Israel Guide: Haifa and Mount Carmel

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The beautiful city of Haifa is built around Mount Carmel and is the most important harbor city in Eretz Yisroel. The name Haifa comes from the Hebrew “Chof Yaffeh,” beautiful shore.

Haifa was founded about 1800 years ago, in the time of the Mishna. Many non-Jews were attracted to the area and the resident Jews learned Greek and Latin from them. After a while the Greek pronunciation of letters crept into the Aleph-Bais and the Jews of Haifa would no longer make a distinction between the letter “hay” and the letter “ches.” As a result, whenever they would read the pasuk “Velo y’challu es shem kodshi (Lev. 22:2),” You shall not profane My holy name, the Jews of Haifa would say “Velo y’hallu es shem kodshi,” You shall not praise My holy name. Because of these mispronunciations, cohanim from Haifa were not allowed to “duchan.” (Meg. 24b, Yeru. Berach. 3:4)

A Medresh tells the story of a tzadik who was walking along the shore of Haifa. He thought about an old tradition that says the in the time of Moshiach, Hashem will build the Eastern Gateway of the Bais HaMikdash out of a single pearl. The tzadik thought to himself that this does not seem possible at all. Suddenly the waters of the sea parted and he saw angles polishing a huge pearl. The waters then closed back. The tzadik realized that he had seen the gigantic pearl that would become the Eastern Gateway of the Bais HaMikdash in the harbor of Haifa.

The area around the coast of Haifa was in the portion of land given to the tribe of Zevulon. As Yaakov Avinu had prophesied “Zevilon shall dwell by the shore of the sea, he shall be a harbor for ships” (Gen. 49:13) The white flag of the Tribe of Zevulon had a depiction of a ship.

Before Moshe Rabbaynu died he told the Tribe of Zevulon that there will be treasures hidden in their sand. (Deut. 33:19) When Eretz Yisroel was divided up and Zevulon dwelled in their portion, they found a large coastline of white sand. But, alas, there was no hidden treasure. Zevulon complained bitterly that the other Tribes has lush meadows and fruitful vineyards and all they had was sand. Not long afterwards, it was discovered that the sand could be turned into glass. A great glass industry grew in Zevulon and even today there is a large glass manufacturing plant near Haifa. (Med. Rab. Bamidbar) An ancient Greek legend tells that the secret of glassmaking was first discovered on the shores of Haifa.

The Torah tells us that the proper way to make “tzitzis” is to use string that are dyed blue- “t’cheless.” This blue dye was manufactured from the blood of a snail, called “chilazon.” (Med. Rab. Shir 7:11) This was an extremely rare creature and was found only in the portion of Zevulon. (Men. 44a, Shab. 26a) This “chilazon” was another treasure of the sea that was found only in the portion of Zevulon.

An ancient legend tells that a dog once brought home a “chilazon” in its mouth. Before dropping the creature before its master, the dog bit the “chilazon.” A bluish purple color began flowing from the dog mouth. The secret of “techeles” was discovered. An ancient Phoenician coin depicts this discovery. It had the image of a dog and in front of its mouth is a snail-like animal (mollusk).

Rising up from Haifa and overlooking the Great Sea is Mount Carmel. Mount Carmel is closely associated with the navi Eliyahu, “zachur latov.”

There was once a great drought in Eretz Yisroel. Eliyahu went to the top of Mount Carmel and prayed for rain. A tiny cloud, the size of a man’s fist, rose up over the Mediterranean Sea. The cloud grew and grew until the entire sky was filled with dark rain clouds. Suddenly it began to rain and the terrible drought ended. (I Kings 18:42-45)

On the side of Mount Carmel, facing the sea, is a cave. People call it Eliyahu’s cave. It is believed that Eliyahu lived in seclusion in this cave. Men, women, and children come from all over to pray in this cave. Many stories are told about miraculous answers to “tefilos” that were davened in the cave.

In the time of Eliyahu many of the Bnai Yisroel worshiped avoda zora. They were encouraged by the wicked king, Achav, and the many false prophets of Baal. Eliyahu offered a challenge to the king and his false prophets. Everyone would go to the top of Mount Carmel and the prophets would prepare a sacrifice, but they were not to light any fire. Eliyahu likewise would prepare a sacrifice but not light any fire. Everyone would watch and see whose sacrifice Hashem would light up with fire to show as a sign of acceptance. The king and the prophets agree to the challenge.

Early in the morning, four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal ascended to the top of Mount Carmel. They built an altar and prepared a sacrificial bull. They all began to pray that Baal miraculously light the altar with fire. They prayed and prayed. Nothing happened. Eliyahu suggested that perhaps their god Baal was preoccupied or perhaps he was sleeping. He recommended that the prophets scream and shout louder. Throughout the morning hours the prophets screamed and shouted to Baal but to no avail. They began to cut themselves with knives and blood flowed. Perhaps their pain would arouse their sleeping god. Needless to say, the sacrifice remained unburned.

The sun was high in the sky. It was noontime. Now it was Eliyahu’s turn. He built an altar out of twelve stones. He placed a pile of wood on top and he put his sacrifice on top of the wood. He then dug a trench all around his altar. He requested that large jugs of water be brought and poured on top the sacrifice and wood. He ordered them to do it again and again. After the third time, there was so much poured water that the trench around the altar became full.

Eliyahu said a short prayer that Hashem make the people realize that Hashem was the true G-d. A fire burst forth from the heavens and came down on Eliyahu’s altar. The fire was so intense that it not only burned the sacrifice and the wood, but melted the stones, scorched the earth, and evaporated the water in the trench.

All the people were so overcome by the spirit of the moment, they all fell to the ground and called out “Hashem hu ha’elokim, Hashem hu ha’elokim.” (I Kings 18:22-39)

An interesting sidelight to the story is found in the Medresh. After the walls of Jericho fell in and the city was destroyed, Yehoshua forbade anyone from ever rebuilding the city. He cursed whoever would build the city by saying that when the foundations of the city are set, the builder’s oldest child would die. As the building progressed, more children would die. By the time that the construction is completed, the youngest child would die. (Josh. 6:26)

Three centuries later, in the time of Eliyahu, Chiel of Bethlehem, rebuilt the city of Jericho. All of his children died, just as the curse of Yehoshua had stated. (I Kings 16:34)

When the prophets of Baal were preparing their sacrifice, the wicked Chiel hid inside their altar. Should the prayers of the false prophets go unanswered, Chiel would secretly light the wood from within. Before Chiel was able to light the fire, a poisonous snake slithered into the space where Chiel was hiding and bit him. Chiel died before he was able to deceive the people into believing in the false god, Baal. (Med. Rab. Shemos 15:15, Yalkut Milochim 214)

A legend that is told over in Haifa is that one time Eliyahu was very hungry. He met a farmer who had a patch of small melons at the foot of Mount Carmel. Eliyahu asked the farmer if he could please have one of the small melons because he had not eaten in a long time. The farmer replied that those were not melons but rocks. A miracle occurred and all the melons turned into rock.

Today, small rocks are found around Mount Carmel. When tapped, the rocks seem to produce a hollow sound, similar to a melon being tapped. Some believe that these magic stones can protect women against miscarriages. They say that these are the magic stones, “even tekumah”, mention in the Gemorah (Shabbos 66b).

A flower, common on Mount Carmel, is the cyclamen, “rakefes” in Hebrew. The flower resembles a small crown. Unlike other flowers that proudly hold their pedals skyward, the “rakefes” humbly bows its head toward the ground. For many generations the children of Haifa have said that the “rakefes” is waiting until Moshiach comes and the crown of glory is restored to Yisroel. Then, it will proudly lift its crowned head upward.

Some of the most magnificent scenery in all the land can be seen in Haifa and on Mount Carmel. There are many nature trails of scenic beauty that beckon to be explored.