In the early 1640s, the sultan of the Ottoman Empire made a journey from his seat of government in far-off Turkey to places of importance in his domains.

He made his way to the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron. He entered, adorned in his traditional ruling garb, including the golden sword, studded with diamonds and precious stones, which hung at his side. The Sultan wandered from room to room, finally entering the huge hall named after the Patriarch Yitzchak.

The hole is perhaps the most sacred spot in the entire illustrious structure...

The center of attraction in the Yitzchak Hall is a small circular hole in the floor, near the wall shared with the smaller Avraham Hall. The hole is perhaps the most sacred spot in the entire illustrious structure above the burial caves of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, for it leads down into the caves themselves. Pilgrims from all over the world journey for weeks and months just to have the opportunity to stand by this small, dark, circular opening, leading into the cave, which according to tradition was excavated by Adam, the first man.

The Sultan leaned over the revered aperture, peering down into it. As he bent over, his precious sword fell from his side, down into the cavity in the ground. Hearing the clang of metal hitting the ground, the sultan realized that his sword lay in the caves underneath. The sultan called the officer of the guard and ordered him to lower a soldier through the hole into the caves below, to retrieve his sword.

Quick to respond to the sultan’s order, the officer selected a soldier nearby. Another soldier wrapped a rope around his waist and lowered the soldier into the underground cavern. No sooner had they done so when, without warning, piercing screams penetrated from inside the hole below. Quickly they pulled up the soldier, but he was dead. The sultan ordered that another soldier be lowered into the caves. So it was, and his fate was precisely as his predecessor’s.

Quickly they pulled up the soldier, but he was dead.

The sultan continued to send soldiers into the caves, until it became apparent that all who enter the caves do not exit alive. The sultan turned to his hosts and exclaimed, “Who will return to me my sword?” The Arabs, looking at one another, answered without hesitating. “Why not send down a Jew? If he dies, none of us would care, and if not, you will have your precious saber back.” So the Jews were ordered, on pain of death, to supply a volunteer to be lowered into the caves to return the sultan’s sword to him.

The Jews of Hebron had heard what happened to the sultan’s soldiers. How could they send one of their own to his death? They prayed and fasted, hoping to avert the decree. Realizing that they had no choice, they looked at one another. Who would dare to enter the sacred caves of the Patriarchs?

The elderly rabbi of the community, the Kabbalist and sage Rabbi Avraham Azulai, author of Chesed L’Avraham, solved the dilemma. “I will enter the holy caves. Have no fear.” And so it was. After praying and pleading before the G‑d of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, Rabbi Avraham Azulai immersed himself in the mikvah and dressed in white garments, the traditional dress of the dead. He set forth to the Cave of Machpelah.

With a rope tied around his waist, Rabbi Azulai was lowered into the cave. When his feet hit the ground, Rabbi Azulai looked around him and found, standing by his side, three bearded men. “We are your forefathers,” they told him, “Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov.” Rabbi Azulai was dumbfounded. Finally he said to them, “Why should I leave here and go back above? I am elderly, and here I have found my forefathers. I desire only to stay here with you.”

“Why should I leave here and go back above?..."

The Patriarchs insisted, “You must return the sword to the sultan. If not, the entire Jewish community of Hebron is liable to be wiped out. But have no fear. In another seven days you will return here, to be with us.”

So the saintly rabbi returned to the Yitzchak Hall, above the cave of the Patriarchs, and with him was the sultan’s sword. The sultan was pleased. Upon seeing their beloved rabbi return alive, the Jews of Hebron declared the day a holiday. Rabbi Avraham Azulai spent the next week with his students, teaching them all the esoteric teachings of Torah. Day and night he learned with them, instructing them, imparting to them all that he knew.

Seven days after being lowered into the Cave of Machpelah, Rabbi Avraham Azulai returned his soul to his Maker, dying peacefully in his home. He was brought to rest in the ancient Jewish cemetery in Hebron, overlooking the final resting place of his beloved forefathers, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov.

Adapted by Yerachmiel Tilles from

Biographical note:
Rabbi Avraham Azulai (1570–1643) authored the well-known Kabbalistic work Chesed L’Avraham. He is the ancestor of one of the most famous Sephardic sages, Chida (Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai, 1724–1806).

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