This place, where previously there had been a goat shed, which had symbolized our disgrace and humiliation, was magnificently renovated and the ancient synagogue was at its center (A short Hebron selichot video appears at the end of this blog entry)
On one of the pillars inside the Avraham Avinu synagogue is a plaque, with the cover page and introduction of a holy book, titled Emek HaMelech, meaning the Valley of the King. This book was authored by Rabbi Naftali Hertz Bachrach and published in 1648. It’s subject matter is Kabbalah, known popularly as “Jewish mysticism.” Towards the end of Chapter nine of the author’s introduction is a short paragraph, short in quantity, but quantitatively, immeasurable.
The story is well known. Exactly 490 years ago, the year 1619, in Hebron: The paragraph, as it is written, in Emek HaMelach:
A wondrous event on Yom Kippur, know that in Hebron there aren’t always ten for public prayer, only on Shabbat and holy days, when villagers gather there and pray with ten and more. But all the residents of Hebron are pious.
And it was on the eve of Yom Kippur, and there were only nine men, and they waited for the villagers to arrive, but not even one came, because they had all gone to Jerusalem, which is a quarter of a day’s walk. And they were greatly saddened that on Yom Kippur they would pray individually and they wept much, and the sun was setting and daylight was disappearing. And they lifted their eyes and here was an elderly man, in the distance, and they were overjoyed to see him. And when he arrived they offered him a final meal, but he blessed them and said that he had eaten on the way. And they worshipped on the holy day and honored him greatly. And the next night they began discussions, because all of them wanted to host the guest in his home. And they compromised and conducted a draw, and the prayer leader (Chazan) was selected, he was a holy man who had wondrous dreams and night visions. And the Chazan led the guest to his home, with the guest walking behind him. And when he arrived at his home, the Chazan turned to honor the guest, that he should enter first, and he saw that the guest was gone. And they searched the entire courtyard, but didn’t find him, and all were greatly saddened, thinking that the guest had left already that night, and did not want to enjoy anything from them. And that night the old man appeared before the Chazan in a dream and told him that he was Avraham Avinu, who had come to complete the minyon because he had seen that they were so upset about having to pray individually. And they were very happy and blessed the Great G-d, who had done wondrous things, Amen, May it be His Will:
From then on, the synagogue was known as the Avraham Avinu synagogue.
**************************************************************** When Jews returned to Hebron following the 1967 Six day war, the ancient shul was gone. A sheep sty and public bathroom occupied the place where the shul had stood for over 400 years.
Due to the dedication and determination of one man, Professor BenTzion Tavgar, zt”l, the area was eventually cleaned out and the shul rebuilt. This year, as every year, Yom Kippur prayers will be heard from this beautiful holy place. Prof. Tavgar, prior to his death, wrote a book called “My Hebron” which was published a few years ago in Hebrew. It was recently translated into English and is now available. The following paragraphs, dealing with the rededication of the Shul and its ancient Torah scrolls, are from the book. While I was in the Synagogue, waiting for the Torah Scroll to be brought in, I looked around once again at the walls of the building. The Synagogue was now splendidly built, more or less approximating its original form, before the Arabs had destroyed it in the 1950s. There might have been a few minimal changes here or there, and perhaps not everything had been completed and it was still necessary to fix something or other, but on the whole, the Synagogue now looked beautiful, it appeared splendid. One could even say that it was impressive, though not very modern.
I let my eyes wander around the interior of the synagogue. I had time to think and recall its previous state, five or six years ago, and thought of the sequence of events that had transpired. When I first came here, the place had indeed gone by the name of “Avraham Avinu Synagogue”, but its name had seemed completely disconnected from its essence. Nothing about it had indicated that it was a synagogue. It had been used as a goat shed. On its eastern side there had been a familiar, or rather, a notorious structure – the public latrine – which had been erected for the use of those who frequented the adjacent Arab wholesale market, and the rest of the site was used as a garbage dump. This place, where previously there had been a goat shed, which had symbolized our disgrace and humiliation, was magnificently renovated and the ancient synagogue was at its center. We can pray in it! This is not something insignificant! It is a great thing, but it is not the conclusive thing, at least not from my point of view. When I had begun to dig here I had not set a goal for myself only to renovate the synagogue and not even the entire Jewish Quarter. My aim had been to change the atmosphere that had enabled the entrenchment of a state of affairs wherein on the site where a synagogue had once been standing in full glory, suddenly three “magnificent” establishments are standing: a goat-shed, a public toilet facility and a garbage dump. According to documents, the functioning of the goat shed within the synagogue had been approved by the Israeli authorities. Someone had signed the leasing contract with the Arab who was using the structure to house his goats. Someone had signed and others had agreed to it, or had turned a blind eye, while on the other hand, there were Jews whose soul had desired to clean the Synagogue, to prepare it and restore its original function, and to turn it once again into a place of prayer. How had this happened? How had such a disgraceful process come about? The Military Administration had been assigned to guard there. The goat-shed, the public toilet and the garbage dump were being guarded by soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces. The government had assigned guards to attack me, with the aim of perpetuating this terrible disgrace. Another thing, possibly even worse, because I find it hard to imagine anything worse, was the judicial persecution, the utilization of the force of the law against me and against others. How many times had they submitted indictments against me?! They had trumped up those indictments. And what were the charges? I am ashamed to say… Sometimes, the “facts” written in the indictment had actually been libelous and impertinent lies completely divorced from reality. Jews had lied with barefaced audacity in order to keep the goats in place of the Synagogue. Many times the trials had been held in military courts. There is no greater shame than to see a scene where the judges, the prosecutor and the witnesses are all wearing the uniform of the Israel Defense Forces, all joining hands to convict you in a field court, without your even having the right to appeal. In any case, I felt very festive during the ceremony and was completely overcome by joy.