One of the most famous pieces of real estate on earth is the Cave of Machpelah (also known as the “Cave of the Patriarchs”) in the southern Israeli city of Hebron.

Machpelah means “doubled” in Hebrew. One reason given is that four prestigious couples are buried there: Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah. (Our matriarch Rachel was buried elsewhere.)

Spiritual Significance of the Cave of the Patriarchs

During our nation’s long, painful journey through history, the holy resting places of our righteous forbearers have served as spiritual oases. The resting place of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs, the founders of our nation, has been a place where Jews have gone to pray from the earliest of times.

In the earliest instance, the Torah tells us that Caleb, one of the twelve scouts that Moses sent to reconnoiter the Land of Canaan, made a personal detour to Hebron. The Talmud tells that he wished to pray at the cave where Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob and Leah are buried. He beseeched the Patriarchs and Matriarchs to intercede with G‑d to have mercy on his soul, and to save him from succumbing to the evil plot hatched by the other spies.

This is a model that we follow to this day when we visit the resting places of holy people to invoke G‑d’s mercy in times of trouble.

The Zohar relates, that the Cave of Machpelah is special not by virtue of those who rest there, but because it is the gateway to the Garden of Eden. Adam, the first man, recognized the uniqueness of the location when he saw a ray of light emanating from the area. He therefore dug the cave as a burial place for himself and his wife. After Adam and Eve were buried there, the light was hidden.

Years later, Abraham uncovered the secret once again when he mistakenly stumbled upon the cave (see Interesting Facts, for the full story). He decided he wanted to be buried there, too, at the gateway to the Garden of Eden.

Our prayers today, especially at this holy place, the gateway to the world of souls, can arouse our fathers and mothers to pray once again on our behalf.

The reputed entrance to the cave (Credit: Pikiwiki/Vered Avud)
The reputed entrance to the cave (Credit: Pikiwiki/Vered Avud)

History of Me’arat Hamachpelah

As recounted in Genesis, Abraham purchased the cave and the surrounding field as a burial place for his wife, Sarah, making it the first plot of land in the Holy Land to become the legal possession of the Jewish people. This took place in 1677 BCE.

Abraham, when he died, was buried there, too, and so were Isaac and his wife, Rebecca. Leah was buried there, and before Jacob died in Egypt, in 1523 BCE, he made Joseph promise that he would carry him out of Egypt and bury him with his fathers in the Cave of Machpelah. And indeed, they made a special journey to do so.

194 years later, a year after the Jews left Egypt, Caleb became the first recorded Jew to make the journey to their resting place and pray (see Spiritual Significance). He was followed by countless others throughout the ages.

The large imposing stone building that stands today above the cave was built by Herod in the 1st century BCE. (In fact, this building, with 6-foot-thick stone walls, is the only fully intact Herodian structure.)

The cave wherein lie our Patriarchs and Matriarchs is beneath this structure. Around the 1490s, access to the cave was closed, and remains closed to this very day.

As descendants of Abraham’s son Ishmael, the Arabs also revere the site of Abraham’s tomb. It is unknown exactly when they first built a mosque within the Herodian walls. The complex was taken over by Crusaders in 1100, but less than a hundred years later, it was converted back into a mosque.

In the late 14th century, the Muslim rulers forbade Jews from entering the site, but they were allowed to approach as close as the fifth step on a staircase at the southeast. At some point, this was changed to the seventh step.

There has been a Jewish community in Hebron for centuries. Throughout the generations, Jews would pray at the Cave of Machpelah, even if they could only go to the seventh step. This ancient Jewish community was destroyed in the massacre of 1929 when Arabs stormed the Jewish Quarter and murdered many Jews. The British government then forced all the survivors to leave the city.

The Cave of the Patriarchs as it appeared in 1906.
The Cave of the Patriarchs as it appeared in 1906.

After the Six-Day War, the area came under Israeli control and the restriction limiting Jews to the seventh step was finally lifted. Jews moved back to Hebron, and a synagogue was re-established at the Cave of our Patriarchs.

The Cave of the Patriarchs Today

In 1995, the Wye River Accords gave the waqf (a Muslim administrative body) control of most of the Cave of Machpelah, including the whole southeastern section, which contains the cenotaphs (monuments) of Isaac and Rebecca (“Ohel Yitzchak”). This is also the area that contains the only known entrance to the Cave, and which possibly lies directly over the Cave itself. Jews pray in the other sections of the building most of the year, and are only allowed to visit Ohel Yitzchak ten days a year. One of these is the Shabbat of Chayei Sarah, when we read the Torah portion that describes Abraham’s purchase of the Cave. Tens of thousands of visitors converge in Hebron during this weekend to experience this Shabbat together.

The Cave of Machpelah is open to tourists and visitors every day. Many Egged buses (equipped with bulletproof windows) travel every day from all of Israel’s major cities to Kiryat Arba, the adjoining Jewish community. Some continue on to the Jewish area of Hebron and the Cave of Machpelah. If you wish to walk from Kiryat Arba to Hebron, it is advisable to do so only with an armed guard.

A Shabbat stay in Hebron, or the adjoining Jewish community of Kiryat Arba, is a really uplifting and beautiful experience. The Friday-night prayers in the synagogue at the Cave of Machpelah are hauntingly beautiful. Spending time at this holiest of venues amongst all different types of Jews is truly inspiring. If you need Shabbat accommodations or if you are in need of any sort of assistance while in Hebron, be sure to contact Rabbi Danny and Batsheva Cohen, the warm couple that direct Chabad operations in this holy city. Click here to contact them.

Praying near the room dedicated to Sarah (Credit: Avishai Teicher)
Praying near the room dedicated to Sarah (Credit: Avishai Teicher)

Me’arat Hamachpelah Facts

  • According to the Midrash, Abraham, who was a resident of Hebron, had a supernatural encounter at the site of the Cave of Machpelah. It was after his circumcision, and he was receiving three angels (disguised as humans) as guests. A calf that he wanted to serve them ran away, and while chasing after it, he stumbled onto this cave. He recognized the graves of Adam and Eve. Candles were lit and there was a special fragrance. He saw the entrance to the Garden of Eden.
  • No one has ever gone into the Caves of the Patriarchs itself, which lies deep underground. Legend tells that none of those who dared such an attempt ever returned. Only one Jew, Rabbi Abraham Azulai, the Kabbalist known as the “Chesed l’Avraham,” is known to have descended into the cave and come out alive. The story took place approximately 300 years ago. The Turkish Sultan had mistakenly dropped his sword into the Cave. After a number of the Sultan’s soldiers were lowered down to retrieve it, only to die underground, the Sultan ordered the Jewish community to supply a volunteer who would retrieve the sword. If not, they would all be killed. Rabbi Azulai, who was then elderly, solved the dilemma by volunteering to go down himself. When he retrieved the sword successfully, the Jews of Hebron celebrated. The next seven days and nights Rabbi Azulai spent teaching his students Kabbalistic secrets. One week after he had been lowered into the cave, he died and was buried in the Jewish cemetery in Hebron.
  • According to Midrashic sources, when Jacob died, Esau tried to stop Jacob’s sons from burying their father in the Cave of Machpelah. While fleet-footed Naftali ran to Egypt to retrieve the deed to Machpelah in order to prove their ownership, Dan’s deaf-and-dumb son, Hushim, saw the commotion and cut off Esau’s head. It rolled into the cave and came to rest in the bosom of his father Isaac, where it remains buried until today.

Me’arat Hamachpelah Links