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Cave of the Patriarchs

The Cave

Below the earth's surface, where it is cool, damp and deep, a great light—a blinding light--is waiting, wrapped in darkness.

Below the surface, there is a cave, and it cradles the ancient bodies of our forbearers: Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah.

But the grave is also womb, and a crack between worlds is the umbilical cord.

Light seeps up through the crack, from deep within and far below, nourishing the bodies. Intoxicating fragrances from the Garden of Eden waft through the crack, sweetening death into a dream-filled sleep. The dreams of the patriarchs and matriarchs drift upwards; history forms around their contours. And still, from the subterrenean cave, something stirs, like an embryo turning. Something, perhaps, awakens…


The bus to Kiryat Arba—every second bus continues to Hebron--leaves from outside the newly opened Jerusalem train station, where every hour a shiny new train filled with passengers slides downwards towards the new Israeli city: Tel Aviv. The buses heading towards the West Bank are old and worn—they somehow match the landscape into which they carry us: olive trees and terraces, roads bereft of billboards or gas stations. The buses doors are narrow, and their windows, hardened to withstand attack by stones and bullets, are milky and opaque.

Sitting opposite me, up front near the driver, are two women, one elderly and one middle aged, perhaps mother and daughter. They wear kerchiefs, and read from a book of psalms printed in large letters, even as the bus lurches around curves, descends and ascends, passes by Arab villages and Jewish settlements, drives through the gates of Kiryat Arba, twists through its non-descript streets, lined by apartment houses, and deposits us in the settlements commercial district with its half dozen shops, including a drugstore and a shwarma restaurant. Our bus will not continue to Hebron. The younger woman reassures the older one. "We'll get a ride right away. You'll see."

And we do. A smartly dressed woman from Kiryat Arba driving a late model Mitsubishi van stops for us and we get in. Soon we are hurtling through a narrow road on the outskirts of Hebron, on the way to the Cave. "You see," the younger woman from the bus says to her companion. "Miracles and wonders! We didn't have to wait even a minute. Trust in God. He always comes through." "Oh yeah," the driver interjects, addressing the women she has just met and referring, it seems to me, to the recent withdrawal from Gaza and the expected further withdrawals from the West Bank. "I don't see that He's done all that much for us lately." The women who read psalms on the bus shake their head and smile, rejecting pessimism and cynicism. "Just wait and see," one of them says. "God's salvation comes in the blink of an eye."

The cave—this cave and others--was sacred before the beginning of recorded time. Caves, according to anthropologists and historians of primitive religion, are the most primordial of sacred sites, their power recognized by our earliest human ancestors. This conforms with what we are told by the Zohar, which says that Adam chose the Cave as Eve's burial place--and his own—because it rested so close to the entrance to the Garden of Eden that he could smell it. "When he tried to dig deeper, angels blocked his way: '|This much and no more'!" they told him. Abraham, the Zohar says, happened upon the cave when he ran to fetch a young calf for the angels who came to tell him of Isaac's birth and saw Adam and Eve sleeping there, candles lit above their heads. “He should have died,” the Zohar says, because “Adam’s image appears to every human being at the moment of our death.” But Abraham saw Adam’s face and lived. When Sarah died, he bought the cave and the field surrounding it, refusing its owner's offer to give it to him as a free gift, as if he wished to consciously wrench it from the amorphous status of myth and render it in the hard currency of history.

Islamic and Jewish legends tell of people entering the cave and going blind, or dying. Right after it was captured by the IDF in 1967, Moshe Dayan sent an 8 year old girl, Michal Arbel, the daughter of one of his soldiers, down a small round opening, like the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland, which can still be seen in Isaac and Rebecca’s chamber. When I heard this story in the courtyard that stretches out into a grassy park in front of the Cave, the teller, a 4th grade teacher from a religious nationalist school in Ashdod, added that Michal's father, who had rushed back to Jerusalem to bring her to Hebron, reassured his brave young daughter that the stories of blindness and death were all about Arabs—he was certain that nothing bad would happen in the Cave to a Jew. Michal, tied to a rope, found a passageway that led to a staircase. In the 1970's, Noam Arnon, now the spokesman for the Jewish settlers of Hebron, discovered a clandestine entrance beneath the prayer rugs and tiles of the opposite end of the chamber. Michal's stairway led down from the entrance. Arnon and a quorum of his friends pried the entrance open, and went down the stairs. “I’m a realist, not a fantasizer,” Arnon says when asked about his experience. “But one thing I can say is that time is different down there. We were down there a few hours and it seemed like a few minutes. We didn't get to the level of the forefathers—that was blocked by earth--but we got down to an area that was used during the First Temple, according to the ceramics we brought back, which were checked out by archeologists.

Moish, an ex hippie turned Hasidic Baal Teshuva is listening to Arnon intently. He shakes his head, as if to say, "That's all? You were down there and you didn't have a mystical experience?" And then he does say something. "Every time I’m here, I feel like I've taken about a kilo of LSD."

Arnon studies Moish for a moment and then confesses. "Since I was down there in the cave, I can't leave this place. I pray here at least once a day.”

The cave itself is inaccessible at present—the entrance which Arnon used has been sealed over with cement by the Waqf, and the hole Michal climbed through is covered with a metal plate and locked, although occasionally the Waqf agrees to open it, and to lower a candle into the depths so special visitors can see the dusty cavity below. Standing over the cave is a massive rectangular structure—it looks like a fort or castle-- the only building in the world still standing intact from the time of King Herod two thousand years ago. Great blocks of stone, identical to those at the base of the Western Wall, rise up out of the rough earth for ten meters or so. Dark green bushes, also reminiscent of the Western Wall, grow out of the cleavage between the stones. Pigeons perch on the stones, occasionally flitting from one to the other, just as at the Western Wall. "You see that shpitz over there, at the far end of the wall?" says Elad, approximately 25 years of age, who comes to the Cave almost every day and wears a giant colorful kippa over a shock of blonde hair and long, thick payot. "There's a fat white dove that comes at dusk and sits there all night, every night." "Ah," I think. "The Shekhina."

Above this segment of massive stones, the wall is intersected by a series of columns. At the top of the wall are turrets added by the crusaders who conquered Hebron in the 11th century, and used it, first as a fort and then as a church tended by monks. Then the Moslems conquered Hebron. On two sides, across each other at an angle, a muezzin's tower rises above the building—transforming it, in the eyes of Muslims, into a mosque. Add the Israeli army checkpoints at the entrances, and you have the last two thousand years of Middle Eastern history in a single building.

The year before the Goldstein massacre, in 1993, I remember standing in prayer in the building, in arched rooms whose walls were cool to the touch. Was I only imagining it? Or could I feel the presence of the forefathers and foremothers when I stood near the monuments that marked their grave? Later I learned that it was medieval Christians who, apparently arbitrarily, had designated the location of the specific graves—Abraham here, Leah there, and so on. And it was Moslems who had erected the monuments, curved arcs of wood, approximately the size of a small room, draped with lush cloth. Each monument is contained within another square, dimly lit room, which can not be entered, but can be peeked at through small windows protected by iron bars. And so we stand peering at a covered doorless roomsized monument within an unreachable room built within a larger hall. Structures within structures. Had the building somehow evolved, as it shifted hands and shifted eras, into a representation of the inwardness and opacity of the sealed cave itself?

In 1993 there was no separation between Arabs and Jews; the Herodian structure served simultaneously as synagogue and mosque. It was as if the sacred magnetism of the place drew us beyond history, beyond violence, beyond differences.

But that, of course, was an illusion.


Its like the custody arrangements in a case of divorce—everything has been spelled out, and still, there are loose ends, messy details that leave both sides not completely satisfied.Three hundred and forty five days a year the cave is divided, Jews on one side, Muslims on the other. Each religion gets the whole complex ten days a year, and the other side clears out its books, its sacred objects, anything that is not tied down. The Muslims get the Fridays of Ramadan, and their major holidays; the Jews Rosh Hashana, Yom |Kippur, the first day of Succot, of Pesach, and the Sabbath of Hayei Sarah, when the chapter of Genesis that tells of the selling of the cave to Abraham is read.

Yet despite these exactitudes, each side has their greivances. The Muslim area is bigger, and is covered by a roof. The hall of Isaac and Rebecca, which makes up most of the Moslem side, is huge—many hundreds of worshipers can gather there together. The large indoor area was given to the Moslems by the Israelis because they need space to prostrate during prayer. The Jews complain that the Muslims, zealously guarding the status quo, will not allow the Jews to put a cover—anything more than a rain-permeable net for shade—over the roofless area that is the largest contiguous space the Jews possess.

Moreover, the agreement made in 1994, according to the recommendations of a committee headed by Supreme Court Justice Meir Shamgar, left the Muslims with some limited access to the Jewish side. The Muezzin, who according to Islamic law must pray at the very back of the room, is allowed to cross through the Jewish side and enter his post through a special door, which sometimes disturbs Jews in the midst of prayers. Walking through the Jewish hall in the early afternoon, I see the muezzin, a modern looking man in his thirties with a thick mustache and the beginnings of a paunch, leaving from a small door—one of the many that connects the two sides, protected by three soldiers, his face expressionless as he passes by the Jewish worshippers. The waqf also received the right to retain offices on the Jewish side, although they rarely use them, while the Jews have no official access to the Moslem areas.

There is no lack of complaints on the Palestinian side either. They are, after all, under occupation. A magav unit is permanently encamped on their side of the building, and Israeli soldiers determine when and who is going to be allowed into the mosque.

Lieutenant Gidi of Mishmar Hagvul is the new commander of the Cave. He is tall, ruggedly handsome, with a deep, granulated voice that matches his face: rough but harmonious. Gidi feels his job is a sacred charge: “To keep this holy place a place of peace.” He treats everybody with respect, he says: the Arab worshipers, the representatives of the Waq’f, the settlers. A Yemeni Jew by birth, he speaks Arabic, though not as well as some of his Druze and Beduin soldiers. He seems a born diplomat: warm but authoritative, candid and briskly professional at the same time.

At one thirty in the afternoon on a sunny day in March, Giddi and his men are part of a training exercise: a gunman has penetrated the Jewish side of the building and has begun to shoot. There are casualties, including two soldiers at the entrance who have been wounded by not killed. Ambulances and reinforcements arrive on the scene—soldiers carry stretchers, police and army units running to and fro; I hear talk of "meluchlachim"—army code for terrorists—on the walkie talkies. Meanwhile, the two soldiers at the entrance yelp and groan with pain to indicate that they are wounded. Two Hasidic boys five or six years old who have wandered over stare at the soldiers, not sure exactly what to think. Grown men playing? Grown men crying?

That evening Giddi tells me that less than an hour later, a Palestinian was discovered attempting to sneak a Japanese knife and a canister of tear gas spray into the Muslim side. His plan, so he confessed under questioning, was to blind a soldier with tear gas and use the Japanese knife to cut his submachine gun free. Then, he said, he would have trained the gun on the soldiers. This marked the ninth incident over the past three months in which Palestinians have been caught with knives trying to enter the Cave building. And yet, since the Goldstein massacre, there have been no incidents of violence resulting in injury at the Cave.

"We don't allow any politics at the Cave", Giddi says, "political posters or gatherings or the like. Two weeks ago, something did happen—Sheik Tamimi spoke in the mosque on the Muslim side after the cartoons denigrating Muhammad were published in Denmark. He got the crowd very worked up. They poured out of the mosque and over to the plaza right outside, and began to shout Allahu Akbar." "What happened?" I asked. "The police managed to disperse it without any violence."

On the Jewish side--as on the Muslim side--most people don't come to the cave thinking about politics. They come to pray, and to be touched by the place and its aura. Two hours into my visit, I notice the women who I rode the bus with. They've been praying and saying psalms near the monument marked Leah. The eyes of the younger woman are red: she has been weeping. "I'm at the Kotel every day," the older woman tells me, in answer to my question. I try to come here on Fridays and on Erev Rosh Hodesh, and sometimes during the week, I go to Rachel's tomb."

In Sarah's room, right afterwards, I see the woman who drove us from Kiryat Arba—the one who had answered the women's exclamations of faith with a wry, slightly embittered chiding of God. She is sitting in a circle of six women, each of whom had Xeroxed copies with lists of names: people who needed God's mercy. The lists where labeled "sick", "very sick", "zivug" and "zara shel kayama"—this final category for the childless. "We meet once a week, on Mondays," she told me. "We keep someone on the list for two months, if they want it renewed they have to call us up."

"You know what bonus points are?" A tall, dark haired Breslover asks me, after I have asked him why he comes to the Cave. "You know what it is to get something free? There is such a thing in spirituality too. When you come to the Fathers and Mothers, you get free merit. Merit of the forefathers. It's like a free pass." "Every child wants to come to their mother and father when something is hurting them," a women in her twenties—she is dressed settler-hippie, and she too has been crying, tells me. "It’s the most natural thing in the world." "To connect with the forefathers and foremothers, this is the source of our strength," adds a couple from Efrat, who say they visit the Cave with their children every few months. "This is our connection with the land."

All through the day, pilgrims arrive. Two Russian Orthodox monks and a nun wearing sunglasses; they carry sandwiches for lunch and a little guide book. A renowned elderly scholar and kabbalist, Rabbi Dov Schwartzman, accompanied by two young scholars in their twenties, shuffles from room to room, . Towards evening, a bus filled with men, women and children arrive—they are from Raanana and Kfar Saba, they tell me, and they come to the Cave every Rosh Hodesh.

And at night, even after 9PM when the building closes, pilgrims continue to arrive.

At one end of the building, two meters or so from the wall on a rough uneven patch of grass is a small structure made of metal and glass that opens like a closet: inside is a shelf, candles and matches where people can commemorate their visit to the holy site by leaving a flickering flame. This is the point to which, for seven hundred years, during the time the Muslims controlled the site, Jews were allowed to advance: the seventh step of the stairway. No Jews were allowed in the building itself. Rehavam Zeevi, then head of the central command, ordered the stairway, which he saw as a symbol of Jewish humiliation--blown up in the aftermath of the Six Day War.

And yet, today, this is where some Jews prefer to pray,. "This place is closer to the actual graves than anywhere in the building," a young Hasid, his beard and mustache sprouting tentatively in soft, grass-like tufts, tells me. "Here we are at the base of the wall, near the cave. But that's not the main reason for praying here," he says. "The main reason, I heard, is because so many Jews prayed here during those seven hundred years when this is where they were allowed to go. The power of their prayers still lingers, its what makes this place especially holy." Myth creates history, and then history creates its own myths, its own proximity to a Garden produced by human tears, human longing for God and for salvation. All through the night, a car-full at a time--four women from Tel Aviv, in fashionable clothes, a group of Hasidim from Bnai Beraq and even Tzfat—people come to the now destroyed seventh step, sanctifying the place of Jewish humiliation because of the preciousness of the souls who suffered and withstood it, feeling closer to God in desolation than in power.

Yet despite Gidi's efforts, the Cave is not devoid of politics. The book shelves that line one corridor of the Jewish section contain a full set of the works of Meir Kahane. Rabbi Moshe Levinger, at one time the leader of the most militant settler wing, teaches a Torah class in the Cave each week; I catch him making acerbic remarks about Amir Peretz while teaching a class about the dignity of labor. As I enter the cave one morning, I see a page pasted to the wall of the building's main synagogue: in bleak black letters, it is entitled "Erev Rav", and it contains quotes from the Zohar, from Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and the Vilna Gaon about the immanent danger to the Jewish people of the false Jews, those that enticed the people to worship the Golden Calf in the desert. At this moment in Israel's history, it is the Jews—those who would withdraw from the sacred land—who are the focus of right wing's anger. "Notice who is keeping us out of the Hall of Isaac and Rebecca," mutters a man with a shock of white hair who spends most of his day at the Cave. He points at the soldiers. It's not the Arabs," he says. A friend shakes his hand in greeting. "Let this be a month of Yeshua and Nechama (salvation and consolation)" No," he corrects the friend. "Yeshua and Nekama (salvation and vengeance. There is no consolation without vengeance!"

Later, I sit with Rabbi Shalom Abergel, of Petach Tikvah. Dressed in a rumpled suit and a tie that has seen better days, in his late sixties or early seventies, Rabbi Abergel comes to the Cave three days a week. He is certain that the key to Israel's redemption is concealed here, and at the Tomb of Joseph in Shechem. We sit in the courtyard of the Cave; it is nearly evening and the air has turned chilly but we talk on: Rabbi Abergil is bursting with strategies to bring redemption. He talks first about the Tomb of Joseph in Shechem—if the authorities would let him open up a yeshiva there, "with lots of people," the messiah would come. Then his thoughts turn to the Cave. "The Talmud tells how Eliyahu came to the cave and woke each of the forefathers in turn. Each washed his hands, prayed, and went back to sleep, before the next one was awakened. Here is the secret," he tells me. "Whoever will succeed in waking all three of the forefather's at once will bring the redemption. But it won't be me," he adds. "I've tried, but I did not succeed."

Abergel asks me if I have seen the handout about the Erev Rav (the mixed multitude), and hints that he is, if not the author, connected with its distribution. The Erev Rav today, he tells me, those preventing the redemption, includes a long list of Israeli politicians, from Yossi Sarid, Shimon Peres and Ariel Sharon to "Tame Lapid." Moshe Dayan is also singled out. "That girl he sent down into the cave, Michal, she would have died, but she was only eight years old. So instead Dayan died. He got cancer and died two weeks later." "I don't think so," I interrupt. "Dayan died quite few years later." Rabbi Abergel, however, remains unfazed.

On the night after the training drill, I accompany a group of Border Patrol soldiers on a patrol of the Hebron Kasbah, which is adjacent to the Cave. The streets surrounding the Cave are part of the territory which Gidi, the Cave's commander must keep secure. It is only eight thirty at night, but the stone alleyways are ghostly still, empty of all but an occasional passerby; all of whom are stopped and interrogated by the soldiers. The younger ones are thoroughly searched, and their names radioed in to headquarters. Soon we catch a young man wanted by the Israeli security services; two soldiers guard him as their comrades stop and search others. A single shop is open in a square outside the Kasbah; I talk to the owner, who speaks a fairly fluent Hebrew. "How are we? We are under occupation, how should that be?" he says. "Today I went to evening prayers at the mosque of the cave; the soldiers searched us so carefully, we missed the proper time of prayer." I tell him what had happened earlier, the man with the gas and the Japanese knife. "And anyway, when the Moslems had the mosque, you didn't let any Jews in. For 700 years." "Not true," he tells me, "That was only under the Mamelukes."

On a sunny afternoon a few days later, I sit with Abu Sinena Hijazzee, who is officially in charge of the Muslim side of the Cave, along with Jaber Muhtasibe, a 76 year old man who has been a guide in Hebron since 1947—his English, somewhat slurred and difficult to understand, still carries the hint of a British accent. "Yes, Muslims come here from around the world," he tells me. "From Indonesia, India, Turkey, South Africa. The come especially to ask for children, because the forefathers prayed for children and were answered." "Are Muslims afraid to come here because of what happened with Goldstein?" "No," Hijazzee answers, "We are not afraid." Moshe, one of the settler hippies, has earlier told me that he believes Goldstein was framed—and that more than one person, perhaps soldiers, were involved in the massacre. "Do you think it was Goldstein, or were their others?" I ask Muhtasibe. He doesn't exactly understand the question, but answers anyway. "We understand," he says. "That there are good Jews and bad Jews. Just like among the Palestinians." And if the Muslims regain control of the whole Cave, will you let Jews pray there?" "You will be able to enter for ten or fifteen minutes or so," Hijazee says. "But just to look. Not to pray."

On my last bus ride back from the Cave, I sit next to a Yoseph Nagar, a Yemenite man in his late 60's who wears a traditional Yemeni turban; a beard and side-curls frame his face. Najar lives in Kiryat Arba; until a few years ago, he traveled to Jerusalem everyday to work as an usher and guide at Minharot Hakotel. For the past 17 years, he has also been part of a group of ten men who gather at the cave every morning when it opens at 4:00 AM and begin saying psalms. They break for morning prayers, and then go back to reciting psalms until they finish the entire book—usually at about 7:30 AM. "That's amazing." I tell him. "You must know the psalms inside and out." He smiles. "Someone pays us", he says. About 1000 shekels a month. A certain wealthy Jew who wants this to happen. People need the money."

Nagar was there on the fateful morning of Purim 1994. He knew Dr. Goldstein was his neighbor; Nagar says that he was a kind man, although he had recently been very agitated around the subject of Arab stone throwing. The night before the massacre, the Muslims had not yet finished prayers when Goldstein pressed to begin reading the megillah; there had been shouting and shoving and several Arabs had been arrested. In the morning, Goldstein kept asking why Ulam Yitzchak was not open yet. "I saw him go out, and I didn't see him come in again. He must have hidden behind one of the doors and then slipped in." Nagar heard the shooting, and tried to tell the soldiers, but there was only one on duty—"A boy named Rotem. Poor Rotem"—somebody had failed to wake the others up. At first Nagar wasn't sure where the shooting was coming from, inside or outside. By the time he was certain, the Arabs were dragging bloody bodies out.

"And how do you feel about the Cave now?" I ask him. "Sometimes I get there in the morning feeling like I'm sick, like I'm coming down with something. But there is an energy there. There is something. By the time I leave, I'm all better."

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