“The Mystery of Machpelah”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Chayei Sarah, we read of the passing of Abraham’s wife, the matriarch Sarah, at age 127, and her burial in the cave of Machpelah.

Scripture announces (Genesis 23:2): “Va’tah’maht Sarah b’Kiryat Ar’bah, hee Chev’ron, b’Eretz Ca’na’an, va’ya’voh Avraham, lis’pohd l’Sarah v’liv’koh’tah,” Sarah died in Kiryat Arbah, which is Hebron, in the land of Canaan, and Abraham came to eulogize Sarah and bewail her.

Upon close inspection of the narrative, many fascinating aspects concerning Sarah’s death emerge. The rabbis suggest that the reason that Sarah’s death comes so quickly on the heels of the Akeidah (binding of Isaac) narrative is that Sarah died when she heard that Abraham had almost slaughtered their beloved son.

Despite the fact that the Torah portion informs us of Sarah’s death, the name of the portion is “Chayei Sarah,” which means the life of Sarah. From this, our rabbis learn (Kohelet Rabba 9:5) that Tzaddikim, the righteous, are considered “alive” even after their deaths. It is also fascinating to note that Abraham had no burial place prepared for Sarah, indicating that he never expected his wife, or any other family member, to die at so young an age, or perhaps it suggests that Abraham already knew exactly where he expected to bury her.

Actually, Hebron was Abraham and Sarah’s first permanent home in the land of Canaan. They lived there for some 25 years, relocating to Beer Sheba only after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the incestuous behavior of Lot and his daughters. In Beer Sheba, Abraham proclaimed G-d’s teaching, and, the Torah states (Genesis 21:33), that he maintained an Eishel in Beer Sheba, which is interpreted by the Midrash to mean a food pantry, or an inn for wayfarers. Even when living elsewhere, Abraham apparently visited Beer Sheba frequently.

We now find that Abraham and Sarah have moved back to Hebron and have been living there for approximately twelve years. Why did they return to Hebron?

The Midrash states that Abraham and Sarah had longed to be buried in the final resting place of Adam and Eve. However, no one knew the exact location of that burial place. On the day that Abraham was informed by the angel that Sarah would give birth to Isaac, Scripture states (Genesis 18:7) that Abraham went out to his herd to select animals in order to prepare a feast for his guests. According to the Midrash, one of the calves ran away into a cave. When Abraham followed the calf, he found Adam and Eve resting on their couches, and a spiritual light of incredible brilliance burning above them. The entire scene was enveloped in incense-like fragrance. This place was the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron, the Hittite.

As residents of Beer Sheba, Abraham and Sarah were concerned that the Hittites would not allow them to purchase the burial plot in Hebron. So when Sarah was 115 years old, Sarah and Abraham moved back to Hebron, in order to establish permanent residency there, enabling them to purchase the plot.

Rashi states (Genesis 23:2) that the city of Hebron was also known as Kiryat-Arbah, which means the village of four, because of the four couples who were eventually buried there: Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca and Jacob and Leah. Rashi further states (Genesis 23:9) that the burial place was also known as “Ma’arat Ha’Machpelah,” the cave of Machpelah, meaning the double cave, because it consisted of a “bah’yit, a lower floor, with an upper floor on top. An alternative explanation cited by Rashi explains that the cave was “doubled,” with only married couples buried there.

The Ramban cites the Midrash in Bereishith Rabbah 55:10, which claims that the origin of the name Machpelah (double) may stem from the fact that the Al-mighty is said to have folded the very tall corpse of Adam in half, in order for it to fit into the cave. Even though the cave was always known as Machpelah, the local Hittite people were unaware of the name’s significance, or that there were graves in the cave. That may also be the reason why the local people refer to the entire area as Machpelah, whereas Abraham refers only to the cave as Machpelah.

The Rashbam claims that the entire valley was known by the name Machpelah, which included the field and the cave. The grammarian, Wilhelm Gesenius (1786-1842, German Hebrew grammarian), maintains that the name Machpelah is of Ethiopian origin, and means a portion or district.

According to the Zohar, both Abraham and Isaac recognized the special nature of the Machpelah cave. The Zohar submits that when Abraham first entered the cave he came upon the entrance to the Garden of Eden. The cave was filled with fragrant smells and a piercing light was projected from the cave. Similarly, when Isaac blessed his son Jacob, thinking it was Esau, saying (Genesis 27:27), “Behold the fragrance of my son is as the fragrance of a field, which G-d has blessed,” he too was referring to the fragrance of the Garden of Eden and to the primordial light of creation that emanated from Machpelah.

May you be blessed.