Sichat Yosef

Israel and the recent earthquake

Albeit lightly, Israel too was impacted by the recent regional earthquake activity – as it had been by many past such events.

A collapsed building in Kahramanmaras Province, southern Turkey, February 6, 2023. Photo: Times of Israel/Depo Photos
A collapsed building in Kahramanmaras Province, southern Turkey, February 6, 2023. Photo: Times of Israel/Depo Photos

The news on the last days of my recent short visit to Israel was dominated by the earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria and was felt in Israel’s north, especially Emek Beit Sha’an as well as the hills of Shomron. Leaving aside discussion of Israel’s assistance to Turkey and that offered to Syria but which was apparently refused, the dominant question was “can it happen here?” The response was that the country is not prepared for the possibility – sadly considered a likelihood.

Years ago when visiting the Rambam hospital in Haifa I noticed wall signs indicating that a measure of earthquake proofing had been applied to that building, so obviously some elements of concern there were already then being dealt with as far as possible.

While improved standards apply to more recent construction, older buildings are in serious danger of earthquake impact that could, according to Israeli media, lead to scenes not dissimilar to what we have just seen in Turkey. A headline on the first page of The Jerusalem Post (February 7) directly under the report that earthquakes had killed thousands in Turkey and Syria advised that, according to a “top official”: “Israel is at least a decade away from major quake readiness.” The Hebrew press had full-page articles with instructions as to what to do if one felt a quake, whether in a building or a vehicle.

Of particular concern was that the geological phenomenon of tectonic plate movement associated with earthquakes such as this one could have regional implications in the not-too-distant future that might extend to Israel. In fact, following the most significant Turkey/Syria earthquake aftershock that only added to the devastation from the main quake, a 4.4 Richter scale earthquake was reported in the Dead Sea area, but thankfully in the absence of built structures there was no damage or injuries. At least three others were felt over ensuing hours, including one measuring 3.5 that shook and caused minor damage to buildings in Yerushalayim. Anecdotal information from expatriates in Raanana, where an earthquake alarm went off at 3am last Wednesday, told of feeling buildings shake and even tiles falling off walls.

That Israel is extremely earthquake prone is because it is located in a geologically unstable region. While as recent events (beyond the latest disaster) have shown, the problem of such instability across the Middle East extends northward beyond Israel’s borders; the Great Rift Valley – of which the Jordan Valley, Arava and Red Sea are part – has long been known to be subject to earthquakes, some of which inasmuch as they affected cities on the adjoining mountain ranges, have had terrible lethal consequences. And as I personally learned when I experienced an earthquake that shook Israel (and Jordan) in 1995, leading to five deaths and serous building damage in the Eilat/Akaba area, the accompanying sound associated with the vibration of buildings etc. is the reason that in Hebrew an earthquake is termed “ra’ash – noise”, a term used by the prophets referring to such events past and future. (It also appears in Unetaneh Tokef – that pivotal paragraph of the High Holy Day musaf services identifying an earthquake as the possible cause as to how some may meet their end.)

Zechariah (14:5) prophesied that pending the Messianic advent, the Mount of Olives will be split and the people will flee “as they fled in the ‘ra’ash’ in the days of Uzziah king of Judah”. That event, clearly deeply ingrained in the collective psyche, had occurred two centuries earlier. And Yehezkel (38:19) speaks of a great “ra’ash” that will be felt in the land of Israel at the time of Gog and Magog. The “ra’ash” in the days of Uzziah is also referenced in the first verse of the book of Amos (one of the “minor prophets” of the Tanach), where the eighth-century BCE prophet is referred to as having spoken “two years before the earthquake”. Actual evidence of an earthquake during the biblical period of the kings of Judah has been found at archaeological sites such as Tel Megiddo and Yerushalayim’s City of David.

And there have been so many others. Josephus refers to an earthquake that affected Hiram’s palace and battles between Roman and Jewish armies in the year 31CE. There are records of a serious earthquake that hit Yerushalayim in the Crusader period.

One of the worst earthquakes to hit Israel in more recent recorded history was that on Tevet 24 – January 1 – 1837, when the Galil was shaken by an earthquake now believed to have measured around 6.75 on the Richter scale. At least 5000 died in Tzfat and its surrounding villages, of which four fifths were Jewish: the old Jewish Quarter of Tzfat is located on a hillside with row above row of houses. As is still evident today to visitors to the historic Tzfat cemetery, when the quake struck the rows of houses collapsed one onto the other. (The result was that many inside were hopelessly trapped and, if not killed immediately, died in ensuing days.)

Again, a very severe earthquake struck what was then Mandatory Palestine in 1927. The death toll in Yerushalayim included more than 130 people and around 450 were injured. About 300 houses collapsed or were severely damaged to the point of not being usable. As had been the case in other instances, there was even a minor but damaging tsunami on the Kinneret that affected coastal buildings in Tiberias.

Further north the impact of that earthquake was especially severe in Shechem, where it destroyed around 300 buildings. The death toll included more than 150 people; around 250 were injured. Simultaneously, in Transjordan 100 people were killed – nature does not respect borders.

While we may hope to experience no more such events even pending the Messianic era foreshadowed in the prophetic readings, as now again demanded at various levels of government, improved building standards must be immediately implemented to take all possibilities into account.

Shabbat shalom,

Yossi Aron OAM is The AJN’s religious affairs editor.

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