Tisha Be'av in the PA's Hebron

The Tomb of Otniel Ben Knaz, located just over the border that divides Hebron with the Palestinian Authority, was the site of Jewish prayers on the fast day.

August 21, 2019 19:49
Tisha Be'av in the PA's Hebron

IDF SOLDIERS and visitors pray with Hebron’s shopping malls in the distance.. (photo credit: BEN BRESKY)

Jewish worshipers sang solemn songs for Tisha Be'av at a historic Jewish burial site as Palestinian Authority flags fluttered in the breeze down the street. The annual visit to the Tomb of Otniel Ben Knaz took place on the fast day that commemorates the destruction of the first and second incarnations of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

About 500 men, women and children took part in the annual visit to the site, arranged by the IDF in coordination with the PA. It takes less than 10 minutes to walk from the Israeli side of the city to the tomb, which is located at the end of a relatively quiet street. The nearby Policeman’s Square leads down the hill to the bustling downtown area of Arab Hebron, the PA’s largest and most industrialized city.

Malka, a Jerusalem resident, made the rare trip for the first time. She told In Jerusalem of her initial apprehension about crossing the checkpoint but felt safe once she was there. “I was really impressed by the heartfelt prayer,” she stated. “I’ve never been inside a burial cave like that before. I felt like I was in the times of the Bible.” The fact that it was the fast day of Tisha Be'av added to the atmosphere, she added.

The trip began at the checkpoint where an army escort gave a brief introduction before opening the gates into the PA side of the city. Past several clothing shops displaying traditional Muslim women’s fashions, at the end of a quiet road, stands an old stone building. Up a flight of steps and into a narrow doorway, in what looks like a basement, is a darkened cave with a low ceiling. Further into the cave is an empty rock-cut tomb with 10 round niches carved into the walls.

What lies beneath this level or whether or not the empty tracts of land behind the building have hidden grave as well is unknown, although the tomb is in relative proximity to the ancient Jewish cemetery located up the hill in the Israeli side of town.

Who was Otniel, son of Knaz?

Rabbi Simcha Hochbaum, a longtime Hebron resident and local tour guide, spoke about the site.
Otniel, often spelled as Othniel, was the first judge of Israel, taking over from Joshua, as described in the Book of Judges and the Book of Joshua. Hochbaum described him as a great warrior-scholar, and told the story of how Caleb, Joshua’s contemporary, vowed that anyone who would be able to liberate the area south of Hebron would have his daughter’s hand in marriage. It was Othniel son of Knaz who rose to the challenge. The area of Hebron was given to Caleb as an inheritance, the Bible states, and Otniel, as his half-brother, is believed to have inherited it after him.

History of the tomb

The style of the tomb is identical to that of many other rock-cut tombs found all over Israel and corresponds to how the Talmud describes the traditional Jewish burial practices of the day.

Hochbaum elaborated that at the time there was a shortage of land, and thus the institution of kuhin (temporary burial places) was instituted. After 12 months, the deceased were removed and reinterred in family plots with the caves being reused for future generations, Hochbaum said, referencing the Talmud in Tractate Baba Batra.

The Foreign Affairs Ministry states on its website. “In primary burial, bodies were placed in kuhim niches or on arcosolia (benches) cut into the walls of the burial chambers... they attest to the prevalent practice of collecting the bones of the deceased for secondary burial, a custom based on the Jewish belief in the resurrection of the dead.”

Hochbaum added, “Proper archeological excavations have not been done to the site.” He noted that Arab residents sympathetic to the Jewish community have kept an eye on the site.

Noam Arnon, a spokesman for the community and author of HaMaarah: Discoveries and Studies at the Cave of Machpela, explained that the multiple niches in the walls indicate was used as a family tomb. “We have thousands of caves like this in Israel,” he said. Comparing it to the well-known burial catacombs of Beit She’arim in the Galilee, Arnon stated, “It’s a typical burial site from the Second Temple Period.”

He added that historical records from the 19th century state the land where the tomb is located was purchased by the Jewish community.

As groups of people stood outside on the street waiting for the fast to end, Arnon read excerpts from the Bible and Talmud that discuss Otniel.

PREPARING WATERMELON for after the fast; the Tomb of Otniel is located in the building in the background. (Credit: BEN BRESKY)

Historical writings about the Tomb of Otniel

Written records of Jewish visits to the site date back to the 17th century, Arnon said. Later records include a visit by Menachem Mendel of Kamenitz, who became the first hotel owner in the Land of Israel. In his 1839 book Sefer Korot Ha-Itim, later translated into English as Book of the Occurrences of the Times to Jeshurun in the Land of Israel, he wrote, “Outside of the city [of Hebron] I went to the grave of Othniel ben Kenaz and, next to him, are laid to rest nine students in niches in the wall of a shelter standing in a vineyard. I gave 20 pa’res to the owner of the vineyard.”

JJ Benjamin, author of the 1858 book Eight Years in Asia and Africa, reported, “Likewise outside the city, towards the South, in a vineyard which was purchased by the Jews, are the graves of the father of King David and of the first Judge, Othniel, the son of Kinah.”

Lady Judith Montefiore, wife of British philanthropist Moses Montefiore, mentions in the 1844 book Notes from a Journal of a Visit to Palestine that although she and her husband were turned away from the Tomb of the Patriarchs, her entourage was offered a chance to visit the tomb of “Athniel, the Son of Kenaz.”

The 1872 book Palestine and Roumania by Hyam Zvee Sneersohn, a great grandson of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, wrote of visiting the tomb of “Athniel, son of Kenaz,” which he said was “located near the Jewish burial ground, in a barren and open place.”

Menachem Shmuel Slonim (1882-1955), a member of the prominent Slonim family of Hebron, wrote about his experiences growing up in the city. As printed in the book Sefer Hebron, he reminisced about the holiday of Lag Ba’omer, which in those days was the traditional day the community would visit the site. “In the afternoon we would go on a walk to the fields and visit the Tomb of Otniel Ben Knaz who according to tradition is buried in Hebron in the hillside outside in a spot that overlooks directly towards Beersheba,” he wrote.

Continuing, Slonim states, “The building in which the cave is located is the property of the one of the Ishmaelite families in town, the Bader family, and with a small amount of money they would open the place for Jews. After getting inside the cave, and the many niches, we would go out and stay all day in the fields surrounding the cave and enjoy food, drink, singing and dancing until the sun went down.”

Limited access

Arnon explained that the Hebron Accords list four Jewish holy sites on the PA side of the city that were supposed to have free access, “but this part of the agreement was not implemented.” The local community petitioned the IDF and government to allow the Tomb of Otniel, one of those four sites, to be open on Lag Ba’omer, and it was on several years, pending the security situation. But today Tisha Be'av has become the day on which visits occur. Access is also scheduled for the Shabbat of Parsha Chayei Sarah when thousands visit Hebron.

Tsipi Shissel, a long-time resident who for years worked at the Hebron Heritage Museum, told us that the trips on Tisha Be'av are a newer phenomenon which started as a memorial to the mother of a local resident.

Both Hochbaum and Arnon said they remembered the days before the 1997 Hebron Accords that gave 80% of the city to the PA and left the Jewish neighborhoods and the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs on the Israeli side. While PA residents can cross back and forth, albeit with a security check, the semi-annual trip to the Tomb of Otniel is the only chance Israelis get to cross the border.
Hochbaum said he remembers coming every Saturday night for a melaveh malka, an end-of-Shabbat gathering, at the Tomb of Otniel. “My son has his halaka [first hair cut] here, and I know a couple who met here one Saturday night and ended up getting married.”

Arnon said it was common for Jewish residents to shop at Arab-owned stores before the checkpoints existed and said he preferred the way it was before.

IDF proud to provide security

IDF Major Eitan Dana-Picard of the Judea Regional Brigade told In Jerusalem he was proud to help arrange the trip.
“There are number of sites located in Area A,” he said, referring to areas in the West Bank under full PA control. “For example, the tomb of the judge Othniel Ben Kenaz – there is no doubt that he is a significant figure in Judaism,” he said. “Reaching the tomb gives the ability to connect to the past and tradition.”

Major Dana-Picard added, “Our ability to provide security and to allow a variety of people to pray safely at this place is an integral part of our mission to protect and keep the balance of life in the area.”

He noted the very name of his unit, the Judea Brigade, references the historic Judea and Samaria regions that contain many sites associated with ancient Judaism, such as Joseph’s Tomb, Rachel’s Tomb and the site of Jacob’s ladder. “We, the commanders and soldiers of the Judea Regional Brigade will continue to operate 24/7 in order to protect this area.”

Joining the IDF in 2002, Major Dana-Picard related, “As part of my job in the army I learned about the region and its past. I feel that the civilians in the area are living with security today. This is reflected by the many visitors who come to our region every year, especially on holidays.”

A uniting experience

As the day waned on, Jewish visitors ducked in and out of the cave. Up a flight of steps overlooking the street, soldiers and civilians stood side by side gazing out at the modern side of city with its large shopping centers. One soldier donned tefillin, usually worn in the morning, but pushed off under later in the day on Tisha Be'av.

Inside the dark, empty tomb, Psalms were read and the Kaddish prayer recited from the dim light of phones. A group of Vizhnitz Hassidim sang slow Hebrew melodies that echoed off the walls that had been slightly blackened from memorial candles.

As the sky grew dark and Tisha Be'av drew to a close, volunteers arrived with watermelon, rogelach cakes and drinks to break the fast. The evening Maariv prayers were recited outside on the empty street as IDF soldiers, some in kippot, stood next to a mix of Jewish settlers, hassidim and curious Israelis who had arrived from around the country. In the distance, the call to prayer from the local mosques could be heard with the Arabic words of “Allahu Akbar” for the holiday of Eid al-Adha, which coincidentally fell on the same day.

Dana-Picard noted, “Our preparations were in accordance with conditions. Our goal is not to harm such a special time for both Jews and Muslims.”

Because Tisha Be'av fell on a Saturday night this year, the traditional Havdalah prayer that typically ends Shabbat was recited. Arnon held the cup of grape juice and recited the prayer as the crowd answered “amen” in unison and then broke their fast. After eating their first meal of the day, groups joined hands, both soldiers and civilians, singing and dancing in a circle.

The entire trip took all of two hours, after which the visitors walked back up the quiet street and crossed the metal turnstile that led back into the Israeli side of the city.

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