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    Machpelah – Chayyei Sarah

    The Cave of Machpelah today

    The death and burial of Sarah, as told in the opening chapter of this week’s portion (Gen. 23), raises the interesting question of why Abraham decided that the cave of Machpelah would be her burial place and why the text takes so many verses to spell out the steps that led to the purchase of the site from Ephron the Hittite.

    Tradition is firm that Machpelah does contain the bodies of the patriarchs and their wives, but medieval Jewish travellers such as Benjamin of Tudela discovered that the cave itself is deep down and not accessible, though “the gentiles have erected there (in the upper area) six tombs, respectively called those of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah”. In the medieval period a bribe was necessary to persuade the custodian to explain that the real tombs lie on a deeper level.

    In 1882 two sons of the then Prince of Wales visited the site and verified, though they did not enter it, “the great cave which exists beneath the floor of the enclosure”. Earlier in the 19th century Sir Moses and Lady Montefiore also confirmed that there was an iron door that led to the lower level, though they too were unable to gain admission.

    The importance of the Machpelah record in the Torah is that it verifies that Jewish history in the Holy Land is based on genuine transactions. It also illustrates the seriousness with which Jews have always taken the duty of respectful burial.

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