Can we be a free people in our land without the first Jewish city in Israel?
Several years ago, on the anniversary of the liberation of Hebron in 1967, I was interviewed by a journalist who queried me about various problems facing Hebron’s Jewish community. His concluding question/statement was, “Well, I guess you’re not celebrating today?”
“Why not?” I replied.
“Well, you have all these problems and issues, how can you celebrate?”
“You just don’t understand,” I answered. “Look at where were we 70 years ago, or 60 years ago. Were we in Hebron? Today I’m here, in the first Jewish city in Israel. I live here, I work here, I’m bringing up my children here. This is my home. True, we have problems. There are ups and downs. Issues must be dealt with. And they will be overcome. But I’m here. And as long as I’m here, I have what to celebrate, and that’s exactly what I’m doing today!”
One of our most special celebrations will occur this weekend. The Torah portion of Hayei Sarah, otherwise known as “Shabbat Hebron,” is an extraordinary event. It is not an ordinary shabbat (which in Hebron is also unique). Rather, it is an event.
Over the past decade, some 20,000 people have capitalized on this special Sabbath to crowd into Hebron and nearby Kiryat Arba to rejoice. Starting on Friday morning, Israelis young and old will begin flocking to the city. Jews from the United States and other countries fly to Israel to be in Hebron for this exceptional occasion.
Well over six months prior to this Sabbath we begin receiving phone calls and emails requesting places to sleep and eat on this auspicious day. Dozens of tents are pitched outside Me’arat Hamachpela, the Cave of the Patriarchs, and Matriarchs. Public buildings are transformed into dormitories, with separate facilities for men and women. It’s the only time of the year when my living room is wall-to-wall people sleeping on the floor.
One year, on Saturday night, a young woman walked into our kitchen to thank my wife. She asked what for. The woman said she had slept in one of our rooms. We had no idea she was there, or where she slept, because the room was already packed.
A huge tent is constructed outside the Avraham Avinu neighborhood, providing meals thousands of guests. Literally every nook and cranny in Hebron is utilized, with people sleeping and eating wherever they can find a few free meters.
All hours of the day and night the streets are full of people walking to and from the various neighborhoods in Hebron. Saturday afternoon, multitudes tour the city, visiting the Hebron Heritage Museum at Beit Hadassah, the tomb of Jesse and Ruth in Tel Rumeida, and the Avraham Avinu synagogue in the Avraham Avinu neighborhood. Special Casba tours are also included in the day’s agenda.
The heart of the day’s events takes place at Me’arat Hamachpela. On Friday night, literally thousands of people gather at this holy site, inside and out, to offer joyous Sabbath prayers. Singing and dancing during a huge “Carlebach minyan,” conducted in the Machpela courtyard, is unbelievably uplifting.
But the pinnacle and actual raison d’être for the ingathering begins early Saturday morning.
By 5:15 a.m., thousands make their way to early morning prayers at the Machpela. The entire building is open to Jewish worshipers, including “Ohel Yitzhak,” the Isaac Hall, available to Jews only ten days during the year. The first vatikin service, with the sunrise, is a spiritually inspirational way to start the day.
However, the peak takes place about an hour into the service. A Torah scroll is removed from the Holy Ark and opened. The first person, usually a cohen, or priest, is called up to the Torah. Following recitation of a blessing, the reader begins: