Tuesday, March 06, 2012

A Tiberias Purim: The story of a Sheik, a Pasha and a Rabbi

Some Jewish communities celebrate their own special Purim days, marking the day when the community was saved from those who wished them harm. Tiberias has two such Purim days, celebrating an event that took place in the early 18th century.

The cast of this particular Purim story:

In the role of King Ahasuerus - Sheik Daher el-Omar, one of the most benevolent rulers under the Ottomans. El-Omar was a Bedouin whose family came to Israel in the late 17th or early 18th century. He conquered the Galilee in the years 1720-1730, getting official Ottoman recognition of his rule ex post facto. Realizing that safe roads, thriving commerce and enterprising people were a sure-fire recipe for increased tax revenue, he invited various groups, including Jews, to come to the Galilee. During his 50 year reign he managed to conquer all of Israel, save for Jerusalem, making him the only Arab to rule the land in the past millennium.

In the role of Mordechai, Rabbi Hayyim Abulafia. Born in Hebron, his family later moved to Jerusalem. In the early 1700s he served as Chief Rabbi of Safed and would often visit the ruins of Tiberias, to pray by the holy graves. He served as Rabbi of Izmir in Turkey for close to 20 years before coming back to reestablish the Jewish community of Tiberias.

In the role of Haman - the evil Governor of Damascus, Sulayman Pasha al-Azm.

And, last but not least, in the role of the Narrator, Rabbi Yaakov Berav, son-in-law of Rabbi Abulafia and a descendent of the more famous Rabbi Yaakov Berav (the First). Rabbi Berav recorded the events in his book Zimrat Ha-aretz (available online at HebrewBooks). An English summary of Rabbi Berav's account appears in "The Goodly Heritage" by Abraham Yaari.

Sadly, there was no Esther in this story. But the good news is that we didn't need intermarriage to save us either.

Tiberias. Digital ID: 80442. New York Public Library
Tiberias, Fenn & Brandard, 1881


Our story begins way, way back, close to 270 years ago. The year was 1738, and Daher el-Omar was a rising star. Hearing that Rabbi Abulafia, who was already in his eighties, wanted to come home, he wrote the Rabbi and asked him to "Come and inherit Tiberias, the land of your fathers". The Sheik wasn't speaking figuratively, for Rabbi Abulafia's grandfather, Rabbi Yaakov Abulafia, was the Chief Rabbi of Tiberias before its destruction.

When Rabbi Abulafia arrived in Tiberias, in 1740, the Sheik dressed him like royalty, and offered him whatever his heart desires. The Rabbi took him up on his offer, and Daher el-Omar built the Jews houses and courtyards and the most beautiful synagogue in all the land, and that's besides the bathhouse and shops and roads and the fields he had planted.

El-Omar fought the (other) Bedouins and made it possible to travel safely on the roads. Alone! with Money! The Land was as peaceful as in the days of Solomon. And yet, far away, trouble was brewing. In Istanbul, the Ottoman Sultan was getting reports of el-Omar's conquests and independence, and ordered the Governor of Damascus, Sulayman Pasha, to take care of the young upstart.

On August 11, 1742 (22 Av), Rabbi Abulafia received warning from the Jews in Damascus that Sulayman Pasha was going to attack and destroy Tiberias. The Rabbi warned the Sheikh, but el-Omar was sure the Pasha was just huffing and puffing and wanted to be paid off. After all, if the Sultan was involved then surely the Jews of Istanbul would have warned the Rabbi. Besides, el-Omar was under the jurisdiction of the Governor of Sidon, and he paid his dues to the Sultan. There was nothing to worry about.

The Jews of Damascus, worried about their brethren in Tiberias, continued to update the Rabbi, but despite repeated warnings, the Sheikh was sure nothing was going to happen, and did not prepare for war.

Enter Sulayman Pasha, stage right, setting up camp outside town.

The Jews were terrified and wanted to leave to Safed or Akko, where they had been promised safety by the Governor.

Rabbi Abulafia refused to hear of it. He would not leave the Holy City and the beautiful synagogue after all the trouble he had put into it. He did not want his community to become moneyless refugees. If the Jews left, it would shame the Sheik, and it will cause hatred and enmity for generations to come. If we leave, he reasoned, everybody will say 'what's the point of bringing the Jews here? Not only are they not fighters, they flee and spread fear'. The roads are dangerous now and the journey difficult, and the aged Rabbi was too old for the trip. G-d has given us the strength to rebuild Tiberias, he said. He did not do so in order to destroy us.

The next day the Jews went to the graves of Rabbi Hiyya and his sons, and of Rav Huna, and of Rav Hamnuna the Elder, and prayed and wept and sounded the shofar.

On Shabbat, August 28 (9 Elul), Sulyman Pasha started the attack. Immediately killing 14 of his own people with a wayward cannonball. There was much rejoicing in Tiberias. But the Governor was not deterred, that evening he started shelling the city with different types of cannons. Rabbi Berav notes that forty of the bigger cannonballs conquered a big city. The Pasha fired more than 200 such cannonballs at Tiberias, and the city withstood the attack. The Pasha also fired 1500 smaller cannonballs at the city.

Most fell into the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee). The rest exploded in mid-air, bounced harmlessly off the roofs or whizzed between the people walking in the streets. No house was destroyed, not one man was killed, even the animals and birds were spared. Though the people had a lot of flammable materials on the rooftops, the attacks didn't start a fire. A few of the cannonballs fell in the Rabbi's courtyard and were later kept in the Rabbi's house as evidence of the mercies of G-d.

While the shelling was going on, the Jews kept going to the synagogue, and on Shabbat, Rabbi Abulafia encouraged them: the Pasha is not fighting the people of Tiberias, he said. He's fighting G-d. G-d will save us, and will save the rest of the people of Tiberias as well.

Tiberias, looking towards Herm... Digital ID: 83004. New York Public Library
Tiberias, David Roberts, 1842-1849


The High Holidays came and went, and then Sukkot, and the Jews celebrated Simchat Beit HaShoeivah every night with joy and song, but one thing was missing: except for the Lulav, they had none of the Arba Minim. Every day they hoped, "G-d will make us a miracle tomorrow", but the days passed, and the last day, Hoshana Raba was upon them, and no Arba Minim.

Throughout all this, Sheik el-Omar kept sending the Pasha gifts and trying to make peace. And miracle of miracles, one of those peace parties was sent out on Hoshana Raba. One of the Jews from the Governor's camp used the opportunity and brought in the missing Arba Minim. The Jews were so ecstatic about being able to fulfill the commandant, they cried tears of joy as they made the blessings.

The Governor continued plotting and trying various tricks to breach or break down the city walls. Every time the people thought this was their end, but the miracles continued. Every attempt was repulsed by Daher el-Omar and his people, to the surprise of the Pasha, who really didn't expect a Bedouin to be this smart.

The Governor thought he could dig trenches down to the foundations of the walls and blow them up, but after five days of hard work, they discovered they weren't digging straight. It has to be Jew voodoo, said the Pasha's engineer, the Jews' Rabbi must have cast a spell on us. What shall we do?, asked the Pasha. Simple, fight Jew voodoo with Jews. And indeed, ten Jews were brought in from Safed - secretly, so that the Rabbi would not cast a spell on them too - and forced to dig the trenches. Surprisingly, this did not make the trenches any straighter.

And on Shabbat, November 20 (4 Kislev), after 83 days of siege, the Pasha was finally forced to give up, since he had to escort the pilgrims to Mecca. The siege was lifted. It was only then that the Jews of Tiberias learned that for the past three months, while they were under siege, Safed had been hit by the plague. The siege had been a blessing! Looking back at the chain of events, they realized that everything had been stacked against them, making their victory that much more miraculous, that surely it had all been G-d's work. Sorrow turned to gladness, and mourning into a good day (Esther 9, 22).

Rabbi Abulafia said Ha'Gomel in the plural for everybody, and they said the Hallel, and with the Rabbi's blessing they decided to make the 4th of Kislev a day of joy and celebration, a Purim, for generations to come.

Once the Governor of Damascus returned home, he was greeted with ridicule by his people. He had all the might and technology of the Ottoman empire on his side and still he couldn't beat one poorly-prepared Bedouin. And so Sulyman Pasha resolved to attack Tiberias again, and this time he will not return before he has destroyed the city, even if it will take all his money to do so.

Meanwhile, the Sheik asked various messengers to speak with the Sultan on his behalf, but the Jews of Istanbul sent a message through Damascus, explaining that nobody dared speak up. The Sultan had made up his mind and was arming Sulyman Pasha.

When the people heard this, they were terrified. Rabbi Abulafia told them: Whoever wants to, can leave, and whoever doesn't, can stay with us, do not fear for G-d is with us. Most of the people of Tiberias fled, but some remained to honor their Rabbi. Rabbi Abulafia was so certain they had nothing to fear, that he did not even prepare supplies for the coming siege.

The Pasha was much more prepared this time. He gathered an even bigger army and more weapons, and set out again for battle. Shabbat Eve, August 12, 1743 (3 Elul), he reached the village of Lubya (Kibbutz Lavi), two hours walk from Tiberias. The people of Tiberias were already mourning the calamity that will soon befall them.

On Shabbat Eve the Rabbi's son would read the Haftara portion by the table, and that week the Haftara was from Isaiah: "I, even I, am He that comforteth you: who art thou, that thou art afraid of man that shall die" (Isaiah 51, 12), and the Rabbi told his family: Do not fear, listen to what G-d is telling us. The next day in the synagogue his sermon centered around the verse from the weekly Torah portion of Shoftim "For the LORD your God is He that goeth with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you" (Deuteronomy 20, 4). Do not fear a man who shall die, the Rabbi promised the people, for the Pasha will not get to Tiberias, and will not put up siege against us.

On Sunday a messenger came to town and said that the Pasha had been stricken with a serious illness. At first the people thought this was a trick, but that Wednesday more messengers came and reported that the Pasha had died the previous day, that all the weapons had already been taken to Akko, and that the Pasha's body was on its way to Damascus.

Once again, there was much rejoicing. That Shabbat the Rabbi spoke of the great miracle that had happened to them, that was even bigger than the first, and the people accepted upon themselves to celebrate the 7th of Elul, the day the Pasha died, for generations to come.

Rabbi Yaakov Berav ends his story: "So may all your enemies perish, L-rd. May you show us the great Redemption with the coming of our Messiah speedily in our days. Amen, may it be the will of G-d."

See here for more articles about our history in Israel.

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2 comments:

Reb Chaim HaQoton said...

Thank you for sharing with us this little known chapter in the history of Israel.

Ora said...

You're welcome!

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