A Sephardic Perspective on Hebron

Through the long years of exile from Erets Israel, Hebron, like Jerusalem, generally had a sparse number of Jews living there. In 1166, at the young age of 31, Maimonides wrote, "And on the first day of the week, the ninth day of the month of Heshvan, 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

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Our father Abraham selected Hebron as the first home for the Jewish people to settle in Erets Israel. There, Abraham purchased the historic cave of the Machpela. Other than Jerusalem, Hebron is indeed the holiest location for the Jewish people. The city is mentioned in the Torah over 70 times: "Abram removed his tent, and came and lived in the plain of Mamre, which is in Hebron, and built there an altar to the Lord." Hebron is the place where Sarah died and was buried. Hebron was King David's first capital, even before Jerusalem. Jewish archeologists in Hebron have uncovered pottery, jewelry and ancient homes from the time period of Abraham and Sarah. Unfortunately, Hebron like all of the land of Israel, had been under foreign occupation for 2,000 years. Even so, there has always been a small number of Jews living in its holy cities.

Through the long years of exile from Erets Israel, Hebron, like Jerusalem, generally had a sparse number of Jews living there. In 1166, at the young age of 31, Maimonides wrote, "And on the first day of the week, the ninth day of the month of Heshvan, 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 God for everything."

During Turkish rule, which lasted from the 16th Century until only 90 years ago, Jews from all over the Ottoman Empire migrated to the holy city of Hebron. As early as 1333 Rabbi Isaac Hilo of Greece mentioned the Jews of Hebron, reporting that they were working in the cotton trade and glassworks.

In 1517, the Ottoman Turks took control of the land of Israel, and with them came a slaughter of the Jews of Hebron. A certain Menahem ben Moshe Bavli, author of the Sefer Ta?amei Ha-Mitsvot migrated from Ottoman Baghdad and became one of the pioneers to settle in Hebron after the expulsion from Spain in 1492. Many of the Spanish Jews came from the western part of the Ottoman Empire to Hebron with Hakham Malkiel Ashkenazi. There is a noted "resettlement" of the Jews in of Hebron in 1540. The influx of Iberian Jews in the 16th century raised the Jewish population of Hebron to a point higher than it had been since Roman times nearly 1500 years prior. Upon making aliyah, the great 15th century Sephardic Rabbi Obadiah of Bartenura, Italy wrote, "Over the Cave of Machpela is a large building of the Ishmaelites, who regard the sacred site with fear and awe. No person, Jew or Ishmaelite, is allowed to descend to the Cave, And there is a small window in the outer wall of the building, which is above the grave of Abraham, and there the Jews are allowed to pray. And in Hebron live 20 Jewish families, all of them scholars, some of them descendants of the Marranos [sic], who came to find refuge under the wings of the Divine Presence.... I lived in Hebron for many months."

Jews not only migrated to Hebron, but Hebron's Jews ventured away to other communities for the purpose of raising funds and teaching. From Barbados to Bulgaria and London to Morocco, they traversed the dangerous highways and treacherous seas, as emissaries of their community. More than two centuries ago Abraham Ruvio went abroad to raise funds for printing a book his father Mordekhay had written. Abraham's father was the head of the rabbinical court of Hebron in the 18th century. Mordekhay had written a religious manuscript that was eventually published at Livorno in 1793, and another printed in Saloniki over 40 years later. Abraham Hayim of Hebron was born in Fez, Morocco. As an emissary of Hebron, he traveled from community to community seeking sedaka (charity) for the Talmud Torah at Hebron. Sadly, while traveling on this most honorable mission in Monastir, Abraham died.

From the Balkans came Moshe ben Abraham Ferrera of Sarajevo. Ferrera traveled to Erets Israel in 1823, and became head of the rabbinical court at Hebron; he died four decades later in 1864. Even though both Smyrna [Izmir] and Hebron were both considered part of the Sultan's empire, Smyrna could not compare to the holiness of Erets Israel for the spiritual Jew. For this reason Sepharadim migrated from one location of the Ottoman Empire to another. From the freezing mountains of Macedonia to the hot deserts of Syria, and from the Mediterranean islands of Greece to the Golden Horn of Constantinople they came. One notable was Hakham Yosef Rafael ben Haim Yosef Hazan who had relocated from Smyrna to Hebron, later becoming the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem. In 1858, Hakham Eliahu ben Sliman Mani traveled from Ottoman Baghdad to Hebron and was elected Chief Rabbi of the city. He remained as Chief Rabbi for 40 years, passing away at the ripe age of 75.

Hebron has been considered such a holy location that Jews would make the treacherous journey there not just to live, but to die. From across land and sea, on foot and with beasts, Jews would journey to settle in Hebron and live out their remaining years. Historic literature demonstrates Jews emigrating from the Balkans, Thrace and Anatolia. Hakham Yehuda Havilo, the Chief Rabbi of Alexandria, emigrated north across the desert to Hebron for just this reason. Chief Rabbi and rabbinical judge Hakham Yosef Fintsi of Belgrade emigrated to the sacred soil of Hebron when he was elderly. For centuries, Jews have migrated to the holy land if for no other reason than to fulfill a final mitsva of burial there.

Hebron was a poor city throughout its time of Turkish occupation. The 1839 census notes Jews employed as silversmiths, clerks, bakers, slaughterers, but most of all, professional Torah scholars. In 1879, Haim Yisrael Romano of Constantinople constructed a large and elaborate home known as Beit Romano. The home functioned as a domicile for visiting Turkish Sepharadim. The building included a synagogue, called the Istanbuli Synagogue. Today, Beit Romano is a Yeshiva for young men of Hebron, though it is threatened by the Arabs on a daily basis.

Prior to 1929, Hebron possessed four Sephardic Talmud Torahs. There were three mutual-aid societies and a free dispensary for medications. The Sephardic community was administered by the chief rabbi and a council of seven members.

On August 23, 1929, Arabs, under direction of their Islamic religious leaders, attacked the Jews with axes, knives, and other weapons. They not only murdered the Jews, but they utilized ghastly methods of torture, including rape, castration and amputations. They assailed Jews throughout the holy land, from Safed to Hebron. Scores of Jews, Ashkenazi and Sephardic, were killed during this rampage. In Hebron, the Islamic murderers killed Hakham Hanoch Hasson, the Chief Sephardic Rabbi, and his entire family. The prominent Hakham, Yosef Castel, locked himself in his home, but Arabs broke in, murdering him and his family, then set the home ablaze. The last Sephardic rabbi in Hebron subsequent to the 1929 pogroms was Hakham Meir Franco, who had lost his son-in-law in the murderous frenzy.

Hebron was liberated in 1967 from Arab occupation, and today has more than 750 proud Jews, both Sephardim and Ashkenazim. However, as many of us know, daily attacks and murders are again the norm, not the exception. Not only are these courageous Jews constantly on the defense from the Arabs, but they continually have to defend themselves from the international media, which attempts to make them look like criminals. Hebron and all of the holy land was stolen from the Jews by the savage Romans, occupied by murderous Christian armies, and more than once occupied by various power-hungry Islamic regimes. Today, the Jews of Hebron face not only gunfire and bombings, but political attacks aimed at removing the city from the sovereignty of the state of Israel. Both the United States and the European Union have officially decided that Hebron, as well as other communities in Judea and Samaria, should be turned over to the Arabs and made part of a new country, Palestine, next year.

The Jewish people liberated the city of Hebron, by the grace of God, only 36 years ago, but now - three decades later - the international community has fallen for the Arab propaganda that Hebron belonged to some mythical country of Palestine. The world now seeks to take it away from the Jews, and give it to the Arabs. Arafat said just a couple of years ago: "Are there no stones left in Hebron? Where are the stones and where are the mobs? Prepare yourselves for a struggle if the Israelis do not retreat from Hebron."

There are some Jews who, for reasons only known to themselves, cannot appreciate the Torah, and because of this, cannot understand the emotional attachment ? and the legal right of Jews to thrive in our own land, including our holy city of Hebron. These Jews wish to give away Judaism's holiest locations to the Arabs, who have sworn to murder all of us. The bizarre rationale of liberal Jewish thinking is that if "we give them land, they will stop killing us and we shall have peace"; however, multiple times, Arabs have stated that their purpose is to liberate all of "Palestine." In clear speech, this means they plan to exterminate all the Jews, and take our land. The Palestinian Authority, in speaking to its people, sums up its goals perfectly clear, "You are the generation that will reach the sea and hoist the flag of Palestine over Tel Aviv."
S. Alfassa is an Israeli citizen and a vice-president with the Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture. He is currently based in South Florida and may be reached at alfassa@sephardicstudies.org.