Moshe Dayan’s Mystery

In 1967 Israel miraculously conquered all of Judea and Samaria (commonly referred to anachronistically as the ‘West Bank’),  in a lightning fast war of only six days. When Moshe Dayan arrived in Hebron there had never been a modern exploration of the cave complex where all but one of the biblical patriarchs and matriarchs were buried. Being somewhat of an amateur archeologist, or some might say an antiquities thief, Dayan wanted to send someone down the hole in the floor of the Isaac Hall to map it out. But officials of the Muslim Waqf told him in no uncertain terms that it was forbidden to enter the cave complex.

There is an old legend, shared in various versions by local Jews and Muslims, which indicates that going into the cave system, where the patriarchs and matriarchs are buried, is dangerous. And in this part of the world anything not done for hundreds of years transforms from dangerous to sacrilegious. The story has to do with the ruler of the Ottoman empire and his ceremonial sword.

DISCLAIMER: This story has been told and written up in many places. I have heard it and read it many times and I’m sure elements of those tellings have made their way into this version. However I have not consciously copied any particular source either in whole or in part. Any identical phrases or details are the result of retelling a common legend.

The Sultan and His Sword

In the mid 1600s the Ottoman Sultan came to the Land of Israel as part of a tour of his empire. He came to Hebron and visited the monumental structure built by Herod above the tombs of the patriarchs and matriarchs. While he was exploring the large open space referred to now as the “Isaac Hall,” which holds the grave markers for Isaac and Rebecca, he saw a circular hole in the ground which leads to the cave complex underneath. As he bent over to look down the hole his sword slipped out of its sheath and fell down about twenty feet to the bottom of the cavern.

Though the soldiers new it was dangerous to go down into the cave, when the Sultan ordered them to do so they obeyed. Trembling with fear, one soldier was lowered down into the cave, but as his hand reached out to grab the sword he fell limp and when they pulled him back up they saw he was dead. Another soldier was lowered down, even more frightened than the first, and again he died before retrieving the sword.

The local soldiers understood that the Jews had a special connection to this place, and rather than adding to the body count of their dead comrades they suggested to the Sultan that they find a Jew to send down after the sword. They approached the Jews and demanded a volunteer for this dangerous mission. The great kabbalist Rav Avraham Azulai volunteered. After praying and immersing in a mikveh the Rabbi was lowered down into the cave. There he had a vision of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They told him that he should take the sword back up to the Sultan, so as to save the Jewish community from any retribution, but that in seven days his soul would join theirs.

The Sultan was so pleased with getting his sword back that he allowed certain restrictions on the Jews in Hebron to be relaxed. Over the next week, Rabbi Azulai gathered his closest students around him and transmitted the deepest secrets of the Torah to them. After seven days he died and ascended to heaven. His body was buried in the old Jewish cemetery in Hebron, not far from the tomb of the patriarchs and matriarchs.