History

Famous Jewish Sage Ovadiah of Bartenura Sojourns in Hebron

One of the most well-known Mishna commentators, Rabbi Ovadiah eloquently describes Hebron of the late 1400's.

1.11.18, 16:15
(PHOTO: A street in Jerusalem named after Ovadia of Bartenura.)
 
Ovadiah of Bartenura (1445 - 1515) was an Italian rabbi best known for his popular commentary on the Mishnah and for helping rejuvenated the Jewish community of Jerusalem. He also lived in Hebron. Alternatively spelled Bertinoro, he was named after the city in Italy where he was born. Ovadia MiBartenura, as he is known in Hebrew, is one of the the best known commentaries on the Mishnah. He also published the influential analysis of Rashi's Torah commentary.

When he moved in the Land of Israel in 1488 he became instrumental is alleviating the community from an unjust tax burden and helped set up charity support network. The Spanish Inquisition of 1492 resulted in masses of Jewish refugees arriving in the Land of Israel and Rabbi Ovadiah became a spiritual leader for them as well. he set up a yeshiva in Jerusalem, one of the first in modern times and he became a respected authority for both the Jewish and non-Jewish communities in the holy city. He was buried at the Mount of Olive cemetery where peopel still visit his grave today.
 
His writings are valuable in describing the Jewish community of that period. Published letters describe life in Rome, Naples, Sicily, Alexandria, Cairo, Gaza, Hebron, and Bethlehem.
 
Rabbi Ovadiah also lived briefly in Hebron and wrote that he enjoyed the small, close-knit hospitable Jewish community where he was an influence on Rabbi Shlomo Adani.
 
The following is from Rabbi Ovadia's letters from Bartenura, republished in Letters from the Land of Israel by Avraham Yaari pp. 286-279.

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On the first day, on the 11th of Nisan, we traveled from Gaza on donkeys and came to a village the distance of two parsaot from Hebron and there we stayed that night.
 
On the next day we came to Hebron. It is a small town, sitting on a mountainside. The Muslims call it Al-Khalil. It is divided to two parts, one part of the city is by the Cave of Machpela area, and the other part opposite it, the distance of a bowshot. I was in the Cave of Machpela and saw there was a great Ishmaelite building. They treat it with great honor and fear and to this place arrive those from all Ishmaelite kingdoms to prostrate themselves there.
 
In the cave itself, where the forefathers are buried, they won't let anybody enter, neither an Ishmaelite nor a Jew. But the Ishmaelites stands upstairs dropping through the chimney lit torches which they light the inside the cave. Those who come to prostrate there among the Ishmaelites throw coins into the cave through these chimneys. When they want to take the coins out of there, they lower through by ropes a little boy into the cave. He takes the coins and goes up. This is what the Jews there told me.
 
All of Hebron and its fields and plots of lands belog to the Cave of Machpela. Every day bread and lentil stew or a different kind of lentil dish is served to the poor, whether they are Ishmaelite poor or Jews or uncircumcised, in order to honor the Patriarch Abraham. And there was a small window in the outside of the wall on the back of the cave. They say that this window goes down opposite the Patriarch Abraham's tomb. There, permission is given to the Jews to prostrate themselves and pray in front of this window. Indeed inside the wall which is on the back of the cave, they could not enter. I prayed in front of this small window.
 
On another hilltop opposite the Cave of Machpela, on the top of the mountain, exists a great and beautiful cave with a nice building on top of it. There is a saying that this is the place which Jesse, the father of King David is buried. There we also went to pray and prostrate ourselves on that day. On our way, between Jesse's Tomb and the Cave of Machpela, we saw a well which the Ishmaelites call Beer Ischak, and say it was the well of Isaac the Patriarch, may he rest in peace.
 
Also, close to Hebron, inside the rock stones, there is a Mikvah Mayim Chaim (natural spring ritual bath). They say there Sarah our Matriarch, may she rest in peace, used to immerse herself. Hebron is a rocky ground, a land of mountains, and contains many vineyards and olive groves. Today there lives about twenty households, all of them are rabbis, half of them are from the Converso Spanish community that came from close by to have a shelter by the grace of the Divine Spirit.
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I was then in Jerusalem the holy city... I went to Hebron. I stayed in Hebron many days, staying there was nicer, almost more than when I stayed in Jerusalem, and the Jews there were few but good, and they were not like the Jews in Jerusalem. The tradition that they had in the Land of Israel is that burying people in Hebron is better than burying people in Jerusalem.
 
Near Hebron from the times of our holy fathers there is an old building, a very ancient building made from great stones. There is a new buiding from the Ishmaelites. The place is that in which the angels visited Abraham our Patriarch. Its name is still Mamre, and there is a little cage and inside there is a stone. They say that on this stone Abraham was circumcised. It is outside of the city and not so far away there is a water well. The Ishmaelites call it Beer Ibrahim. A little farther from it they call Beer Yitzhak, and farther from there, not so far away, there is a stream called Nachal Eshkol, and it still has its name. The grapes of this stream are very big, bigger to this day than any grapes that are from all the Land of Israel. And many villages still today around Hebron are of the same name of the villages like those mentioned in the Books of the Prophets.
 
 - Translated from Hebrew by Netta Rafaeli
 
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