Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Hebron's Cave of the Patriarchs Will Be Packed This Weekend.
Photographs from the Cave 100 Years Ago

Cave of the Patriarchs, Hebron (circa 1900)
In synagogues around the world this Sabbath, congregations will read the Torah portion describing Sarah's death and burial.  Abraham purchased the Mearat HaMachpela [literally the "double cave" -- so named either because it had two chambers or it would eventually contain pairs of husbands and their wives].

Genesis 23:  And these were the days of Sarah, 127 years. Sarah died in Kiryat-Arba which is Hebron....Abraham spoke to the Sons of Heth: grant me legal possession of land for a burial site... for its price in full ... 400 shekels of silver.... Thus it was established, the field and the cave that was in it, for Abraham as legally possessed for a burial site from the Sons of Heth."

"Inner entrance to
Machpelah showing mammoth
 stones in Herodian wall"
In Israel, thousands of Jews will converge on Hebron and pray in the Cave of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs during the Sabbath.

The massive building surrounding the gravesite was built by King Herod two thousand years ago.  The actual graves are located in subterranean caverns beneath.  Their locations are marked above ground by cenotaphs -- empty tombs that serve as monuments.

Cenotaph above the Tomb of Sarah
 (circa 1900)
In the 11th and 12th century Jewish travelers documented visiting the caves.  One of them, Binyamin of Tudela, described "two empty caves, and in the third ... six tombs, on 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."  
Tomb of Abraham


The great Jewish scholar Maimonides visited the tombs in 1116 and declared it a personal holy day.   

From the 14th century, however, Jews were not permitted to pray at the shrine.  The Mamluks (an Islamic army of slave soldiers) forbade Jews from visiting the site other than standing on stairs outside.  The practice continued until 1948 when all Jews were banned from the Jordanian-occupied West Bank. 
"Cenotaph of Isaac
showing  distinctive
features of
Crusader Church"

Hebron today, where school boys recently celebrated
completion of the book of Genesis
When Israel captured the area in 1967 Jews were allowed to visit the Cave of the Patriarchs, but Israel allowed the Islamic Waqf authorities to maintain control of large portions of the site. 

Many Jewish families in Israel celebrate weddings, bar mitzvas and circumcisions at the shrine.

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