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Biblical and Post-Biblical Data:

Machpelah was the name of a field and cave bought by Abraham as a burying-place. The meaning of the name, which always occurs with the definite article, is not clear; according to the Targumim and the Septuagint it means "the double," while Gesenius ("Th."), with more reason, connects it with the Ethiopic for "the portion." It appears to have been situated near Mamre, or Hebron, and to have belonged to Epbron the Hittite. Abraham needed a burying-place for Sarah, and bought the field of the Machpelah, at the end of which was a cave, paying four hundred silver shekels. The cave became the family burying-place, Sarah being the first to be buried there; later, Abraham, Isaac, Rebekah, Leah, and Jacob were placed there (Gen. xxiii. 9, 16-20; xxv. 9; xlix. 30-31; 1. 13). It is designated twice only as the "cave" of the Machpelah (Gen. xxiii. 9, xxv. 9); in the other instances it is called "the cave of the field of the Machpelah" or "the cave in the field of the Machpelah." No further reference is made to it or to the burying-place of the Patriarchs, though some scholars find an allusion to it in II Sam. xv. 7, 9.

Josephus speaks of the purchase of Ephron's field at Hebron by Abraham as a place of burial and of the tombs (Μνημεῖα) built there by Abraham and his descendants, without, however, mentioning the name "Machpelah" ("Ant." i. 14. 22). In the twelfth century the cave of the Machpelah began to attract visitors and pilgrims, and this aroused the curiosity and wonder of the natives. Benjamin of Tudela relates: "At Hebron there is a large place of worship called 'St. Abraham,' which was previously a Jewish synagogue. The natives erected there six sepulchers, which they tell foreigners are those of the Patriarchs and their wives, demanding money as a condition of seeing them. If a Jew gives an additional fee to the keeper of the cave, an iron door which dates from the time of our forefathers opens, and the visitor descends with a lighted candle. He crosses two empty caves, and in the third sees six tombs, on which the names of the three Patriarchs and their wives are inscribed in Hebrew characters. The cave is filled with barrels containing bones of people, which are taken there as to a sacred place. At the end of the field of the Machpelah stands Abraham's house with a spring in front of it" ("Itinerary," ed. Asher, pp. 40-42, Hebr.). Samuel b. Samson visited the cave in 1210; he says that the visitor must descend by twenty-four steps in a passageway so narrow that the rock touches him on either hand ("Pal. Explor. Fund," Quarterly Statement, 1882, p. 212). Now the cave is concealed by a mosque; this was formerly a church, built by the Crusaders between 1167 and 1187 and restored by the Arabs (comp. Stanley, "Sinai and Palestine," p. 149). See Hebron.

Emil G. Hirsch, M. Seligsohn
Jewish Encyclopedia, published between 1901-1906.

Tomb of Adam and Eve.

In Rabbinical Literature:

The name of "Machpelah" (= "the doubled one") belongs, according to the Rabbis, to the cave alone, their reasons for the name being various: it was a double cave, with two stories (Rab); it contained pairs of tombs (Samuel); it had a double value in the eyes of people who saw it; any one buried there could expect a double reward in the future world; when God buried Adam there He had to fold him together (Abahu; 'Er. 53a; Gen. R. lviii. 10). Adam and Eve were the first pair buried there, and therefore Hebron, where the cave was situated, bore the additional name of "Kirjath-arba" (= "the city of four"; i.e., of the tombs of Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah ('Er. 53a; Soṭah 13a; comp. Gen. R. lviii. 4).

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According to Pirḳe R. El. xxxvi., the cave of Machpelah was at Jebus, and the reason that induced Abraham to buy it was the following: When Abraham went to fetch the calf for his guests (comp. Gen. xviii. 7) it escaped to the cave of Machpelah. Abraham ran after it, and when he entered the cave he saw Adam and Eve lying in their beds as though they were sleeping, while lighted candles were around them, exhaling a fragrant odor. Abraham, filled with a desire to possess the cave, determined to buy it at any price. The Jebusites, however, refused to sell it to him until he had sworn that when his descendants conquered the land of Canaan they would spare the city of Jebus (Jerusalem). Abraham accordingly took the oath, and the Jebusites inscribed it on brazen idols which they placed in the markets of the city. This was the reason why the children of Benjamin did not drive out the inhabitants of Jebus (Judges i. 21). Abraham secured his purchase of the cave of Machpelah by a formal deed signed by four witnesses: Amigal, son of Abishua the Hittite; Elihoreph, son of Ashunah the Hivite; 'Iddon, son of Ahira the Gardite; Aḳdul, son of 'Abudish the Zidonite ("Sefer ha-Yashar," section "Ḥayye Sarah," p. 37a, Leghorn, 1870).


After Isaac's death, Jacob, desirous of becoming sole owner of the cave of Machpelah, acquired Esau's part of it in exchange for all the riches left him by his father. This sale was also ratified by a document, which Jacob put in an earthen vessel to preserve it from decay (ib. section "Wayesheb," p. 77b). Nevertheless, at the burial of Jacob the cave was the subject of a violent dispute between Jacob's children and Esau. The latter opposed the burial of Jacob in the cave on the ground that there was room only for four pairs, and that Jacob, by burying Leah, had filled up his part. Naphtali returned to Egypt for the title-deed, but meanwhile Hushim, the son of Dan, struck Esau on the head with a stick so that the latter's eyes fell on Jacob's knees (Soṭah l.c.; comp. "Sefer ha-Yashar," l.c. pp. 97a-98a, where it is said that Hushim cut off Esau's head, which was buried on the spot). There is another tradition, to the effect that Esau was slain by Judah in the cave of Machpelah at Isaac's burial (Midr. Teh. xviii.; Yalḳ., Gen. 162).

Emil G. Hirsch, M. Seligsohn, Solomon Schechter
Jewish Encyclopedia, published between 1901-1906.


Catholic Information

The burial-place in the vicinity of ancient Hebron which Abraham bought from Ephron the Hethite for the interment of Sara (Genesis 23:9, 17). Sara was buried there in a cave (xxiii, 19), as was later Abraham himself (xxv, 9). The words of the dying Jacob inform us that Rebecca and Lia were also buried in this cave (xlix, 31), and, lastly, Jacob found there his last resting place (l, 13). According to the Hebrew text, which always uses the word Machpelah with the article, the Machpelah is the place in which the field with the cave is to be found. Thus we read "the cave in the field of the Machpelah" in Gen., xxiii, 17, 19; xliv, 30; l, 13, "the cave of the Machpelah" is twice mentioned (xxiii, 9; xxv, 9). But in the Greek text the word is rendered "the double cave"–by derivation from the root kafal, "to double". This meaning is admitted into the Targum, into the Syrian translation and into the Vulgate.

In the later books of the Old Testament Machpelah is not mentioned. Josephus, however, knows the tomb of Abraham and his descendants in the district then known as Hebron (Antiq., I, xiv, 1; xxii, 1; xxi, 3). According to this historian (op. cit., II, viii, 2), the brothers of Joseph were also interred in their ancestral burial-place–a hypothesis for which there is no foundation in Holy Writ. A Rabbinic tradition of not much later date on the strength of a misinterpretation of Jos., xiv, 15 (Hebron-Kiriath Arba–"City of Four") would place the graves of four Patriarchs at Hebron, and, relying on the same passage, declares Adam to be the fourth Patriarch. St. Jerome accepted this interpretation (see "Onomasticon des Eusebius", ed. Klostermann, Leipzig, 1904, p. 7), and introduced it into the Vulgate. According to Rabbinic legends, Esau also was buried in the neighbourhood. Since the sixth century the grave of Joseph has been pointed out at Hebron (Itinerar. Antonini), in spite of Jos., xxiv, 32, while the Mohammedans even to-day regard an Arabian building joined to the north-west of the Haram as Joseph's tomb. The tomb mentioned by Josephus is undoubtedly the Haram situated in the south-east quarter of Hebron (El-Khalil). The shrine facing north-west and south-east forms a spacious rectangle 197 feet long by 111 feet wide, and rises to a height of about 40 feet. The mighty blocks of limestone as hard as marble, dressed and closely fitted ("beautiful, artistically carved marble", Josephus, "Bell. Jud.", IV, ix, 7) have acquired with age almost the tint of bronze. The monotony of the long lines is relieved by rectangular pilasters, sixteen on each side and eight at the top and bottom. Of the builder tradition is silent; Josephus is ignorant of his identity. Its resemblance in style to the Haram at Jerusalem has led many to refer it to the Herodian period, e.g., Conder, Benzinger. Robinson, Warren, and Heidet regard the building as pre-Herodian.

Since Josephus tradition has no doubt preserved the site correctly. Eusebius merely mentions the burial-place ("Onomasticon", ed. Klostermann, s. v. "Arbo", p. 6); the Pilgrim of Bordeaux (333) speaks explicitly of a rectangular building of magnificent stone ("Itinera Hieros.", ed. Geyer, "Corpus Script. Eccl. Lat.", XXXIX, Vienna, 1898, p. 25). In his version of the "Onomasticon", St. Jerome unfortunately does not express himself clearly; it is doubtful whether the church, which he declares to have been recently built (a nostris ibidem jam exstructa), is to be sought in the mausoleum or at Haram Ramet el Khalil, half an hour's journey north of Hebron. The "Itinerarium" of St. Antoninus (c. 570) mentions a basilica with four halls (perhaps four porches about the walls) at the graves of the Patriarchs, possessing an open court, and equally venerated by Christians and Jews ("It. Hieros.", ed. Geyer, 178 sq.). About 700, Adamnan informs us, on the authority of Arculf, that the burial-place of the Patriarchs is surrounded by a rectangular wall, and that over the graves stand monuments, but there is no mention of a basilica ("De Locis Sanct.", II, x, Geyer, 261 sq.). The following centuries (Mukkadasi, Saewulf, Daniel–985, 1102, 1106) throw no new light on the question. In 1119 a Christian church was undoubtedly to be found there, either the old Byzantine or the Crusader's church, which, to judge from the style, apparently dates from the middle of the twelfth century. Remains from early times are still perceptible, but they do not enable one to form any judgment concerning the old basilica; what still remained of it at the period of the Crusades is uncertain. According to a rather improbable statement of Benjamin of Tudela, a Jewish synagogue stood in the Haram before the re-establishment of Christian domination. After the downfall of the Frankish kingdom, the Latin church was converted into the present mosque. This is built in the southern section of the Haram in such a position as to utilize three of the boundary walls. The interior is seventy feet long and ninety-three feet wide; four pillars divide it into three aisles of almost the same breadth, but of unequal length. The entrance to the Haram is effected by means of two flights of steps, a specimen of Arabian art of the fourteenth century.

According to a late and unreliable Mohammedan tradition, the tombs of the Patriarchs lie under six monuments; to Isaac and Rebecca are assigned those within the mosque itself; to Abraham and Sara the next two, in front of the north wall of the mosque in two chapels of the narthex; those of Jacob and Lia are the last two at the north end of the Haram. Concerning the subterranean chambers we possess only inexact information. The Jewish accounts (Benjamin of Tudela, 1160-73; Rabbi Petacchia, 1175-80; David Reubeni, 1525) are neither clear nor uniform. An extensive investigation was undertaken by the Latin monks of Kiriath Arba (D. V. Cariath-Arbe-Hebron) in 1119, but was never completed. After several days of laborious work, they disclosed a whole system of subterranean chambers, in which it was believed that at last the much-sought-for "double cave" with the remains of the three Patriarchs had been discovered. In 1859 by means of an entrance in the porch of the mosque between the sarcophagi of Abraham and Sara, the Italian Pierotti succeeded in descending some steps of a stairway hewn in the rock. According to Pierotti's observations, the cavity extends the whole length of the Haram. Owing to the intolerance of the Mohammedans, all subsequent attempts of English and German investigators (1862, 1869, 1882) have led to no satisfactory results. Concerning the plan of and connection between the underground chambers no judgment can be formed without fresh investigation.

Publication information Written by A. Merk. Transcribed by WGKofron. With thanks to St. Mary's Church, Akron, Ohio The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume IX. Published 1910. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, October 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York

ROBINSON, Biblical Researches in Palestine, II (Boston, 1841), 75 sqq.; Memoirs on the Survey of Western Palestine, III (London, 1883), 333 sqq.; Palestine Exploration Fund, Quarterly Statement (1882), 197 sqq. (1897), 53 sqq.; LE STRANGE, Palestine under the Moslems (London, 1890), 300 sqq.; Acta SS., IV, Oct., 688 sqq.;RIANT, Archives de l'Orient latin, II (Genoa, 1884), 411 sqq.; PIEROTTI, Macpéla ou tombeaux des patriarches (Lausanne, 1869); HEIDET in VIGOUROUX, Dict. de la Bible, s. v. Macpélah.


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