After the 1967 Six-Day War, Israeli leaders made the decision to return control of the M’aras HaMachpeilah (Cave of the Patriarchs) complex to the Muslim Waqf. The Arabs did not allow any type of archaeological research in “their” holy places, and even today, they refuse to allow Jews into the area known as Kever Yitzchak, the tomb of Yitzchak Avinu.
Not to be seen as kowtowing to the vanquished Arabs, then Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, an amateur archeologist, decided to “explore.” One evening, he showed up at the Tomb of the Patriarchs with a flank of Israeli soldiers and ordered the Arabs out, claiming it was a security issue. Then, he sent a skinny 12-year-old girl named Michal Arbel through a narrow opening in Yitzchak’s Hall. The brave (or half-witted) Michal climbed down and discovered that underneath the hall there is an underground room with a very narrow hallway leading to steps going upwards. She climbed up the staircase and found a large stone blocking her path. She knocked on the stone and all of a sudden...she heard someone knock back! Frightened, she quickly made her way back down the stairs and had herself lifted out of the hole, terrified and crying, but no worse for wear. Michal exited the underground cave safely, but the desire to know the secrets of the cave continued.
An opportunity presented itself in Elul 5741 (1981). A group of local residents organized a midnight S’lichos recital and came prepared. Knowing the Arabs were unsuspecting and would not remain inside to stand guard, the group decided to take the chance and enter the cave. They brought their equipment, and as soon as the men in the hall began to pray in loud voices, they began the strenuous job of opening the sealed entrance in the floor of the Hall of Yitzchak. This is their story:
The tension was high. Soon after we started drilling, we felt how the rock of the entrance began to give way and, with some more effort, the rock split and a narrow opening was revealed. It’s hard to explain the excitement we felt when we started descending the narrow opening. We crawled through the tunnel and it led us to a gigantic underground room. We began searching for the entrance to the cave in the corners of the room and found various rocks. All of a sudden, we felt a strong wind coming from the ground below. We understood that the secret is buried under the ground and we began the strenuous work of lifting up the floor’s stones. Upstairs, the group of mispal’lim were practically screaming the S’lichos with devotion and excitement, which served as the perfect cover for the sound of our hammers and drills down below.
Eventually, we found the entrance to the underground cave. Every heart was beating with a whirlwind of emotions. We were excited to enter the cave but also felt hesitation, yearning, fear... It was finally decided that we will enter. Our hearts were beating rapidly as we entered the cave and it was clear that this was the authentic M’aras HaMachpeilah. It is composed of two caves, one inside the other. The first cave was larger, full of dust up to the ceiling, and from this cave, we found an opening to a narrow hallway leading into the second cave, a smaller one. The inner cave had a blood-curdling surprise waiting for us. The ground was covered with dust, scattered fractured bones, and antique broken earthenware.
With shaking hands, we picked up the pieces of pottery. As we investigated, it became clear that the pottery belonged to the First Temple Era, the Era of the Judean Kings, of close to 3,000 years ago. Apparently, the Jews of Chevron, as well as the Jews of all Judea, understanding the importance and significance of the Caves of Machpeilah, were directed to bring both the bones of their deceased and their pottery into the underground caverns for safekeeping.
At this point, someone suggested that we take this unique opportunity to daven in a place that hasn’t been occupied for thousands of years. We were so close to the Patriarchs, we could almost feel the Avos standing there, praying with us in tandem. A few hours passed but it seemed like only seconds. As dawn approached, we were forced to leave these sacred caverns, so as not to be caught below by the hateful Arabs. We concluded our unforgettable, spiritually uplifting experience. We were privileged to pray within the caves and, even if only for a few moments, to become united, as sons with their fathers. The adventure and memories of the mysterious M’aras HaMachpeilah will never be forgotten.