Rabbi Avraham Dov Auerbach of Avritch was a Rebbe in Europe for forty years and in Safed (Tzfat) for ten. Before that he had been a disciple of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev and the first two Rebbes of the Chernobyl dynasty. One of his disciples was Rabbi Shmuel Heller, the chief rabbi of Tzfat. His famous book, Bat Ayin, was written in Europe, but he refused to allow it to be printed until he could 'expose' it to the air of the Holy Land and refine it there. His meeting with the philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore in 1840 led to the beginning of modern Jewish agricultural settlement in Israel.
It was in 1830, at the age of 65, that Rabbi Avraham Dov of Avritch settled in the holy city of Safed. But although he had waited many years for the opportunity to bask in the spiritual light of the Land of Israel, once there he found life in the Holy Land too difficult to bear. The hardships were all too apparent, while the holiness of the land was hard to discern.Rabbi Avraham Dov began to think of returning to his home in Avritch...
When he felt he could bear no more, Rabbi Avraham Dov began to think of returning to his home in Avritch, where he had been the Rebbe since 1785. "After all," he reasoned, "I left my relatives and my students behind in order to live in the land, but it is to no avail, for I am suffering so bitterly. Let me return to Avritch; they will be happy to see me, and I will be glad as well."
When Rabbi Avraham Dov reached the decision to return to Europe, the rainy season in Israel was approaching. One day, as he was walking to the synagogue for the afternoon prayer, he heard noises coming from the surrounding rooftops. He couldn't identify the strange sounds, so he asked the townspeople he passed for an explanation. They were amused that he didn't know.
"Here in Tzfat," they explained, "we have the custom of performing household chores on our flat roofs. We also use the roofs for storing food and other household supplies. The noise you hear is caused by the women scurrying about, removing everything from the roofs."
"But why are they doing that?" the Rabbi asked.
"Why, so that nothing gets ruined by the rain, of course," was the incredulous reply.
But Rabbi Avraham Dov was still confused. He looked up at a sky as blue as the sea when there are no waves in sight. "It certainly doesn't look like rain," he said, hoping for some further clarification.
"Surely you remember that tonight will be the 7th of the month of MarCheshvan, when we start to say the prayer for rain. We beseech G-d to be merciful and send benign rains to water our crops and provide water for us. Since we are sure that our Father in Heaven will hear our prayers and will heed our request, we take precautions so that our possessions won't be ruined when the rains come."
The unquestioning faith of the people affected the rabbi deeply. Suddenly his eyes were opened and he saw the sublime heights of faith achieved by the simple Jews of the Holy Land. His pain and disappointment were replaced by a sense of awe at the holiness of the land and its people. At that moment, he abandoned all thoughts of returning to Avritch and began a new leg of his own spiritual journey in the Holy Land.They ordered him to write a ransom note to his community, but he refused.
Shortly thereafter, he became established as the leader of Tzfat's burgeoning chassidic community.
In a letter dated 13 Tammuz 5598/1838, Dr. A. Loewy, Sir Moses Montefiore's secretary, wrote the following about Rabbi Avraham Dov. "This man is one of the most learned and esteemed people I have ever seen. It is a simple matter for him to serve the community without receiving any recompense from the communal funds. He distributes everything that he has to the poor of his people. There are always between 10 and 15 people eating regularly at his table." (Devir, Vilna 5622/1862).
In 1838 he was kidnapped by the vicious Druise who were then perpetrating a pogrom in Tzfat, as they had done also in 1834. They ordered him to write a ransom note to his community, but he refused. The Druze then put him in a sack and began to beat him. When they thought they heard in the distance the hoofbeats of approaching Egyptian cavalry they fled, leaving the rabbi tied in the sack. He was later found and returned to Safed.
But what he is most famous for (besides his monumental book of chassidic thought, Bas Ayin) is his part in the earthquake miracle of 1837.
In the deadly earthquake of 24 Tevet 5597 (January 1, 1837), 5,000 people lost their lives, of whom 4000 were Jews, more than 80% of the community. It was between the afternoon and evening prayers, when most of the men were in shul, that the tremors and rumblings suddenly began. Of all of Tzfat's shuls only two remained standing (Ari-Sephardi and Abuhav), and many hundreds of Jews at prayer perished under the collapsed debris. In the shul of the Avritcher Rebbe, as elsewhere, panic set in, and the congregants began to bolt for the outdoors....while nearly all the walls collapsed, the domed ceiling miraculously remained aloft...
"Come to the ark if you wish to be saved!" shouted the Rebbe in a powerful voice. Immediately everyone crowded around him. The Rebbe threw himself on the ground, praying and weeping. Local tradition records that although most of the building collapsed, the part where the men were clustered remained upright and everyone was saved. A plaque outside the shul today testifies to this miracle. The line between the original structure (over the Ark) and the reconstructed portion is clearly visible. One source (Eden Zion) states that while nearly all the walls collapsed, the domed ceiling miraculously remained aloft, almost as if it were suspended in the air!
Just before Rabbi Avraham Dov passed away in the epidemic of 1840, on the 12th day of the Jewish month of Kislev, he announced that his would be the last life claimed by the terrible plague. And so it was.
[Assembled and adapted from Anaf Etz Avot, L'chaim #527, Safed the Mystical City, Tzfat: A Guide for an Inner-Dimensional Journey, and Ascent Quarterly.]
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