the rabbi who was able to return to Tzfat with his congregants.
After three days Ibrahim Pasha’s troops retook the city and drove out the Arab and Druze rebels. The Plunder of 1838 did not result in any fatalities but following the Pogrom of 1834 and the earthquake of 1837, it served as the final nail in the coffin, driving almost all of the remaining population to seek new homes in other areas of the country. Among those were Israel Beck who had moved to Tzfat in 1833 to set up the first printing press of Palestine.
Beck was wounded in the 1834 pogrom and in 1838 his printing press was destroyed. Beck moved to Jerusalem where he restarted his printing house.Sir Moses Montefiori visited Safed in 1839 and, according to a census which he undertook, found only 1,357 Jews left in the city. There were approximately 130 Sephardic families and 200 Ashkenazi families. Montefiori donated large sums of money so that the community could rebuild.