|ancient Herodian structure over the Cave of |
Machpelah in Hebron, courtesy, Wikipedia
The word Machpelah means "doubled", "multiplied" or "twofold". Therefore, a literal translation would simply be "the double cave". But according to some, the name could refer to the layout of the cave which is thought to consist of two or more connected chambers. This hypothesis is discussed in the tractate Eruvin from the 6th century Babylonian Talmud which cites an argument between two influential rabbis, Rav and Shmuel. Another theory holds that Machpelah didn't refer to the cave but rather a large tract of land, The Machpelah, at the end of which the cave was found. This theory is supported by some Bible verses such as Genesis 49:30, "the cave in the field of Machpelah, near Mamre in Canaan…".
According to Jewish tradition, the cave and adjoining field were purchased by Abraham as a burial plot. This was the first commercial transaction mentioned in the Bible. He had approached the sons of Heth who were charmed by him and told him that he can bury his dead in any of their tombs. Instead, he decided to purchase the site of the Cave of Machpelah from its owner, Ephron the Hittite, for a fair price. Afterward, Abraham’s wife Sarah died, according to Genesis 23:1–20, and was buried in the cave. She was 127 and the only woman in the Bible whose exact age is given. The burial of Sarah is also the first account of a burial in the Bible. In time, Abraham himself followed her, and much later, his son Isaac, and his wife Rebecca, and finally Jacob’s wife Leah. In the final chapter of Genesis, Joseph, ruler of Egypt, had his physicians embalm his father Jacob, before they removed him from Egypt to be buried in the Cave next to Leah. (Jacob’s second wife Rachel was buried in her own tomb on the outskirts of Bethlehem.)
In 31–4 BCE, King Herod the Great built a large, rectangular enclosure over the cave. It is the only fully surviving Herodian structure from the period of Hellenistic Judaism. After the destruction of Jerusalem, the site remained a Jewish pilgrimage center, only now, they were forced to share it with Christians. The Piacenza Pilgrim (c. 570) noted in his pilgrimage account that Jews and Christians shared possession of the site.
The Arab occupation of the 7th century was actually seen as a liberation by the Jews. When they conquered the country they handed over the supervision of Machpelah to the Jews, in recognition of their assistance. They also permitted the building of two small synagogues at the site. Over the years, even though Jews were permitted to pray at the site itself, it officially acted as a mosque as long as it was under Muslim rule (or a church when it was under the control of the Christian Crusaders). During the late 11th century, the Jewish official responsible for the area bore the title of "The Servant to the Fathers of the World." The Jews of Hebron were accustomed to pray daily in Machpelah for the welfare of the head of the Palestinian gaonate. Many Jews sought to be buried in its vicinity considering burial there to be equal to burial on the sacred Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. When the site became a church during the Crusader period, Jews were banned from using the adjoining synagogues. In the mid-12th century, the Arab nobleman from Damascus, Ibn al-Qalanisi in his chronicle alludes to the discovery of relics purported to be those of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, a discovery that excited eager curiosity among all three communities in the southern Levant, Muslim, Christian, and certainly Jewish. Towards the end of the period of Crusader rule, in 1166 Maimonides visited Hebron and wrote, "On Sunday, 9 Marheshvan (October 17), I left Jerusalem for Hebron to kiss the tombs of my ancestors in the Cave. On that day, I stood in the cave and prayed, praise be to God, (in gratitude) for everything." In 1170, Benjamin of Tudela visited the city, which he called by its Frankish name, St. Abram de Bron. He reported: "…there is the great church called St. Abram, and this was a Jewish place of worship at the time of the Mohammedan rule… The custodians tell the pilgrims that these are the tombs of the Patriarchs, for which information the pilgrims give them money. If a Jew comes, however, and gives a special reward, the custodian of the cave opens unto him a gate of iron, which was constructed by our forefathers, and then he is able to descend below by means of steps, holding a lighted candle in his hand. He then reaches a cave, in which nothing is to be found, and a cave beyond, which is likewise empty, but when he reaches the third cave behold there are six sepulchres, those of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, respectively facing those of Sarah, Rebekah and Leah, upon which the names of the three Patriarchs and their wives are inscribed in Hebrew characters. The cave is filled with barrels containing bones of people, which are taken there as to a sacred place. At the end of the field of the Machpelah stands Abraham's house with a spring in front of it". Rabbi Shmuel bar Shimshon visited the cave in 1210 with the permission of the governor of Jerusalem; he says that the visitor must descend by twenty-four steps in a passageway so narrow that the rock touches him on either hand.
When the Egyptian Muslim Mamelukes took over Crusader lands, they forbade Jews, as well as Christians, from entering the site, allowing them only as close as the fifth step on a staircase at the southeast, but after some time this was increased to the seventh step. But they were able to insert petitions into a hole opposite the fourth step. This hole pierces the entire thickness of the wall, to a depth of 6 ft. 6 in. It is first mentioned in 1521, and it can almost certainly be assumed to have been made at the request of the Jews of Hebron, possibly on payment of a large sum, so that their supplications would fall into the cave situated under the floor of the area. The Cave itself was off-limits to everyone, even Muslims.
After Jordan occupied Judea and Samaria in 1948, no Jew was allowed in the territory and consequently no Jew could visit the tomb. Following its liberation by Israel in 1967, Hebron, and Machpelah in particular, came under Jewish control for the first time in 2,000 years and the 700-year-long restriction limiting Jews to the seventh step outside was lifted. According to the autobiography of the Chief Rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces, Major General Rabbi Shlomo Goren, on June 8, during the Six-day war, he made his way from Gush Etzion to Hebron. He then entered the site and began to pray, becoming the first Jew to enter the compound in 700 years. While praying, a messenger from the Mufti of Hebron delivered a surrender note to him, whereby the rabbi replied "This place, Ma'arat HaMachpela, is a place of prayer and peace. Surrender elsewhere."
The stairway leading to the site was destroyed in order to erase the humiliating "seventh step". The first Jewish wedding ceremony to take place there was on August 7, 1968. At the same time, a special arrangement was made to accommodate Jewish services on the Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement. This led to a hand-grenade being thrown on the stairway leading to the tomb on October 9; 47 Israelis were injured, 8 seriously. However, that same day, the first Jew to enter the underground caves was Michal Arbel, the 13-year-old daughter of Yehuda Arbel, chief of Shin Bet operations in Judea and Samaria, because she was slender enough to be lowered into the narrow hole and gain access to the tomb site, after which she took photographs. A group of Israeli residents in the area then reestablished a small synagogue under the mosque. On November 4, a large explosion went off near the gate to the compound and 6 people, Jews and Arabs, were wounded. On Yom Kippur eve, in 1976, an Arab mob destroyed several Torah scrolls and prayer books at the tomb. In May 1980, an attack on Jewish worshippers returning from prayers at the tomb left 6 dead and 17 wounded. In 1981, a Jewish group lead by Noam Arnon took photos of the burial chambers. Tensions would later increase when the Zionist authorities under Yitzhak Rabin decided to backstab the Jews and sign the Oslo Accords in September 1993. It was only a matter of time before something tragic would happen. In February 1994, 29 Arabs were killed at the site and scores injured by a Jewish resident of Kiryat Arba, Baruch Goldstein. The resulting riots resulted in a further 35 deaths. The increased sensitivity of the site meant that in 1996, the Wye River Accords included a temporary status agreement restricting access for both Jews and Muslims. As part of this agreement, the Jews control the southwestern section. Muslims are allowed free reign over the entire site but the waqf (Islamic charitable trust) controls 81% of it which includes the whole of the southeastern section which lies above the only known entrance to the caves and possibly over the entirety of the caves themselves. In consequence, Jews are not permitted to visit the Cenotaphs of Isaac or Rebecca, which lie entirely within the southeastern section, except for 10 days a year that hold special significance in Judaism. Tourists are permitted to enter the site. Furthermore, it is illegal for Jewish religious authorities to maintain the site, allowing only the waqf to do so.
Security at the site has increased since the Intifada On February 21, 2010, the Zionists, uncharacteristically, announced that it would include the Cave of Machpelah in a national heritage site protection and rehabilitation plan. This made the UN, the Arab governments, and the Obama administration, very angry.