Israel – earthquakes

Almost a thousand years ago in 1033/4993, the Eretz Yisroel Gaon, Rav Shlomo ben Yehuda, wrote a letter to an unknown correspondent, which was later unearthed in the Cairo Geniza. The contents of this flimsy parchment are a source of dread to some Israeli geologists.


Although most Gaonim lived in Bavel, there were some in Eretz Yisroel during the 10th and 11th centuries. Rav Shlomo ben Yehuda was a prolific writer and many of his letters ended up in the Cairo Geniza. One of his best-known letters describes one of the most massive earthquakes Eretz Yisroel underwent in the past thousand years.

Graphically, he describes how people escaped harm by fleeing outdoors before it struck.

“They went out from their home into the streets because they saw the walls bending though intact, and beams were separating from the walls and reverting back. The strongest buildings collapsed and new houses were torn down. Many were buried under the ruins for they could not escape. All went out from their dwellings leaving everything behind. Wherever they turned they beheld Hashem’s powerful deeds. Many resigned themselves to the judgment, reciting verses like, ‘He looks at the earth and it trembles” (Tehillim 104:32).”

The worst thing about this earthquake was that unlike the better-known earthquake of 1837/5797 that destroyed most of Tzefas and much of Teveriyah, this earthquake hit most of Eretz Yisroel and reached as far as Egypt. As Rav Shlomo continues:

“The event took place on Thursday, 12 Teves, suddenly before sunset in Ramlah, in the whole of Filastin (part of Eretz Yisroel) from fortified city to open village, in all fortresses of Egypt, from the sea to fort Dan, in all the cities of the Negev and to the mount of Yerushalayim, to Shechem and her villages, Teveriyah and her villages, the Galilean mountains and the whole of Palestine… On Friday and the following night the quakes recurred.”

Rav Shlomo ordained a public fast and concludes his letter by appealing for Hashem’s mercy.

“May Hashem, G-d of the universe, look down mercifully on this world, have pity on his creatures, save man and beast, and have pity on babies and infants and those who do not know between right and left.”

Thus ends Rav Shlomo’s report of one of the greatest earthquakes to hit Eretz Yisroel. Data like this has geologists concerned, because statistics of the last millennia and centuries indicate that the time may be ripe for yet another massive earthquake in Israel, and the worst thing is that there is no way of knowing exactly when the ax will fall, cholila v’cas.


Eretz Yisroel has always been prone to earthquakes. The earliest recorded one is mentioned at the beginning of sefer Amos (1:1): “The words of Amos. which he saw concerning Israel in the days of Uziah king of Yehuda, and in the days of Yeravam the son of Yoash King of Yisroel, two years before the earthquake.” This earthquake, which erupted about 3,000 years ago, must have been massive because Zechariah mentions it two centuries later in one of his predictions, “And you will flee. as you fled from the earthquake in the days of Uziah, King of Yehuda” (14:5).

Later earthquakes include one in 5027/1267 that temporarily blocked the Jordan River, a 1546 earthquake that triggered a large tsunami in the Dead Sea, and a 5687/1927 earthquake that killed 280 people in Palestine and Transjordan. Two minor earthquakes in 5764/2004 were topped off by a minor earthquake last year. Most people experienced these last three as a mild shake. For a few moments, it felt as if solid earth had turned into a giant drum.

What makes some places like California and Eretz Yisroel more earthquake prone than others?

According to the Plate Tectonics Theory developed in the 1960s, the earth’s lithosphere (stony outer shell) is broken into a number of plates that slide around on top of a less rigid asthenosphere. Why don’t we detect this motion? Because the plates are crawling along at about the same speed our nails grow – that is a few millimeters a year. Faster plates zip along at about 15 centimeters a year, the growth- speed of a healthy hair.

Wherever the plates meet at locations called faults, they push into each other or grind past each other. Sometimes one plate pushes another plate underground, and in some places in mid ocean where the plates diverge from each other, new, hot rocks emerge from underground providing energy for strange life forms that are too deep underwater to get energy from the sun.

As the plates grind and push against each other, they generally stick in a titanic logjam. Then, as pressure builds up, the logjam bursts loose like an uncoiling spring, and there’s an earthquake.

Because Israel is sitting squarely on top of a few faults including the massive Syrian/African fault extending 5,000 miles up from the African Great Lakes, it is no surprise that it undergoes about 500 earthquakes year, most so minor that no one notices them until someone squints at a seismometer at that moment. On a global basis, this is nothing unusual; California and Alaska sometimes experience a few minor quakes per day.

The trouble is that according to geological estimates, Israel is due for a major earthquake every hundred years or so, and a monster earthquake every few centuries, and no one knows when to expect the next one. Worldwide, there are about 18 major earthquakes and one monster quake a year. In preparation for both kinds of earthquakes, Israel instituted California style building standards back in 5751/1991, but whether building contractors adhere to them scrupulously is another question.


Should Israelis be concerned about volcanoes as well and add them to their litany of worries?

In their discussions of the berachos over natural wonders like earthquakes and storms, Chazal do not mention volcanoes at all. The Tanach only mentions them twice, once where it says that Yehoshua was buried in Timnas Serach “north of the volcanic mountain” (Yehoshua 24:30). Chazal (Shabbos 105b) explain that because the Jews eulogized him insufficiently, the mountain threatened to erupt. Volcanoes are also mentioned in Tehillim where it says, “He looks at the earth and it shudders, He touches mountains and they smoke” (Tehillim 102).

This indicates that volcanoes are rare in the Middle East. Are there any in Eretz Yisroel?

Surprisingly there are, but happily they have not blasted for thousands of years and geologists do not expect them to blow for about another 10,000 years or so. If you wish to see the traces of these dead volcanoes, next time you pass through Teveriyah take a look at some of its older buildings and you’ll notice they are built of black volcanic basalt. Further north in the Golan, you may find pyroclastic rocks littering the ground in some locations. These rocks, which look like black Swiss cheese, formed from molten lava as it poured out of volcanoes and mixed with hot gas.

Where are these volcanoes? Go to Keren Naftali, a lookout point half an hour
from Tzefas, look east, and you’ll see a row of extinct volcanic peaks southeast of Mount Chermon. The huge tank battles between Israel and Syria during the Yom Kippur War took place in a plain between two rows of these volcanic peaks.


A strange side point involving earthquakes is the attempt to utilize them to settle the old argument whether eggs have become half their original size since the time of Chazal. Where could one find an egg from ancient times to check this up?

Nineteen years after the Churban, the Vesuvius Volcano blew its top and totally buried the Roman town of Pompeii in volcanic ash. As contemporary Roman, Pliny the Younger, described it:

“Ashes were already falling, not as yet very thickly. I looked round. A dense black cloud was coming up behind us, spreading over the earth like a flood.’ Let us leave the road while we can still see,’ I said, ‘or we shall be knocked down and trampled underfoot in the dark by the crowd behind.’ We had scarcely sat down to rest when darkness fell, not the dark of a moonless or cloudy night, but as if the lamp had been put out in a closed room.

“You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men. Some were calling their parents, others their children or their wives, trying to recognize them by their voices. Many imagined that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness for evermore.”

Pompeii lay almost forgotten for centuries until about 250 years ago when people excavating the ancient town discovered the shapes of its dead people and animals perfectly preserved by the volcanic ash. The ashes had formed a shell around the bodies, which persisted after the bodies inside decayed.

In his book, “Agriculture in Eretz Yisrael at the Time of the Mishna and

Talmud,” the frum author Professor Yehuda Felix mentions that he measured eggs preserved at Pompeii and discovered that they were the same size as their modern counterparts. However, for various reasons, this evidence is inconclusive.

May we soon be zocheh to witness a different sort of earthquake described by the navi Zechariah: “And His feet shall stand on that day on Har HaZeisim… and Har HaZeisim will be split in its middle to the east and to the west, a very great valley, and half the mountain will move towards the north, and half of it towards the south. And you shall flee… as you fled from the earthquake in the days of Uziah king of Yehuda” (14:4,5).

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