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Cavemen

Eruvin 61

“If a man spent Shabbat in  . . . a cave, even though it was like the cave of Zedekiah king of Judah, he may walk through the whole of it and two thousand cubits beyond.”
The daf is obviously talking about a very large cave. What is the cave of King Zedekiah? Rashi explains that it was a cave through which Zedekiah, the last king of Judah, escaped from the Babylonians. The escape is mentioned in the book of Jeremiah, chapter 52. Zedekiah and his soldiers escape from Jerusalemafter the Babylonians breach the wall of the city. He is captured near the plains of Jericho. But there is no cave mentioned in the text.  Rashi again comes to our rescue (here, and with more detail in Ezekiel 12: 13) by telling us about a huge cave that stretched from Zedekiah’s house until the plains of Jericho.

Where is this cave? Clearly it was known in the time of the Tannaim. And indeed we come across mentions of Zedekiah’s Cave from the time of the Gemara, through the Middle Ages and up until modern times. Today you can go to the Old City, near the Damascus Gate and go into Zedekiah’s Cave which was rediscovered in 1854 after having been “missing” for centuries.

 

While the cave is associated with Zedekiah (and occasionally mixed up with the underground tunnel built by Hezekiah – those confusing kings of Judah), on closer examination the story does not connect. First of all, the cave is a dead end. Rather than being a tunnel from Jerusalem to Jericho, it begins near Damascus Gate and goes underneath the Muslim Quarter and ends with a wall. It would make a good hideout but a poor escape route. Second, the cave is clearly not a natural cave but a quarry – you can see exactly how the stones were cut out of the bedrock.

 

The technique of stonecutting brings us inexorably to another king who lived five hundred years after Zedekiah: Herod the great builder of Jerusalem.

So with so many kings to choose from, why is the cave also called “King Solomon’s Quarry?”

 

When it was rediscovered in the nineteenth century, the Freemasons in Jerusalem said that such an amazing building site must belong to the greatest builder of all, their patron King Solomon. They were so taken with the site that they held their annual meetings there.

And how was the cave rediscovered? When the Ottoman Turks rebuilt the walls around Jerusalemin the sixteenth century, they closed the entrance to the cave for security reasons. From then on, the cave took on an almost legendary aspect – people knew it existed but didn’t know where it was. One day in 1854, an English explorer named James Barkley was walking his dog when the dog disappeared. He followed the sound of barking to . . . an opening in the ground that led to a vast chamber. He returned later that night to explore the cave under cover of darkness and realized that this must be the legendary Zedekiah’s Cave.

We don’t know if the rabbis in Eruvin meant the cave that we know of near the Damascus Gate. Perhaps they knew about Zedekiah’s real escape route and we will find that one day as well. Meanwhile, you can visit Zedekiah’s/Solomon’s/Herod’s cave and be awed.
Shulie Mishkin

Shulie Mishkin

Shulie Mishkin made Aliyah from New York with a Master's degree in Jewish History from Columbia University. After completing the Ministry of Tourism guide course in 1997, she began guiding professionally and has since taught and guided all ages, from toddlers to retirees. Her tours provide a complete picture of the land of Israel and Jewish heritage, with a strong reliance on sources ranging from the Bible to 19th century travelers' reports. Alongside her regular guide work, she teaches "tour and text" courses in the Jerusalem institutions of Pardes and Matan as wel as the Women's Bet Midrash in Efrat and provides tours for special needs students in the “Darkaynu” program. Shulie lives in Alon Shvut with her husband Jonathan and their five kids. Shulie Mishkin is now doing virtual tours online. Check out the options at https://www.shuliemishkintours.com/virtual-tours
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