Hebron History

 

Ma'arat Mamachpela

Ma’arat Mamachpela

The Bible is very clear about the ownership of Ma’arat HaMachpela (Cave of the Patriarchs) in Hebron:

“Sara died in Kiryat Arba which is Hebron… Avraham rose up from the presence of his dead, and spoke to the children of Heth… And Avraham weighed out to Ephron the money that he had mentioned in the hearing of the children of Heth, four hundred silver shekalim in negotiable currency. And Ephron’s field that was in Machpela… the field and the cave within it… as Avraham’s as a purchase in the view of the children of Heth, with all who came to the gate of the city.”    Genesis/Bereishit 23: 2, 3,16-18

The Lubavitcher Rebbe – Chabad’s 7th Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn – sites Avraham’s purchase of Ma’arat HaMachpela as the unquestionable proof that Hebron is a Jewish city.

“Regarding Ma’arat HaMachpela they have no basis for any claims whatsoever, because everyone admits that Ma’arat HaMachpela was purchased and paid for with 400 units of currency. With regard to the rest of Eretz Yisrael, it is possible that an objection could be raised, so it is proper to answer that the world belongs to Hashem and He took the land from its inhabitants to give to the Jews. But regarding Ma’arat HaMachpela, there is no claim whatsoever, because Avraham Avinu bought it according to the custom of the world, and this is the case of the whole area of Hebron, which belongs to Shevet Levi (the tribe of Levi.)”  From a Public Discourse in Cheshvan 5335 – October 1975

 

INTRODUCTION: THE RELEVANCE OF HEBRON HISTORY

Avraham's Tent

Avraham’s Tent

At the dawn of Jewish history, when Avraham Avinu was living in Hebron, he initiated the Brit Milah, respect for other’s property, rescuing captives, giving honor to the deceased, faith in Hashem, self sacrifice, heeding the words of one’s wife, the morning prayers, welcoming guests and teaching others about the Creator of the Universe. It was in Hebron that Avraham would sit at the entrance to his tent waiting for wayfarers to pass by. Upon sighting them he would rush to offer refreshments and a place to relax. After taking care of their physical needs, Avraham taught them about Hashem and instructed them in thanking Hashem for the food they had just enjoyed.

The only missing element in Avraham’s tent was a picture of the Rebbe – just joking! (No one knows for sure if there was a picture of the Rebbe or not.) But what is known, beyond any doubt, is that Avraham’s tent was the first in history to serve as a blueprint for Chabad Houses. And it was located in Hebron.

Beginning with Avraham, Hebron remained a focal point in Biblical times. Yitzchak and Yakov also lived in Hebron. Where Hebron is not mentioned explicitly in the text in the Torah, Rashi – the universally respected Biblical commentator – makes references to Hebron.

One particular incident that teaches us a valuable lesson, even in today’s world, is the story of Caleb and the ‘spies’ who went on a reconnaissance mission to Eretz Yisrael. When Caleb realized he would have to contradict ten other ‘spies’ in front of a hostile audience, he went first to Hebron to pray at Ma’arat HaMachpela. As mass media influenced world opinion is turning its back on the Eretz Yisrael, we can learn from Caleb to stand strong in the face of adversity by connecting with ‘those who slumber in Hebron.’

In addition to Ma’arat HaMachpela, there are a number of significant burial sites in Hebron: Othniel ben Kenaz, the first judge of Israel; Avner ben Ner, general and confidante of Kings Shaul and David; Ruth, great-grandmother of King David; and Yishai, father of King David.

The history of Hebron is more than dates and names. It teaches lessons that transcend time, place and personality. It embodies the foundation of the Jewish nation.

 

A GLANCE AT HEBRON THROUGH THE AGES

Ancient Hebron

Ancient Hebron

Avraham purchased a plot of land in Hebron, known as Ma’arat HaMachpela, almost 4,000 years ago as recorded in the Torah. The location of the land is still known and the ownership is not contested.

Although Arabs claim it is their property, they claim it as being descendants of Abraham – they do not refute the original purchase. The Torah clearly states that the land was bought for Sara, the mother of the Jewish nation. Hagar, the mother of Yishmael, through whom the Arabs claim ownership, is not buried in Ma’arat HaMachpela.

King David was anointed in Hebron, and it became his capital city for the first seven years of his kingship.

After the death of King David’s son, King Solomon, the united Eretz Yisrael split into two. On the Jewish calendar it was the year 2630 (930 years before the Common Era). Hebron became part of the southern Kingdom of Yehuda.

Roughly three hundred and fifty years later Jewish independence ended in Eretz Yisrael when it was conquered by the Babylonians.

From that time on until recent times, the Land of Israel was conquered and occupied by foreign powers, none of which established it as their homeland. Throughout the ages Jews lived in Eretz Yisrael, sometimes enjoying religious and civil freedom, sometimes not. The history of Hebron was part of the ongoing saga of the Jews in the rest of the country. At times the Jewish presence in Hebron was minimal, but throughout the ages, with a few exceptions, Jews have lived in Hebron.

Seventy years after the Babylonians sent the Jews into exile, Jews returned to Jerusalem to build the second temple. Two hundred years later Alexander the Great of Greece conquered Eretz Yisrael. It was 150 years after that, when the Greeks began to restrict the observance of Jewish law and desecrated the temple. This religious oppression prompted a revolt. Until today we remember this chapter in Jewish history on the holiday of Chanukah.

Roughly eighty years later, the Romans conquered Eretz Yisrael and ruled for about 400 years. In that time, their puppet King of Judah, King Herod built the base and walls of the edifice that surrounds Ma’arat HaMachpela today. During this time there were bloody battles with Jews revolting against the ruling Romans. Many battles took place in Hebron.

Sixteen hundred years ago the occupation became Christian under the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantine’s built a church within the structure of Ma’arat HaMachpela built by Herod.

The Byzantines ruled for 300 years. Then Arabs (Muslim) ruled for 400 years, at which time they converted the church in Ma’arat HaMachpela into a mosque, followed by the Crusades (Christian) who expelled the Jews from Hebron and re-converted the mosque in Ma’arat HaMachpela to a church. Two hundred years later the Mameluks (Muslim) ruled, again changing the church back to a mosque. Under the Mameluks, the Jewish community in Hebron was re-established, but the Jews were not allowed to enter Ma’arat HaMachpela. They were allowed to come as far as the fifth and later the seventh step on the Eastern wall. In 5277 (1517) when the Ottoman Empire conquered the land, they retained the restriction of the seventh step. In 5677 (1917), the British ousted the Ottoman Turks. The Jews were still not allowed to enter Ma’arat HaMachpela.

The above is an account of what did happen in Hebron. In a historical account, it is unusual to write what did not happen. In this case however it is relevant to note that there was never a Palestinian homeland or a Palestinian people in Hebron, or in the rest of Eretz Yisrael.

 

RECENT HISTORY

When the Ottoman Turks conquered Hebron, they murdered, raped and plundered. Surviving Jews fled for their lives, but not for too long. After about 15 years they began to return and were joined by Jews from Spain escaping the Inquisition. The Spanish Jews were accustomed to speaking Arabic and dealing with Muslims. They established a comfortable Jewish quarter. Since they were not allowed in Ma’arat HaMachpela they bought property nearby and established the Avraham Avinu Shul.

During the era of Ottoman occupation the Jewish population in Hebron grew in size, Jews owned properties in Hebron and it became a hub for rabbis and righteous people.

The Alter Rebbe

The Alter Rebbe

In the times of the first Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman – known as the Alter Rebbe – a group of Chabad Chassidim settled in Eretz Yisrael. They lived in Jerusalem, Tiveria and Yaffa.

In 5583 (1823), the second Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi DovBer – known as the Mittler Rebbe – urged the Chassidim to move to Hebron. Being of Russian origin they found adjusting to the local population full of hardships. They did not know the language or the Arab ‘style’ of doing business. Regardless of the obstacles, the Chassidim organized themselves and established the needed infrastructure to support their growing community.

Being that the Avraham Avinu Shul held services in the Sfardic tradition, the Mittler Rebbe sent funds for the Hebron Chabad community to purchase a small room attached to the Avraham Avinu Shul to serve as the Ashkenazic Shul in Hebron. When seeking contributions for the Shul, the Mittler Rebbe approached Chassidim of simple means. He felt that it was such an important thing for a Jew to have a part in owning property in Hebron that he wanted to give the privilege to the poor as well as to the wealthy.

In 5604 (1844), the daughter of the Mittler Rebbe, Rebbitzen Menucha Rochel Slomin, left Russia to fulfill her personal dream to live in Hebron. She became the Matriarch of the Chabad community. In an era when many scholars and rabbis were living in Eretz Yisrael, she was sought after for her advice and blessings… and miracles! She would receive guests in her home, which became known as Beit Schneersohn. She is buried in the Chabad cemetery in Hebron. Until today, visitors come from all over the country, and from abroad, to pray near her gravesite.

Beit Romano

Beit Romano

In 5638 (1878), a wealthy Turkish Jew by the name of Chaim Yisrael Merikado Romano, built a palatial home and guest house in Hebron. It became known as Beit Romano. In 1901 the renowned sage, Rabbi Chaim Cheskia Medini – the Sdei Chemed – ascended to Hebron and was invited to reside in Beit Romano, where he established a Yeshiva. While living in Beit Romano he completed his series of books entitled Sdei Chemed.

Upon learning that the Romano family was interested in selling Beit Romano, the Sdei Chemed suggested the property to the Fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Shalom DovBer Schneerson – the Rebbe Rashab.

In keeping with the Chabad Rebbeim before him, the Rebbe Rashab considered Hebron as the capital city of Chabad in the Holy Land. In his letters, the Rashab expressed his desire to stimulate the Hebron community and to establish a Yeshiva in Hebron that would emulate the Tomchei Temimim Yeshiva, which he established in Russia. In 5672 (1912), Yeshiva Torat Emet was established in Beit Romano. The Rebbe Rashab sent a group of select students to Hebron led by the famous Mashpia, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Havlin. Under his leadership the yeshiva brought fresh energy to the Hebron community. Many local householders joined in the classes.

The First World War brought hardship to all of Eretz Yisrael and especially Hebron. Financial support from abroad was cut off. Hunger and disease threatened the community. Being that Turkey and Russia were at war, the Russian born students and staff of Yeshiva Torat Emet were sent away.

With the end of the war came the end of the Turkish rule. Under the British Mandate the Jewish community began to recover. Torat Emet did not return to Hebron. It was re-established in Jerusalem.

In the summer of 5689 (1929), Haj Amin al-Husseini – the Mufti of Jerusalem who had been appointed by the British – instigated Arab riots in Hebron. The result was a massacre of Jewish men, women and children. Descendants of Rebbitzen Menucha Rochel were slaughtered together with neighbors who came to their home to find refuge. After the riots, a mere toddler, Shlomo Slonim, a great grandchild of Rebbitzen Menucha Rochel, was found alive under the slain bodies of his family and their friends. Together with the other Jewish survivors, Shlomo was taken by the British to Jerusalem where he was raised by relatives.

In 5653 (1893) the building known as Beit Hadassah opened its doors as a medical clinic. Funded by Jewish women in the worldwide Hadassah organization, the clinic served Jew and Arab alike. During the Massacre of 1929, Arabs entered Beit Hadassah and brutally murdered the medical staff who had treated them well in their time of need.

In 5685 (1925), the Yeshiva of Slobodka moved from Lithuania to Hebron under the direction of Rabbi Mordechai Epstein. It flourished in Hebron until the massacre of 1929 when many of its students were butchered. The yeshiva was re-established in Jerusalem.

During the massacre, the British were passive. They collected the surviving Jews in trucks and dropped them in Jerusalem, not allowing them to return to their homes. Their properties were left abandoned to be ransacked by the Arabs.

In the 1930’s an attempt was made by a small group of Jews to resettle in Hebron, but the British also evacuated them and blocked any attempts to return.

When the Jordanians took over Hebron after the War of Independence in 1948, they made an effort to erase the remaining evidence of Jewish presence in Hebron. They destroyed the already vandalized Jewish properties and used the location of the Avraham Avinu Shul as a stable. Jews were not allowed into Hebron.

The Six Day War of 1967 brought liberation to Hebron. For the first time since 1266, when the Islamic Mamelukes banned Jews from entering, Ma’arat HaMachpela was open to Jews. (There is one known exception to the ban against Jews entering Ma’arat HaMachpela. In the summer of 1929, two weeks before the Massacre, the sixth Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok, was given an escorted tour inside Ma’arat HaMachpela.)

In contrast to the bloody battles of conquest in its history, the liberation of Hebron in 1967 was done without violence. The Arabs of Hebron feared the Jews ­– who had proven their military prowess in the first few days of the war – and hung white sheets from their windows to indicate total surrender.

Rabbi Shlomo Goren

Rabbi Shlomo Goren

In fact it was not the army that conquered Hebron. It was a rabbi carrying a Torah scroll. The army rabbi, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, had wanted to go with the troops to liberate Hebron. The night before they all camped on a hill nearby. When Rabbi Goren awoke the next morning, he realized that the soldiers had already mobilized and only he and his driver were at the campsite. Goren immediately took his Sefer Torah and instructed his driver to take him to Hebron. He made it all the way to Ma’arat HaMachpela without seeing a soldier. It turned out that the soldiers had gone for last minute training and they entered Hebron after Rabbi Goren.

Following the Six Day War and the liberation of Hebron, Jews were once again banned from living in Hebron. This time is was a Jewish government that outlawed Jews from buying property in Hebron, renting property or even returning to the property that was legitimately theirs but which they were forced to abandon at the time of the 1929 Massacre.

The first Pesach following Hebron’s liberation, under the leadership of Rabbi Moshe Levinger, a group of eighty-eight brave Jews circumvented the decrees that presented obstacles to their living in Hebron. They spent Pesach in Hebron by renting rooms in a hotel. The Park Hotel was a posh retreat for Jordanians. After the war, the clientele no longer patronized the hotel. The owners were more than happy to accommodate the group of Jews who filled the hotel, paid in cash and did their own cooking – after kashering the kitchen for Pesach. The hotel was prepared to host its Jewish guests indefinitely… but the government was wary.

Claiming they feared for the safety of the Jews in the hotel, the government ordered the Jews in Hebron to take up residence in the police compound atop one of the hills in Hebron. The conditions in the police compound were cramped and uncomfortable, but the Jews who wanted to live in Hebron were not deterred.

After three years, the group agreed to move to the newly built town of Kiryat Arba, within walking distance of Ma’arat HaMachpela, but clearly located outside of Hebron. For the most part, everyone was happy with the solution. They appreciated the chance to leave the police compound and upgrade their living conditions.

At about that time, Russian born Professor Travgar began coming to Hebron and attending to the vandalized Jewish properties. He would start to clean up the sites with his own hands and do simple renovations. Time and again Arabs would complain about him and he would get arrested and often jailed. Once out of jail he would come back to Hebron and continue his work. He cleaned up and restored the Avraham Avinu’s Shul and the ancient Chabad cemetery among other properties. Years later in the Chabad cemetery a tastefully designed memorial for Rebbitzen Menucha Rochel was put in place Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Gutnick from Australia.

The seventh Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel, was not happy with the compromise of the Hebron pioneers moving to Kiryat Arba after leaving the police compound. Baruch and Sara Nachshon had been with the group since the first Pesach. As Chassidim of the Rebbe, they were anxious to fulfill the Rebbe’s wish to have Jews living inside Hebron. The name is confusing, but the modern day Kiryat Arba is not Hebron!

Beit Hadassah

Beit Hadassah

The plan seemed unreasonable at first. It was clearly dangerous. It was also masterful. In April of 1979, under cover of darkness, Sara Nachshon and Miriam Levinger led a group of ten mothers and thirty-five children to the old Beit Hadassah building in Hebron. They climbed a ladder and jumped through a second floor window. Under the circumstances, they could only bring minimal supplies.

They were discovered in the morning by guards on duty who ordered them to leave. They refused. Adamantly. In those days, soldiers abided by the army rules to not manhandle women and children. Not knowing what to do the soldiers called their superiors, who called their superiors, all the way to a cabinet meeting and Prime Minister Begin. Begin ordered a siege. No reinforcements. No supplies. Moshe Levinger immediately set out for Jerusalem and argued that in the Yom Kippur War, an enemy army was surrounded and all life sustaining supplies were allowed in. Begin capitulated. Supplies could be given to the women. No one was to enter. The women and children of Beit Hadassah could leave but not return.

The story of the next year in Beit Hadassah is both thrilling and tragic. After a few months of living under less than primitive conditions, Sara Nachshon wrote a letter to the Rebbe asking if she and the other women and the children should stay in Beit Hadassah. She told him how horrendous the living conditions were. And she told him that it seemed no progress was being made towards their goal of re-establishing Jewish residency in Hebron. The Rebbe answered her letter at a public fabrengen on his mother’s yartzeit, the 6th of Tishrei. He compared the women in Beit Hadassah to the Biblical daughters of Tzlaphchod. He said that just as Moshe Rabbeinu could not answer Tzlaphchod’s daughters, so he could not answer the women of Beit Hadassah… only G-d could answer them. He could not instruct women and children to continue to live under such conditions. But, the Rebbe continued, he was sure that just has Hashem had granted the wish of Tzlaphchod’s daughters, to settle the land, so would He grant the wish of the women of Beit Hadassah, to live in Hebron.

The Rebbe’s answer was a tremendous source of encouragement for the women of Beit Hadassah and their families.

They lived in Beit Hadassah for an entire year. No running water, no electricity, no progress towards being able to lead a normal life in Hebron.

It took a terrorist attack to move the government to allow the doors of Beit Hadassah to be opened and Jewish life in Hebron to begin anew. One Friday night, after finishing their prayers at Ma’arat HaMachpela, six yeshiva bachurim were gunned down. To show the Arabs that Jews cannot be murdered without consequence, the government nullified the decrees against Beit Hadassah, allowed the husbands to join their wives and granted them all freedom of movement.  The government also allowed Jews to take up residence in the neighboring Jewish owned buildings of Beit Chason and Beit Schneersohn.

Reclaiming Hebron Jewish property had begun. Since then more properties have been redeemed with the addition of Avraham Avinu, Beit Romano and Tel Rumeida. But there are still many Jewish properties that the government adamantly refuses to allow the owners to take possession of. The next step will be allowing Jews to buy property in the city of their forefathers. Most other places in the world Jews are allowed to buy property.

 

CHABAD of HEBRON: FROM  ELUL 5762 to the GREETING of MASHIACH

Rabbi Danny Cohen

Rabbi Danny

Batsheva Cohen

Batsheva Cohen

Danny and Batsheva Cohen and their three young children arrived on a Thursday in Elul of 5262, August 2002. Before they had a chance to get oriented, or even start to unpack, Sara Nachshon came to visit.

Batsheva objected when Sara walked into the kitchen, rolled up her sleeves and stared scrubbing the cabinets. The Sara Nachshon who was not deterred by the army or the government, simply ignored Batsheva’s objections and prepared the kitchen for Batsheva to unpack her things. Welcome to Hebron!

The next day, a few hours before Shabbat, Danny realized he had left his hat and Chassidic Shabbos coat at his parents home in Psagot, north of Jerusalem. With light traffic, no road blocks, and no surprises he could make it to Psagot and back in time for Shabbat. He felt strongly that from the very start he be recognized as a Chabad Chassid – the Shliach to Hebron – and recognition included the outer, easily recognizable, attire.

Later that night, as the worshipers were leaving Ma’arat HaMachpela and lingering on the plaza in the cool summer air, the one Chabad Chassid was easily distinguishable and pleasantly distinguished looking. His friendly demeanor and his familiarity with the people of Hebron marked a new beginning. After a 90 year separation, Chabad and Hebron were reunited.

A few weeks later, on the 18th of Elul, the Cohen’s hosted their first fabrengen in the tiny kitchen that Sara Nachshon had helped prepare. Her husband Baruch was at the fabrengen, along with the Rebbe’s secretary, descendant of Rebbetizen Menucha Rochel, Rabbi Liebel Groner, and others.

At the fabrengen, Baruch spoke about the letter he received from the Rebbe in 1968, telling him, that together with his friends, he should make a concerted effort to pray and study Torah in the holy city of Hebron. The Rebbe told Baruch that by establishing a Jewish presence in the spiritual, he will be laying the foundation to establish a Jewish presence in the physical. Danny asked Baruch, “Can I be considered one of the friends the Rebbe is referring to?” Baruch consented. And since then Danny and his family and the team that makes up Chabad of Hebron continually make the effort to increase prayers, study of Torah and doing mitzvot in Hebron, Iyr HaKodesh (Holy city) – and we are sure that we are on the brink of greeting Mashiach Now!

 

©Aliza Eisenberg Karp