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The Holiness of Hebron

Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1-25:18 )

by Yehuda Appel

Understanding Hebron's place in Jewish thought.

All political considerations aside, it is worthwhile to understand Hebron's place in Jewish thought.

The Torah introduces us to Hebron in this week's Torah portion, Chayei Sarah. The parsha opens with a description of Sarah's burial. Abraham, wanting to find a grave for his wife, approaches the Hittites, asking for a particular burial spot - the cave of Machpela. After some onerous bargaining with a wily character named Efron, Abraham purchases the land and buries Sarah there.

In subsequent verses, the Torah goes out of its way to mention that Sarah's grave is not simply in the Cave of Machpela, but is also in the city of Hebron, which the Torah also calls "Kiryat Arba." Two questions arise: Why did Abraham choose Machpela as the burial site, and why does Hebron have the additional moniker of Kiryat Arba?

The Midrash explains that Kiryat Arba means "City of the Four," because four couples - Adam and Eve, Sarah and Abraham, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah - were eventually buried there. Many of the commentaries explain that because Adam and Eve had been buried in Machpela, Abraham wanted his family buried there.

Beyond its significance as the burial site for the most famous Biblical couples, there are other important elements that drive Hebron's place in Jewish tradition.

In Kaballistic teaching, Hebron - whose root "haber" means "to connect" - is seen as the spot on earth which connects the physical and spiritual worlds. In fact, in Jewish mystical literature, the journey that the soul is said to make as it passes from this world to the next (and as countless people have described in near-death experiences) is called the "journey through the Cave of Machpela."

Rabbenu Bechaya adds that Hebron is the place that connects this world to "The City of the Four" - a spiritual city in heaven called "Jerusalem" - which is said to possess four levels of holiness. In that holy city above, the soul ultimately connects itself ("hebron") to the Almighty.

Hebron makes its appearance in two important later Scriptural accounts. In the story of the 12 spies sent by Moses to reconnoiter the land of Canaan, Hebron is given as a special gift to Caleb, who alone with Joshua maintained his loyalty to God.

Furthermore, it is in Hebron that King David begins his kingship, ruling there for seven years before making Jerusalem the permanent Jewish capital.

Given all this historic significance, it is no surprise that Hebron is revered as one of the four "Holy Cities" of Israel. Whatever one's politics, the significance of Hebron in Jewish tradition is long standing, and should not be forgotten in the political maelstrom that has enveloped it.


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