The Cave of Makhpela

  • Harav Yaakov Medan
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Dedicated by Steven Weiner and Lisa Wise with prayers
for refua shelema for all who require healing, comfort and peace –
those battling illnesses visibly and invisibly, publicly and privately.
May Hashem mercifully grant us strength, courage, and compassion.
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Translated by Kaeren Fish
 
An eternal covenant of progeny and the land
 
The Torah attaches great importance to the purchase of the field belonging to Efron the Hittite, including the Cave of Makhpela. The deed is mentioned over and over:
 
“And the field of Efron, which was in Makhpela, which was before Mamre – the field, and the cave which was in it, and all the trees that were in the field, that were in all the borders round about – were made over to Avraham for a possession in the presence of the children of Chet, before all that went in at the gate of his city.” (Bereishit 23:17-20)
 
“And his sons, Yitzchak and Yishmael, buried him in the cave of Makhpela, in the field of Efron, son of Tzochar, the Hittite, which is before Mamre; the field which Avraham purchased of the sons of Chet; there Avraham was buried, and Sara, his wife.” (Bereishit 25:9-10)
 
“And [Yaakov] charged them and said to them: I am to be gathered to my people; bury me with my fathers in the cave that is in the field of Efron, the Hittite, in the cave that is in the field of Makhpela, which is before Mamre, in the land of Kena’an, which Avraham bought with the field from Efron the Hittite for a possession of a burial place. There they buried Avraham and Sara, his wife; there they buried Yitzchak and Rivka, his wife; and there I buried Leah. The purchase of the field and of the cave that is in it, was from the children of Chet.” (Bereishit 49:29-32)
 
“And his sons carried him into the land of Kena’an, and buried him in the cave of the field of Makhpela, which Avraham bought with the field for a possession of a burial place from Efron, the Hittite, before Mamre.” (Bereishit 50:13)
 
When Avraham wants to bury Sara, the children of Chet honor him with the title, “a prince of God (nesi Elokim).” Perhaps he is shown this honor owing to his victory over Kedarla’omer and his allies, which served to liberate the inhabitants of the land from their subjugation to these kings. (Later, Malki-tzedek the priest greets him with the words, “Blessed be Avram of the most high God.” According to the midrash, Avraham is even offered the title of king.) However, when he seeks to purchase a burial place, they politely refuse. They magnanimously offer that he bury his dead in any of their finest burial places – but they are unwilling for him to have a burial ground of his own.
 
By making their offer, the children of Chet reveal two objectives. First, they want to ensure that Avraham, for all his stature, will not purchase land for a burial place in their territory. They want him to remain a stranger and sojourner and not become a regular citizen, for he is not a native of the land and is not of Hittite descent. Second, they want Sara’s grave – even if Avraham chooses the finest and most sought-after gravesite for her – to blend into the graves of the Hittites. According to their plan, Avraham would eventually be buried elsewhere; their son, Yitzchak, would be laid to rest in yet another spot, and so on. Thus there will be no legacy or continuity, no connection with any particular area, and no new tribe or nation will arise, whose existence might one day threaten the Hittites.
 
However, Avraham insists. He is not prepared to bury his dead until he has purchased a burial ground. His covenant with Sara, his wife, is not merely a matter of a joint household; it is an eternal covenant that remains binding even after death. The same commitment is reflected in Ruth’s words to Naomi, her mother-in-law:
 
“Your people is my people and your God is my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried; the Lord do so to me and more, if even death come between us.” (Ruth 1:16-17)
 
Similarly, in David’s eulogy following the death of Shaul and Yonatan:
 
“Shaul and Yonatan, who were beloved and dear in their lives, and in their death they were not divided….” (Shemuel II 1:23)
 
The insistence on purchasing the field of Makhpela for its full price is an expression of Avraham’s loyalty to his wife. With the four hundred shekel of silver that he pays for the field he makes a new covenant with his wife, after her death, committing himself to be buried at her side. This is the profound connection between the money given for betrothal, which forges a covenant during life, and the money for the purchase of the field, which forges a covenant even after death. Indeed, Chazal deduce the principle of betrothal effected by means of money from Avraham’s purchase of the field of Efron (Kiddushin 2a).
 
Avraham’s burial in Ma’arat ha-Makhpela, next to Sara, assumes special importance specifically in light of the fact that Yishmael joins Yitzchak in carrying out the burial:
 
“And his sons Yishmael and Yitzchak buried him in the cave of Makhpela, in the field of Efron, son of Tzochar the Hittite, which is before Mamre – the field which Avraham purchased of the sons of Chet; there Avraham was buried, and Sara, his wife.” (Bereishit 25:9-10)
 
Yishmael thereby acknowledges that it is Sara, and not Hagar (or Ketura), who is Avraham’s eternal partner.
 
The cave is meant as a burial place not only for Avraham and Sara, but also, in the future, for their son, Yitzchak, and their grandson, Yaakov, with their wives. Thus, the cave expresses not only an eternal covenant between man and wife, but also a dynasty that is bound up with Chevron, and a banner for Yaakov’s children who go down to Egypt, reminding them that they have a home to return to. It is for this reason, apparently, that Yaakov elaborates at such length, just before his death, on the importance of burying him, too, in Ma’arat ha-Makhpela:
 
“And [Yaakov] charged them, and said to them, I am to be gathered to my people; bury me with my fathers in the cave that is in the field of Efron, the Hittite, in the cave that is in the field of Makhpela, which is before Mamre, in the land of Kena’an, which Avraham bought with the field from Efron the Hittite for a possession of a burial place. There they buried Avraham and Sara, his wife; there they buried Yitzchak and Rivka, his wife; and there I buried Leah. The purchase of the field and of the cave that is in it was from the children of Chet.” (Bereishit 49:29-32)
 
After an exile of two hundred and ten years, twelve representatives of the descendants of Yaakov return to their land. The Torah records the first station they reach:
 
“And they ascended (va-ya’alu) into the Negev, and came (va-yavo) to Chevron…” (Bamidbar 13:22)
 
“‘And came (va-yavo) to Chevron’ – [this is written in singular form, indicating that] Kalev alone went there and prostrated himself upon the graves of the forefathers.” (Rashi ad loc.)
 
The return to the land reconnects the dynasty.
 
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Let us now return to Avraham, who is waiting to bury Sara, and stubbornly refuses to proceed until he can purchase a burial place – the cave of Makhpela. Efron arrives, and upon hearing Avraham’s demand, and seeing the deceased lying before them, he is quick to offer Avraham the field and the cave included in it as a gift:
 
“And Efron the Hittite answered Avraham in the hearing of the children of Chet, of all who went in at the gate of his city, saying, ‘No, my lord, hear me; the field I give you, and the cave that is in it, I give it to you; in the presence of the sons of my people I give it to you; bury your dead.’” (Bereishit 23:10-11)
 
Yet Avraham still insists on purchasing the cave for its full price:
 
“And Avraham bowed himself before the people of the land. And he spoke to Efron in the hearing of the people of the land, saying: ‘But if you will give it, I pray you, hear me: I will give you the price of the field; take it of me, and I will bury my dead there.’” (Bereishit 23:12-13)
 
It is possible that his insistence flows from his sense of honesty and his unwillingness to benefit from the favors of others. However, it seems that Avraham wants to anchor his purchase of the cave forever. A gift bestowed at a stressful time when respect for the dead demands immediate burial of the corpse, might give rise to a future claim that the gift was meant only for that specific time, and solely for the purpose of a specific need; or that it was not given wholeheartedly and after proper consideration. Efron might demand the right of return to his field and his cave. His acceptance of the enormous sum of money paid by Avraham signifies a proper and binding sale.
 
A similar scenario is played out when Ornan (Aravna) sells the threshing floor on the Temple Mount to King David, who wants to build an altar there:
 
“Then David said to Ornan: Grant me the place of this threshing floor, that I may build an altar upon it to the Lord; you shall give it to me for the full price, that the plague may be stayed from the people. And Ornan said to David, Take it to you, and let my lord the king do that which is good in his eyes; behold; I give you the oxen also for burnt offerings, and the threshing instruments for wood, and the wheat for the meal offering – I give it all. And King David said to Ornan, No but I will surely buy it for the full prices; for I will not take that which is yours for the Lord, nor offer burnt offerings without payment. So David gave to Ornan for the place six hundred shekels of gold by weight.” (Divrei Ha-yamim I 21:22-25)
 
Here, too, the giving of the threshing floor to David might be interpreted later on as an act performed under coercion, out of fear of the plague. Ornan himself, or one of his heirs in later generations, might demand its return. David insists on paying Ornan a hefty sum for the threshing floor, thereby signalling a clear transfer of ownership of the mount.
 
It seems that Efron is not willing to sell the field, and so he proposes an astronomical sum. The regular price for a field in Eretz Yisrael is set down in the Torah:
 
“And if a man dedicates to the Lord some part of a field of his possession, then the estimation shall be according to the seed required for it: a chomer of barley seed shall be valued at fifty shekels of silver.” (Vayikra 27:16)
 
The price as stipulated in the Torah does not vary depending on the quality of the ground. Nevertheless, even if Efron’s field was a very fine plot, the price he mentions seems quite disproportionate:
 
“And Efron answered Avraham, saying to him: My lord, listen to me: a piece of land worth four hundred shekels of silver – what is that between me and you? Bury therefore your dead.” (Bereishit 23:14-15)
 
Avraham makes no attempt to argue or bargain with him. He measures out the silver for Efron and buys the field.
 
It is praiseworthy and honourable for the deceased to be buried in a plot purchased for the full price.[1] Indeed, with regard to Yosef, the Torah tells us:
 
“And the bones of Yosef, which Bnei Yisrael brought up out of Egypt, they buried in Shekhem, in a section of ground which Yaakov had bought from the sons of Chamor, father of Shekhem, for a hundred kesita, and they became the inheritance of the children of Yosef.” (Yehoshua 24:32)
 
 

[1] This halakha, according to which a person must be buried in a grave that belongs to him, is not brought down by the Rambam or the Shulchan Arukh, but it has been the Jewish practice throughout the generations, based on the Gemara in Bava Batra 112a. See Pitchei Teshuva on Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh De’a 361:1.