Living Torah

By Rabbi Ari Enkin, rabbinic director, United with Israel

Hebron: The First Capital of the Jewish People and the Second Holiest City after Jerusalem!

The city of Hebron is located in southern Judea, about 30 km south of Jerusalem, and sits about 930 meters (3,050 ft.) above sea level. It is one of the four holy cities, second only to Jerusalem. King David made Hebron the first capital of the Jewish people, before moving the capital to Jerusalem – the eternal and undivided capital of the Jewish people. The city is most famous as the home of the burial site of the biblical Patriarchs and Matriarchs.

Hebron is the largest city in Judea. It has about 100,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Jews.The city is divided into two sectors: H1 and H2. H1 is controlled by the Palestinian Authority, and H2, roughly 20% of the city, is administered by Israel. There has been a continual Jewish presence in Hebron for about 1,000 years, mostly Sephardic Jews.

In the mid-19th century, Hebron was a small town with a population of around 10,000, the majority of whom were Muslims. During the 1929 Hebron massacre, 67 Jews were killed by Arab rioters, and many incidents of rape, mutilation, and torture were reported. As a result, the Jewish community of 750 people was disbanded. In 1931, 160 Jews returned to the town, but the British Government decided to move all Jews out of Hebron “to prevent another massacre”.

At the beginning of the 1948 War of Independence, Egypt occupied Hebron. By late 1948, Jordanian soldiers established a presence in Hebron. With the signing of the Armistice agreements, the city fell exclusively under Jordanian control. In 1950, the city was unilaterally incorporated into Jordan. With the Six Day, war Hebron came under Israeli control.

In 1968, a group of Jewish settlers led by Rabbi Moshe Levinger, rented out the main hotel in Hebron…and never left! Jewish settlement in Hebron had returned! Through a government compromise, the Jewish presence was moved eastward to a nearby abandoned army camp, and the new settlement of Kiryat Arba was established. In 1979, some Jewish settlers moved from Kiryat Arba to ancient Hebron, in the area of the Avraham Avinu synagogue, and later to other Hebron neighborhoods.

As mentioned, the most famous historic site in Hebron is the unquestionably the Machpela Cave – the Cave of the Patriarchs. The structure of the building is from the Herodian era. It is the only fully surviving Herodian structure in Israel. One will notice that the Western Wall and the Machpela Cave building look very similar; they’re both Herodian!

The following Biblical figures are buried in Machpela Cave:

Avraham and Sara (Genesis 23, 49)

Isaac and Rebecca (Genesis 35, 49)

Jacob and Leah (Genesis 49, 50)

According to Jewish tradition Adam and Eve were buried in the Machpela cave, as well. The tombs of other biblical figures such as Avner, Otniel, Ruth, and Jesse are also located in the city. The only matriarch missing in Hebron is Rachel, who is buried in Bethlehem, where she died in childbirth.

The “Isaac Hall” serves as a mosque while the “Abraham Hall” and “Jacob Hall” serve as a synagogue. Today, the Muslim Waqf controls over 80% of the building. This includes the whole of the southeastern section, which lies above the only known entrance to the actual cave. As a result, Jews are not permitted to visit the cenotaphs of Isaac or Rebecca, which lie entirely within the southeastern section, except for 10 days a year that hold special significance in Judaism. One of these days is the Shabbat of “Chayei Sara” (usually in November) when the Torah portion concerning the death of Sarah, and the purchase of the Machpela Cave by Abraham, is read.