By Rabbi Moshe Bloom
Torah VeHa’aretz Institute
“Sarah died in Kiryat Arba — now Chevron — in the land of Canaan” (Bereishit 23:2).
Sarah Imeinu’s burial shines the historical limelight on the city of Chevron. The city’s deep historical roots are linked with being Avraham’s first place of residence in Canaan: “And Avram moved his tent and came to dwell at the terebinths (elonei) of Mamrei, which are in Hebron; and he built an altar there to the L-rd” (ibid., 13:18). Moreover, being the site of the forefathers’ burial cave gave the city a prestigious status of sanctity, positioning it as one of the four sacred cities (along with Jerusalem, Tzfat, and Tiverya). Chevron has several biblical monikers: “And Yaakov came to his father Yitzchak at Mamrei, at Kiryat Arba — now Chevron — where Avraham and Yitzchak had sojourned.” (ibid., 35:27).
It is possible that Mamrei and Elonei Mamrei were adjoining neighborhoods that merged to form a city. Mamrei made a pact with Avraham, along with Enar and Eshkol (ibid., 14:24). It was here that Avraham heard of Lot’s captivity, and galvanized to rescue him (14:13), and here that Avraham pitched his legendary tent, underwent circumcision, and received three angels in the guise of men (18:1–2).
An explanation for the source of the name of Chevron is from the verse “But you, Israel, My servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, seed of Abraham My friend” (Yeshayahu 41:8). Chevron, being from the root of chaver, friend, G-d’’s beloved “friend,” as it were, who purchased a burial plot there. Based on this verse, the Muslims call the city Al-Khalil, “the beloved.”
The city is called Kiryat Arba based on the four couples buried there: Adam and Chava, Avraham and Sarah, Yitzchak and Rivkah, and Yaakov and Leah. These, indeed, were the four couples of spiritual giants (Yalkut Shimoni, Yehoshua 14:15).
An alternate explanation for the source of the city’s name is the four giants who lived there — Achiman, Sheshai, Talmai, and their father (Rashi on Bereishit 23:2). Rashbam and Radak explain that the city was called after a giant named Arba: “The name of Chevron was formerly Kiryat Arba: [Arba] was the great man among the giants” (Yehoshua 14:15) — ostensibly the father of Achiman, Sheshai, and Talmai.
Kiryat Arba was a fortified city and difficult to conquer. Towards the end of the conquest of the Land of Israel, Kalev ben Yefuneh attacks the city and “wiped out the giants from the hill country, from Chevron, Devir, and Anav … from the entire hill country of Israel … no giants remained in the land of the Israelites” (Yehoshua 11:21–22). Kalev, “dislodged from there the three giants Sheshai, Achiman, and Talmai, the descendants of the giant” (ibid, 15:14).
The giants, manifesting physicality and brutal force at the extreme, represented evil and wickedness in the world. Moshe Rabbeinu declared war on the giants, and killed Sichon and Og, both giant kings (Bamidbar 21; Sichon was Og’s brother, according to Niddah 61a). Yehoshua and Kalev continued this war. Finally, King David finished off Goliat.
Jewish Presence in Chevron
Chevron lies in Yehudah’s tribal portion (Yehoshua 15:13), and was allocated to Kalev. Chevron served as a city of refuge and a Levite city (Yehoshua 21: 11–13). The city rose to greatness once more in the times of King David, who began his reign there. In Chevron, King David established a platoon of 600 warriors, who fought the nomadic tribes who harassed the Israelites (Shmuel II 3:22).
During Second Temple times, the Edomites wrested control of the city. Nonetheless, Jewish presence continued in Chevron. The Hasmoneans liberated the city in 164 BCE, and Herod constructed the Me’arat HaMachpeilah complex in 20 CE. Indeed, the Herodian stone there is the same style as the stones in the Western Wall.
The city was destroyed during the Great Rebellion in 68 CE, but briefly reconquered by Shimon bar Kochba in 133 CE. Josephus Flavius describes his conquest, noting “a tall terebinth (elah) … standing from the beginning of Creation until this day,” (Wars 7, 9:7). Perhaps this was Avraham’s eshel — the famous tree under which Avraham waited on his guests. The city then became the site of the infamous slave market, where captives from the Bar Kochba revolt were sold.
The Crusaders called Chevron “St. Abraham.” They destroyed the local synagogue and expelled the Jews from the city. There was a brief break in the Jewish presence in Chevron, which was later renewed. The Rambam visited Chevron in 1166. In 1187, Salah a-Din conquered Chevron.
The Spanish Expulsion led to the repopulation of Chevron. Spanish expellees settled in what became known as Chevron’s Jewish quarter and constructed the Avraham Avinu Synagogue. This community is described by Rabbi Ovadia of Bartenura, himself an expellee.
Fast Forward in History
In the early 1800s, Tel Rumeida (Biblical Chevron), including Rut and Yishai’s burial caves, was purchased by Rabbi Chaim Yeshua HaMizri (Bajo). This expanded Jewish settlement, and a contingent of Chabad chassidim settled the area in 1823. The Slabodka Yeshiva — now Yeshivat Chevron (in Jerusalem) — immigrated to the holy city in 1925.
In the Riots of 1929, the Arabs of Chevron massacred their Jewish neighbors — first aimed at the yeshiva students — leaving 67 casualties. Following the massacre, British authorities evicted the Jewish community, to be restored in 1931, only to be evicted once more in 1936 following the Arab Revolt. The city fell to the Jordanians in 1949, who destroyed the Avraham Avinu Synagogue and Jewish Quarter. Jewish presence was restored one month after Chevron was liberated in the Six Day War, in 1967. Modern-day Kiryat Arba was founded in 1970. Today, Chevron and Kiryat Arba boast growing Jewish communities, yeshivot, and a growing tourist industry.
This Shabbat, Parashat Chayei Sarah, thousands of Jews — men, women, and children — will visit Kiryat Arba and Chevron.
May we merit to see a strong Jewish presence throughout Chevron speedily and in our days!
Shmuel and Meir Cohen, “Parashah Eretz Yisraelit”; translated and adapted by Rabbi Moshe Bloom
Rabbi Moshe Bloom is head of the English department of Torah VeHa’aretz Institute. Torah VeHa’aretz Institute (the Institute for Torah and the Land of Israel) engages in research, public education, and the application of contemporary halachic issues. For additional information and inquiries, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 972-8-684-7325.