Prayer at Ma'arat HaMachpela
The virtue of praying at the Patriarchs’ burial site is greatly stressed in the Midrash. Our sages teach that the Patriarchs, who were buried in this cave due to its special nature as the threshold to the Garden of Eden, are not dead but “sleeping.” They are the Midrashic “sleeping ones of Hebron,” who rise to beg mercy for their children throughout the generations. This link between the Patriarchs and prayer is expressed in our daily prayers as well: The first blessing of the Shemoneh Esreh [The Eighteen Blessings], our most important prayer, is called “Avot” [the Patriarchs]. From time immemorial, the Shemoneh Esreh has begun thrice daily with the words: “Blessed are You, O L-rd, our G-d and the G-d of our fathers, the G-d of Abraham, the G-d of Isaac and the G-d of Jacob... Blessed are You, Shield of Abraham.” Our sages further mention Calev ben Yefuneh, who was saved from the enticement of joining his fellow spies in their evil council by praying at the Patriarchs’ burial site (Sotah 35a).
Throughout the generations, Jews went up to pray at Ma'arat HaMachpela, even at the price of self-sacrifice and peril. Rambam, one of the our greatest sages of all times, established a yearly holiday for himself and his sons, the 6th of Cheshvan, commemorating the day he went up to pray on the Temple Mount, and another holiday on the 9th of Cheshvan, the day he merited to pray at Ma'arat HaMachpela. Likewise, numerous great sages of Israel have noted the powerful experience involved in visiting and praying at this site. Throughout the generations, Jews prayed within the edifice above the cave, even under the Byzantine and ancient Arab regimes. In 1267, the Muslim Mameluks forbade Jews and Christians to enter the compound. The Jews were forced to stand, humiliated, by the seventh step leading up to the edifice on the eastern side (3). The prohibition existed for seven hundred years, until 1967, when Hebron and Ma'arat HaMachpela were liberated. The Chief Chaplain of the Israeli army, the late Rabbi Shlomo Goren, was the first Jew to return to the site and to fly the Israeli flag there. Two years later, all the steps along the eastern wall, including “the seventh step,” were removed and destroyed, in an act symbolizing the blotting out of the humiliation and discrimination and the return of the children to their borders. The struggle for the rights of the Jewish People to pray at the Ma'ara has continued over the long years, during the course of which it has become permissible for Jews, following great efforts, to establish synagogues at the site, to place an ark and Torah scrolls, and to pray there as in former times. Yet there are still numerous limitations imposed upon Jews at the site, and we look forward to their full rights being reinstated.