Machpelah, Cave of
MACHPELAH, CAVE OF
MACHPELAH, CAVE OF (Heb. מְעָרַת הַמַּכְפֵּלָה). The word "Machpelah," which in the Bible always appears with a definite article, is variously the name of a cave (Gen. 23:9, 19; 25:9); a field, "the cave which is in the field of Machpelah" (Gen. 49:30); and a place, "the field of Ephron, which was in Machpelah" (Gen. 23:17). The actual meaning of "Machpelah" is understood by all the early translations (Targum, Septuagint, et al.) as well as by the rabbis to mean "double" (from the Hebrew root k-p-l) and is interpreted in rabbinical literature as referring either to a double cave or to the "couples" buried in the cave. Machpelah is situated near Mamre, identified with Hebron (Gen. 23:19, 33:19). The Bible relates that Abraham, wishing to bury Sarah, purchased Machpelah from Ephron the Hittite for 400 silver shekels. Abraham himself, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah were all later buried there. Jacob specifically commanded his sons not to bury him in Egypt but to lay him to rest with his fathers in the cave of Machpelah (Gen. 47:28–31; 49:30).
The site of the cave is today identified with Ḥaram el-Khalīl in modern Hebron. Surrounding the area, to a height of 39 ft. (12 m.), is a magnificent wall, distinguished by its decorative drafted-margin masonry, which are up to 23 ft. (7.5 m.) in length, and a very particular arrangement of pilasters. This wall is attributed to the time of Herod the Great and surrounding walls with pilasters also existed at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and at Mamre (Ramat el-Khalil) (see Jacobson, Magen). Josephus, who describes the tombs of the patriarchs as "of really fine marble and exquisite workmanship" (Jos., Wars 4:532), does not, however, mention the surrounding wall (temenos). The first to prepare a plan of the structure was Ermete Pierotti between 1854 and 1861. A major study of the monument was later made by L.H. Vincent and E.J.H. Mackay following World War i in 1919. In 1968–69 excavations were conducted by Z. Yeivin along the southwestern side of the surrounding wall, bringing to light leveled rock surfaces, cupmarks, and a plastered installation. Interestingly, the monumental Herodian walls were very carefully adapted to the irregularities of the underlying surface of the rock, perhaps in an attempt to preserve the holiness of the hill.
The earliest source on the arrangement of the Patriarchal graves is in the Book of Jubilees (36:21) which states that "Leah is buried to the left of Sarah." According to the Jerusalem Talmud, the graves of the patriarchs are situated in the form used for the partaking of a meal; the most prominent reclining at the head, on the middle couch, the second above him and the third below him (tj, Ta'an. 4:2). The two structures, which today mark the tombs of Abraham and Sarah, are indeed in the center of the compound area. The tombs of Jacob and Leah are at the northwestern end so that when facing the tombs from the southwest – the probable original entrance – the tomb of Leah is in fact to the left of Sarah's. The area inside the compound was evidently originally left roofless (a similar conclusion may be reached regarding the Mamre compound). The Byzantines built a church, later converted by the Muslims into a mosque, at the southeastern extremity, which left the two constructions marking Isaac and Rebekah's tombs inside, while those for Abraham and Sarah were outside, at the entrance. In the floor, inside the mosque, are two openings leading to the cave underneath. One of these, at the southeast wall, is covered by stone slabs fixed with iron hooks. The other, at the opposite wall, is open, as a Muslim custom requires the lowering of an oil lamp which is continually lit. The actual form of the cavern is uncertain but from the accounts of travelers it seems safe to conclude that there are at least two caves joined by a passage and possibly a third inner chamber. The entrance to the caves (apart from the two openings) is inaccessible today, though following the Six-Day War, Moshe *Dayan, who was serving as defense minister at that time, managed to gain access to a flight of steps leading to a narrow subterranean tunnel extending beneath the tomb of Isaac and leading to a chamber containing Moslem inscribed plaques. Rabbinic sources mention the burial of Adam and Eve in the Machpelah and the alternative biblical name for Hebron, Kiriath-Arba ("the town of the four"), is explained to refer to the four couples buried there. According to Josephus and apocryphal sources, the sons of Jacob were also buried in the Machpelah. A Muslim tradition maintains that Joseph was buried here, his tomb and the Mosque of Joseph being just outside the southwest exit of the compound. This tradition is probably due to a corruption of the Arabic name for Esau, whose head, according to aggadic sources, fell within the cave after he had been killed in a battle for the right of burial in the Machpelah (Sot. 13a; Pdre 39).
During the Byzantine period, the Jews were authorized to pray within the area. The Christians entered through one gate and the Jews through another, offering incense while doing so; when the Arabs conquered the country they handed over the supervision of the cave of Machpelah to the Jews, in recognition of their assistance. During the late 11th century, the 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 the cave of Machpelah for the welfare of the head of the Palestinian gaonate. Many Jews sought to be buried in the vicinity of the cave of Machpelah. It was then written of them that "their resting-place was with that of the Fathers of the World." *Benjamin of Tudela, the 12th-century traveler, relates that "many barrels, full of the remains of Jews, were brought there and they are still laid to rest there to this day." The Mamluk sultan Baybars prohibited the Jews and Christians from praying within the area (1267). Jews, however, were permitted to ascend five, later seven, steps on the side of the eastern wall and 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. (2.25 m.). 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 extremity of the hole is below the blocked opening in the mosque floor and leads to the cave.
Following the Six-Day War of 1967 the Machpelah became a popular center of pilgrimage, and Jews, after a period of 700 years, were once more able to visit the tombs of the patriarchs, and regular services were held there. Though strictly regulated, the use of the Machpelah by Jews and Muslims has made it one more bone of contention in a divided city. On Purim, February 25, 1994, Baruch Goldstein, Kiryat Arba's medical doctor, entered the Machpelah during Muslim prayers and opened fire with an automatic weapon, killing 29 and wounding 100.
I.S. Horowitz, Ereẓ Yisrael u-Shekhenoteha (1923), 248–63; L.-H. Vincent and E.J.H. Mackay, Hébron, Le Haram el-Khalīl, Sépulture des Patriarches (1923); Braslavi, in: Eretz Israel, 5 (1958), 220–3; idem, in: Beit Mikra, 14 (1969), I, 50–56; Luria, ibid., 13 (1968), iii, 10–11; M. Ha-Kohen, Me'arat ha-Makhpelah ba-Mekorot u-va-Masorot (1965); O. Avisar (ed.), Sefer Ḥevron (1970). add. bibliography: Z. Yeivin, "Note on the Makhpelah Cave (Hebron)," in: Atiqot, 7 (Hebrew Series, 1974), 58–60; Z. Yeivin, "The Cave of Machpelah," in: Qadmoniot, 9:36 (1976), 125–29; M. Dayan, "The Cave Beneath the Mosque," ibid., 129–31; D.M. Jacobson, "Decorative Drafted-Margin Masonry in Jerusalem and Hebron and Its Relations," in: Levant, 32 (2000), 135–54; Y. Magen, "Mamre: A Cultic Site from the Reign of Herod," in: C. Bottini, L. Di Segni, and L. Daniel Chrupcala (eds.), One Land – Many Cultures (2003), 245–57.
[Joseph Braslavi (Braslavski) /
Shimon Gibson (2nd ed)]