30,000 worshippers pack Hebron for Chayei Sarah
“And the life of Sarah was 100 years and 20 years and seven years; these were the years of the life of Sarah. And Sarah died in Kiryat Arba, which is Hebron, in the land of Canaan, and Avraham came to eulogize Sarah and to bewail her.” (Genesis 23:1-2)
HEBRON – In a cross between a Chassidic farbrengen, Woodstock, Thanksgiving and a love-fest for the IDF and security forces, some 30,000 Israeli, American, British and French Jews thronged Hebron and the adjoining town of Qiryat Arba on Friday and Saturday (Nov. 25-26) to celebrate the Torah reading of Chayei Sarah – which details how Abraham the Patriarch purchased a double cave, called Ma’arat ha-Machpela in the Hebrew Bible, in which to bury his wife Sarah.
With no hotels and only a single kosher eatery in the city of the patriarchs and matriarchs, “Coordinating Shabbat is a major production,” said Rabbi Daniel Rosenstein, executive director of the Hebron Fund, a New York-based charity founded in 1979 which raises funds to improve life for Hebron’s residents, including building parks and playgrounds.
Worshippers camped out, slept in caravans and mobile homes, and placed mattresses on floors of private homes and public institutions everywhere. Tents were set up for meals, which were free thanks to several donors – who requested anonymity.
Apart from praying and feasting, the festivities – orchestrated by the Hebron Fund, Chabad Hebron, Women in Green, and various other NGOs – included walking tours and lectures in English and Hebrew.
“Hebron is for lovers,” said Yishai Fleisher, spokesman for the Hebron Fund, referring to the romance between Abraham and Sarah, and his tender notion to bury his beloved wife at the site which according to an ancient tradition marks the sealed entrance to the Garden of Eden. Fleisher compared the Ma’arat ha-Machpela to “the mystery of Stonehenge, the beauty of the Taj Mahal, and [has] a value to humanity which is unequalled.”
His palpable spiritual enthusiasm was shared by many of the pilgrims. Shlomo Cohen, 19, of Toms River, New Jersey, who is spending a year at Jerusalem’s Mir Yeshiva, said, “I’m here to see the experience of so many Jews getting together for the jahrzeit of Sarah, and hopefully daven a lot.”
This year’s Orthodox Jewish fête – exceeded only by the mass pilgrimage to the grave of Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav in Uman, Ukraine during Rosh Hashana and the Lag b’Omer celebration at the tomb of the Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai in Meron – passed without violence. In 2015, Cedarhurst, New Jersey student Eli Borochov, 21, was wounded in the groin by a sniper as he exited the Ma’arat ha-Machpela. Keeping a vow to return, Borochov with his brother, Yosef, and father, Ronen, again celebrated Chayei Sarah in Hebron.
Several thousand soldiers were positioned in visual and radio contact throughout the Israeli-controlled part of Hebron and along the 2-km route linking the Jewish quarter with Qiryat Arba, (pop. 5,000). Many of the celebrants stopped to wish every single soldier “Shabbat shalom” and to offer them candy.
Demonstrating the esteem with which Hebron’s Jews hold the IDF, when Maj.-Gen. Roni Numa was called up to read from the Torah in the Isaac Hall, the crowd spontaneously honored him by singing the IDF March. Numa was appointed head of the IDF’s Central Command, which holds jurisdiction over Judea and Samaria, in January 2015. (Readers can hear the well-known song, composed by Yoav Talmi here.)
The Sabbath of Chayei Sarah is one of the 10 days annually in which Jews are permitted to enter and pray in the Isaac Hall, which houses the monuments to Isaac and his wife Rebecca. (The underground burial cave is off limits.) The other half of the 2,000-year-old mausoleum built by King Herod the Great, which includes cenotaphs to Abraham and his wife Sarah, and Jacob and his wife Leah, is open to Jews year round. Apart from the 10 days when Jews may enter the Isaac Hall, the holy site is reserved for Muslim worshippers, who call the complex al-Masjid al-Ibrahimi (the Abraham Mosque) and revere Abraham as a prophet and father of Ishmael.
Notwithstanding that the Ma’arat ha-Machpela is the cradle of Jewish civilization, for 13 centuries of Muslim and Crusader rule until Hebron’s liberation during the 1967 Six-Day War, Jews were forbidden from entering the shrine. The current security arrangements were implemented following Dr. Baruch Goldstein’s February 25, 2022 shooting spree in the Ibrahami Mosque which left 29 Muslim worshippers dead.
Hebron was the last of the seven West Bank cities which Israeli troops were redeployed from as a result of the 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. In 1997, under a long-delayed agreement signed between Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, 80 percent of the 215,000-strong Palestinian city (known as H1) was handed over to the PA. The remaining section, known as H2, was retained by Israeli troops to protect Hebron’s 91 Jewish families and several hundred students at Yeshivat Shavei Hevron, who live in a series of historic buildings and courtyards in the old city clustered around the Tomb of the Patriarchs and near the Middle Bronze Age site of Tel Hebron. Those Jews, protected by some 1,000 IDF soldiers and Border Police, see themselves as the vanguard of the Jewish people keeping a toehold in the ancient city, where the patriarchs and matriarchs lived and were buried, and where King David ruled for seven years before moving his capital to newly-liberated Jerusalem. They see themselves as re-establishing an ancient community that temporarily came to an end with the 1929 pogrom which left 67 Jews murdered and mutilated.
Most of the 30,000 Arabs with homes and businesses in Israeli-controlled H2 have moved to the other side of the security fence where they are not subject to daily harassment by settlers and IDF soldiers. Their abandoned properties – including 1,800 stores – and the heavy presence of soldiers give Hebron’s Jewish quarter a spooky, post-apocalyptic appearance. By refusing to allow Jews to move into additional houses, the Israeli government has frozen Jewish Hebron as a ghostly urban wasteland.
Armored buses offer an umbilical cord connecting Hebron to Jerusalem 18 miles / 28 kilometers to the north.
Hebron is one of the four ancient holy cities of Land of Israel, which also include Jerusalem, Safed and Tiberias.