Haye Sarah – Hebron the Holy City

Cave of Patriarchs in Hebron

Cave of Patriarchs in Hebron

The historical connection between the Jewish people and the city of Hebron began over three thousand years ago. Upon the passing of his beloved wife Sarah, Abraham sought a burial site for her.  He identified the field and cave of Ephron, ma’arat hamahpela, in the city of Hebron. In the midrash Bereshit Rabah (37:12) it says that Abraham insisted on paying for the territory so that no one could claim that it was not his land. Thus began the Jewish connection to the city of Hebron. Eventually, Hebron became known as one of the four holy cities of Israel. It is not widely known though, that the ‘holy city’ designation only came as a result of the Sephardic  settlement of Israel following their expulsion from Spain.

Following their exodus from the peninsula, many Sephardim traveled eastward, eventually settling in the Ottoman Empire.  This was during a period of Turkish expansion and soon the Ottomans came to rule over the land of Israel, which they included in the district of Syria. Sephardic Jews then migrated to several cities in Israel – to Safed, to the ancient holy city of Jerusalem (which already had some Jewish residents) and also to Hebron. Safed, with several thousand Jews, was the largest of these settlements. It became famous for its mystics and the proliferation of Lurianic (Ari z”l) kabbalah. Jerusalem’s Jewish population grew to around a thousand souls and maintained close ties with the Jewish communities of Egypt. Hebron was the smallest community.

Lithograph of Hebron from mid 1800s

Lithograph of Hebron from mid 1800s

Unfortunately, Jews were given only limited economic rights. Hence, these communities were quite poor and came to rely on support from the Jewish Diaspora.  In the seventeenth century they reached an internal agreement to ensure that their fundraising  would not compromise one another’s efforts. That is when they became known as Israel’s ‘holy cities.’ When Jews settled in Tiberias in the eighteenth century this economic cooperation was expanded to include them as well. Historians have since deemed these four places of Sephardic Jewish settlement as Israel’s ‘four holy cities.’

The four cities also make up what came to be known as the ‘yishuv hayashan,’ ‘the old settlement’ (including other Jews that came in the eighteenth century). This is in contrast to the later Central and Eastern European Zionist migrations that began in the late nineteenth century (the ‘yishuv hahadash’). Sadly though, after hundreds of years, Jewish settlement in Hebron came to a halt following the Arab riots of 1929 that left scores of Jews dead in Hebron. In 1967, however, on the heels of Israel’s miraculous victory in the Six Day War, Jews once again returned to their holy city.

Thus, since the time of Abraham, over three thousand years ago, Jews have called Hebron and Israel home.

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One response to “Haye Sarah – Hebron the Holy City

  1. Pingback: Israel and the Early Sephardim | Shalom Says Hello·

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