“It was like an aufruf, but with stones raining down instead of candies. I saw young boys running, with Yerushalmi stones flying through the air all around them. I have no idea how the earthquake ended without a higher death toll. It was a miracle” (Photos: The National Library of Israel)
July 11, 1927, was a peaceful day in Jerusalem — until the earth began to cave in. With earthquakes once again in the news in Eretz Yisrael, and predictions that the next “big one” is due to arrive within ten years, we look back at the terrifying natural disaster that shook up the Jewish world and gave heartfelt meaning to the words, “Who shall live and who shall die…by earthquake…”
Reb Moshe Pinchas Gross ztz”l was 103 years old when I met him. Lying in a large metal bed, surrounded by bottles of medication, he was clutching a huge volume of Yoreh Dei’ah, completely immersed in the tiny print of the Taz’s commentary, absorbed in making preparations to leave This World and enter the World to Come.
Yet he still remembered clearly the tragedy that took place when he was a young bochur, when for approximately seven terrifying seconds a 6.25-magnitude earthquake shook Jerusalem to its foundations. From the quake’s epicenter in the northern Dead Sea region, tremors also rattled Chevron, Shechem, Teveria, Jericho, Lod, and elsewhere. Some 500 people perished in Eretz Yisrael and Jordan, and hundreds more were injured.
“I was sitting next to the window in the beis medrash and I suddenly felt the entire building moving,” Reb Moshe Pinchas told me. “Everyone was frightened. We didn’t know what to do. I leapt toward the large window above me—it was the most secure place I could think of. From that window, I gazed out on a scene that I will never forget.
“It was like an aufruf, but with stones raining down instead of candies. I saw young boys running, with Yerushalmi stones flying through the air all around them. I have no idea how the earthquake ended without a higher death toll. It was a miracle.”
Unlike Reb Moshe, geologists usually don’t talk in terms of miracles. By profession, they are earthbound, searching for underground deposits of oil or natural gas, or studying earth processes such as mudslides, volcanoes, floods, and, of course, earthquakes. They rarely make the news, but after northern Israel was struck by a few serious earthquakes this summer, Israeli geologists were thrust into the media spotlight. And they did not have good news to share: According to the historical record, a severe earthquake occurs in this region approximately once every hundred years. The last one occurred 91 years ago – on the 11th of Tammuz, 5687 (July 11, 1927), to be precise. It was the greatest natural disaster that occurred in Eretz Yisrael over the past century. Should their predictions come true in this century, these experts warned that Israel is grossly unprepared.
But when Torah Jews talk about a disaster, it becomes a profound lesson in emunah. “In Jerusalem,” Reb Moshe Pinchas related, “the people envied those who did not lose their wits during the earthquake and remembered to recite the brachah of Oseh maaseh bereishis. There were many such people.”
There were also plenty of miracles. “Hashem poured out His wrath on the stones and wood,” survivors later wrote. More than anything else, their letters revealed that a spiritual awakening spread through the Holy City after its sacred stones littered the streets.
Seven Seconds of Dread
“Yesterday, at exactly 3:07, the residents of Jerusalem were startled out of their tranquility by a terrible earthquake, the likes of which has not been felt in Jerusalem for many years. Even the elders of this generation do not remember ever experiencing such a powerful quake, which lasted for several seconds.”
This description of the 1927 earthquake appeared in the newspaper Doar Hayom. The scene of devastation that quickly unfolded stood in sharp contrast to the charm of everyday life in Jerusalem, as the article makes clear. “The people were going calmly about their business — some in their homes and others in the streets, some in coffeehouses and others in the market — and suddenly, the ground beneath their feet began to cave in. The people who lived near the street, who were used to hearing the sounds of traffic, thought that some large automobile was passing in the street and causing the ground to tremble. But then the quaking became so intense that they all realized it was an actual earthquake in every sense. At that point, panic and fear took hold in the streets of Jerusalem, to a degree that defies description.
“The quake ran from the north to the south. Locked closets burst open, bottles and glass vessels fell from their shelves and shattered, chairs were overturned — and people began fleeing in every direction. Shouts and screams were heard from within the homes, as mothers searched for their children and children ran to look for their parents. Store owners abandoned their merchandise and fled into the fields, and young people who were standing on balconies leapt from those heights to the street below.”
While Jerusalemites began to pick themselves up after the quake had passed through their city, an equally chaotic scene was unfolding in Chevron. “It was the afternoon, approximately 3:15, and I was lying down to rest after lunch,” wrote Rabbi Binyamin Yaakov Barkai (Berkman) ztz”l, a student in the yeshivah of Chevron and one of the former gabbaim of the Alter of Slabodka, who had passed away half a year earlier. “At first, I thought a large automobile was passing by. Interestingly, almost everyone else assumed the same thing at first. Within a minute, though, I realized the entire building was shaking, and pieces of plaster began to fall from the ceiling. I left my room and entered the adjacent room, where I found a barrel of water had fallen, and all the water had spilled on the ground.”
The young student’s first instinct was to flee from the building. He quickly realized, though, that the Alter’s rebbetzin was still in the house. “I couldn’t leave the elderly wife of the Alter alone,” he relates. “It is interesting to note that when the rebbetzin was told it was an earthquake, she wasn’t particularly frightened. She merely asked which brachah she was required to recite.”
The Alter’s rebbetzin may have remained calm, but when Rabbi Barkai did go outside, he saw a city filled with tense and frightened people. Many buildings were damaged, and some had collapsed. Four Arabs were killed in the quake. The scene, he would later find out, repeated itself in other places. Yet amidst the disasters there were miracles, he reports: “The earthquake barely caused any damage to the Jews; it took its greatest toll in areas that were populated by Arabs.”
We like to blame social media for spreading fake news, but people have known how to spread false rumors long before the Internet was invented. Rabbi Barkai describes some of the rumors floating around in the strained atmosphere that remained even after several days had passed: “There were rumors the earthquake would recur, and the next quake would be even more powerful. Some even identified the exact time the next quake would happen: at 3:00 in the morning, just before dawn, and so forth. Many people believed the predictions, and most of the city’s residents went to sleep in the fields on the night after the earthquake. This situation continued for several weeks.”
Indeed, there were another two earthquakes that Tammuz, one on the 17th and one on the 24th. Fortunately, both were minor and didn’t cause any damage.
There were also exaggerated reports of the number of dead and wounded. The next day’s edition of Doar Hayom was quick to dismiss some of those unfounded reports: “There are accounts of hundreds of deaths and thousands of injuries, of hundreds of homes having been destroyed and thousands damaged. The sach-rachok [Ed. the Hebrew term for the “telephone” devised by lexicographer Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, whose son, Itamar Ben-Avi, was the editor of the newspaper and apparently insisted on following his father’s rules] of the editorial board has begun ringing without cease. From every direction, we have been receiving requests to clarify the number of wounded and to provide more information about the disaster.”
Doar Hayom struggled to provide accurate information to their readers, but there was one frantic request for news they couldn’t satisfy: There was no way to predict when the next earthquake would occur.
Under the headline “Mistaken Beliefs,” the newspaper staff explained, “Yesterday, many reports spread through the public that indicate that many of us are still susceptible to false beliefs. Many people were overcome by fear upon hearing about a telegram that arrived from Cairo and claimed that a second quake would strike Jerusalem at 11:15 p.m. The newspaper’s sach-rachok continued ringing last night until 11:00, with many people seeking to determine whether the reports were true. Many people went out to the fields and remained there until midnight.
“The editors explained to the callers that the rumors were completely unfounded. The seismograph stations do not have the ability to predict an earthquake in advance; they can only monitor tremors that are taking place at a distance.”
The Geography Teacher
About 20 years ago, a team of geologists from Ben-Gurion University and California’s Stanford University tried to discover the cause of the 1927 earthquake. They decided to ignore all the research and measurements that had previously been conducted and make a fresh attempt. Their conclusions didn’t surprise anyone who was familiar with the name Natan Shalem, an immigrant from Salonika who taught geography at Gymnasia Rechavia in the 1920s. Without the benefit of modern tools or the generous budget enjoyed by these modern university researchers, Shalem had recorded the same findings.
Shalem frequently took his students on nature hikes, conducting various surveys and measurements and collecting samples of rocks and plants. As a result of his scientific exploits, he became a legend in contemporary Israeli society. He was also a member of the Land of Israel Wandering Association, and is reputed to have traversed the entire length and breadth of Eretz Yisrael.
Shalem’s students told a variety of outlandish stories about him, such as the account that he planned to give his son the Biblical name Chamor. “Dr. Shalem loved not only geology, fossils, and stones, but also nature and wildlife,” one of his students related. “Therefore, when he had a son, he wanted to name the child Chamor, a name that refers to a faithful, dedicated beast of burden that has always been a loyal companion to travelers, and a name that is also drawn from Tanach. His wife, however, objected, primarily because she could not bear the thought of her child being called ‘Chamor Shalem’ — literally, a whole donkey. She might have been able to tolerate calling him half a donkey, but she could not agree to making him a whole donkey!”
Stories like these are entertaining, but one thing is indisputable: In the days after that historic earthquake, Dr. Shalem was the first person who succeeded in mapping out the center of seismic activity and, in effect, introducing an entirely new understanding of the field of seismology in Eretz Yisrael.
Shalem recorded all of his experiences in his personal journal. On Monday, July 11, 1927, he wrote, “The heat has returned, and the temperature once again passed the 30-degree mark. At around 4:00, the foundations of the earth trembled and Jerusalem shook. There was great confusion and upheaval. Many houses were destroyed or damaged, their walls breached. People were injured and others died. There are no exact numbers yet, but they say that in the surrounding areas the disaster was even greater. I am waiting anxiously for information from the newspapers.”
The next day, his account continued, “Tuesday, July 12. It was a terrible night of apprehension. I awoke every quarter of an hour in panic and fright, thinking that the house was collapsing all around me and that the marble statue had fallen to the ground and shattered. I was happy when the new day dawned and I found that everything was still standing in its place.”
A few days later, a delegation of scientists sent by the British, who governed the country at the time, reported that the epicenter of the earthquake was at Damia Bridge, today known as Gesher Adam. At the time, the bridge, located about 9 miles north of Yericho and which traversed the Jordan River, was one of the most important bridges in Eretz Yisrael. Their findings were published in the International Seismological Summary Bulletin of 1927.
Dr. Shalem didn’t accept the conclusions reached by the British. His own research indicated the quake had originated in the northern Dead Sea area — a finding that the 1990’s team of researchers agreed with.
Friendship, but No Funding
While Dr. Shalem didn’t agree with the British about the earthquake’s epicenter, the geologist was pleased that all this seismological work was making a major contribution to precisely mapping the Syro-African Depression and explaining its formation. Others were underwhelmed by the contribution Britain was making to help those affected by the quake’s damage.
A few days after the earthquake, a telegram arrived in Jerusalem, stating laconically, “It was with deep regret that I heard about the loss of property and life as a result of the earthquake in Palestine and Jordan. Please convey my friendship to everyone who suffered from the disaster.” The missive was signed “King George.”
Colonel Stewart Symes, chief secretary to the Government of Palestine, publicized the letter from the king, adding that he had conveyed “the wholehearted appreciation of the victims” in response. It’s not clear which victims he was speaking for, since not a word had come from London about funding repair of the damage, financial aid for the victims, or even a relaxation of the royal taxes in light of the dire situation.
That’s not to say the British did nothing. They were concerned about several Christian and Muslim buildings that had been damaged in the quake, including a portion of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the residence of the British high commissioner, Field Marshal Herbert Plumer.
The walls of the residence, located in the Augusta Victoria compound on Mount Scopus, had cracked to the point that it was dangerous even to enter the building. On the day of the earthquake, Plumer, who had never liked the Augusta Victoria residence, moved to Beit Machanayim, which is located today on Shivtei Yisrael Street. Thanks to the damage caused by the earthquake, he was able to convince the British government to finance construction of a new residence — the majestic Government House, or Armon Hanetziv.
A Hint from the Imrei Emes
In Jerusalem, the earthquake resulted in over 130 fatalities and 450 injuries. In Shechem, another 150 people were killed and 250 were wounded. In addition, there were about 100 fatalities in Jordan. All of the fatalities were Arabs — not a single Jew perished. This astonishing fact was completely ignored by the day’s Jewish media.
“This incredible miracle was recognized only by the Arabs as a remarkable display of Divine Providence,” complained the legendary askan Rav Moshe Blau, in a letter written at the time. “It is to our great shame that the editors of the Hebrew newspapers struggled to explain the events based on natural reasons that have no logic. They certainly did not properly give thanks for the miracle.”
Just before the calamity, an unexpected guest arrived in Eretz Yisrael: the Imrei Emes of Gur. Rabbi Barkai described the Rebbe’s visit to Chevron in his journal as well: “The Gerrer Rebbe visited here with a large group of his chassidim; after visiting Mearas Hamachpeilah and other ancient sites, he came to the yeshivah. All of the students of the yeshivah went out to greet him, and then he entered the yeshivah, delivered a devar Torah, and returned to Jerusalem. It was incredible to watch the alacrity and vitality that characterized all of his movements.”
On the day of the earthquake, the Rebbe was in Jerusalem, in his room above Yeshivas Sfas Emes on Rechov Hachabashim (today Rechov Bnei Brit). The Rebbe’s close associates later realized that the signs of the impending catastrophe were visible even three days in advance. “His face was blazing like a fire, and he did not speak with anyone,” an eyewitness later related in a letter, which was published in the sefer Ben L’Ashrei. “The people who were with the Rebbe saw that something was going to happen. They had never seen him act that way before — burning with passion and isolating himself from human contact, to the point that he became ill.
“During the earthquake itself, the Rebbe also remained in seclusion. When the house began shaking like a lulav and the seforim began falling off their shelves, the gabbaim knocked on the Rebbe’s door, fearing that some harm would befall him. But the Rebbe opened his door as if nothing was wrong and said, ‘No harm has befallen anyone.’ Indeed, it was truly wondrous; while there were hundreds of fatalities, not a single Jew was harmed.
“Several days later,” the chassid continued, “when there was another small tremor, the Arabs hid in the Jews’ homes, as if it was one of the plagues in Egypt.”
Not far from that street, in a shul known as Shoshanim L’Dovid, sat a young Sephardic boy who answered to the name of Ovadiah Yosef. At the time of the earthquake, he was learning the sefer Torah Temimah. “When the earthquake began,” relates his son, Rav Yitzchak Yosef, “the outer wall of the shul collapsed, and my father remained trapped in the shul, with no way to leave the building.”
Upstairs, in the ezras nashim, sat one of the most renowned poskim of Jerusalem, Rav Yaakov Chaim Sofer ztz”l, the author of Kaf Hachaim, which was written in that shul. When the earthquake began, shouts and screams echoed from every direction. Rav Yaakov Chaim stood up and ordered the children who were sitting in the shul to run outside to the street, but he remained trapped on the upper story, after the staircase collapsed. Rescue personnel from throughout the area hurried to assist him, but Rav Sofer refused to leave the shul until all of the children had been successfully evacuated. Once the last child had left and Rav Sofer set foot on the ground, the building crumbled and the ezras nashim crashed to the ground. Both Rav Sofer and Rav Ovadiah Yosef had been spared from death.
“As soon as he was rescued,” Rav Yitzchak Yosef relates, “my father ran home in a panic. While he was running, he lost the Torah Temimah from which he had been learning. But ever since that time, he felt deeply indebted to Rav Sofer, and a close bond developed between them.”
This miraculous incident was later recorded in a halachic ruling in the sefer Kaf Hachaim (576:26): “In Jerusalem, a fast is not decreed over an earthquake, for no earthquake has caused harm in Jerusalem. In the year 5687, on the 11th of the month of Tammuz, there was a massive earthquake in Jerusalem and its environs, and a number of walls were destroyed or damaged, and there were wondrous miracles in that none of the people of Jerusalem were killed; it was only in the villages that great destruction took place and a number of idolators were killed, but Hashem protected Israel. This was wondrous in the eyes of those who observed it, and they believed in Hashem. Even those who follow the path of science attested that the Hand of Hashem had caused this.”
Accounts describing the actions of the gedolim of Jerusalem during the earthquake are truly fascinating. Rav Ahrele of Shomrei Emunim was observed shouting the brachah of Oseh maaseh bereishis from a rooftop. Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook was sitting in his private room and learning; when he felt the quake, he walked over to the window and immediately resumed learning. Rav Dovid Baharan hastened to don his hat, and Rav Zelig Braverman picked up his special siddur — in order to recite the brachah on the rare event with the appropriate kavanos.
Rising from the Dust
Although the Jews didn’t suffer physical injury from the earthquake, there was enormous damage to their property. Those who sustained the most damage were the residents of the Old City. Many of the old buildings within the city walls barely survived the quake.
A group of men armed with cameras drove around the city, documenting the damage caused by the earthquake. Captions in Hebrew and in English were then added to the photographs. The identities of the photographers remained unknown, but the images they captured, which were later donated to the National Library in Jerusalem, transport viewers back to that time. Even now, more than 90 years later, it’s hard to remain unmoved when viewing those images. One particularly chilling photograph shows a religious Jew and a young boy sitting side by side atop a pile of stones — the remains of a building that had previously been their home. The Dome of the Rock is visible in the background.
The British engineers noticed that the old Yerushalmi buildings that had been reinforced with long metal supports didn’t collapse. As a result, the authorities required all new homes to be built with similar supports, to protect the buildings in the event of future earthquakes.
The earthquake also led to a wave of construction in Shechem. According to eyewitness accounts, there wasn’t a single building in that city that remained intact. For a long time after the earthquake — over three months — the residents of Shechem were afraid to return to their homes. The British government did eventually come to their aid by offering loans with highly favorable terms; these loans were used by many of the residents for the construction of new homes outside the old city of Shechem, particularly in the northeastern area of the city. This construction also resulted in improvements in the city’s road system, which have remained in place to this day.
In areas where the government didn’t offer any organized aid, dedicated activists rose to the occasion. Within a few days, the Vaad of the Jewish community of Tel Aviv established a relief committee for victims of the earthquake. The committee’s formation was announced in a kol korei signed by the chairman of the Vaad and chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, Rav Benzion Meir Chai Uziel, which appealed to “those who are fortunate to have been bypassed by the calamity, to give of your assets and your energy for the unfortunate victims whose homes were turned to rubble and their dwelling places to ruins…”
Among the buildings damaged in the quake were the majority of the Torah institutions in the Jewish Quarter, including the yeshivah of kabbalistic study known as Beis El. The beis medrash of Kollel Reisen, the first kollel of chassidus in Eretz Yisrael, was almost entirely destroyed. The Rebbe, the Beis Avraham of Slonim, along with his elder brother, appealed to their chassidim throughout Poland and Europe to come to the aid of their brethren in Eretz Yisrael. They also gave specific instructions for the proceeds from the sale of aliyos and kibbudim on the first day of Rosh Hashanah 5688 in every community to be earmarked for the earthquake victims in Jerusalem. “If they do not,” the chassidic leaders added, “then no one should be called to the Torah at all … even distinguished people, and even the rav…. The money should be sent without any excuses.”
The monetary donations that flowed into Eretz Yisrael helped the institutions recover somewhat from the devastation they had experienced. Nevertheless, this incident led many of the residents of the Old City to move outside the city walls and to take up residence in one of the newer neighborhoods of Jerusalem.
The Kosel Weeps
Less than three weeks later, on Tishah B’Av, hundreds of residents of Jerusalem gathered at the Kosel Hamaaravi to recite Kinnos. Among them was Rabbi Aharon Dovid Burack, one of the roshei yeshivah of Yeshivas Rav Yitzchak Elchanan in New York.
In a written account of the event, Rabbi Burack described a highly emotional episode: “We saw water flowing out of the Kosel, and we were astounded. Some said it resulted from an aftershock following the earthquake, which had caused a spring of water at the Kosel to open. But the chassidim and Sephardim who were reciting Kinnos at the Kosel began to sing and dance, exclaiming that the Kosel was crying, the Jews were crying, and Hashem was crying — and it was a sign that Hashem wished to redeem His children.”
The Chofetz Chaim’s Response
Along with the outpouring of material aid for the victims of the earthquake, there was a global spiritual awakening following the disaster. The Chofetz Chaim, from his home in Radin, issued an open letter to his fellow Jews, in which he pleaded with them:
“Not long ago, we were terrified and trembled at the dreadful news of an earthquake in the Holy City of Jerusalem. Even though there have been several earthquakes in Eretz Yisrael over the years, this quake was not like any other. Especially in Jerusalem, the Holy City itself, such a quake has never happened, other than in the days of Uziah, the king of Yehudah, when he entered the Beis Hamikdash to bring ketores, as Chazal describe…. Far be it from us to say that this was a product of chance. We must know that Hashem is the King and Master of the entire earth… and even the misfortunes that happen in the world, chas v’shalom, are the work of His Hand…. Therefore, we must understand why Hashem brought such terrible punishments upon the earth, and what was the reason for the terrible catastrophe in Jerusalem, the Holy City, in which many people were wounded or killed. Even many of our Jewish brethren who were not harmed by the disaster, baruch Hashem, nevertheless became deprived of sustenance as a result.
“But one must understand that it is not a simple matter, and it is not by chance that all of these punishments and misfortunes have come about. Rather, it is a warning from Heaven to the people on earth, for them to turn away from their evil ways and their deeds that are not good, for we are not immune to such tragedies and similar things, chas v’shalom.”
The Chofetz Chaim goes on to describe certain areas in which people failed to live up to their religious obligations: chillul Shabbos, breaches in matters of family purity, and sending children to learn in secular schools.“ Every one of us, whose heart is touched by the fear of Hashem, is obligated to admonish and to caution the simple masses about these things… and may Hashem help us achieve complete repentance, and may we be blessed with salvation and consolation.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 727)
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