Honoring the life of Sarah: 50,000 Jews gather in Hebron for Shabbat

Festivities over Shabbat were centered around the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, the large edifice built atop the cave by King Herod over 2,000 years ago.

Thousands gather around the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron for Shabbat Chayei Sarah. (photo credit: IDF)
Thousands gather around the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron for Shabbat Chayei Sarah.
(photo credit: IDF)
An estimated 40,000-50,000 Jews from around the world converged on the city of Hebron and its adjacent sister city, Kiryat Arba, over Shabbat in honor of Sarah, the biblical matriarch of the Jewish people.
The visit coincided with the Bible portion of Chayei Sarah (the life of Sarah), in which Sarah dies and Abraham purchases the Cave of Machpelah – now known as the Tomb of the Patriarchs – in which to bury her. Abraham himself would be buried in the cave as well, as would Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah – as well as, according to some, Esau's head.
Jacob's other wife, Rachel, was buried in Bethlehem.
Festivities over Shabbat were centered around the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, the large edifice built atop the cave by King Herod over 2,000 years ago.
Despite an extensive Jewish history at the location going back thousands of years, the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs was declared a Palestinian World Heritage Site in 2017 by UNESCO.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Jews and Arabs lived side by side in Hebron, sharing shops, hospitals and holy sites. However, with the rise of increased Jewish Zionist immigration to Palestine and the growth of Arab nationalism and incitement, tensions grew, culminating in the massacre of 67 Jews in 1929, which effectively ended the Jewish presence in Hebron.
However, when Jews returned to the city in the decades following the 1967 Six Day War – under the protection of the IDF and the State of Israel – the Palestinian population viewed them as hostile occupiers.
Since 1997, the city has been divided into separate communities: the Palestinian-controlled H1 area, which comprises around 80% of the city and where around 200,000 Palestinians live, and the Israeli-controlled H2 neighborhood, with around 1,000 Jewish residents. This arrangement generates friction, which often results in well-documented clashes.
The tomb is located in H2, but due to controversy regarding Israel's occupation of the site, Jews and Muslims share control, with the groups entering through separate entrances and praying in separate areas. However, the Jews receive total control on 10 Jewish holy days of the year – including this day – as part of the Wye River Accords between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, according to the Hebron Fund, which provides funds for the Jewish community in Hebron.
It is on these days when the cenotaphs of Isaac and Rebecca are opened to visitors, who cram into the large hall, lining up in a small, ornate hall that leads into the cave.
“I think of it as Woodstock meets the Bible,” Hebron spokesperson Yishai Fleisher said. “On the one hand, it’s an incredible festival that includes spirituality, lectures, and Friday and Saturday night music. But at the same time, the main event is the reading of the Torah portion which describes the purchase of this plot of land by Abraham.
“There is nothing like reading that ancient scroll in that ancient spot together with the children of that place, the Jewish people.”
Hundreds of visitors arrived in Hebron with tents, trailers and flat bed trucks beds, setting up makeshift camp in pre-designated areas and cramming into any available corner due to the lack of Jewish homes in the city. However, the pilgrims were welcomed in neighboring Kiryat Arba, and were able to walk to Hebron with the help of an increased number of IDF troops to ensure their safety.
Just before Shabbat began, Fleisher tweeted a picture of Jews holding a large banner thanking US President Donald Trump for his support for Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria, which the US administration dubbed “not illegal” in a landmark policy shift.
The tweet was reposted by American conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, and subsequently gained 2,000 likes and retweets.
Other notable guests at the event included figures such as Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin, Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich, Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel, Bayit Yehudi MK Moti Yogev, Shas MK Michael Malkieli, former MK Uzi Dayan, chief rabbi of Safed Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, chief rabbi of Beersheba Rabbi Yehuda Deri, Israeli radio personality Yoram Sheftel and musician Etti Ankari.
“While Jerusalem is a place we try to earn through our actions and our merit now and in the future, Hebron is a place where the Jewish people have an unbreakable link with God – with no effort and regardless of the future – due to the greatness of the actions of those who lived in the past," Smotrich told guests.
The cave is also fully open during the intermediate days of the Passover and Sukkot holidays, the eve of the first day of the Jewish month of Elul and from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur.