History

The Tomb of Machpela

An overview of the cave from Biblical times through the present including an explanation of the name "Machpela" and historical travelogues from centuries past.

1.12.15, 20:11
(Photo: Yuvalhuck / Wiki Commons)
 
The Cave of Machpela was the first land purchase by a Jew in Eretz Yisrael. For this reason it is a unique site in the annals of Jewish history.

The great sages of the Jewish People teach that Abraham purchased the Cave of Machpela for the full market price rather than receive it as a gift, so that the nations of that world would never be able to dispute the eternal ownership by the People of Israel. Later, for the very same reason, Jacob and King David purchased the city of Shechem and the city of Jerusalem respectively. This idea is expressed in the following Midrash (Biblical commentary). (Genesis / Beresheet Rabba 79:7):

Said Rabbi Yuden the son of Simon: ”This is one of the three places that the nations (of the world) can never castigate the Jewish people and say “you are occupying stolen territory”. These are the three places: 
 
= The Cave of the Machpela,
= the Holy Temple Mount
= Joseph’s burial site.
 
The Cave of the Machpela because it is said: ”And Abraham counted out to Ephron the money he had spoken of to the sons of Het -- four hundred shekels of valid currency” (Genesis 23:16).
 
The three places: The Cave of Machpela - the earliest land purchase site, together with Shechem and Jerusalem, are the genuine of continued Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel. These are the very locations where the nations of the world have attempted to claim: ”You are occupying stolen property.”

A special significance is attributed by Jewish scholars, to the purchase of the Cave of the Machpela as they compare it to the Ten Commandments:

“Said Rabbi Eliezer: How much ink is spilled and how many quills are worn out in the writing of the words: ‘The sons of Het’, (who sold the site to Abraham) [for these words, ‘the sons of Het’ are mentioned] ten times-corresponding to the same number of the Ten Commandments”. (Genesis Rabba 58:8).

The very detailed description of the purchase of the Cave of the Machpela by Abraham, the cornerstone of the Jewish People’s affiliation to Eretz Yisrael, is equated to the Ten Commandments - the very basis of the Torah given to the people of Israel.

The purchase of the Cave of the Machpela prior to any other place in the Land of Israel--even before Jerusalem-the site of the Holy Temple--is not perceived by our sages as a mere coincidence. On the contrary, they tell us that Abraham, knowingly and willingly relinquished his right to conquer or purchase Jerusalem as a condition to buying the Cave of the Machpela. This action postponed the acquisition of Jerusalem by more than eight centuries. The following Midrashic illustration from “Pirkei Derabi Eliezer”(Chapter 36) serves as a basis for this teaching:

Abraham advised the Jebusites of his wish to buy the Cave of the Machpela, at a good price, for gold and a legal deed to the place that would be a burial site.

Were they Jebusites? Weren’t they Hittites?--but they were named Jebusites because of their proximity to Jebusite city.
They did not agree. He (Abraham) began kneeling and bowing to them, as it is said: ”And Abraham bowed in front of the people of the land”. They said to him: We know that the All-Mighty will give all of these lands to you and your descendants; enter into an oath with us that the sons of Israel will inherit the city of Jebus only with the consent of the Jebusite people.

Later he purchased the Cave of the Machpela with gold and an everlasting deed. When the people of Israel came into the Land of Israel, they wanted to enter into the Jebusite city. However, they were unable to do so because of Abraham’s oath and covenant with the Jebusites, as it is said: ”And the Jebusite-the settlers of Jerusalem, they (The people of Israel) did not inherit it. (Judges 1:21)

This Midrash comes to teach us, not that Avraham really relinquished Jerusalem, but that he saw Hebron as the foundation of the Jewish People in Israel, without which, we would never reach the holiness of Jerusalem.
 

THE MEANING OF THE NAME “MACHPELA”
 
The name “Machpela” given to the Field and the Cave has been largely expounded upon by our sages:
                ·     “Machpela” means “Multiple.” - housing multiples of couples: Adam & Eve, Abraham & Sarah, Isaac & Rebecca, Jacob & Leah. (Tract. Eruvin 53a)
                ·     The cave has a double structure:” Two houses, one inside the other” or, ”a house with another floor above it”. (Tract. Eruvin 53a)
                ·     The virtue of whoever is buried there: ”Whoever is interred there has multiple reward” (Br. Rab. 58).
                ·     Adam was buried there by the All-Mighty (Br. Rab. 58).

The mystical book of the Zohar elaborates on the question of the meaning of the term “Machpela” as it analyzes the contextual usage of this term: Sometimes the word is use as “The Field of the Machpela” and other times as “The Cave of the Machpela.” The Zohar reports:

“Rabbi El’azar asked his father Rabbi Shimon: The term multiple cannot possibly refer to the cave because it is written, ”The cave of Machpela” and later on it is referred to as the Cave of the Field of the Machpela, hence the name “Machpela”-multiple refers only to the Field. Rabbi Shimons’ response: ”They are both called the Machpela”.
 
One way to explain Rabbi Shimon’s response is that the word Machpela means both “multiple” and “folded.” The Zohar describes the following:

“The Cave of the Machpela. Take note, Jerusalem and all of the Land of Israel was folded under it”.
This symbolic description expresses the meaning of the purchase made by Abraham . This purchase therefore included the purchase of the land which was “folded and multiplied under the Cave”.
 

FROM TRAVELOGUES THROUGH THE CENTURIES

Through the centuries, Hebron and the Cave of Machpela continued to be the focus of the yearnings of the Jewish people. Despite the perils of the journey and the hardships they incurred, Jews continued to make the trek to the City of their Forefathers. To distinguished travelers to the Holyland, Hebron and the Cave of the Machpela were important sites. Their description of them are evidence of the unbroken chain of the Jewish People’s connection to Hebron and their perseverance even under harsh conditions.
 
= Rambam 
 
In 1166 Maimonides, the Rambam, visited the Holy Land. In the preface to his commentary on the tractate of Rosh Hashana he writes of his visit to Hebron.
 
"And on the first day of the week, the ninth day of the month of Heshvan, I left Jerusalem for Hebron to kiss the graves of my forefathers in the Cave of Machpela. And on that very day I stood in the Cave and I prayed, praised be G-d for everything. And these two days, the sixth (when he prayed on Temple Mount in Jerusalem) and the ninth of Mar-Heshvan I vowed to make as a special holiday and in which I will rejoice with prayer, food and drink. May the Lord help me to keep my vows.." At the edge of the field is the house of Abraham, And it is forbidden to build a home there, in respect to Abraham. From the introduction of Tractate Rosh HaShana)
 
= From the Travels of Reb Benjamin of Tudelah (1173):
 
"And in the valley is the Cave of Machpela, if a Jew should pay the Ishmaelite watchman, he will open for him an iron gate. From there one descends stairs with a candle in hand. Upon reaching the third cave one will find six graves. These are the graves of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and opposite them, Sarah, Rebecca and Leah, And inside the cave are many barrels, filled with bones of Israelites who would bring the bones of their dead to the Cave in the age of Israel.:
 
 
= Rabbi Petachia of Regensberg writes of his visit to Hebron in 1185.
 
"The watchman led me down the stairs, with candles lit. In the middle of the cave is an opening in the ground. From the opening came a strong wind which extinguished the candles. That is the burial place of our forefathers, and I prayed there . . . And in the place where the angels appeared to Abraham is an ancient tree with three large limbs. Tradition has it that when the angels leaned against the tree, it split into three parts. And the fruits of that tree are most sweet.”
 
= From the letters of the famous commentator of the Mishna, Rabbi Ovadiah of Bartenura, (1488):
 
"Over the Cave of Machpela is a large building of the Ishmaelites, who regard the sacred site with fear and awe. No person, Jew or Ishmaelite, is allowed to descend to the Cave, And there is a small window in the outer wall of the building, which is above the grave of Abraham, and there the Jews are allowed to pray. And in Hebron live 20 Jewish families, all of them scholars, some of them descendants of the Morannos, who came to find refuge under the wings of the Divine Presence , . I lived in Hebron for many months.”
 
= Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Katinetz, (1850):
 
"At evening we safely reached Hebron. Hebron is a large city. The Jews of Hebron are Sephardic, and there is also a Chabad community. They are very charitable people and provide for all the needs of any traveler visiting the city. It is forbidden for a Jew to enter the building over the Cave of Machpela. The Jews pray on the seventh stair. There is a hole in the wall which reaches down to the graves. The Jews wrote their prayers on small pieces of parchment and slip them through the hole.”
 
= From the journal of Mrs. Judith Montefiore (1838):
 
“The 15th of June, Hebron. The Jews of Hebron are very poor but are possessed of a unique charm. Love of the Land of their Forefathers fills their hearts and is preferable to them than palaces of kings. The Jewish community accorded us much honor. This city is blessed with vineyards, groves of olive trees and fruits of many kinds, more than in cities of Europe. I desired to build a house amidst the lush greenery so that I could feast my eyes on the idyllic beauty through all the seasons of the year.”
 
= D. Avishar, resident of Hebron, early 1900's:
 
"The month of Elul in Hebron brought with it hundreds of visitors from afar. The first to arrive, by foot, would be the young men from Tsor, Sidon and Damascus. When the visitors would reach the out-skirts of Hebron, the youngsters and community leaders, singing joyously, would go out to welcome them and accompany them to the community inn. The visit of the young men would bring great joy to the Hebron community. During the day the visitors would pray at the Cave of Machpela and other holy places in the city. At night they would dance and sing, and the entire community would come to the inn to participate in the festivities.”
 
= Menashe Mani, resident of Hebron, early 1900's:
 
“The eve of Sabbath. The narrow alleys of the Jewish Quarter have been scrubbed in honor of the holy day. The song Lecha Dodi, welcoming the Sabbath Queen, reverberates through the Quarter. The worshippers, dressed in white and bedecked in prayer shawls, make their way to the courtyard of the ancient synagogue. Facing the olive groves and the Judean hills, their voices resound in excitement as they beckon the Sabbath, `Boee Kallah, Boee Kallah, Welcome beloved, Sabbath Queen.' The worshippers return to the synagogue, aglow with the lamps of olive oil, circle the ark and continue to chant, `A Psalm for the Sabbath Day - - A hot summer's day, 1929. We are traveling to Hebron. The journey to Hebron is long and arduous. Following a warm welcome at the inn of Rabbi Shneur Zalman Schneerson we turn toward the Cave of Machpela. As we walk, an Arab calls after us, `Jewish dogs!' and throws at us a watermelon rind. We quicken our pace and arrive at the Cave. We stand on the seventh step, past which Jews are forbidden to ascend. One of our companions rests his foot on the 8th step. Immediately the Arab guard appears, and pushes him down amidst curses.”
 
= Reported by S. Avidor in Panim El Panim 1976:
 
1967-The Israel Defense Forces liberate Hebron. Jews by the thousands stream daily to the Cave of Machpela. "Hundreds of men and women stand next to the grave markers in the Cave. They recite psalms and shed tears. It seems that all burdens of the heart find vent here, by the Fathers and Mothers of our nation. A group of Yemenite Jews with curled side-locks sway in enthusiastic prayer. Suddenly, one of the group unveils a long ram's horn and blows 'Tekiya, Shevarim, Tekiya.' In another corner a French Jew is chanting the Biblical story of the `Akeidah.' Nearby, a Breslover Chasid stands immersed in prayer. A Moroccan woman kisses Sarah's grave marker and wails, `Mother, Mother!'
From the Cave of Machpela, we continued toward the Old Jewish Quarter. We searched for the small gate leading to the courtyard that was home to Jews for hundreds of years. In this Quarter lived the renowned Kabbalist, Rabbi Avraham Azulai. and the scholarly `Sde Chemed.' They prayed here in the ancient Avraham Avinu Synagogue. We searched and searched, but as if in a nightmare, could not find a trace. We asked the Arab passers-by to direct us to the Jewish Quarter, but they pointed us in the opposite direction. Only after an intensive quest did we realize that we were standing next to the Jewish Quarter the entire time.
 
The Quarter, however, is almost completely destroyed. The Avraham Avinu Synagogue has been desecrated-the holy arks in it burned. The Jewish Quarter has been reduced to rubble. From the Jewish Quarter we set out to find the ancient Jewish cemetery. Where the cemetery once stood we discovered a cabbage patch.'