Hebron Heritage: Past the seventh step by David Wilder
March 03, 2010
It’s difficult to know where to start: Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, King David, the Maccabees, Herod the Great, Bar Cochva, Rabbi Malkiel Ashkenazi, Menucha Rachel Shneerson Slonim, Rabbi Moshe Levinger, or perhaps my three month old granddaughter Hadar.
Actually, probably the best beginning is with Baibars, Sultan of the Mamluks in the middle 1200s. In 1260 the Mamluks conquered Hebron, expelling the occupying Crusaders. In 1267 Baibars barred Jews and Christians from Ma’arat HaMachpela, the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs in Hebron. This monument, considered the 2nd holiest site to the Jewish people in the entire world, remained off-limits to anyone not Moslem for 700 years, until finally, during the 1967 Six-Day War, again Jews accessed this most holy of places.
The history of Ma’arat HaMachpela is well known and documented. According to the holy Zohar, it was here where Adam and Eve, the first man and woman were buried. Called the ‘entrance to paradise,’ it is written that souls of the deceased travel through the caves of Machpela on their way to the next world. Thousands of years later the first Jew, the irrefutable revealer of monotheism, Abraham, discovered these ancient caves and purchased them for 400 silver shekels, as is recorded in the Bible. Here Sarah was interred, as were all the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, excepting Rachel.
Over the centuries Ma’arat HaMachpela was not only a place of worship. It was also viewed in visionary terms, a symbol of the yearning of Jews to return to Zion. So much so that the revered Jewish scholar Moshe ben Maimon, the Rambam, records in his introduction to the Talmudic tractate Rosh HaShana: “And on the first day of the week, the ninth day of the month of MarCheshvan, I left Jerusalem for Hebron to kiss the graves of my forefathers in the Cave of Machpela. And on that very day I stood in the Cave and I prayed, praised be G-d for everything. And these two days, the sixth (when he prayed on Temple Mount in Jerusalem) and the ninth of Mar-Cheshvan I vowed to make as a special holiday and in which I will rejoice with prayer, food and drink. May the Lord help me to keep my vows.”
One needn’t have been a religious intellectual to comprehend the essence of Machpela, or of Hebron. Writing in January, 1970, Israel’s first Prime Minister, David ben Gurion records: “Three cities hold a great and unique place in the ancient history of our people: Shechem, Hebron and Jerusalem,” and proceeds to detail the glorious history of Hebron, from the days of the forefathers, through the reign of David, who ruled in Hebron for seven and a half years before establishing Jerusalem as the eternal capital of the Jewish people. He concluded, “we will make a great and awful mistake if we fail to settle Hebron, neighbor and predecessor of Jerusalem, with a large Jewish settlement, constantly growing and expanding, very soon…Hebron is worthy to be Jerusalem’s sister.”
A journalist from a distinguished American newspaper asked me if perhaps it might have been wiser to allocate Ma’arat HaMachpela a government-funded budget without adding this site to the national “Heritage program.” I responded, of course, under no conditions would this be acceptable. Why?
Following the beginning of violent riots in Hebron in reaction to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s announcement, the former minister of information for the PA, Mustafa Barghouti visited Hebron. I asked him, on camera, who may worship in Ma’arat HaMachpela: only Moslems or also Jews and Christians? He refused to directly answer the question, finally saying that “G-d is everywhere; people can pray wherever they want.”
Isabel Kersher, writing in the NY Times, quotes Zahran Abu Qubeita. the mayor of the Arab city Yatta, in the southern Hebron Hills as declaring, “[Ma’arat HaMachpela] is an Islamic site, not a Jewish one.”
These answers must be viewed not only in the light of present politics, but rather on the background of seven centuries of Jewish inaccessibility to the building atop the Machpela caves. And accordingly, Israel, at the highest levels, must express in no uncertain terms: Ma’arat HaMachpela, in the city of Hebron, is a JEWISH holy site. This does not negate accessibility to anyone and everyone, of any and every race and religion, to visit and worship here. However, first and foremost, the Jewishness of this site must be acknowledged.
Why do Islamic political and religious leaders refuse to accept any Jewish legacy at Machpela? For the same reasons they reject any Jewish birthright at Joseph’s tomb, Rachel’s tomb, and Temple Mount. In fact they renounce any Jewish roots in all of Israel, preferring to espouse the ‘Palestinian foundation’ of the land we know and call Eretz Yisrael. Of course, the easiest way to change history is to rename and reidentify such sites, as did the Romans two thousand years ago, when following destruction of the Second Temple and expulsion of Jews from Jerusalem, they renamed that city ‘Aelia Capitolina’ and changed the name of the entity known as Israel to ‘Palestina.’
But history, in reality, cannot be erased, and truth will prevail. For should Hebron and Machpela be blotted off the inventory of Jewish culture and tradition, surely the rest of Israel will soon follow because all of Jewish history is enrooted in the heritage which began in Hebron almost four thousand years ago.
Hebron, 2010 has moved past the 7th step.