This past Shabbat I had the privilege of spending Shabbat in Chevron for Parashat Chayei Sarah. On Shabbat Chayei Sarah we read about Avraham, our patriarch, purchasing a burial site for Sarah. The burial site, the Mearat Hamahpela, becomes the eventual resting place for Avraham, Yitzchak, Yakov, Rivka and Leah. Shabbat Chayei Sarah is also one of the 10 days per year where the entire Maarah is open for Jews. Because of these multiple facts it has become custom for people to descend on Chevron to spend Shabbat. During the year Chevron is home to only 91 Jewish families, approximately 650 people. On this Shabbat, Chevron was filled with more than 20,000 people.
The Hebrew root word of Chevron is Chibur, to adjoin or connect. On this Shabbat, the Jewish people connected to each other through prayer, Torah and camaraderie. People from all across the country from all diverse levels of observance came together as one nation. Throughout Shabbat, spontaneous dancing broke out. The circles were filled with yeshivish, Chassidish, modern and secular Jews. In every circle the soldiers were the most celebrated ones, as all of the people in Chevron appreciate the soldier’s role in protecting and inspiring us through their dedicated service.
Since I returned from Chevron, I have been playing back the events of the Shabbat in my mind. My amazing trip was made possible by the hard work of the Hebron Fund, especially Rabbi Dan Rosenstein and his staff. On Friday, masses of visitors started to arrive in the holy city of Chevron. Tents were pitched, picnic tables were set up and many trailers were parked as Shabbat was approaching. It had the feeling of a major sporting event, but on a much more spiritual level. Many people camp out and tailgate, or in this case to prepare for Shabbat meals with their portable grills. We then joined the huge crowds of individuals and families descending to the Mearat Hamachpelah to daven mincha. Before and after davening, the more than 20,000 people socialized and connected as one unified nation. The crowd was so huge that our group couldn’t get inside Mearat Hamachpelah and instead we davened out on the lawn at the men’s tent area.
As Kabbalat Shabbat approached and the sun was setting, our area was filled with over 500 men, women and children and we enjoyed a beautiful Kabbalat Shabbat led by Sruli Hirsch and Simcha Hochbaum. The minyan had men in black hats, Breslev men in huge white kippot, yeshiva students and many visitors from all over the world. At several moments during davening, spontaneous dancing broke out and the place went wild with singing and dancing under the setting sun. After a wonderful dinner with soldiers, members of the Knesset and yeshiva students, the night activities continued. Some people were finally able to enter the Maarah and join a tour, some walked around visiting friends or making new ones, some welcomed soldiers and offered them home-cooked meals and sweets and some headed to Yeshivat Shavei Chevron. I chose the latter and we heard a wonderful Dvar Torah, in English from Mikki, a roommate of one of the three boys murdered this summer. His words were about hope and continuing beautiful Jewish traditions, like Shabbat Chayei Sarah, and not letting our enemies ever having thoughts of victory. We then joined the spirited singing led by the 350 yeshiva boys.
The night continued with a walk through Chevron. The first stop was at Beit Hadassah, the place where Jews first returned to in 1979. The visit was accompanied by a stop at the head of security for Chevron, Yoni Bliechard, with chulent, kugles and desserts. Next we went up the big hill to Tel Rumeida, with a stop at the graves of Yeshai, father of Dovid Hamelech and Ruth, to recite Tehillim. On the way down we stopped at Baruch Marzel for more chulent, kugel and a L’chaim. It’s a gathering point for all visitors and soldiers and in that one night alone over 2,000 people were fed. Finally, after I couldn’t possibly eat or drink anymore I went to sleep.
On Shabbat day we had the privilege of davening in Ohel Yitzchak. It’s a privilege because it too is only open to Jews 10 days a year. The hall holds the burial area for both Yitzchak and Rivka and seats about 1,000 people. After a truly inspiring davening, we enjoyed Kiddush and lunch with more soldiers, yeshiva students and dignitaries, followed by a tour of the shuk. As people started to sense that Shabbat was coming to an end, the excitement started to build once again, with the goal of holding on to the spirit of a Shabbat in Chevron. The streets filled with a tremendous amount of people singing and dancing. Before going to seudat shlishit, people joined each other in the streets singing songs like “Am Yisroel Chai” and “Meaz Uletamid Chevron”. Again, the soldiers had a prominent role in these festivities. As seudat shelishit came to an end, people filled every inch of the Maarah inside and out for maariv. Following havdalah came one last party. A number of Breslev Chassidim started to play music, and before heading out of Chevron, we had one more opportunity to join these final minutes of Chibur.
Every year there is a theme for the Shabbat in Chevron. This year the theme was the four holy cities which consist of Jerusalem, Chevron, Tiberias and Tzfat. For this Shabbat of Chayei Sarah, Chevron became the focus of all of Israel, not just the 20,000 + attending. The Friday newspapers gave Chevron the front page and informed Israel of the bonding taking place. I have always tried to imagine what it was like in biblical times to be Oleh L’Regel, ascending to Jerusalem, as required three times per year. This Shabbat is truly the closest I have ever felt as to what it must have been like. I was in awe watching so many diverse people getting together, getting along, and all with a singular goal, to come close to, and daven at, the burial place of our forefathers and mothers. All politics were set aside and people embraced one another physically and spiritually.
I have been to Israel close to 100 times and have spent many Shabbatot in Israel and none can compare to this Shabbat. After such a difficult summer for all of Israel, where all Israelis came together as a nation, I felt that this Shabbat was a continuation of that achdut. I highly encourage anyone who has not experienced this Shabbat of Chayei Sarah in Chevron, to make it a bucket list item. Once you do, you’ll want to go back again and again, year after year.
By Jonathan Gellis