Tens of thousands are expected to come to Hebron this Shabbat, to hear this week’s parasha read in the place where it occurred – in Me’arat HaMahpela, the Cave of the Patriarchs. Parashat Hayei Sarah describes the sale of the first Jewish gravesite in history to Avraham. Avraham buried Sarah there, and afterwards he was buried next to her, later joined by Isaac and Rebecca and Jacob and Leah. But until this day we are not really sure what is under the grave markers of the patriarchs and matriarchs.
Me’arat HaMahpela, the Cave of the Patriarchs, is one of the few places in Israel which have not been studied, and the underground tunnels located under the building have been blocked for decades. Many people are attracted by the myths about the place, such as the tradition that the entrance to Gan Eden is below the graves. But a few years ago there was a man who descended deep below the surface, and got to see the mysterious place himself.
For almost 80 years, 97 year old Jack Seklan kept the secret that he had been at Me’arat HaMahpela when he was about 20, accompanied by a British officer in charge of the place at that time. Decades later, his testimony was revealed in a filmed interview with Noam Arnon, the spokesman for Hebron’s Jewish community. Arnon himself was one of the few people who managed to go into some of the caves about thirty years ago, but even he didn’t reach the places that Seklan described. Seklan said: “At the end of the great hall there were about 20 meters, and there was a large hall with a door. I stood there. I wanted to go in, but the Muslim guard said it was forbidden.” Eventually, after some discussion, Seklan managed to get in with the British soldier who accompanied him. The two descended into the underground cave, “into lost halls under the structure which we know about, but I have never heard of anyone else who was in there,” in Arnon’s words. “Since then, of course, the place has been closed, and we don’t know how to enter.”
The Grave under the Grave
In his testimony, Saklan said: “I went down and there was faint light. I saw that above the grave there were all sorts of pretty things, but beneath the tombs of Avraham and Isaac there was another tomb, covered with dirt and clay.” Saklan asked the Arab guard if there was something under the mounds, and he answered that those were the real graves of the patriarchs and matriarchs. After he documented Saklan’s statement, Arnon said that he processed the information, and wanted to come interview him another time, to complete some information about the underground caves. But a few days after the interview, 97 year old Jack Saklan was killed in a car accident, and with him all of the important secrets were lost. “After he passed on his information to future generations, his role in the world was over,” said Arnon. Arnon added that in an era with very few secrets, “Me’arat HaMahpela is one of the few places in the country which remains shrouded in mystery. We still don’t really know what’s going on underneath there.” The cave is open to Jewish visitors every day. It is recommended to visit and pray at the site.