Pioneer of Hasidic Judaism Moves to Hebron

The brother-in-law of the Baal Shem Tov made Hebron his new home in the homeland.

14.11.18, 22:46
(PHOTO: Grave of Rabbi Avraham Gershon of Kitov on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. Credit: Wiki Commons.)

Rabbi Gershon of Kitov was the first major hasidic leader to move to the land of Israel. The brother-in-law of hasidism's founder, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Gershon was also an instrumental figure in Torah thought.

His first home in the Jewish homeland was in Hebron, and his letters to his famous brother-in-law detail life for the Jewish community during the Ottoman era. 

He describes both normalized social interactions between the Arabs and Jews of the city as well as the ban on Jewish entry into the Cave of the Patriarchs and the "Jewish ghetto" as the Jewish neighborhoods were called. 
Rabbi Abraham Gershon of Kitov, also known as Rabbi Gershon of Brody, was born in or near Kuty (Kitov), Poland around 1701 and died in Jerusalem in 1761. 
A descendant of Shabsai Cohen, better known as the Shach, both Abraham Gershon and his father Ephraim of Brody served on rabbinical councils. Originally an opponent to his brother-in-law's new movement, he later came to embrace hasidism.
In 1747, Abraham Gershon traveled to the Land of Israel and lived in Hebron for six years before moving to Jerusalem. He befriended the legendary Yemenite-Jewish scholar the Rashash, Rabbi Shalom Sharabi and studied at the kabbalistic Beit El yeshiva. He passed away in 1761 and was buried on the Mount of Olives where his grave is still visited today.
The Baal Shem Tov's letters to his brother has been widely reprinted. Less known is Rabbi Gershon's letters back to him, in which he describes the land of Israel. 
The following excerpt from one letter describes Hebron: 
"In this holy city, there is a Jewish courtyard which they close during the Sabbath and festivals, no one can come in or out all night, and they are almost not afraid... And when there is a celebration, such as circumcision or some other occasion, the Muslim elders come, and all rejoice. And it is not only this, but the local gentiles, even the greatest ones, love the Jews very much, and whenever there is a celebration, such as circumcision, their leaders come to celebrate with the Jews and dance with the Jews, almost exactly —- not to compare -— just like Jews. When I came here, the city’s highest officer greeted me, and I gave him a nice zibbuk I had from Istanbul. And they love me and say that I brought them great fortune and luck. At the evening of the recent festival of Simhat Torah, when I was designated as Hatan Torah, all the [Jewish] sages came to celebrate with me, and the [Muslim] dignitaries came too, and they were dancing and singing just like the Jews, and praising God in their language, Arabic. And [the Jews] here wear green and colorful clothes, while no one protests!" [Usually, Jews were not allowed to wear green clothes in the Ottoman Empire.]
Members of the Jewish community arose shortly after midnight to recite evening prayers and study at the yeshiva. "They drink water from the wells of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who dug themselves good and healthy water," Rabbi Gershon wrote. The full letter is reprinted in Igrot Erets Yisra'el / Letters from the Land of Israel by Abraham Yaari.

However, another contemporary, Hebron-born Rabbi Haim Abulafia, found quiet and security only in the northern city of Tiberias.

Some scholars see Rabbi Gershon's comments as an indication of better relations with the Muslim population then relations with the Christian population of Europe. Others such as Jerold S. Auerbach, author of Hebron Jews, indicate uneasy relations with the Muslim community. He writes:

"Hebron, like other Jewish communities in Palestine under Ottoman rule, endured debilitating poverty. A mounting debt, extortion by local Arab tribal leaders, and quarrels over the distributions of overseas donations led to the establishment in 1733 of a Committee of Officials for Hebron in Istanbul to collect and transfer funds, advance credit, intercede with rulers, and provide financial assistance. Requiring each Jew in Istanbul to give one para weekly 'for the redemption of the holy city of Hebron,' it sent a fixed donation annually to the Hebron community, where 'Gentiles are threatening and raising their voices' for repayment of debts."
But the influx of Hasidic Jews, specifically from the Chabad - Lubavitch sect, led to a revival of the Jewish community of Hebron, to which Rabbi Gershon can be considered a pioneer.

The book Kahal Hasidim relates a story about Rabbi Gershon, his connection to Hebron and his relationship to the venerated sage Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar, author of the seminal book, Or HaChaim. The Moroccan-born rabbi was a teacher and influence on Chaim Yosef David Azulai, who came from a long line of famous Hebron rabbis. He was also an ancestor to Judah Bibas, a mid-nineteenth-century religious leader who lived in Hebron. 
The chassidic tale references the 700-year ban on non-Muslims entering into the Tomb of the Patriarchs complex.
The Miracle of Rabbi Gershon from Kitov
Once Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov saw that a terrible decree had been decreed against Israel and that the Oral Torah would be destroyed, Heaven forbid. The Baal Shem Tov contacted his brother-in-law Rabbi Gershon of Kitov and told him: 
"You must know, my brother-in-law, that the whole of the people of Israel is in great distress, because it has been decreed that the Oral Torah be taken from them. You must rise with hast and travel to Hebron and enter the Cave of Machpela, where you are to beseech our holy fathers saying, "fathers of the world, all of Israel informs you that we are in great trouble because we are to be deprived of the Oral Torah, therefore we request that you ask for mercy on our behalf."

Rabbi Gershon went to Hebron and asked to enter the Cave of Machpela. The Ishmaelite man rushed toward him to strike him. Rabbi Gershon gave him a gold coin and ran away. And so he did on the second day, on the third day, and on the fourth day. That day, he begged the Ishmaelite to let him enter the Cave of Machpela and gave him a gold coin. The Ishmaelite was filled with compassion for him and gave him permission and he stood there and showed him the way inside and said to him: "you cannot stay there long, in an hour the guard is to be replaced."
Rabbi Gershon entered inside and recited before the graves of the forefathers what his brother-in-law the Baal Shem Tov had instructed him, and at once a feeling of great terror and darkness befell him and his heart left him.
Meanwhile an official came and saw a Jewish man in the courtyard of the Cave of Machpela. He ordered him taken to prison to determine what manner of death sentence should be carried out. 
On the fifth day the author of the Or HaChaim felt a longing to consult with Rabbi Gershon, and they sought him throughout the city, but he was not found. But when he heard people whispering that one Jewish man was caught in the Cave of Machpela, he understood that this must be Rabbi Gershon, and he wept bitterly and refused to be consoled. All that night he put his head between his knees and cried out, "O brother, O brother!"
On Friday morning the order was issued to burn Rabbi Gershon to death. When the Or HaChaim heard this, he went all over the city and cried out loudly and bitterly. When he had finished the Sabbath evening prayers, Rabbi Gershon opened the door and called out happily, "Good Shabbos!" 
With tremendous joy the Or HaChaim became speechless, and his soul almost burst forth from his body.
Translated from Hebrew by Netta Refaeli.
Rabbi Gershon is alternatively known as Gershon Kutover, Gershon the Kotover, Rabbi Gershon of Kuty, and Rabbi Gershon of Kutow and other spellings.

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