History

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Hebron Epidemic of 1619

The legend of the Avraham Avinu synagogue stems from the plague that forced Hebron's residents to flee.

18.3.20, 22:56
(IMAGE: Secret of the Sages by Hebron-born artist Moshe Castel)
 
In the year 1619 a great epidemic broke out in Hebron and most of its inhabitants fled to Gaza for safety.

Among them was the great poet Rabbi Israel Najara, composer of Ya Ribon and many other songs which are still sung today. He lived in Hebron after moving from Damascus and then Safed. Rabbi Najara stayed in Gaza becoming the chief rabbi of Gaza city where he is buried.

Rabbi Najara befriended another Hebron resident who fled the plague named Rabbi Avraham Azulai and even wrote a short poem in honor of the printing of one of Rabbi Azulai's books.

Rabbi Azulai fled Hebron for Jerusalem but vowed to one day return. In his book Baalei Brit Avraham he states:
 
"When I came to the destination and the inheritance of the holy city of Kiryat Arba / Hebron, may it be speedily rebuilt, like fats and grains, my soul will be satiated for all the discomforts I have suffered. For now, I have merited with pleasantness a good land of gold, my eyes merited to see the hidden holiness and not the profane."

He eventually returned to Hebron where he served as chief rabbi of the city for years.

It is during this period that the famous Hebron legend of the Avraham Avinu synagogue was recorded. Due to the plague, the community struggled in holding a prayer quorum of the required minimum of ten people.
 
The book Emek HaMelech records the tale as follows:

Now it came to pass one Yom Kippur eve that there were only nine men in Hebron, and the inhabitants of Hebron waited for the villagers to come, but no one of them came. For they had all gone to Jerusalem the holy city, may it be rebuilt and reestablished speedily in our days, since it is nearby, being only a distance of a quarter of a day's travel away. So they were in great sorrow, lest they each be forced to pray alone on Yom Kippur, and they wept bitterly.

Now the sun had already sunk, and it was very late. And it came to pass that they lifted their eyes, and, lo and behold, an old man coming from the distance; and they rejoiced exceedingly when they saw him. Now when he had come up to them they set the Concluding Meal before him that he might eat; but he blessed and thanked them and said that he had already eaten on the way. So they prayed on the holy day, and honored the man highly. At the close of Yom Kippur they feel into a dispute, for everyone wanted to take the guest to his home. Finally they decided to cast lots, and the guest fell to the lot of the cantor, who was a pious man and related wonderful dreams and visions of night.

So the cantor went homeward, the guest following after him. When the cantor came near his home, he turned around to honor the guest and allow him to enter the house first - and he looked, and lo and behold, he was gone. They sought him but could not find him anywhere about. Then they were all greatly saddened, for they thought that he had gone on his way in the night, because he had not wished to partake of their hospitality.
 
But on that night, the old man visited the cantor in a dream, and told him that he was our father Abraham, peace be upon him, who had come to complete their quorum, for he saw they were in great sorrow, lest they should each have to pray alone. And they rejoiced greatly and blessed the great God for having done wondrous deeds. Amen, and so be His will.
 
This is how the Avraham Avinu synagogue got its name. A plaque with the story is displayed on the wall.
 
Rabbi Azulai himself is the subject of a Hebron legend, that of the Sultan's sword. In this oft-told tale, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire visited the Tomb of the Patriarchs & Matriarchs in Hebron. As the Sultan leaned over the hole leading into the cave of Machpela, his sword fell into the opening.

A soldier was lowered into the caves below, to retrieve his sword, but did not come out alive. A second soldier was lowered, but he too failed. Finally, the Sultan demanded that his sword be retrieved. The elderly Rabbi Azulai volunteered to be lowed into the cave. There, according to legend, he was assisted by the Biblical Patriarchs who instructed him to return the sword to the Sultan in order to avert a vicious decree against the entire Jewish community.
 
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