|Descriptive Geography and Brief Historical Sketch of
By Rabbi Joseph Schwarz
by Rabbi Joseph Schwarz זצ"ל
Hebron is called in Arabic בית אל חליל Beth al Chalil, "The House of the Beloved," because Isaac, the beloved son of Abraham, was born and educated here, and, as appears from Genesis 22:1, resided also here a long time. It is situated in the portion of Judah, 20 English miles south from Jerusalem, in a valley (Gen. 37:14). The mountains which surround it are the highest points of the mountains of Judah, and are 2664 feet above the surface of the Mediterranean Sea. It is a small town, or, more correctly speaking, a very large village, which consists of several divisions, each, so to say, constituting a village by itself. It contains several thousand Arabic inhabitants. On its eastern end is the cave of Machpelach מערת המכפלה, Arabic, Al Magr, i. e. the cave. It is also called the Fort of David, and is a very handsome and most ancient structure, built of immense stones, and surrounded with strong and high walls. It forms, in a measure, a fortress. Beneath the surface of the earth is the celebrated cave where the patriarchs lie buried. It is covered over with masonry, having a small opening on the top, through which the Mahomedans constantly lower burning lamps, and maintain there a perpetual light. Above this cavern is a mosque, built at a later date.
Hebron is mentioned but little in history after the destruction of Jerusalem, and I will therefore merely relate the few traces which I was able to find.
When Benjamin of Tudela travelled through Palestine in 4930 (1170), Hebron was entirely destroyed, probably through the wars of the Christians with the Saladdinian kings. He says, "Here is a large church, called St. Abraham; and it was, when the country was still in possession of the Ishmaelites, a Jewish Synagogue." This proves that, during the rule of the Mahomedans, before the Christians came, Jews must have lived there. About seventy years later, when Rabbi Pethachiah of Ratisbonne ר׳ פתחי׳ מריגנסבורג travelled through Palestine, it was already in a measure rebuilt; but no Jews were living in it. At the time of the Nachmonides in 5027 (1267), some Jews were found here, as he wrote to his son* that he was on the point of going to Hebron to select for himself a spot to be buried in. It appears, however, that they afterwards quitted it again, as Astori, in the year 5082 (1322), says nothing of any Jewish families in Hebron. In 5283 (1523), there lived here but ten Jewish families. When, in 5300 (1540), the celebrated Rabbi Jechiel Ashkenazi went to Hebron, he found in it many Caraites. He founded there a Jewish congregation; and it appears that he purchased a Synagogue, which exists to this day, and belongs to the Sephardin (Portuguese), from the Caraites. About twenty-five years ago there came several messengers from the Caraite congregation at Constantinople, to lay claim to the said Synagogue, alleging that it was originally their property; but they were easily and soon confuted, for they could not establish their allegation. Since the time of R. Jechiel to our own day, Hebron was uninterruptedly inhabited by Jews.
In 5594 (1834), Hebron met with a heavy calamity, since it was taken by storm on the 28th day of Tamuz (July), by Abraim Pacha, and given up to his soldiers for several days. One can better imagine than describe the scenes which were then enacted. Nearly all the Mahomedan inhabitants fled into the depth of the mountain range, but the Jews could not do this; besides which, they entertained but little fear, since they could not be viewed as rebels and enemies by Abraim, wherefore they fell an easy prey into the hands of the assailants. When the Pacha marched out to take Hebron, a petition was presented to him by the officers of the Jewish congregation in Jerusalem to take these unfortunate people under his protection, which he faithfully promised to do; but, notwithstanding this, they were not spared at the taking of the town, so that five Jews were purposely murdered, and all their property which had not. been buried under ground was either stolen or destroyed in the most wanton and cruel manner. Abraim did then indeed place a guard around their quarter of the town, but it was too late; and he said, "Whatever is already in the hands of the conquerors, the soldiers, cannot be demanded back again of them;" wherefore the whole Jewish community was sunk into poverty.
One of the leaders of the Hebron rebels was the Sheich Abd al Rachman, who had his seat not far from the town Al Dura (see p. 113, Art. Adoraim). He had been for several years previously the principal personage of the environs, as far as the Dead Sea and the Djebl (Mount Seir). When Abraim Pacha had conquered the country, he fled, and the Pacha appointed in his place the Mutzelim, Abu Suwat, who had been even before this time an enemy of Abd al Rachman, and he therefore acted inimically towards those of his family who had been left behind. But when the government of Abraim came to an end, in 5601 (1841), the banished chief again appeared, greatly respected and with increased power. He also acquired anew a strong party, and became again the Sheich of the whole district. He thereupon caused Abu Suwat to be publicly executed in Hebron, and acquired gradually such authority that the Pacha of Jerusalem did not think it prudent to venture putting a check on his proceedings and actions; and the name of Abd al Rachman sounded more fearful and was more respected than that of the Sultan. The whole vicinity was at that time quite secure, and one could, with the greatest safety, travel among the Arabs and Bedouins; because they were strictly prohibited to rob or to make their usual exactions, since this right belonged to the Sheich alone. He was exceedingly cuning, and never missed making the capture of those he pursued in a witty and ludicrous manner, and he was particularly fortunate in his expeditions. So it happened that on his flight he was caught by the soldiers of Abraim in such a way that they had got hold of his red terbush:* he nevertheless succeeded in eluding their grasp, merely leaving the empty terbush in their hands. Towards the Jews he permits no ill-treatment; but he is a most insatiable leech, as scarcely a day passes on which some demand is not made, which, though not presented as an extortion, comes in a worse shape yet--in that of a request or petition, with an understanding that a threat may be added to enforce compliance. And, as his whole family, from little to big, imitate, each for his own benefit, the magnanimous head of the house, it is almost impossible to live among such leeches; and actually the greater part of the Israelites of Hebron have left it and settled in Jerusalem.
* A peculiar long cap which the Turks wear, though it is not much used among the Arabs, who adhere to the turban.
In the year 5605 (1845), Abd al Rachman's two brothers rebelled against him, and laid claim to his government, that is, they wanted the right to plunder: they procured adherents, and a regular partisan warfare ensued; in consequence of which, Abd al Rachman was driven out. He next collected some Arabs, and had several bloody fights with his brothers; and it appeared that his good luck had forsaken him. But at length his star again became in the ascendant, through which, or rather through his heavy gold, he succeeded to induce the Pacha of Jerusalem to take his part, who then marched against Hebron with a large force, in the month of Sivan, 5606 (June, 1846). He took the town after several skirmishes, and reinstated Abd al Rachman in his government. On this occasion the Jews suffered severely, many were dangerously wounded at the taking of the town, and deprived of all their property. The two rebel brothers took to flight, and have not been heard of up to the time of writing this, in 5609 (1849). Abd al Rachman governs therefore unopposed, and is very industriously engaged in filling up the great deficiency in his heap of gold, which had become diminished through the war with his brothers, by his usual exactions from those subject to his rule.
Hebron has two congregations; first the Sephardim, containing about 60 families, who have a very ancient Synagogue, as I have stated already; and secondly the Ashkenazim, consisting solely of about 50 families, since many of them have left and moved to Jerusalem. This congregation, however, has been in existence only about thirty years. Still, they have two Synagogues, one built thirty years, and one fifteen years ago.
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