Weekly Chasidic Story #804 (s5773-33 / 12 Iyar 5773)

Six Stolen Tzefat Torah Scrolls

When residents and guests arrived at the the 200 year old Tzemach Tzedek synagogue in Tzefat, they were shocked to discover he doors open, the window bars cut and the ark empty.

Connection: Seasonal–first anniversary


Shortly before Lag b’Omer, on early Shabbat morning, 13 Iyar 5772 (May 5, 2012), Rabbi Gavriel Marzel, director of the Tzemach Tzedek Synagogue in the Old City of Tzefat, was shocked to discover that all six of the synagogue’s Torah scrolls were missing. When he arrived onto the scene, the doors were open, the window bars had been cut and the ark was empty. The 160 year old shul, founded by followers of the Tzemach Tzedek, the third Rebbe of Chabad, was in the process of restoration around the time the Torah scrolls disappeared.

The theft occurred on Shabbat, and services were held at another location; a Torah scroll was lent by another congregation. The community urged additional psalms be read for the recovery of the scrolls, one of which was written in the memory of Chabad emissary to Tzfat since 1973 and founder of the present-day Chabad-Tzefat community, Rabbi Aryeh Leib Kaplan, ob’m, who passed away in 1998. Another of the scrolls was commissioned by the Rapaport family in Canada, whose foundation paid for a renovation of the synagogue three years ago. A third was written in honor of the Jewish People and a fourth was written to honor the memory of Rabbi Marzel’s father-in-law. The other two were on loan to the shul.

The thieves also broke into the private lockers of the shul‘s congregants. They took out pairs of tefilin and put them into a pile, but then for some unknown reason decided to leave them inside the shul. Before they left, the thieves wrapped the Torahs in the shul‘s Shabbos tablecloths.

Every Shabbos, more than 100 Chabad Chassidim and other local residents daven at the shul.

“When we saw that the Ark of Holiness had been broken into, we all burst into tears,” said Rabbi Gavriel Marzel, the Shul’s director since 1979. “We were so shocked that we couldn’t believe what had happened. Then we calmed down, especially after a police officer promised that they would do everything in their power to catch the thieves.”

The police sent a non-Jewish officer to the shul immediately to write up the first report. Sunday, a team arrived to conduct a full investigation, and Tzefat detectives launched a nationwide investigation concerning the whereabouts of the scrolls.

“Temporarily, we have borrowed a Torah scroll from a nearby shul but of course we hope and pray that they will soon find ours,” said Rabbi Marzel.

Prayers and efforts were answered one week later (Sunday, May 13) when three young religious Tzefat boys, who were playing close to a cave-like abandoned stone house spotted inside a pile covered with white linen tablecloths, and by peeking underneath one of the cloths realized they had found the missing six Torah scrolls.
A Tzefat detective said the scrolls had been placed there by the perpetrators in an attempt to evade arrest. He said he had spoken with one suspect by phone earlier in the day who told police to stop their pursuit and the scrolls would be returned, although he did not reveal where. He also said that investigators believe the Torahs were stolen by criminals of Jewish descent with access to markets where scrolls are sold.
“Three young boys ran into the shul and told us they found the scrolls,” a member of the shul‘s kollel reported. “We followed them and right away identified one of the Torahs which was not fully covered.”

The three pre-teen heroes belong to three families of American olim (immigrants to Israel), Ravitch, Kopp and Erdstein, who were living in Tzefat at the time.

Police were immediately called to begin an investigation and take fingerprints.

The Torahs were in decent condition and unharmed. A special ceremony took place the next day to celebrate the recovery and the joyous news that the scrolls would be back in place in time for Shavuot, the Jewish holiday commemorating the original giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. During it, Rabbi Marzel, the mayor of Tzefat and other religious and community leaders addressed a crowd of 800 who danced with the Torah scrolls and celebrated their safe return.

One yeshiva student Ari Lesser, who attends the Temimei Derech yeshiva on the first floor of the synagogue, said he believed the significance of the scrolls being stolen was “so we could have this great celebration.” Sarah Marzel, the rabbi’s wife, said, “We are humbled and we are blessed, and G-d should spread the blessings and kindness he gave us to the farthest reaches.”
Sources: Compiled by Yerachmiel Tilles from articles by Miriam Metzinger (“Living Jewish” weekly), and the staff of //; and from oral Tzefat sources including Rabbi Marzel. COLlive is also the source of the first three photos.

Connection: The first anniversary of the theft, 13 Iyar, occurs this week, on Tuesday.


Safed Police Open Synagogue With Recovered Torah Scroll

by Yehuda Sugar* (originally for // – July 12, 2012)

The police who were involved in the hunt for the Torah scrolls and their rescue and restoration to the Tzemach Tzedek Synagogue were so inspired by the story that they decided to open a small shul in the police station! Two months later (July 12), they requested the privilege of using one of the formerly missing Tzemech Tzedek scrolls.

Rabbi Gavriel Marzel, director of the Chabad-Lubavitch institution, says he was happy to loan the Torah to the police on a trial basis for a few months, especially considering the time of year. The development comes during the three-week period preceding the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av and the anniversary of the destruction of both of the Holy Temples in Jerusalem.

“We know that from darkness comes the greatest light,” said Marzel, “and that the anniversary of the Temples’ destruction will one day become the most joyous day on the calendar. Similarly, our Torah scrolls’ theft and recovery brought about the birth of another synagogue.”

The Torahs had been discovered missing on May 5, sparking a nationwide recovery effort. They were found several days later in an abandoned house.

A ceremony celebrating the arrival of the police station’s Torah scroll took place on Monday. The dancing entourage included Safed Police Chief Ofer Kotrovich and about 20 other officers.
Another synagogue donated an ark and prayer books for the station’s use.

Marzel credited a young volunteer officer working with the force as part of his tour of duty in the Israeli National Service with the idea for the new synagogue.

* Except the first paragraph


Yerachmiel Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and chief editor of this website (and of He has hundreds of published stories to his credit, and many have been translated into other languages. He tells them live at Ascent nearly every Saturday night.