When the Torah relates that Abraham’s wife Sarah died in the City of Hebron, it says, “And Sarah died in Kiryat Arba, that is Hebron…” (Gen. 23:2), and goes on to repeat this identification of Kiryat Arba with Hebron several times (Gen. 35:27, Josh. 14:5, 15:13, 20:7, 21:11, and Jud. 1:10). The Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah §58:4) tells us that this city has four names: the two mentioned above plus Eshkol and Mamre. Here we will explore the possible meanings and etymologies of the city’s various names, and discover some interesting points about the history of Hebron.
In discussing the relationship between G-d and Abraham, the Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah §88:13) calls the latter G-d’s chaver na’ah (“nice friend”). Rabbeinu Efrayim (to Num. 13:22) notes that the gematria of Chevron equals that of chaver na’ah; thus the very name of Hebron alludes to its most illustrious citizen, Abraham. Rabbeinu Efrayim (to Gen. 37:14) also notes that the gematria of Chevron equals that of “this is Abraham” (266). This parallels the Arabic name for the city of Hebron – al-Khalil, which means “the friend [of G-d].”
Kiryat Arba is an older name for the city of Hebron (Josh. 14:15, Jud. 1:10). It means “City of Four” or “Tetrapolis.” But what does Hebron have to do with the number four? The Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah §58:4) lists several explanations: Four patriarchs were buried there (Adam, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob); four matriarchs were buried there (Eve, Sarah, Rebecca, and Leah); Four giants ruled the city (Achiman, Sheshai, Talmai, and their father); Hebron was the base from which Abraham chased the four kings; and four parties received portions in that city: the tribe of Judah, the Levites, the Kohanim, and the family of Caleb; Hebron is one of only four rocky areas in the Holy Land, which highlights the geographic excellence of that land.
Rashi (to Gen. 23:2) synthesizes the second and third explanations cited in the Midrash by explaining that Hebron is called Kiryat Arba because of the four couples buried therein.
Elsewhere, Rashi (to Josh. 14:15) takes a different approach, writing that the word arba should not be understood as “four” but as a name. Hence, Kiryat Arba means “City of Arba.” Rashi explains that Arba was the father of the three giants associated with the city. Those three giants were slain when the Jews conquered the Holy Land. This approach is also adopted by Daat Zekanim (to Gen. 23:2) and Ibn Ezra (there).
Rabbi Avraham Menachem Rappaport (1520-1596) sees a problem with explaining Kiryat Arba as referring to a person named Arba. He notes that in Gen. 35:27, the city is referred to as Kiryat Ha’Arba. If Arba is a proper noun, referring to a person, then the definite article “ha” is inappropriate and so the word must be read as the common noun “four.”
Rashi (to Gen. 35:27) partially circumvents this problem by explaining that in two-word names, the definite article sometimes appears at the beginning of the second word although it applies to the entire two-word compound. Radak (there) also seems to address this issue by explaining that the definite article is appropriate because Hebron is named Kiryat Arba for two reasons: because of Arba, the father of the giants, and also because a total of four giants ruled the city. Thus, since the word Arba in the city’s name also means “four,” it can be preceded with the definite article.
Another name enters the scene with the report of the Ten Spies that they saw “sons of giants” on their scouting trip to the Holy Land, Targum Yonatan (to Deut. 1:28) renders the verse “sons of Ephron the giant.” Ephron was the name of the man from whom Abraham purchased the Cave of Machpela in Hebron, but what does Ephron have to do with the giants who lived in Hebron?
Rabbi Dr. Moshe Zidel (d. 1971) speculates that Targum Yonatan understood that Ephron and Arba are the same person. He justifies this from a linguistic perspective by noting that the root of the Hebrew word arba is reish-bet-ayin. This is seen in the ordinal form of the word, revii (“fourth”), in which the initial aleph is dropped. Accordingly, Rabbi Zidel posits that arba relates to the root ayin-peh-reish (“dust”), which is at the core of the name Ephron, by way of metathesis (i.e., rearranging the consonants) and the interchangeability of the letters bet and peh. (However, Tosefta de-Targum and Peshitta (to Josh. 15:13–14, 21:11) explicitly identify Arba with Tzochar, the father of Ephron, and the three giant brothers as Ephron’s sons. See also Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky’s Taama de-Kra to Gen. 23:8).]
As mentioned above, Mamre and Eshkol are both alternate names for Hebron/Kiryat Arba, but they are also the names of Abraham’s comrades. The Bible identifies the place named Mamre with Hebron and Kiryat Arba. On the one hand, it seems from a literal reading that the Plains of Mamre are in Hebron (Gen. 13:18), but not synonymous with it. Alternatively, Rashi (to Gen. 35:27) explains that Mamre is the name of the plain in which Hebron is located. Rabbi David Zvi Hoffmann (1843-1921) theorizes that the city was originally named Elonei Mamre after its warlord, Mamre, and it was only later when the giants conquered it that it assumed the name Kiryat Arba.
In describing the Ten Spies’ itinerary, the Bible reports that they traveled to Hebron (Num. 13:22), but in the very next verse relates that they arrived at Nachal Eshkol (13:23). This suggests that Eshkol is an alternate name for Hebron, as intimated by the Midrash cited earlier. The Bible explicitly records that Nachal Eshkol was called this because the Ten Spies took an eshkol (“cluster [of grapes]”) from there (Num. 13:24). Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky explains that even though the site was already known as Nachal Eshkol when the spies arrived there, the city’s original name was a tribute to Abraham’s colleague, Eshkol, whose name is spelled without the letter vav. Because of this, the place name Nachal Eshkol is initially spelled without the vav, but in subsequent instances of that name, it is spelled with the vav in allusion to the aforementioned “cluster” of grapes.
In contemporary times, Kiryat Arba refers to a Jewish settlement outside the city of Hebron proper (which is currently ruled by the Palestinian Authority).