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In Proximity to the Patriarchs

Aharon Granevich-Granot

Over three decades ago, a group of men descended into the underground caverns of Mearas HaMachpeilah, approaching what they assumed to be the actual burial plots of the patriarchs. They discovered the opening to the original caves in the Yitzchak Hall, built around the markers for the graves of Yitzchak and Rivka, whose burials we read about this week. The underground entryway has since been cemented shut by the Arabs, but that didn’t stop six of the original team from coming to reenact their adventure.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

As we read in this week’s parshah, Yaakov and Eisav buried Yitzchak Avinu more than 3,500 years ago. Until thirty years ago, one could theoretically descend into the pathway leading to his grave. That all changed after a daring adventure by ten men, members of Midreshet Chevron, who actually made the trip and came close to the graves of our patriarchs and matriarchs. On a recent Motzaei Shabbos, six of those men – Noam Arnon, Aharon Domb, Rami Zayit, Yoni Cohen, Moshe Yaakov, and Itamar Schneeweiss – came together in “Ulam Yitzchak (Yitzchak’s Hall),” which is normally off-limits to Jews, to relive those moments, and to reveal the Arab response to their adventure that makes such an endeavor impossible today.

The meeting was the culmination of a complex campaign that at times seemed doomed to failure. The difficulty wasn’t in locating the people who descended into the subterranean part of Mearas HaMachpeilah, but in securing entry into Yitzchak’s Hall, where the entry shaft they descended from is situated. Since the Purim killings in the Cave in 1994, Mearas HaMachpeilah has been divided into two for most of the year. Yitzchak’s Hall, a mosque in which Yitzchak’s tziyun (cenotaph) is found, is reserved for Muslim use, and the courtyard and the room that houses Yaakov Avinu’s tziyun is reserved for the Jews.

There are ten days during the year, known as the “Jewish exception,” during which the entire Cave is open only to Jews, and another ten days known as the “Muslim exception,” during which the Cave is opened only for Muslims.

A violation of those terms by either side is liable to set of a skirmish. Eventually, two members of the Kiryat Arba City Council were able to soften the stance of Col. Guy Chazot, commander of the Judean sector, who made our visit to the Hall possible.


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