Cave of the Patriarchs, Hebron
Cave of the Patriarchs, HebronArutz Sheva

Sarah died in Kiryat Arba, which is Hevron, in the land of Canaan, and Avraham came from Be’er Sheva to eulogize Sarah and to weep over her.

That is where and when it all began, almost 4,000 years ago. By all calculations, Sarah Imeinu passed away a long time ago, but after all this time, we observe her yahrzeit as if it were a recent occurrence. Until corona hit, Shabbos Parashas Chayei Sarah was a time, for many, to stop everything and make certain to be and daven in Hevron if only for two days over that Shabbos.

Last year, according to Hevron Fund Executive Director Dan Rosenstein, Shabbos Chayei Sarah wasn’t what it had been for many years. In 2019, the year before, 40,000 people descended on the small biblical city that looms so large in the history of the Jewish people.

Hevron is the city where King David reigned before moving over to Jerusalem. And of course, it is the location where the great historic luminaries and founders of the Jewish people are interred in the Cave of the Patriarchs.

For many of us, Hevron is a place to stop and pray on each and every visit to Israel. There are guided bus tours that leave Jerusalem for Hevron several times a day, and if you prefer, you can rent a car for the approximately 45-minute drive from the capital.

Last year, in 2020, with travel to Israel extremely limited, only those who lived in Hevron were allowed to celebrate Parashat Chayei Sarah in the traditional fashion. So severe was the lockdown at the time that even those from other Israeli cities were not allowed in.

There are only ten days a year when Jews are allowed into the large area known as Ohel Yitzchak Avinu.
Thankfully, that has changed for this year, but there are still limits. Dan Rosenstein says that while they are gearing up for visitors over that Shabbos, he believes the number will not exceed 10,000 people. While that is quite a significant gathering, it is not what it once was—at least not yet, anyway.

The primary thrust about celebrating Chayei Sarah together is that here, at the very outset of the written Torah, is the undeniable proof of the Jewish contractual connection to the land of Israel—the sale of the Cave of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs to Abraham from Efron the Hitite. There it is in print in everyone’s Bible.

After all these years, while the Jewish identity of Hevron seems so dominant—to us, at least—the fact is that just 20% of Hevron is controlled by Israel, with the other 80% supposed to be governed by the Palestinian Authority. There are sharp and serious demarcations between the two sides of the city, with a significant military and police presence that separates the populations. As is usually the case, there are Arabs who live and work on the Jewish side of the city, but no Jews who reside on the Arab side.

Today there are still only 90 Jewish families living in the city of Hevron and there are strict limits on any new people moving in and establishing residence there. The population of nearby Kiryat Arba features a population of about 8,000 people. Like the previous government of Benjamin Netanyahu, the government of Naftali Bennett is very sensitive about upsetting the status quo, which is unfortunate and works to Israel’s detriment.

“If the government would allow us to build, there is no question that a few thousand people would be ready to move in immediately,” Dan says. There are new government-sanctioned buildings under construction, but the work either proceeds very slowly or is halted for long periods of time. The motivation here is primarily to keep the peace with the local Arab population.

For example, in order to make it into the me’arah (cave) one needs to climb a steep staircase, which is obviously not accessible to those in wheelchairs or those who have difficulty walking. To that end, over the last several years, plans for an elevator into the me’arah have been on the drawing board—and that is where it remains for now, mostly because of the Arab charge that the construction plays with the much-valued status quo. If you are visiting Hevron this year, you will see that a ramp is under construction that will hopefully someday lead to the elevator, though it may be years until it comes to fruition.

Another issue authorities in Israel have raised this year is referred to as “the Meron factor.” Police and other agencies are concerned about potential overcrowding and a repeat of the disaster in Meron last year that resulted in the death of 45 people marking Lag B’Omer. Having spent a Shabbos in Hevron a few years ago, at a time when the number of visitors coming to the city was at a statistical high, I can attest that the setup is nothing like Meron, but the government should still be concerned and Dan Rosenstein agrees.

The year that my wife and I were there was indeed a banner year for the Chayei Sarah Shabbos. We stayed on the top floor of a yeshiva dormitory with a window that opened to Abu Sneineh Hills, and we dined in the Gutnick Hall. It was a meaningful, beautiful, and fulfilling experience.

This year, registered guests will have their Shabbos seudah in a large outdoor tent.

The great thing about this particular Shabbos, as will be the case this year, is that there are only ten days a year when Jews are allowed into the large area known as Ohel Yitzchak Avinu. This deal that denies Jews access to this particular area was a concession by Israel to the local Arabs that conceded to them an image of some control over the Cave that they regard as a mosque.

On Friday night, we davened outdoors where there were tens of small minyanim scattered around the plaza area. On Shabbos morning, you could daven either inside Me’arat HaMachpeilah or outdoors again. Later on Friday night, after dinner, we visited the homes of numerous Hevron residents, where we sat around singing as well as tasting some of the local cholents.

This year, if you were thinking about making arrangements to spend that Shabbos in Hevron it might be too late, as the deadline to register was earlier this week. Thankfully, travel restrictions are being loosened slowly, but there is still the need for an entry permit issued by the Israel government, which can take some time. Details are on the Hevron Fund website.

Another interesting program that they are able to facilitate is an invitation to lone soldiers serving in the IDF. On the website there is an option to sponsor Shabbos Chayei Sarah in Hevron for a lone soldier for just $100.

Even if you will not be in Hevron for Chayei Sarah in two weeks, you can still visit this city and its important holy landmarks next time you are in Israel. Dan and the staff in the city welcome visitors and provide tours by several of their local personalities.

Visiting Hevron on Shabbos Chayei Sarah or at any other time is the opportunity to delve into our national past, about which we are currently reading in our shuls. It is a walk into history to experience the presence of the Biblical personalities of long ago who still inspire us every day.

Larry Gordon is editor in chief of the Five Towns Jewish Times.