Hebron in History and Memory
My first visit to Hebron came nearly half a century ago with a group of “disaffected Jewish academics,” chosen by the American Jewish Committee to experience Israel for the first time and — perhaps — to overcome their indifference to the Jewish state. As our bus passed a massive rectangular stone edifice I asked our guide to identify it. “Machpelah,” he responded. What’s that? I asked. The burial site of the Biblical patriarchs and matriarchs, he replied. It was a transformative moment that is revived annually as Shabbat Chaye Sarah nears.
Genesis 23, to be read this Shabbat, recounts Abraham’s insistence on purchasing the cave of Machpelah from Ephron the Hittite as a burial site for Sarah at full price rather than accept it as a generous gift. Only indisputable ownership of the tomb, Abraham knew, could validate his family claim to the land in perpetuity. Machpelah — indeed Hebron — would occupy a special place in Jewish memory in the Land of Israel.
King David reigned from Hebron for seven years before relocating his throne to Jerusalem. A millennium later, when Herod became the King of Roman Palestine, he launched an extraordinary building campaign that included the Temple in Jerusalem and the Masada fortress. In Hebron, the Machpelah burial site was enclosed within a massive edifice, its exterior stone walls virtually identical to the Western Wall in Jerusalem. By the 7th century, according to a document found in the Cairo genizah, a substantial Jewish community, including Torah sages, resided in Hebron.
But following the Crusader conquest in 1099, when Machpelah was renamed the “Castle of Saint Abraham,” Jews fled for their lives. When Maimonides visited Hebron in the 12th century no Jews remained. A century later, under Muslim rule, only Muslims were permitted to enter the Machpelah enclosure. Jews could get no closer than the seventh step outside the eastern wall, where they bent their bodies to catch a glimpse through a gap in the stones of the tombs of their patriarchs and matriarchs.
But in 1540, under Ottoman control, a group of exiles from Spain purchased a tract of land in Hebron that became a tiny Jewish Quarter with the new Avraham Avinu synagogue as its place of worship. It was, and long remained, an impoverished, precarious, but deeply religious community of Jewish memory whose link to the Biblical patriarchs and matriarchs was unbroken.
Early in the 19th century, the arrival of Chabad Hassidim from Safed transformed Hebron into an important center of rabbinical scholarship. Depleted during World War I, the community was rejuvenated by the postwar relocation of the renowned Knesset Israel Yeshiva from Slobodka. Students were taught to resist the allure of modern secular ideologies such as socialism, atheism — and Zionism.
But in 1929 the Hebron community was mercilessly assaulted and brutally destroyed by rampaging Arabs, who bludgeoned, slashed, raped and mutilated Jewish men, women and children. With 67 Jews murdered, British soldiers evacuated Jewish survivors. Rebuilding efforts failed and the millennia-old Jewish community was only a memory.
But on Israel’s Independence Day in 1967, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, recounting Biblical holy sites that still lay beyond Israel’s borders, asked sorrowfully: “Where is our Hebron? Have we forgotten it?” One month later, after the Six-Day War returned jubilant Jews to their ancient holy places in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria, it was remembered. But it took time before the journey of return to Hebron was completed.
In the middle of an April night in 1979, 10 women and 35 children from nearby Kiryat Arba moved into Beit Hadassah, the former Hebron medical clinic. Excited children began to sing. An astonished Israeli soldier entered from a nearby roof to investigate the noise. When he asked how they had entered, a four-year-old girl responded: “Jacob, our forefather, built us a ladder and we came in.” After Shabbat, yeshiva students came to dance and sing outside Beit Hadassah. The Hebron Jewish community was resurrected.
On Shabbat Chaye Sarah thousands of Jews come to Hebron, to Machpelah, to celebrate the Biblical narrative of their first, and longest enduring foothold in the Promised Land. Twice, once with my son, I have been among them, participating in joyous prayer and song in the magisterial hall enclosing the tombs of Isaac and Rebekah. Spanning millennia of Jewish sorrow and joy in Hebron, it is an experience like no other that testifies to what is at the core of Zionism: the return of Jews to their Biblical homeland.
Just this week, it seemed possible that permits would be authorized for the construction of new housing units in Hebron to enable 30 more families to live in the Jewish Quarter. They would be built on land purchased by Avraham Yisrael Romano in 1836 and sold by his heirs to the Chabad-Lubavitch movement as a place for Torah study. With the continuing rejuvenation of Jewish life, Jewish memory is — as it always has been in Hebron — preserved.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Hebron Jews: Memory and Conflict in the Land of Israel (2009).