Burying the Dead

Tenu li achuzas kever imachem v’ekberah meisi milfanai (Bereishis 23:4)

Parashas Chayei Sarah begins with Avraham Avinu’s negotiations with the children of Cheis and Ephron to purchase a burial plot for Sarah Imeinu. In recording Avraham’s discussions with them, the Torah mentions the concept of burying the dead six times (see 23:4, 23:6 twice, 23:8, 23:11, and 23:13), and in each case, the word referring to burial is mentioned before the word referring to the dead body. However, the final time this topic is discussed (23:15), the word connoting the dead precedes the word for burial: “And your dead, bury.” Why was it necessary to repeat this expression so many times, and what is the reason for the apparent inconsistency?

The Gemara (Berachos 18a–b) teaches that the righteous are considered alive even after they pass away, while the wicked are considered dead even while they are still physically alive. The Gemara in Shabbos (152b) questions how the statement that the righteous do not die can be reconciled with the curse given to all mankind (Bereishis 3:19): “For you are dust, and to dust shall you return.” The Gemara answers that just prior to Techiyas Hameisim — the Resurrection of the Dead, the righteous will finally die and return to dust, and they will then be immediately brought back to life.

In light of this Gemara, the Vilna Gaon brilliantly explains that the Torah repeatedly mentions the concept of burying the dead to allude to the six righteous individuals who would be buried in Me’aras Hamachpelah: Avraham, Sarah, Yitzchak, Rivkah, Yaakov and Leah. In each of the first six instances, the Torah mentions the word burial before the word dead because even when the pious Avos and Imahos were buried, they were still considered alive. They will only die just before the Resurrection of the Dead, in which case it is chronologically accurate to refer to them as being buried and only afterward dying.

The final reference to the burial of the dead, in which the order is reversed and the word dead precedes the word bury, hints to the seventh person who would be buried in the cave: Esav, whose head was cut off by Chushim ben Dan and buried there (Sotah 13a). Because Esav was wicked, he was considered dead long before he was buried, even while he was still alive, and therefore the order of the words that hint to him is reversed.

The Ostrovtzer Rebbe adds that Esav is specifically alluded to in the verse in which Ephron demands 400 shekalim from Avraham for the burial plot, as the first six people who were buried there were considered alive, and he therefore could not charge Avraham for their burial. Only Esav, who was truly dead, needed to be buried there, so Ephron hinted to him to justify the price he was charging Avraham.

Q: Rashi writes (23:2) that the death of Sarah is juxtaposed to the binding of Yitzchak in order to teach that the shock and fear from hearing that her son was almost slaughtered was the cause of her death. The Targum Yonason ben Uziel (22:20) adds that she heard this information from the Satan. How was the Satan able to kill Sarah when his job is to entice people to sin, but not to kill them?

Q: Avraham paid 400 silver shekalim to Ephron for the purchase of the burial plot for Sarah (23:14). Was this its actual value, and if not, was it worth more or less?

A: The Kehillas Yitzchak answers that the goal of the Satan is to tempt us to sin and create obstacles to prevent us from doing mitzvos. However, once a person has successfully performed a mitzvah, the Satan changes its tack. Just as a sin can be uprooted through proper repentance and regret, so too, the Gemara teaches (Kiddushin 40b) that regretting a mitzvah that has already been performed costs a person the reward for the mitzvah.

Some suggest that this is the intent of the request that we make during the evening prayers: “V’haser Satan milfaneinu u’me’achareinu — remove the Satan from before us and from after us.” The Satan who is before us refers to his attempts to prevent us from doing mitzvos, while the Satan who is after us refers to his efforts to convince us to regret the mitzvos that we have already done. In this case, even after Avraham overcame the trial of the Akeidah, the Satan attempted to cause him to regret it and thereby lose his reward by showing him that the Akeidah indirectly caused the death of his beloved wife Sarah.

He notes that the Baal Haturim writes (23:2) that the letter chaf in the word “v’livkosah — and to cry over her (Sarah’s) death” is written smaller than the other letters in order to teach that he only cried over her a small amount. He explains that although Avraham delivered a full eulogy of Sarah’s greatness, he didn’t permit himself to cry to the full extent of his pain so that people shouldn’t perceive his tears as regret over the Akeidah and its consequences.

A: Targum Onkelos writes that the plot of land was worth 400 silver shekalim, and the Vilna Gaon makes a brilliant calculation to support this claim. The Steipler maintains that Ephron substantially overcharged Avraham for the land, as Yaakov was able to purchase an apparently similar plot of land for 100 kesitahs (33:19), which is the equivalent of only five shekalim. This is an indication that Ephron swindled and took advantage of Avraham in setting the price at 400 shekalim.

The Chasam Sofer suggests that Ephron should have received 406 shekalim, which is the numerical value of his name when it is spelled with the letter vav, but because he was so eager to maximize the sale price, he mistakenly settled for 400 shekalim, which is the numerical value of his name when it is written without the letter vav.


Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email oalport@Hamodia.com.