The Hebron celebration near the Cave of the Patriarchs

An estimated 40,000-50,000 Jews converged on the small Jewish neighborhood in Hebron

The Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
“I would describe it as ‘Woodstock meets the Bible,’” said Rabbi Yishai Fleisher, international spokesperson for the Jewish community of Hebron, when describing one of the busiest days of the year in the city of Hebron. “It was an amazing celebration of something holistic, that the Jewish people are an ancient indigenous people back in their land celebrating our ancestral connection to this place.”
Considering how an estimated 40,000-50,000 Jews converged on the small Jewish neighborhood in Hebron, such an analogy seems quite accurate. Thousands of pilgrims came equipped with tents and trailers, crammed together in the roughly 20% of the city under Israeli administration, as well as in the neighboring Israeli suburb of Kiryat Arba.
Tents and trailers could be seen parked all alongside the main road leading up to the Cave of the Patriarchs (believed to be the burial ground of the biblical patriarchs and matriarchs of the Jewish people). Spontaneous dancing erupted throughout the day before Shabbat. More and more people arrived in the already overcrowded neighborhood, while the noticeable presence of IDF soldiers and army vehicles secured the event.
“This is truly special!” exclaimed a Satmar Hasid who attended. “I am so happy to be here for Sarah Imeinu. When asked whether his visiting Israel or the city of Hebron with IDF protection went against the teachings of the anti-Zionist Satmar Rebbe – who incidentally had arrived in the country earlier that week for a 10-day visit – he briskly dismissed the supposed contradiction as not being problematic.
Chayei Sarah is the fifth weekly portion in the annual Jewish cycle of Torah reading, which tells the story of Abraham’s purchase of the cave and adjoining field as a burial place for his wife Sarah. This is also one of the 10 days of the year where the entire complex is open for Jewish prayer services, which would otherwise be off limits, while for another 10 days, the Jewish area is open to Muslims based on Islamic holy days. Normally, the Waqf (Islamic religious endowment) has control of most of the complex that includes the whole southeastern section containing the cenotaphs of Isaac and Rebecca.
“Keep in mind also that the site has been closed to [Jews] for 700 years under Muslim rule,” said David Wilder, longtime community leader and resident. “Today, we have close to a million visitors every year. The present Jewish community represents a link in that chain going back not only to Abraham, but to King David who established the first capital of Israel here in Hebron.” Wilder went on to say that attendance for this year’s event was “higher than it’s ever been.”
Tours of the Jewish section were organized throughout Friday morning, leading up to the evening. By the foot of the enclosure built centuries ago by Herod the Great, several national religious boys gathered in a circle and sang while one of their friends played the guitar. Crowds of visitors erupted into spontaneous celebration and dancing throughout the day.
Many guests slept in separate quarters for men and women in the classrooms of two schools in Kiryat Arba. Visitors brought their sleeping bags and mattresses to claim a few meters of floor as their own, with barely any space left unused. Some particularly creative youngsters even found a way to sleep on top of makeshift beds made of desks and chairs.
“This is my second time in Hebron. It is a special time to be here,” said Yaron, a father of four from Ashdod who came with his eldest son and nephew. His family had previously made aliyah almost a decade ago. “There is nothing like being here and I will certainly come again with my other children.”
During Kabbalat Shabbat prayers, excitement built up while the crowd of men pushed and shoved to reach the section of the complex that would usually be barred to Jews. As worshipers reached the Isaac Hall, some could not help but break down in tears. Many even tried to inhale the scent of fragrant spices emanating from the sealed passage of the caves. According to the Midrash, this passage is, in fact, the threshold to the Garden of Eden.
Many high-ranking Israeli officials arrived to take part in the event and sat together, including Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich and Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin. Chief Rabbi of Safed Shmuel Eliyahu and Chief Rabbi of Beersheba Yehuda Deri were also in attendance for a particularly moving Friday evening service that consisted of prayers as well as Torah lessons highlighting the significance of the location and date. Throughout the service, Education Minister – and former chief rabbi of the IDF – Rafi Peretz was noticeably moved, choosing to silently absorb his surroundings while his colleagues engaged in conversation.
This year’s Chayei Sarah event came in the midst of several important geopolitical shifts, the first of which came on November 18, when US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reversed longstanding State Department policy by declaring Israeli settlements not to be “inconsistent with international law.” One week after the event, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett approved the construction of a new Jewish neighborhood in Hebron that will include several apartment blocks on the site of what is known as the wholesale market. This announcement was met with strong praise by the Jewish community in Hebron.
“We’re very happy about that,” said Fleisher, when asked to comment on the decision. “There’s a very important thing that has to be said. Naftali Bennett’s decision to allow planning for the wholesale market is really following a decision made by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit a year ago saying that this pathway ... is good and legal.” Fleisher highlighted how the land in question was owned by Jews and deeded as such in 1807, which only became a center for Arab commerce when Hebron came under Jordanian rule in 1948.
“[Mandleblit’s] decision was that the market stalls that are there would be protected one way or another, but that we would be able to build under and above it,” said Fleisher. “You would think Jews building in Hebron would be the most natural thing in the world.” This view was shared by Wilder, saying that the project would double the size of Hebron’s Jewish population. Though he also attributed a degree of Divine significance to these recent political developments.
“I think what we are seeing coming out of the Trump administration, without trying to be overly metaphysical, is part of the process of redemption,” said Wilder. “That the nations of the world start to recognize the fact that we have a right to live in our homeland. We don’t need their recognition for us to have our own legitimacy. But of course we’re very happy about the fact that others are starting to recognize our right to live here as well.”
Bradley Martin is a Senior Fellow with the News and Public Policy Group Haym Salomon Center and Deputy Editor for the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research