Tag Archives: Cave of the Patriarchs

The Incredible History and Absurd Politics of Rachel’s Tomb

In this week’s parasha, Vayishlach, we read about Jacob’s return to the Holy Land after twenty years in Charan. After some time, Jacob and the family make a stop in Beit El, where Jacob first encountered God decades earlier. God appears to Jacob once more, and promises that “the land which I gave to Abraham and to Isaac, I will give to you and to your seed after you” (Genesis 35:12). God makes it clear that the Holy Land is designated solely for the descendants of Jacob—not the descendants of Esau, and not the descendants of Ishmael, or any other of Abraham’s concubine sons. It is the land of Israel, the new name that Jacob receives in this week’s parasha.

In fact, in this parasha we see mention of many Israelite sites, both ancient and modern, such as Hebron and Bethlehem. In our day, all of these are unfortunately within the political entity typically referred to as the “West Bank”. This title comes from the fact that the area is geographically on the west side of the Jordan River. Initially, the British Mandate for Palestine included both sides of the Jordan River, before the British gave the east to the Arabs to create the state of Jordan. This was the original “partition plan” for Palestine, with the eastern half meant to serve as the Arab state and the western half to become a Jewish one. Many have forgotten this important detail.

British Mandate for Palestine – Before and After (Credit: Eli E. Hertz)

The current flags of the state of Jordan and the Palestinian movement. It is estimated that about half of Jordan’s current population of 9.5 million is Palestinian Arab.

Nonetheless, the unsuitable title of “West Bank” has stuck ever since. Some rightly avoid using the term in favour of the more appropriate “Judea and Samaria”. Truthfully, even this title is not entirely accurate, for the region is nothing less than the very heartland of Israel, the location of the vast majority of Biblical events, and the home of a plethora of Jewish holy sites. Among them is the tomb of Rachel, as we read in this week’s parasha (Genesis 35:16-20):

And they journeyed from Beit El, and there was still some distance to come to Ephrath, and Rachel gave birth, and her labor was difficult… So Rachel died, and she was buried on the road to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem. And Jacob erected a monument on her grave; that is the tombstone of Rachel until this day.

Throughout history, Rachel’s tomb was one of the most venerated sites in Judaism, and is often described as the Jewish people’s third-most holiest site (after the Temple Mount/Western Wall and Cave of the Patriarchs). As early as the 4th century CE the historian Eusebius already wrote of Rachel’s tomb being a holy site for Jews and Christians. Keep in mind that this is two centuries before anyone even whispered Islam. Not that it really matters, since Islam does not consider this a particularly special place. The Arab-Muslim historian and geographer of the 10th century, Al-Muqaddasi, doesn’t even mention Rachel’s tomb in his descriptions of Muslim-controlled Israel and its holy sites.

1585 Illustration of Rachel’s Tomb

Meanwhile, the Jewish traveler and historian Benjamin of Tudela (1130-1173) describes Rachel’s tomb in detail as being a domed structure resting upon four pillars, with Jewish pilgrims regularly visiting and inscribing their names on the surrounding eleven stones (representing the Tribes of Israel, less the tribe of Benjamin, as Rachel died giving birth to him). The earliest Muslim connection to the tomb is in 1421, when Zosimos mentions a small mosque at the site. (“Zosimos the Bearded” was a Russian Orthodox deacon famous for proposing the Moscow-Third Rome principle—which may be of great significance for calculating the time of Mashiach’s coming, as we’ve written in the past.)

The Ottomans originally transferred ownership of the site to the Jewish community (in 1615) but later reneged on the promise and even built walls to prevent Jews from going there, according to the British priest and anthropologist Richard Pococke (1704-1765). Pococke writes that the Ottomans used the area as a cemetery. Nonetheless, Jews could not be kept away from their millennia-old holy site, and continue to make pilgrimages. Christian writers G. Fleming and W.F. Geddes note in their 1824 report that “the inner wall of the building and the sides of the tomb are covered with Hebrew names, inscribed by Jews.”

1880 Illustration of Rachel’s Tomb

Six years later, the Ottomans officially recognized Rachel’s tomb as a Jewish holy site again, and ten years later the site was purchased by famous Sephardic Jewish financier and philanthropist Moses Montefiore. Montefiore rebuilt the crumbling tomb, and even constructed a small adjacent mosque to appease the local Muslims. Around this time, British writer Elizabeth Anne Finn, who lived in Jerusalem while her husband was the consul there, wrote that Jerusalem’s Sephardic Jews never left the Old City unless to pray at Rachel’s tomb. Similarly, the Missionary Society of Saint Paul the Apostle wrote in 1868 that Rachel’s tomb

has always been held in respect by the Jews and Christians, and even now the former go there every Thursday, to pray and read the old, old history of this mother of their race. When leaving Bethlehem for the fourth and last time, after we had passed the tomb of Rachel, on our way to Jerusalem, Father Luigi and I met a hundred or more Jews on their weekly visit to the venerated spot.

Later, Jewish businessman Nathan Straus (of Macy’s fame) purchased even more land around the site that Montefiore had purchased. (Interestingly, Montefiore’s own tomb in England is a replica of Rachel’s tomb.)

Under the British Mandate, Jewish groups applied on multiple occasions for permission to repair the site, but were denied because of Muslim opposition. The Muslims themselves didn’t bother repairing it, of course. Conversely, many of them were (and still are) happy to attack the site whenever an opportunity presents itself:

Throughout the 1800s, the local e-Ta’amreh Arab clan had blackmailed the Jews to pay up 30 pounds a year or else they would destroy the tomb. In 1995, Arabs—led by a Palestinian Authority governor—attacked Rachel’s tomb and tried to burn it down. In 2000, they laid a 41-day siege on the site during the Second Intifada. In light of this, it made total sense when UNESCO declared in 2015 that Rachel’s tomb is a Muslim holy site that is “an integral part of Palestine”. The laughable resolution only confirms the senselessness and irrelevance of the United Nations.

Had they bothered to look at the historical record, they would have seen that Rachel’s tomb is, was, and always will be a Jewish holy site of immeasurable significance. Countless Jewish pilgrims have experienced miracles there, particularly for health and fertility. According to tradition, Rachel is the only matriarch to be buried outside of the Cave of the Patriarchs so that her spirit can weep and pray for her children in exile. Her prayers are successful, for we are in the midst of the exile’s final end, as prophesied by Jeremiah (31:14-16):

Thus said Hashem: “A voice is heard in Ramah, in lamentation and bitter weeping.” It is Rachel, weeping for her children. She refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are not. Thus said Hashem: “Refrain your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears, for your work shall be rewarded,” said Hashem. “And they shall return from enemy lands. And there is hope for your future,” said Hashem. “And the children shall return to their borders…”

A Deeper Look at the Sin of the Spies

This week’s parasha is Shlach, which begins with the infamous incident of the spies. God permits Moses to send twelves spies – one representing each of the Twelve Tribes – to explore the land of Israel before its conquest. The spies are apparently shocked by what they see: the land is dotted by impenetrable fortresses and populated by giants! They report back that while the land is indeed fruitful, it is unconquerable. The spies convince the masses to abandon the foray into Israel. Only two of the twelve spies – Joshua and Caleb – maintain that the land is certainly conquerable. Their pleas are unheard, and the nation weeps and wishes to return to Egypt. The people’s lack of faith is astonishing, considering all of the miracles that God had wrought on their behalf. Did they not see how everything God decreed so far had happened precisely? If God promised them the land, how could they even begin to question it?

"Return of the Spies from the Land of Promise" by Gustave Doré

“Return of the Spies from the Land of Promise” by Gustave Doré

It is clear at this point that while the adult Israelite population may have physically left Egypt, they were still very much in Egypt mentally. Despite all the miracles and wonders, they yearned to go back to the house of slavery. They still showed little faith. God remarks that the nation had already tested Him ten times in the short duration since they left Egypt (Numbers 14:22). This people were simply not ready for Israel.

Thus, God decreed that the nation will remain in the Wilderness for forty years – one year for each day that the spies spent in the Holy Land – and the entire adult population would perish in the desert. Only those under the age of twenty would enter the land of Israel, together with Joshua and Caleb, the spies that offered a positive report. It seems that even Moses and Aaron were not spared God’s decree. This is understandable in light of verse 14:5, where Moses and Aaron are speechless, and simply “fall on their faces”. Joshua and Caleb alone speak up.

(Of course, the decree against Moses and Aaron is sealed with the striking of the rock in Numbers 20. However, it is already introduced at this point. The Sages teach that it would have been quite inappropriate for Moses to enter the Holy Land while the nation he led perished in the Wilderness. The captain must go down with his sinking ship!)

While we might understand the mentality of the general population, it is much harder to grasp how the spies, who were specially selected leaders of their tribes, and great people in their own right, could err so terribly. Could there be another explanation for their negative report? Rabbi Shmuel Vital, the son of Rabbi Chaim Vital (the primary disciple of the Arizal), presents one fascinating answer in Sha’ar HaPesukim.

Saving Moses

In the end of the previous parasha (Beha’alotcha), we read about the prophecies of the two elders, Eldad and Meidad (Numbers 11:26). The Torah does not tell us explicitly what it is that they prophesized, but it was bad enough that Joshua wanted Moses to imprison them. Moses calmed Joshua and told him that he is not the only prophet among the people, and he would only wish for the entire nation to be made up of prophets. Alas, the prediction of Eldad and Meidad was indeed true: the Sages state that they foresaw Moses dying in the Wilderness, and Joshua leading the Israelites into the Holy Land.

The incident of the spies follows, and Rabbi Shmuel connects it directly with this prophecy. The spies, along with the entire nation, loved Moses dearly and did not want to see him perish in the desert. They came up with a plan: we’ll convince the people not to enter the Holy Land so that Moses can continue to lead us in the Wilderness! Moreover, to ensure Moses’ unchallenged leadership, the spies actually intended to have Joshua “accidentally” killed! The details of this plot sound like a previous episode: the sale of Joseph. And this is precisely where the Arizal draws a connection.

Brothers Reincarnated

The Arizal (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, Ch. 36) taught that the souls of the sons of Jacob, the progenitors of the Twelve Tribes, actually reincarnated into (or at least temporarily entered) the twelve spies. This is why when the brothers came down to Egypt and were arrested by Joseph, he had accused them of being spies (Genesis 42:9)! Joseph prophetically foresaw that in a future life, they would indeed become spies. In that capacity, they might again turn against one of their brothers. Just like the brothers wanted to have Joseph killed, the spies wanted to rid of Joshua – a direct descendent of Joseph. The Arizal concludes that once the spies wanted to sin, the souls of the brothers actually departed their bodies, and avoided making the same mistake.

Meanwhile, Moses also foresaw the danger that Joshua was in. This is why he renamed him prior to sending him off (Numbers 13:16). Originally, Joshua was named Hoshea, but Moses added a yud to make him Yehoshua. The Arizal explains that by adding this yud, Moses infused him with the soul of his ancestor Levi. The additional spiritual power protected him. (Since the Levite tribe did not have a portion in the land of Israel, they did not send a spy. Instead, Joseph was split into two tribes of Menashe and Ephraim.)

At the same time, the Arizal explains that Caleb was protected two-fold. Firstly, by having the soul of Judah, who repented wholeheartedly for the sale of Joseph and later stood up to him to protect his siblings. Secondly, by being a reincarnation of Abraham’s trusted servant Eliezer. This is why upon entering the land, Caleb went straight to Hebron to pray at the Cave of the Patriarchs. In his lifetime, Eliezer wished nothing more than to be a part of Abraham’s family. He even tried to get his daughter to marry Isaac, but his Canaanite status prevented the union. However, he earned the merit to be reincarnated as an Israelite in the Exodus generation; to stand at Mt. Sinai, become a great leader of Israel, and be one of only two men out of Egypt to settle the Holy Land.

In fact, with regards to this incident, Caleb showed a higher degree of greatness than Joshua, and careful analysis of the text reveals an important lesson about faith and leadership. Rabbi Moshe Wisnefsky writes (based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe):

According to the Talmud, Caleb said, “Even if our destination were the heavens and Moses would tell us to make ladders and ascend, we would succeed in all that he instructs” (Sotah 35a; cited by Rashi). Both Joshua and Caleb equally defied the doubt of their colleagues and declared that the people could conquer the land. However, a close look at their words shows a subtle difference between them. Firstly, when both of them spoke, the entire nation wished to stone them; but when Caleb alone spoke, he quieted the entire nation, including the spies.

Secondly, when both of them spoke they used logical reasoning: “do not fear the people of the land, since their protector is gone” (meaning that the righteous among them had died), whereas Caleb himself, in addition to presenting logical arguments, said that they could accomplish even the logically impossible when following Moses’ command and “ascend to heaven.”

These differences reflect an essential distinction in the way Joshua and Caleb resisted the influence of their colleagues: Joshua received inspiration from Moses, who had prayed for him before he left for Canaan. Caleb, on the other hand, sought inspiration on his own. While in Canaan, he prayed at the graves of the patriarchs in Hebron. Joshua’s resilience was a gift, while Caleb’s was self-made. Because Caleb’s resilience was the product of his own efforts, his faith had a stronger impact: he was able to silence the doubts of all the people, even the spies. Furthermore, because God desires our effort, He grants us access to His boundlessness when He sees us doing our best. Thus, Caleb, who had fought doubt with his own efforts, reached this boundlessness, where impossibilities do not exist and “the heavens can be ascended.”

The Origins of Me’arat HaMachpelah, the Cave of the Patriarchs

This week’s parasha, Vayechi, concludes the first book of the Torah, Beresheet (or, as it is more commonly known, Genesis). We read about the last days of Jacob’s life, and the blessings that he bestowed upon his children and grandchildren before his passing. Jacob then instructs his sons to make sure that he is returned to the Holy Land and buried alongside his family members in Me’arat haMachpelah – the Cave of the Patriarchs. Jacob reminds us that this was the place where Abraham and Sarah were buried, and it was where Isaac and Rebecca were buried, and where he buried his wife Leah. This is where he wants to be buried, as well. What is so special about this cave that it holds the tombs of the Forefathers and Foremothers of the Jewish people?

Me'arat HaMachpelah, the Cave of the Patriarchs

Me’arat HaMachpelah, the Cave of the Patriarchs

Back to the Garden of Eden

The Zohar (I:127-128, Bereshit 57, and Zohar Chadash Ruth 79), explains the origins of this “doubled” cave (the literal meaning of “Me’arat haMachpelah”, likely referring to the fact that there is a cave within a cave, and/or alluding to the husband-wife pairs that are buried there). Originally, man was created to be immortal; there was no death in the Garden of Eden. However, after consuming the “forbidden fruit”, Adam and Eve brought death into the world, while being banished from the Garden. The Zohar says that God prepared a burial place for them near the entrance to Eden.

When Eve passed away, Adam searched for a proper place to lay her body. He saw a ray of light emanating from that special place God had prepared, and started to dig there. The scent of the Garden of Eden emanated, beckoning him to dig further and further as the scent grew stronger, and causing Adam to hew out a large cave. (Rashi, on Genesis 27:27, says that the Garden of Eden smelled like an apple orchard.) Adam wanted to dig further, all the way back into the Garden, but a Heavenly Voice ordered him to stop. That was where he lay Eve to rest, and was himself buried there later. Henceforth, the place was forgotten.

Sarah’s Discovery

“…And Abraham settled in Be’er Sheva… And Sarah died in Kiriat Arba, which is Hebron, in the land of Canaan, and Abraham came to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her.” (Genesis 22:19, 23:2) Why does the Torah tell us that Abraham settled in Be’er Sheva, and just a few verses later that Sarah his wife died all the way in Kiriat Arba? Why weren’t they together? Many commentaries have presented answers to this conundrum (see here).

One of these is that Sarah knew she was about to die, and went off to find her final resting place. She came upon the cave and her soul left her. When Abraham found her there, he knew that this is where she must be buried. The Zohar says that Abraham saw Adam’s body, and realized this was the world’s first burial ground, prepared by God. How did Sarah know to come there? The simplest answer is that she was a great prophetess in her own right, and was led there by divine inspiration. We may be able to offer another possibility: the kabbalists tell us that Sarah was a reincarnation of Eve, and we know that Eve was the very first person to be buried there. Perhaps Sarah was guided by her soul to the place where an earlier incarnation of her body was once laid to rest.

Bridging Heaven and Earth

Whatever the case may be, Abraham purchased the cave from Ephron for four hundred silver shekels. This may not sound like much, but Rabbi Yitzchak bar Yehuda calculates that fifty silver shekels could buy an area of 75,000 square cubits, so all together Abraham paid the worth of an area of 600,000 square cubits. A square cubit is roughly four square feet; putting it all together, Abraham paid the price of fifty five acres of land!

To others, Me’arat haMachpelah was just an old, forgotten cave that nobody wanted, and the Torah states that Ephron offered it to Abraham for free. But Abraham insisted to pay the full price that Ephron had slyly hinted to. This was to make sure that no one would ever claim the land was not rightfully owned by the Jewish people. After all, our Fathers and Mothers are buried there. Further still, the Zohar states that this site is a bridge connecting Heaven and Earth, a channel through which all souls ascend to the Heavens.

A Jewish Holy Site

This is where Jacob requested to be buried, not once, but twice in our parasha. First, he made Joseph swear to take him to lie with his forefathers (Genesis 47:29-31), and then again Jacob repeated the request to the other sons (49:29-31). This place was of great importance to Jacob, and to all Jews ever since.

Over two thousand years ago, Herod the Great built the grand edifice that still marks the bulk of the structure over the cave, most likely to appease his Jewish citizens. (Herod himself was descended from Idumean converts to Judaism, and became the Roman king over Judea. On the one hand, he was described as an “evil genius” and caused the destruction of countless lives, including a targeted campaign to eliminate the rabbis of the day. On the other hand, he was described as “the greatest builder in Jewish history”, and the Talmud says that one who hasn’t seen Herod’s renovated Temple did not see a beautiful structure in his life.)

Over the course of history, it was controlled by many kingdoms, among them the Byzantines and Persians, Arabs and Crusaders. It was visited by pilgrims of all varieties, and has served as a synagogue, a church, and a mosque – sometimes all at once. Today, over 300,000 people continue to visit the Cave of the Patriarchs every year.

Despite the fact that some may consider it “an integral part of the occupied Palestinian territories”, as UNESCO has stated, the Cave of the Patriarchs has always meant far more to Jews than anyone else, and will forever remain an integral part of our soul.