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Fathers and Sons

If you visit the Cave of the Patriarchs (Maarat haMachpelah) in Hebron today, besides the main rooms assigned to Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah; there is another room, barred and locked but still visible. Ask a Muslim who is buried there and he will say Joseph, son of Jacob. But ask a Jew and she will tell you that at the end of the book of Joshua we learn that Joseph is buried in Shechem, So who is this room for? Tradition ascribes this room to none other than Esau鈥檚 head. The background for that fabulous, if gory midrash is here on our daf in Sotah. When Joseph and his brothers arrive in Hebron to bury Jacob in Maarat haMachpelah, Esau comes to challenge them and claim the space for himself. The brothers send Naftali, the swiftest runner, to Egypt to retrieve the bill of sale that Esau had given Jacob for the plot. Meanwhile:

鈥淗ushim, the son of Dan, was there and his ears were heavy, i.e., he was hard of hearing. He said to them: What is this that is delaying the burial? And they said to him: This one, Esau, is preventing us from burying Jacob until Naphtali comes back from the land of Egypt with the bill of sale. He said to them: And until Naphtali comes back from the land of Egypt will our father鈥檚 father lie in degradation? He took a club and hit Esau on the head, and Esau鈥檚 eyes fell out and they fell on the legs of Jacob. Jacob opened his eyes and smiled. And this is that which is written: 鈥淭he righteous shall rejoice when he sees the vengeance; he shall wash his feet in the blood of the wicked鈥 (Psalms 58:11). At that moment the prophecy of Rebecca was fulfilled, as it is written that Rebecca said of Jacob and Esau: 鈥淲hy should I be bereaved of you both in one day?鈥 (Genesis 27:40)鈥 (Sotah 13a)

A 1911 photo identifying the Esau tomb as Joseph’s tomb

Photo by C. Raad. Northern British-Israel Review. January 1911. (Glasgow). Editor Mr M. Graham Coltart., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Hebron is the beginning of the Jewish story in the land of Israel. Abraham bought the first piece of land here and dug the first graves here. It is no coincidence that when we talk about which cities correspond to which basic elements, Hebron is earth. Here are our ancient roots in this land. Tens of thousands of visitors to the Cave of the Patriarchs come to feel that connection. What is the story behind the Cave and the purchase?

Abraham had a basic need- a place to bury his wife Sarah. Despite God鈥檚 promises of land, he owned nothing. He went to the local chieftain, Efron the Hittite, and began the bargaining process. Anyone who has ever visited a Middle Eastern market will be familiar with the banter 鈥 oh my esteemed friend, take this land for free, listen to me, no you listen to me. But curiously, Abraham does not play the time-honored role of the buyer in bargaining for a lower price. He insists on paying full price. In the understanding of the midrash, this way no one can claim that the cave does not belong to him.

The Cave as it looks today from the outside

Zairon, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Today the Cave sits on the main street of Hebron in the section where Jews are allowed to live. But in Abraham鈥檚 time, the residential area of the city was above on a hill called Tel Rumeida, or Tel Hebron. The city was above, the Cave and its environs were below, outside the city. Tel Rumeida has only been partially excavated because of the politically charged nature of Hebron. However, even these minimal explorations give us some idea of the shape of the ancient city. If you look at the archaeology below the modern Jewish apartment building built up here, you can see a large wall, the wall of the city from the Early Bronze Age (4500 years ago). To its left are steps and a second wall. The second wall is the expansion, built in the Middle Bronze Age about four thousand years ago, more or less the time of Abraham. The steps are the path out of the city. Although it has not been excavated yet, it seems likely that under the street we are standing on is the gate to the city. This is a significant spot. When Abraham bought the land for the Cave from Efron the Hittite, he did so at the gate and all the bystanders were witnesses:

鈥淓phron was present among the Hittites; so Ephron the Hittite answered Abraham in the hearing of the Hittites, all who entered the gate of his town,鈥 (Bereshit 23:10)

Steps and wall in Tel Rumeida

eman, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In ancient times the city was on the top of the hill and the graves, including the Cave, were on the bottom. When Spanish Jews started to come and resettle in the city after the devastation of the Crusades, they bought a cheap piece of land on the bottom and settled there, building the Avraham Avinu synagogue. They also bought some land on the top and made a new cemetery. Today Jews live on both the top and the bottom and the 鈥渕odern鈥 cemetery has been restored after it was desecrated in the Arab riots of 1929.

Memorial to the 1929 massacre victims in Hebron’s Jewish cemetery

讗谞讬, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

The Cave is called Machpelah, holding the word double (讻驻诇) inside. In 1967 after Israel returned to Hebron, the only access to the area below the impressive Herodian building was through a narrow hole in the floor. An intrepid twelve-year old named Michal Arbel went underground and documented what she saw. It was a long corridor, at the end of which was a room with another room inside it 鈥 a double room. Could this be what Abraham originally bought from Efron?

Over time, all the patriarchs and matriarchs, except Jacob鈥檚 wife Rachel, were buried in the cave. Other people asked to be buried in Hebron as well, to have a connection to the righteous fathers and mothers. It became a mark of honor to buried with 鈥渢he sleepers of Hebron.鈥

The violent events in our story in Sotah seem to have reverberated through the ages in Hebron, a city that has known much conflict. Jews, Christians and Muslims have all laid claim to the cave and Jews were barred from entering for centuries, even at times when they could live in and visit Hebron.聽 Throughout the Mameluke, Ottoman and British periods (13th to early 20th centuries) Jews had to pray outside the Cave, with access only up to the seventh step leading into the structure. In modern times, a horrific Arab massacre of sixty-nine Jews in 1929 drove the Jewish population out of the city. After the 1948 War of Independence, Hebron was in Jordanian hands and Jews could not visit, let alone live there.

With the return in 1967 have come more challenges and a battle to establish Jewish residency in the city. In 1994, a Jewish doctor named Baruch Goldstein murdered twenty-nine Muslims at prayer in the Cave. At that point the Cave was divided between Jews and Muslims, and each group was allocated a separate entrance and places where they were allowed to be. Ten days a year the entire space is only for Jews- Yom Kippur, some intermediate days of the holidays and the Shabbat where we read the story of the purchase, Shabbat Chaye Sarah, when Hebron is filled with thousands of Jewish visitors. Ten other days a year the entire Cave is open only for Muslim worshippers including Fridays in Ramadan and Eid el Fitr.

Yitzchak and Rivka Hall, normally only for Muslims

A ntv, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Will the legacy of Esau and Jacob鈥檚 battles always continue in Hebron? Or will we one day be able to acknowledge our shared father and pray there together in peace?

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 鈥淒arkaynu鈥 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
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