The Four Holy Cities

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If Israel is the “Holy Land”, there are some cities in Israel that have been deemed the “holy of holies”. These are cities with special historical and spiritual significance to the Jewish People. And, although there are several other cities one can claim should have made the high-holy list, these four are those who have endured and maintained their special status throughout the centuries. The list includes Hebron, Jerusalem, Tiberius and Tzefat.
Hebron, a truly ancient city, is mentioned repeatedly in the bible. The very beginnings of the People of Israel lie in this very city. Abraham and Sarah settled in Hebron after living in Shechem (Nablus). It was there that Sarah died and Abraham purchased a burial place for her, the Cave of Machpelah.
“And Sarah died in Kiriat Arba–the same is Hebron–in the land of Canaan; and Abraham came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her.” (Genesis 24:2)…. ” And Abraham hearkened unto Ephron; and Abraham weighed to Ephron the silver, which he had named in the hearing of the children of Heth, four hundred shekels of silver, current money with the merchant… And after this, Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah before Mamre–the same is Hebron–in the land of Canaan.” (Genesis 24:16,19) It was in this very burial place in Hebron that all of the matriarchs and patriarchs were buried (with the exception of Rachel who was buried in Bethlehem), and Jewish sources say that Adam and Eve were buried there as well. Hebron houses not only the roots of the Jewish nation, but those of all mankind.
Hebron is located in the mountains, one of the highest cities in Israel. It is also one of the oldest cities in Israel and in the entire world. This was the capital of King David’s empire until he moved it northwards to Jerusalem, which is the capital of the State of Israel today 3000 years after.
Jerusalem was not yet a city during the times of Abraham and yet, according to tradition, was the site of the offering of Isaac.
“And it came to pass after these things, that God did prove Abraham, and said unto him: ‘Abraham’; and he said: ‘Here am I.’ And He said: ‘Take now thy son, thine only son, whom thou lovest, even Isaac, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt-offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.'” (Genesis 22: 1-2)
The land of Moriah, also known as Mount Moriah, was another name for the Temple Mount and thus, thousands of years later, it is that mountain that King David purchases and his son, King Solomon, builds the holy temple. There is so much tradition and Jewish history focused and concentrated in that one city, Jerusalem, the capital of King David’s kingdom and the kingdom of Judah, the home of the holy Temple. Jerusalem is a city that has experienced thousands of years of political intrigue, wars, peace, religious devotion, exiles, rebuilding, destruction and again rebuilding. For thousands of years of exile the Jewish people prayed for their return to the land of Israel and the rebuilding of their homeland and the holy Temple while facing Jerusalem and the Temple Mount.
Another name for Jerusalem is Zion. “Nevertheless David took the stronghold of Zion; the same is the city of David” (Samuel II 5:7) “Do good in Thy favor unto Zion; build the walls of Jerusalem.” (Psalms 51:20) The name Zion in turn became the word which most strongly symbolized the longing of the Jewish People to return to their land and the holy city of Jerusalem. Thus the Zionist movement chose this as its name. From the day that King David moved his capital to Jerusalem, it has remained the heart and the soul of the Jewish People.
Yet there were dark times for the Jewish nation. One of these dark periods took place under the rule of the Roman Empire. The Romans wanted to weaken the Jewish People and persecuted and oppressed them and their spiritual leadership. The hub of the Jewish spiritual leadership was the Sanhedrin, the high court of the People of Israel, which consisted of 71 scholars of Jewish law, of high moral and spiritual stature, who sat in a hall called the Chamber of Hewn Stone adjacent to the Holy Temple. As the Romans began to persecute the members of the Sanhedrin, and consequently destroyed the Temple, it was necessary for the Sanhedrin to relocate again and again. Thus the Sanhedrin began a long journey, wandering from place to place until it came to its final residence in Tiberias, on the banks of the Sea of Galilee.
‘Correspondingly the Sanhedrin wandered to ten places of banishment, as we know from tradition’, namely, from the Chamber of Hewn Stone to Hanuth, and from Hanuth to Jerusalem, and from Jerusalem to Jabneh, and from Jabneh to Usha, and from Usha [back] to Jabneh, and from Jabneh [back] to Usha, and from Usha to Shefar’am, and from Shefar’am to Beth She’arim, and from Beth She’arim to Sepphoris, and from Sepphoris to Tiberias…” (Babylonian Talmud, tractate Rosh HaShana 31b)
The Jerusalem Talmud was written and sealed in Tiberius and many Torah scholars including Maimonides, throughout the ages resided and were buried there. Thus Tiberius, in offering a refuge to the spiritual leadership and Torah scholars, was dubbed one of the “holy cities”.
Tzefat, an ancient city believed to be built by one of the sons of Noah, is perched on the high mountains of the Galilee. It’s name “Tzefat” comes from the Hebrew word “litzfot” or to view. Tzefat’s high location offers an incredible view of the entire region. In the days of the Sanhedrin, when they wanted to announce the new moon and the new month (which could only be done by witnesses of the new moon) throughout the land of Israel, they would light bonfires on the highest mountains and Tzefat is mentioned there as one of these mountains.
Many Jews began to move to the Galilee during the middle ages as they fled persecution in other areas of the country. With time came great Torah scholars such as Rabbi Josef Kairo, the author of the Shulchan Aruch, the monumental work which codified Jewish law, essential for observant Jews throughout the world until this day. Many kabbalists (scholars of Jewish mysticism) also came to Tzfat, the most renowned among them, Rabbi Yitzchak (Isaac) Luria known to all as the “ARI” (the acronym for “ou r Master, Rabbi Isaac”) who wrote the famous kabbalistic work The Zohar. Tzefat became a haven for religious scholars, poets, and lyricists. Later came followers of the Chassidic movement and added their special flavor to the city. Today Tzefat is a spiritual center which attracts tourists to its many ancient and less ancient sites and its magnificent view. Tzefat, like Tiberius, joined the list of the holy cities due to its distinguished inhabitants.
The four holy cities of Israel, with their very different histories and qualities continue to lend a unique blend of old and new and an aura of spirituality, of holiness to the Holy Land.

Published: June 4, 2015
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