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In Genesis 23, Abraham purchased the Cave of Machpelah from Efron the Hittite. Several generations of Abraham's family were buried there, although eventually new burials ceased.

According to Jewish law, who owns this cave today?

  • Literally no one (when did it become ownerless)?
  • The entire Jewish people collectively?
  • All descendants of Abraham, collectively, whether Jewish or Gentile?
  • A specific group of people (e.g. all members of the tribe of Levi, collectively)?
  • Some specific person who is known?
  • Some specific person whose identity is known only to HaShem and/or Messiah?
  • Messiah himself?
  • Something else?

For example, have property rights in the cave been passed down "invisibly" through Jewish inheritance laws for all these thousands of years, vesting ownership in some specific person (maybe some tailor in Brooklyn, or that really tall accountant in Montreal, whatever) who probably has no idea that he is the single rightful heir, or has something happened to positively extinguish ordinary real estate rights?

Note, I am asking this question solely as it relates to Torah Law, as opposed to Israeli law, Palestinian law, Islamic law, Roman Catholic Canon Law, international law, or any other legal code, nor am I asking about the political propriety of trying to claim ownership of or exert property rights over (e.g. trying to bury additional people in) the cave today.

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    The last officially owner we knew of was Jacob, so presumably not "all descendants of Abraham, whether Jewish or Gentile". It first belonged to Abraham, then Isaac, and then Jacob. Ishmael and Esau don't have a share in it (that's why they're not buried there). So now it collectively belongs to the descendants of Jacob, which would be the Jewish People. – ezra Dec 1 '17 at 1:35
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    @robert or Judah and then Caleb whose apportionment included the area around Hebron – Double AA Dec 1 '17 at 2:24
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    Machpelah belongs to Jacob's Estate. – ezra Dec 1 '17 at 3:59
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    If Hordus personally sponsored the renovations from the royal fund, could that change things as well? – Fei23 Dec 1 '17 at 4:17
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    "According to Jewish law" - I'm unaware of any "formal halacha" on this. It's a very good question, though. It may delve into analyzing whether current Israeli government law would be allowed to halachically define current ownership. I wouldn't doubt that Israeli Rabbanut has some answer to this question or it has been discussed at some point. – DanF Dec 1 '17 at 16:33
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I'd dare to give a hint on solving this mystery: In the Halachah, we should differentiate between "ownership" and "possession". Let me elaborate, it is on the Drush side, as usual, but might shed some light on the topic.

Let's visualize three pictures: a Jew holding a gold watch, a gentile holding a gold watch and a raven holding a gold watch. All three of them "possess" a watch, however, the measure of possession is clearly different: the Jew's watch is his by ownership, the gentile's by possession and the raven's by holding only. How?

  • When a Jew owns a thing (compare to wife) it is bound to him with some invisible strings. It stays his even if he loses control of it, loses it etc. Those bonds are sort of "written in the heaven" and he does not have to act anything to bequest it to his heirs. I'll call it the "ownership" and it is linked to the level of Neshomoh (exclusive to the Jews).

  • When a gentile possesses a thing it is not bound to him, it is only bound to the social norms and traditions - whatever is accepted in the same society. This is called the "Dina deMalchutah" and is pretty much arbitrary. So once the society decides something's his it's his, "the Heavens don't bother" as long as it is backed by the laws. That's linked to the level of Ruach and is common to all humans.

  • When an animal holds a thing we cannot possibly think of any form of possession, as the Nefesh can only be the body itself, not something external to it.

Back to our question: The (true) ownership of the land of Israel was set by casting a fate in the times of Joshua's conquest of the Holy Land and was divided to all the families of Yozey Mizrayim. It lasted for some hundreds of years, but after the Exile of the 10 tribes and the Babylonian Exile the very idea of "ownership of the Holy Land" was invalidated till the times of the Moshiach. Since then we're left with the level of possession only, which is common to all humans and is bound to the Dinah deMalchutah.

NB: This is also true for all the Jewish land ownership in the Holy Land and outside - once Moshiach comes, chances are it will be "reshuffled", to provide everyone with what really belongs to his Jewish soul (sort of השבת אבידה).

  • mechon-mamre.org/c/ct/c1132.htm - sealing the documents in pottery so that they last for a long time implies that Yirmeyahu's descendants, whoever they are, still own that field until Yovel is reinstated and it goes back to Chanamel's descendants. They can't exercise their ownership today because המוציא מחברו עליו הראיה, but it's possible that the first few generations still knew who they were and could prove it - even during and after the Babylonian Exile. – Heshy Mar 6 '18 at 14:08
  • @Heshy Do they also seal all the Birth certificates since? Also sealing is not different from backing your docs up to the cloud, say. It does not differentiate ownership from possession. Say a bishop expropriates your field and gives it to me with a certificate. Does it prove my Halachic ownership? It's a big Machlokes of Yi'ush etc. I only asserted the original ownership is meaningless now, and we follow the possession rules. – Al Berko Mar 7 '18 at 10:14

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