Elijah's Cave in the northern Israeli city of Haifa. Gil Eliahu

The Jewish Sites That Became Sacred Overnight and Lost That Status Just as Quickly

Israel had a shortage of holy sites for people to visit after the formation of the state, so one man, Shmuel Zanvil Kahana, stepped up to create dozens of Jewish shrines

Aside from the urgent need for basic food items, arms and professional expertise, Israel, in the wake of its establishment, had to contend with another serious and unforeseen shortage: The young country did not have enough Jewish holy sites. The extraordinary solution to this problem was to deliberately and systematically instill holiness upon dozens of existing sites. Among the places that became sacred overnight were a stone that was in fact part of an agricultural facility, a little-known cave alongside the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem road, and even a Muslim burial site. All of these became instant sites for Jewish pilgrimage. Some attained such significance that they were used for state ceremonies, in which government ministers and chief rabbis participated.

Nevertheless, whether they were conceived out of some private initiative, were the product of an individual’s dream or vision, or were established through active governmental initiative, most of them had one thing in common: their newly earned sanctity was short-lived. Dozens of the sites that found their way onto the map of holy places to Judaism following the establishment of the state in 1948 subsequently lost their sacred status. A visit to them now raises serious questions about the depth of tradition and sanctity and the dynamics of faith.

The “father of the transformation” and the most vigorous proponent of the sanctification of new sites was Shmuel Zanvil Kahana, the industrious director-general of the Ministry of Religious Affairs in the state’s early decades, and a key figure in drafting the map of holy sites prior to 1967. As a young government official in an even younger country, Kahana (1905-1998) worked assiduously on the reinstitution – what his critics might call invention – of ancient traditions. Aside from conferring holiness on a variety of sites, for years he was also at the forefront of institutionalizing dozens of public ceremonies that reconfigured the map of the sacred in Israel. Kahana also created a dense calendar of events possessing a religious and national character. Any doubts entertained as to the sanctity of these sites did little to prevent the masses from visiting and praying at them.

“Imagine a situation in which the State of Israel is established, and there isn’t a single holy site,” reasons his daughter, Nechama Cohn. “All of the holy places were then in the possession of the Arabs. What are you going to do about it? You have to come up with something. In part due to the fact that the state was on his side, he succeeded.”

Indeed, as early as 1949, shortly after the cessation of hostilities in the War of Independence, discussions began regarding the development of the Sanhedrin caves in the Sanhedria neighborhood of north Jerusalem as a holy site and place for pilgrimage. According to Jewish tradition, the rabbis of the Sanhedrin supreme religious court were buried on the site, which dates from Second Temple times. By the Middle Ages, the site was revered as a pilgrimage site, but in the wake of Israel’s establishment, it became much more than that: it was imbued with holiness.

Emil Salman
Gil Eliahu

Cohn relates that her grandfather was the last rabbi of Warsaw. “The Holocaust was a tremendous rupture for him. When my father arrived here, he saw an opportunity for renewal, and for him this was a means of coping with the tragedy of the Holocaust.”

“I have a great deal of respect for Kahana,” says Prof. Doron Bar, a historical geographer and the president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. Bar has conducted research on Kahana and his role in creating holy sites in Israel.

“It was a period of time when everyone was creating traditions: the kibbutz movement, the Revisionist right – Masada, Tel Hai, the cemeteries at Kinneret and Deganya. Everyone was competing for tradition, and Kahana was saying, I have the right to it, too.”

“Holy places are always being created,” Bar adds. He notes that although we do not have the documentation of an individual acting as Kahana did back in the Byzantine period, during which the majority of holy sites to Christianity in Israel were created – including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Stations of the Cross, in Jerusalem – there have always been individuals who acted as he has.

‘Nothing was invented’

The crowning achievement of Kahana’s labors was the institution of David’s Tomb on Mount Zion (where, according to certain traditions, King David is buried) as the most important holy site within the borders of the State of Israel until 1967. Numerous ceremonies were held at the site, with the participation of Israeli government leaders and the chief rabbis. In order to further elevate its status, Kahana built the Chamber of the Holocaust nearby, the first Holocaust museum in Israel (which is still open), and he helped to develop the holy traditions around the site.

Moshe Gilad
Wikipedia commons

Like other holy places dating to that era, David’s Tomb suffered a setback in its status following the occupation of the truly significant holy places in the Six-Day War – the Western Wall, Rachel’s Tomb and the Tomb of the Patriarchs. However, unlike some, it remains a holy place and in recent decades its status was reinforced when a group of ardent faithful transformed it into a popular religious site that “possesses certain powers.”

The uniqueness of David’s Tomb may be gleaned from a story about Jerusalem’s Independence Park. For years, the park was home to a holy site known as “the Lion’s Cave,” a landmark that Shmuel Zanvil Kahana practically fashioned out of thin air. In this case, he relied on Christian tradition in order to sanctify for the Jews a cave that was situated in the heart of a Muslim graveyard. Christian traditions refer to the burial in the cave of believers of the young faith who were killed in the Persian invasion of the city in 614. A mythical lion was said to guard over their bones. In its Jewish version, the legend evolved into that of a lion who gathered up and watched over the bones of the rabbis executed by the Romans during the Great Revolt, in the year 70, or conversely, during the Hasmonean Revolt against the Greeks in the Second Century BCE.

In 1950, Dr. Yotam Rothschild discovered the cave, and Kahana hastened to adopt it. The space was excavated and then restored, and the chief rabbis were invited to its rededication. All of the daily newspapers reported on the event, although some raised eyebrows about the history associated with it. “The Lion’s Cave – Historic Corner or Legendary Concoction?” posed the headline in Maariv, for example.

Kahana’s daughter, Cohn, knows of the criticism of her father’s activities, but vehemently rejects it. “He did not create anything new,” she maintains. “He turned over every stone and listed every grave marker; he enhanced things that already existed, he did not invent them.”

Emil Salman

The legend that was

One example of this sort of development is in Haifa, where Kahana turned Elijah’s Cave into a holy place. His daughter reports that, at the time, it was the country’s second most important holy site, after David’s Tomb. Over the years, the cave has lost much of its religious character, but it is still there, and still attracts visitors – even if they do not pray as much.

You couldn’t say the same for the “Cave of the Sage” (Ma’arat Hatzadik) at Sha’ar Hagai, near where the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway begins its ascent to the capital. Nowadays, it does not even appear on the map of holy sites, but for many years the cave was a prototype for the way in which a good legend can lead to sacred status. The cave in question lies next to the tomb of a Muslim sheikh, at the 21-kilometer point on the road. This time around, the Jewish designation was based not on an ancient legend, but rather on a story of the miraculous rescue of Hagana fighters during their attempt to break through to the besieged city during the War of Independence. The story of the legend was composed by Kahana himself.

He described an incident in which a convoy was attacked with hand grenades, and the armored car at its front began to burst into flames. When the driver decided to flee the burning vehicle in an attempt to save his comrades, “something odd occurred,” wrote Kahana. “As he jumped on a stone leading up the hillside, the stone that blocked the entrance of a cave shattered, and the cave was opened up before them. Astounded by the miracle, the people in the vehicle emerged, and one by one they crawled into the cave, where they found a safe haven And when one of the sagely residents of Jerusalem heard about it, he said that he was certain that it was thanks to the Sage buried in the cave that they were saved.”

The cave became a landmark along the road between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv; a synagogue was erected on the site as well as a marker, and the pilgrims began arriving. Anyone trying to find the place now, however, will be disappointed. The repaving of the road a few years ago obliterated any trace of the cave. Today, the legend is preserved mainly on a website dedicated to Shmuel Zanvil Kahana.

Emil salman

Stones, it turns out, are a recurrent theme in the holy sites of yore, as one learns from the legend of the “Stone of the Destruction in Eshtaol.” The stone is essentially the piece of an ancient agricultural apparatus that was situated at the top of a hill along the road to Jerusalem (the hill is now located within Eretz Hachaim Cemetery, near Moshav Eshtaol). The legend, recorded and perhaps also concocted by the doyen of Land of Israel studies in the state’s early decades, Ze’ev Vilnai, refers to the men of Judea who took on themselves to ascend to Jerusalem in order to prevent the city’s destruction at the hand of the Romans. They brought with them stones to reinforce the city’s defenses. When they arrived at Eshtaol, however, they could already see plumes of smoke rising above the city, and realized they were too late. “One of them, a heroic warrior from the seed of Samson, who was carrying the largest stone of them all, fell under its weight when terror was struck into his heart,” reads the Ministry of Religious Affairs sign placed at the site.

The stone became an important symbol for residents of the villages in the region. “It sounds silly, but it worked. For the residents living there, Jerusalem was far away, and the stone answered for their need for a holy place,” says Doron Bar.

Ceremonies and prayers are conducted near the stone, especially on Tisha B’av, the anniversary of the Temples’ destruction. Thousands of persons would take part in the major ceremonies, many of them from settlements in the area, and the site would also be visited by rabbis and politicians. The valley extending beneath the stone was accorded the name Valley of the Destruction, and rocks from it would be brought up to David’s Tomb on Mt. Zion. The extent to which the site was considered holy may be learned from an op-ed piece in the Hatzofeh newspaper (identified with the National Religious Party) from 1955, in which rage is expressed over the fact that the Mapai party had covered over signs in the area of the stone with its election posters.

Kahana, who had clearly worked hard on the holiness of Western Jerusalem and the road between Tel Aviv and the capital, did not disregard other parts of the country. In Be’er Sheva he established the “Tamarisk of Abraham” site, where a mass tree planting ceremony took place every Tu Bishvat. On Mount Zin in the Negev, he made an attempt to place the burial of Aaron the high priest. And in Eilat, although he did not find any holy sites on dry land, he did find holiness on the water, as rabbis would habitually read the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15), about the crossing of the Red Sea, as they sailed on boats offshore.

The gate to Eden

Not all of the new holy places were proclaimed as such by the state. Some were grass-roots initiatives that were not recognized from above, in the same way in which the majority of the rabbis’ graves were created. In 1979, Yaish Ohana, an employee of the Beit She’an municipality’s maintenance department, issued a dramatic announcement to the public. In the backyard of his home in the city’s Dalet neighborhood, he wrote, nothing less than the entrance to the Garden of Eden had been revealed. “In my first dream, a tzadik [holy man] appeared to me and told me to dig in my backyard,” he wrote, describing the course of events. “I started digging, and suddenly an opening was revealed to me. I walked through the opening, and splendid things were revealed before my eyes. I saw a pool of fresh water surrounded by a great deal of greenery. I continued to walk and I saw a wondrous garden containing all that is good, and all around us were rabbis strolling.”

Gil Eliahu

In the wake of this vision, Ohana began to cultivate the small garden behind his house, and for a few years the place was considered a holy site; the garden vegetation in it was thought to possess healing powers, and people paid visits to the site in order to pray or to receive a blessing.

“It was a typical local healing shrine,” says Yoram Bilu, emeritus professor of anthropology at the Hebrew University, who extensively investigated Ohana’s story of the gate to the Garden of Eden. “Not far away is a medical clinic, and many people saw them as two places that complemented one another; it was a lively site.”

But over the years the site’s fortunes have declined. In 1997, when the small synagogue that had been built near the garden burned down, Ohana refused to repair it. He subsequently left Beit She’an, and the faithful have abandoned the gate to the Garden of Eden. Nonetheless, the place has not lost all of its holy qualities: One of the neighbors, Rachel Ben Hamo, herself a former frequent visitor to the site, has become a familiar figure in the “healing” of barren women.


Overnight, after the Six-Day War, when the roads to the Western Wall, Rachel’s Tomb and the Tomb of the Patriarchs were opened, Kahana’s holy sites lust their luster. They were forgotten and they were abandoned. The Caves of the Sanhedrin became just another open field, and until a recent sprucing up was being used as a dump; the Eshtaol Stone has been swalloed up by the bushes and trees growing along the edges of the cemetery, and Elijah’s Cave in Haifa is no longer known as a religious site as such.

The discovery of new holy sites did not end in 1967, nor did the subsequent downgrading of some of the same, in terms of their status as holy sites. One consequence is that there are dozens of forgotten graves of holy men scattered around the country.

One of these sites lies not far from the Stone of the Destruction in Eshtaol. The grave, which was originally that of a Muslim sheikh, Sheikh Gharib, became famous in the 1980s when it was identified as the grave of Dan, son of the patriarch Jacob. Residents of the area began to upgrade the site, structures for a synagogue and a yeshiva were erected, benches were installed and a water pipe was laid. But in the meantime, another grave near Mount Tabor has been recognized as the “authentic” grave of Dan son of Jacob – and the status of Eshtaol tomb was undermined. About six months ago, the Israel Lands Authority demolished the structures erected near the grave, and three months ago the building holding the tomb itself was sealed.

The masses have abandoned the site, which is now strewn with trash. However, at least in the opinion of a small group of Bratslav hasidim, the site’s sanctity remains intact. They have broken into the sealed building, and have renewed prayers at the site. A visit to the grave last week confirmed that the site still suffers from physical neglect, but two young men were inside, praying with great spiritual devotion.

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