Ancient Jewish Cemetery Attracts Modern Spiritual Seekers to Hebron

It was abandoned and bulldozed, but today the ancient Jewish cemetery receives regular visitors paying their respects to the sages.

29.5.16, 15:02
(Photo: Refurbished Menucha Rochel Kollel in historic building at cemetery.)
Researchers can only guess as to the age of the ancient Jewish cemetery in Hebron, but today, it attracts visitors from all over, seeking to connect to the leaders of the past and pay their respects to the sages of days of yore. The men and women buried in its soil are in final rest, but the cemetery itself has survived wars and politics for generations.
One of the earliest references to the site is from Ishtori Haparchi, a Jewish author and traveler who published Sefer Kaftor Vaferech, considered the first Hebrew book on the geography of the Land of Israel. He noted a Jewish cemetery in Hebron in 1322.
The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in their official history of Hebron states, "The Jewish cemetery -- on a hill west of the Tomb -- was first mentioned in a letter dated to 1290."
Menachem Mendel of Kamenitz, the first hotelier in the Land of Israel mentioned the cemetery in his 1839 book Sefer Korot Ha-Itim, (page 36) stating, "here I write of the graves of the righteous to which I paid my respects." After describing the Tomb of Machpela and the tombs of such Biblical figures as Ruth and Jesse, Othniel Ben Knaz and Abner Ben Ner, he reports, "I also went to a grave said to be that of the Righteous Rav, author of "Reshit Hokhma."
The following graves can be visited today, their tombstones having been refurbished.
Rabbi Eliyahu de Vidas (1518 - 1592) was the author of the Reshit Hokhma [also spelled Resheet Chochma], or "Beginning of Wisdom," a classic book on Kabbalah. He was a student of the famous Rabbi Moses ben Jacob Cordovero and Rabbi Isaac Luria and part of the thriving Kabbalist community that flourished in Tzfat and Hebron, noted for their study of mystical Jewish traditions. For full article click here.
Rabbi Shlomo Adani (1567 - c. 1630) was born in Yemen and moved to the Land of Israel as a child with his family. In 1619 he published his book, Melechet Shlomo, a much-cited commentary on the Mishnah which was the basis for later popular commentaries. He passed away in Hebron where he raised his family, wrote and worked as a teacher. For full article click here.
Rabbi Avraham Azulai (c. 1570–1643) was a rabbi in Hebron and author of such books as Kiryat Araba and Chesed Le-Avraham. A popular folk tale tells of how Rabbi Azulai retrieved the fallen sword of a cruel Ottoman sultan. As legend has it, the sultan's precious sword fell into the Cave of Machpela. Anyone who went down to retrieve it died mysteriously. Only Rabbi Azulai was able to successfully retrieve the sword and thus avert the sultan's evil decree against the community. For full story click here
Rabbi Haim Rahamim Yosef Franco (1833 - 1901) was a noted scholar known as the the CHARIF. He made aliyah from Rhodes to Jerusalem in 1868 and later became the chief rabbi of Hebron. In 1893  he initiated the creation of the Chesed L'Avraham medical clinic which later became Beit Hadassah, the first Hadassah hospital in the Land of Israel. Today, Beit Hadassah houses apartments for local residents, a playground and a museum. Rabbi Franco was the author of such books as Shenot Yamim, Kevod Yaakov and Ben Yamin. His writings were also published in the anthology Torah MiZion, Yismah Lev, Yissa Ish and other collections. For full story click here
Rebbitzen Menucha Rochel Slonim (1798–1888)  was the granddaughter of the first Lubavitcher Rebbe. She and her husband started the first Chabad presence in the Land of Israel. For full article click here.
Rabbi Chaim Hezekiah Medini (1834 - 1905) was Chief Rabbi of Hebron and author of the seminal multi-volume work on Jewish law, Sdei Hemed. For full article click here.
Rabbi Eliyahu Mani (c.1818 - 1899) was Chief Rabbi of Hebron and author of several books on Jewish law. His children and grandchildren went on to become leaders in Israeli society. He and his wife Samara are buried in the Rabbinical plot of the cemetery. For full article click here.
Rabbi Suleiman Menahem Mani (1850–1924) was a writer and poet, chief rabbi of Hebron and son of Rabbi Eliyahu Mani.
The famous great-great grandson of Rabbi Avraham Azulai, Chaim Yosef David Azulai, known as the CHIDA, published a list of the famous sages buried in Hebron. A plaque bearing these names is displayed in the cemetery today, although their exact location is not fully known.
The list is as follows:
* Rabbi Avraham Konki, also spelled Abraham ben Levi Conque, (born 1648), a traveler, fundraiser, and author of several books on Jewish thought.
* Rabbi Yehosef Konki 
* Rabbi Malkiel Ashkenazi - purchased land for Avraham Avinu synagogue in 1540.
* Rabbi Moshe HaLevi HaNazir - 17th-century author and emissary / fundraiser
* Rabbi Moshe Avraham Perrera
* Rabbi Aharon Alfandari (1700-1774) - a writer born in Smyrna. 
* Rabbi Binyamin Zeevi 
* Rabbi Chaim Katz, author of Eretz HaChaim, grandson of the SM"A 
* Rabbi Aharon Ben-Haim 
* Rabbi Eliezer ben Arha, a student of the ARI
* Rabbi David Yitzhak 
* Rabbi Hanania Ishpareil 
* Rabbi Yehudah Kabilio 
* Rabbi Yitzhak Azulai 
* Rabbi Yitzhak Zerahia Azulai 
* Rabbi Yitzhak Ben Gamliel 
Other notables buried at the cemetery include:
* Rabbi Hillel Moshe Meshil Gelbstein (1834 - 1908), led efforts to revitalize the Western Wall
* Rabbi Shimon Menashe Chaikin (1777-1893), leader of Chabad of Hebron
* Rabbi Judah Bibas (1789 – 1852), Sephardic leader and early support of Zionism
* Graves and memorial for 1929 massacre victims
* Memorial for burned Torah scrolls
* Modern section including military cemetery and terrorist victims
One of the many unique traditions for the Jewish Community of Hebron, that may have existed in other cities as well, was to leave gravestones blank rather than engrave names and dates on them as done today. The close-knit community knew who was buried where, and engraving was considered unnecessary. This also may have been done for now forgotten religious reasons.
This practice changed in the 1920 when the community started dwindling and the political situation became dangerous. Native Hebronite created lists and maps of where important historic figure were buried. After the 1929 Hebron massacre and the subsequent eviction of the Jewish community, the lists became even more important. 
But the community never expected the mass desecration that took place after the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan invaded and occupied the city in 1948. The cemetery was intentionally destroyed and the site was cultivated for growing fruit and vegetables. 
According to Jordanian Belligerency: A Review of Jordan's Policies Towards the State of Israel, published in 1967: 
"...asked the reason for such desecration of a Jewish Holy Site, the local Mukhtar, Abu-Mustafa Sheikh Rashad answered: 'The Government in charge up till now wanted it that way.'.. All the tombstones had been entirely removed from the Hebron Jewish cemetery..." 
Around 4,000 tombstones were removed and used for construction purposes.
After the daring liberation of the city in the 1967 Six Day War, Israelis were shocked to find the cemetery and surrounding areas turned into squalid housing and scant gardens. Unable to decide what to do with the awkward new situation, the Israeli government opposed civilians returning to such areas.
The struggle to return to Hebron in the face of international pressure took a turning point in 1975 with the untimely death of a baby boy. Baruch Nachshon, a noted hasidic artist and his wife Sarah were among the first pioneers who came to repopulate Hebron. They named their newborn baby boy Avraham, after the Patriarch of monotheism who lived in the city thousands of years ago and is buried in the Tomb of Machpela. But six-month-old baby Avraham died of crib death. In her sadness, Sarah Nachshon insisted that the baby be buried in the ancient cemetery, off-limits or not. 
According to Hebron Jews by Prof. Jerold S. Auerbach,
"...His parents decided to bury him in the old Jewish cemetery in Hebron where no Jew had been buried since 1929. Israeli government officials, eager not to further provoke Hebron Arabs, refused permission... On the day of the funeral, Israeli soldiers blocked the road to the Hebron cemetery. After more than an hour of waiting, Sarah Nachshon wearied of the impasse... Returning to her car, she cradled her dead son in her arms and began to walk past the military blockade... several soldiers, moved by a grieving mother's unyielding determination, volunteered to drive her..."
Following the burial, the community made efforts to clean up the cemetery. Prof. Ben Zion Tavger, a Russian-Jewish physicist and refusenik who moved to Hebron in the 1970s, initiated the efforts. In time, the old graves were identified and refurbished tombstones were installed.
One of these graves was that of Menucha Rochel Slonim, a long time matriarch of Hebron, revered by Jews and Arabs alike. As the granddaughter of the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menucha Rochel and her husband moved to Hebron in the mid 1800s and initiated the first Chabad House in the Land of Israel. Today, her descendants and Chabadniks from around the country come every year to mark her yarhzeit with a visit to the cemetery followed by a festive celebration with hundreds. A small synagogue and study hall called the Menucha Rochel Kollel have been established next to the cemetery, attended daily by locals.
Other annual events held at the cemetery include the memorial to the 67 victims of the 1929 massacre. The bloody incident is known in Hebrew as TARPAT. Aging survivors and family members attend a ceremony at the memorial built for them where many are buried.
The annual Yom Hazikaron - Israeli Memorial Day service is held in the military section of the cemetery and is attended by both local residents and military personnel. 
In 2016, one of the maps that identifies the location of the graves was discovered. Unfortunately, each grave is labeled only with initials which have yet to be correctly identified. But it is the first step to restoring the final resting place of some of the greatest sages of Israel.
To arrange a guided tour of the ancient Jewish cemetery of Hebron contact us.

United States contact info:

1760 Ocean Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11230

In Israel contact the offices of the Jewish Community of Hebron at:
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* Sherute ha-hasbarah (1967). Jordanian belligerency: a review of Jordan's policies towards the state of Israel. Israel Information Services.

Ancient Jewish Cemetery in Hebron | 28 Images