History

Great-Grandson of Lubavitcher Rebbe on Life in Ottoman Hebron

"Why do the Jews continue to live in such a place? Because they love it and can not depart from the spot where their forefathers rest."

4.4.17, 20:21
Rabbi Hyam Zvee Sneersohn (alternatively spelled Haim Zvi) was born in Lubavitch, Belarus in 1834 and passed away in 1882. A prolific writer, he traveled to the United States, the Land of Israel, England and other countries promoting the welfare of the Jewish people.  
 
His writings on Ottoman era Israel are significant because he describes not only the hardships they faced but also the food, clothing and lifestyle of the Jewish community. His visit to Hebron took place in approximately 1852.
 
Of particular note are his descriptions of the 1834 Hebron Massacre, and his visits to overlooked holy sites in Hebron such as the Tomb of Jesse and Ruth, the Tomb of Otniel Ben Knaz and the Tomb of Abner Ben Ner. The following are excerpts from this public domain book. 
 
Palestine and Roumania, a description of the Holy Land, and the past and present state of Roumania, and the Roumanian Jews

NEW YORK : HEBREW ORPHAN ASYLUM PRINTING ESTABLISHMENT, 76th Street, bet. Third and Lexington Avenues. 1872.
Entered according to Act of Congress, in the year 1872, By H. Z. Sneersohn, in the office of the Librarian of Congress, at Washington.
 
LECTURE II
 

Hebron and the Cave of Machpelah.
The war of Ibrahim Pasha and the rebellion of the Sheiks.
The Oriental Coffee-Houses.
The Moslem Schools,
and the present condition of the Jews. 
 
My Worthy Friends : 
 
During the few months of my sojourn in this free country my eyes have been opened to its greatness and welfare. I see that all, both laity and clergy, Jews and Gentiles, follow the path of justice, and truth and wisdom are the lights which guide them. The spirit of religion and of knowledge pervades all. Blessed is the country whose rulers and whose inhabitants are sons of freedom, and where shines the light of liberty and independence. Blessed it is to the Lord ! America is called the New World. To me it is indeed a New World, when compared with the many other countries I have seen in Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia. The difference between good and bad is the more striking when I think of Palestine, whereupon the curse of the Lord is still resting. The darkness which reigns there is the more felt by me when I behold the light of this country. But agreeable as it may be to pass from darkness to light, it is not so to me, for who am I?
 
I feel a still greater sorrow when I compare the misfortunes of the Holy Land with the fortunate state of other countries. When I see how the cities every where else are growing and flourishing, while the cities of God lie low and sink deeper and deeper, I cannot refrain from complaining and mourning ; and I shall not feel satisfied until the day when the state of the Holy Land is as good as that of America. I can never forget the Holy City. I see her always before my eyes, and the lamentations of Jeremiah and those of R. Jehudah Halleay are resounding in my ears ; and I wish and hope to be able so to move the hearts of other pious and benevolent men that they may help us to bring the dove of Israel to its nest again. 
 
In my foregoing lecture I treated of Jerusalem ; but this time I am going to speak about Hebron. 
 
Hebron was given by Joshua to Caleb, son of Jephunneh ; this city is twenty English miles south of Jerusalem, and is situated in a valley, in the portion of Judah ; the mountains which surround it are the highest points of the mountains of Judah. In the Bible it occurs also under the name of Kiryat Arba, the City of the Four, as the dwelling place of Anak. 
It is also called Mamreh, after Mamreh, Abraham's friend. The Arabians of to-day call it Baithal Chalil, that is, " House of the Beloved," after Abraham, whom the Mohammedans cherish as much as we do, for they are his descendants.
 
According to the holy writ Hebron is very old, exceeding in years even Jerusalem. It is said that she was built seven years before Zoan, in Egypt, which shows her excellence above all other cities. It was a capital and a residence until it was conquered by Joshua. Hebron was, seven years and a half, the residence of King David. The patriarchs not only lived there, but were buried there, where they sleep the sleep of death even to-day ; and Jacob, as we know, had so great a desire to be gathered with his forefathers, that he made Joseph swear to bring his corpse to Hebron. Hebron and Jerusalem are like twins; the one is the dwelling-place of the Lord, the other is the resting-place of the patriarchs, who made known to the world the unity and the power of the Almighty. And as Hebron and Jerusalem are like twins, so they ever share the same fate.
 
The horrors of war and devastation by which Jerusalem was visited, were in a like manner felt in Hebron, which, for its manifold vicissitudes, might be called the City of Blood. The Jewish legend tells us how, at the destruction of the Temple, Jeremiah went and threw himself on the graves of the patriarchs. He called to them : " Awake, oh ye sleepers of Hebron ! arise ! see the misfortunes of good children, how they are driven into captivity or killed; arise and implore the Father in Heaven to have mercy upon them." But God's wrath did not cease. And it was in the valley of Hebron where the victorious Romans brought together thousands of the youth of Zion and sold them for slaves ; the sons of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the descendants of kings and high priests, were sold to strangers like cattle ! Unsearchable are the ways of God. It was the same Hebron which, in the time of Joshua, was one of the cities appointed as a place of refuge for murderers to flee to. (Joshua, xx.) 
 
It is now 700 years since Hebron was conquered and destroyed by the Christians, and for seventy years it was not inhabited. But even after its reconstruction, the Jews did not dare to live there for about thirty years, after which period a few were found there. It appears, however, that they quitted it again; and 369 years ago only the small number of ten Jewish families dwelt in Hebron; since which time they have lived and increased there uninterruptedly. In how far the memory of olden times is still fresh among the Jews, can be learned from a story told in regard to Hebron. 
 
According to the Jewish rite, ten adult persons are necessary to hold divine service. But the adult persons in Hebron numbered in all but nine. At the approach of the  day of Atonement they once sent a request to their brethren in Jerusalem to send them at least one man, that they might have the full number for that holy day. But as it was then very dangerous to travel, nobody dared to make the journey. All day long the inhabitants were standing at their doors looking for some one to come. The eve of the holy day was at hand; but no one appeared; and they went to their house of worship sad and mournful. But how great was their joy and astonishment when, on entering the synagogue, they found an old man sitting in a corner. 
 
They did not ask him whence or how he came, they were happy that he was there ; and it was, besides, time to begin the divine service. They then said the evening prayers, as usual, and on the following night, when the time of fast was over, every one wanted to take the stranger to his home and entertain him in a sumptuous manner. As they could not agree, they cast lots. The sexton, or, as he is called, the schames, was very happy that the lot fell upon him. Full of joy he hastened home and told his wife to prepare a good supper in honor of the stranger. But when it was time to eat, the stranger had disappeared. Great as the joy of the sexton had been, greater was now his sorrow. He made all possible search, but nobody had seen him. The poor sexton, notwithstanding he had fasted for twenty-four hours, could not eat anything. He went to bed. And it was then that Abraham appeared to him in a dream, and said: "Fear not, it was I, Abraham, who had pity with you, and who came to fulfill the number of ten." 
 
Even now-a-days the Jews of Hebron show the place in the synagogue where Abraham, the tenth, was sitting on that day. They have no doubt that Abraham left his heavenly abode in order that his beloved sons could say their prayers in the right way. 
 
Hebron is a small city, without walls, and with few inhabitants. But in consequence of the high buildings which surround it, it looks like a strong city. There are twelve quarters separated from each other, in each of which are different yards or courts. Every quarter seems to be a little village of itself. The city is surrounded on all sides with beautiful gardens ; the grapes that grow there are the best in the country. 
 
Besides the vines, there are thousands of olive-trees. The territory of Hebron is very fertile. There are many springs of water in the vicinity, which is rather rare in this country. The climate is healthful and superior to that of Jerusalem. The necessaries of life are very cheap, and although living is not at all expensive, there is not a Christian residing in Hebron. It is not safe to live there, as the city is often invaded by robbers and murderers. Even in our days the city has had much to suffer from the horrors of war and depredation. Such was the case in the year 1834 when Ibrahim Pasha, the viceroy of Egypt, fomented a rebellion against the Sultan. 
 
The Mohammedan inhabitants of Hebron, a warlike set of people, resisted him, and fought with great bravery against his troops, whom they would not allow to enter their city. At that time even the women took part, arming themselves and throwing fiery arrows upon their assailants from the roofs of their houses. The Pasha lost more than 25,000 men in the fight. But when the city was at last obliged to surrender, his revenge was a terrible one. During seven days he allowed his soldiers their full revenge for the death of their companions, to plunder and to destroy everything to their heart's desire. The Mohammedan inhabitants fled into the mountains, leaving behind them all they possessed.
 
The soldiers plundered the whole city, and what they could not carry with them they destroyed. During seven days the conflagration raged. The finest and most valuable goods were burnt ; quantities of fine silk and wearing apparel were thrown into the fire. The olive-oil the soldiers burned to illuminate their work of destruction. There was not one house spared. 
 
And even the Jews of Hebron, although they had not done anything, had to suffer from the wrath of the Pasha and his soldiers. All of their possessions were plundered, and five of them were murdered. Their beautiful daughters and wives were carried away by the soldiers to their dwelling places, nobody preventing them. When three days of darkness were over, the Pasha felt pity for the Jews and prohibited all further cruelties. But the stolen goods he did not return, and the lost lives lives could not restore. The Jews did not even venture to ask for a restitution of what they had lost. On the contrary they went to the Pasha, fell on their faces, thanking and blessing him for his mercy and for putting a stop to acts of violence. 
 
This calamity is still remembered by the inhabitants of Hebron, under the name of " Yagma el Gabireh," or the great destruction. It is called the great one with reference to another calamity which befell them in the year 1846. As the circumstances are highly characteristic of the state of things in that country, I may be allowed to give a full description of the event. 
 
Abdorrahman, the governor of Hebron, made war against Ibrahim Pasha. When the city surrendered Abdorrahman fled, and hid himself near the border on the other side of the River Jordan, and there he lived in concealment during the reign of Ibrahim. Two of his brothers were compelled to serve as soldiers in the ranks of the Pasha ; one of his enemies, a prominent man of the city, Abd Jovad, was made his successor. When Ibrahim Pasha was defeated and the Sultan had assumed his former authority, Abdorrahman left his hiding place and was soon restored to his former position and honor. As soon as he had reassumed his power he had his successor, Abd Jovad, killed openly in the centre of the city. Abdorrahman was in every respect an ugly person. He was entirely uneducated, and could neither read nor write his own Arabian language. All his greatness and glory he had inherited from his ancestors, while his great riches proved a valuable aid to him in all times of distress. 
 
The inhabitants of Hebron were always in fear of his cruel and passionate temper. After some time, his two brothers escaped from the Egyptian army and returned to Hebron. He made them rulers of the villages in its vicinity. They were not at all like him, but just and pious men, of a mild and generous character. With the lapse of time the inhabitants, who loved them while they hated their brother, caused a rebellion against Abdorrahman. He was compelled to flee, and his brothers were elected as Sheiks to succeed him. Abdorrahman made several efforts, with the help of friends, to regain his former position, but in vain. 
 
He was always defeated. The Jews especially were, during this time, in a state of great anxiety. Neither their lives nor their goods were safe. They did not dare to travel anywhere, and were obliged to hide whatever they had in subterranneous places and caves. They were in constant fear, and on every occasion they gathered in the synagogues to implore the mercy of God. 
 
Abdorrahman induced the Pasha of Jerusalem, by means of bribery, to assist him in conquering the city ; and so at last the city surrendered to the soldiers of the Pasha and of Abdorrahman, in the year 1846, in the month of Ijar (or May). The rebels were put in prison and the city was given over to plunderers. The Pasha had promised to the councils in Jerusalem that no harm would be done to the Jews, but that promise was not kept. Some soldiers entered the caves and took from there what they found ; and one Jew was shot. The Jewish women had before disfigured their faces with a mixture of charcoal and oil, and in this way escaped the eyes of the soldiers. Some time afterward, both Abdorrahman and the Pasha said to the Jews that all their goods would be returned to them ; but, as usual, the promise was not kept. The principal men of the Congregation were compelled to sign a document wherein it was stated that they had not lost anything. 
 
Now the question may be asked : Why do the Jews continue to live in a place where they are surrounded by robbers and murderers, and where they have to endure such manifold oppressions and vexations? The reason of this is, that the Jews still love the place ; they can not depart from the spot where their fore-fathers rest. It is the Cave of Machpelah, which, to them, is more attractive than all the beauties of other countries.
 
They are not allowed to enter the Cave ; the sons of Hagar do not allow the sons of Sarah to visit her grave. The servant has inherited the mistress. They stand outside and say their prayers. They visit this ground from time to time, but it is always joy which fills their hearts. They go there as a child would go to see its parents. They say their prayers, but they do not weep. It is quite different with another holy spot, near the western wall of the Temple. 
 
There the Jews gather every Friday evening. On seeing the destruction, of the holy place, they give vent to their grief in bitter complaints and lamentations. 
 
The Jews are not only not allowed to enter the Cave of Machpelah, they cannot even tarry long outside without the risk of being insulted by Arabian boys, who would vex them by throwing stones. And this may be done without fear of punishment. Even if some one would go and accuse them in court, which is just opposite, his complaint would not be heard. 
 
The field containing the Cave of Machpelah is situated on the higher slope of the eastern hill, and is now inclosed by a massive wall fifty feet high. The wall has an ancient appearance, being constructed of large stones hewn smooth, and extends north and south 200 feet, and 115 east and west. The exterior is ornamented with square pilasters, sixteen on each side, eight at each angle, which without capitals support a cornice extending the whole length of the structure. 
The wall is solid, without window or aperture, except at the angles of the nothern end, where are the chief entrances, reached by broad flights of steps, of gentle ascent, leading to the court within. Within this mural inclosure stands a Turkish mosque.
 
Beneath it is the Cave of Machpelah, and within it are the monumental shrines of the patriarchal dead. Within a small chapel on the right is the cenotaph in honor of Abraham, and directly opposite, in a similar recess, is the shrine of Sarah. Each is inclosed by an iron railing, and guarded by a silver gate. That of Abraham consists of a coffin-like structure, six feet high, built of marble and draped with three carpets of a green color embroidered with gold, while over that of Sarah is spread a pall. On the sides of the mosque, midway of the building, and immediately opposite each other, are the monumental tombs of Isaac and Rebekah. 
 
Like those of their parents, they are placed within chapels, in the walls of which are windows protected by iron bars. In a separate cloister, opposite the entrance of the mosque, in corresponding recesses, are the tombs of Jacob and Leah. Over that of the former are green-colored carpets ; against that of the latter recline two war banners of the same hue. The word Machpelah signifies " double." The Cave consists of two compartments, separated by a wall of native rock. To its sepulchral vaults there are three entrances, one in the northwest corner close to the western wall ; a second in the court, opposite the entrance gate of the mosque ; and a third near the shrine of Abraham. 
 
Such is the description of the Cave of Machpelah since the visit of his royal highness the Prince of Wales. 
 
Besides the Cave of Machpelah there are three holy places where the Jews occasionally say prayers, viz : the grave of Abner, son of Ner ; in the midst of the city in the private court of a Mussulman, for entrance to which one has to pay an admission fee ; the grave of Jesse, the father of David, and that of Athniel, son of Kenaz, which are located near the Jewish burial ground, in a barren and open place. Unlike the gravestones of Jerusalem, those of Hebron have no inscription at all. The name of the buried is retained through memory and traditioin from generation to generation. 
There live now in Hebron about 200 Jewish families. Some of the German origin (Ashkenasin), others of Spanish descent (Sephardin). 
 
The Spanish Jews and the Germans dwell in peace together, but although having the same origin they seldom intermarry. Both are very strict in keeping all the ceremonies prescribed by the Talmud, but they in the same way practice the virtues which belong to the inner life. They are especially known for their great hospitality. In this way they imitate their fore-father Abraham, whose home was open to every one. There is no Jewish hotel or lodging place in Hebron, and there is no need of any, for it is a duty incumbent on all to keep their houses open for every one, even for rich people. The Jews of Hebron still observe the old custom of making pilgrimage to Jerusalem on the three holidays. They go there with song and music, and then unite at the western wall of the Temple to pour out their soul in prayers and psalms. 
 
The Spanish Jews are mostly mechanics, while the Germans are tradesmen and brokers. Their trade consists mostly in the export of wine, strong drinks, and confectionery made from the honey of grapes, which they export every year to Jerusalem. As food of all kinds is very cheap, there are not so many paupers in Hebron as in Jerusalem. Most of them possess real estate (houses and courts). The Jews live in a separate locality surrounded by walls, and only a few dwell among the Arabians. The inhabitants of Hebron are strong and healthy, owing to the good air and the help of God, there being no European physician in the city. 
 
In case of disease they all, Jew and Mohammedan, resort to magic cures, to amulets, the invocation of angels, &c. This sort of healing is practised by every one, the old women being considered the best physicians. 
 
As in other places, they adhere to the custom of marrying their children when they are really children still, as a boy of fourteen years marries a girl of about the same age. There are parents to be found who are not older than 17 or 18 years. There are seven rulers of the Spanish Congregation ; their head, or Pakid, is highly esteemed by the government, and has a seat in the Divan. The Germans, or Ashkenasin are ruled by three men of Russia, one of them, the Yakil, has been appointed by the consuls of England and Austria. These consuls themselves often inquire into the condition of the Jews of Hebron, and so all the Europeans are called by the Arabians Inglis and Nemshi, viz : Englishmen and Germans. 
 
 
 
 
...
 
The Jews never take part in the [Muslim funeral] procession, neither do they venture to show themselves in their midst when their minds are affected by any public or private, festive or grievous occasion, be it a funeral or a wedding, a meeting or a religious holiday ; and truly it would be dangerous for any Jew to come near them. Any Mohammedan could insult or maim him with impunity, for brought to answer before the justice he would plead guiltless, having done it without ill will in a kind of excessive trance produced by his exorbitant grief or joy, and the wise judge, satisfied with this manner of defense, would discharge him on such grounds. This is so notorious that the policemen on such occasions do not interfere even when a Jew is insulted or beaten before their eyes. 
 
There are no regular Turkish soldiers in Hebron, but a kind of militia or gensd'arms hired by the city authorities is garrisoned there, a set of people good for nothing and regarded and feared by nobody. There is no fear of God nor of the king, and so the most wicked murderers and robbers of the country find there a good abode to do what they like.
 
The city where the pious men once lived is now a city of murderers. Where once David reigned, reigns now-a-days a set of wild and cruel people. There is no monarchy, there is anarchy. It is heartrending to see how this city, too, has lost her glory, and one might say of her : How is the gold become dim ! How is the finest metal changed ! 
 
But my consolation is that which, according to the Talmud, Rabbi Akiba said. One day, it is narrated, Rabbi Akiba and some other Rabbis went to visit the holy places. When they were near the place where the holiest of holy was, they saw a fox running over the place. The Rabbis wept bitterly at that sight. Rabbi Akiba did not weep : on the contrary there was a serene smile upon his face. The other Rabbis said to him. " We are crying and thou smilest." Said he, " You weep for the fulfillment of the words, On the mountain of Zion which is wasted, the foxes are running. I laugh for the same reason, for I think that in the same way as this prophecy has been fulfilled, so also the consoling words of the prophets will be fulfilled." And so will also be fulfilled what God said : " And I shall remember my covenant with Jacob, with Isaac, and Abraham, and also the land I will remember." 
 
O Lord, merciful God, do not leave thy inheritance to be ruled by strangers. Remember thy covenant with Abraham, and the offering _of Isaac ; return the captives of Jacob, and save us for the sake of thy holy name. 
 
References: 
 
 
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