At the going rate

15 Dec

by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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Genesis 23 finds Abraham negotiating with the Hittites among whom he is living. Sarah just died, and Abraham needs a place to bury his wife. He asks the Hittite elders seated at the gate of Hebron to assign him a grave-site. Evidently, he commands great respect there, because they offer him his choice of location. He selects the Cave of Machpelah, which is situated on the property of Ephron ben Tzohar, and requests the opportunity to buy it.

At this point Ephron speaks up. He was sitting among the Hittite elders all the time and carries on their elaborate expression of hospitality: “Listen to me, my lord. I give you the field and the cave that is in it. Bury your dead.” Does Abraham just say thank you and ask for the deed? Not a chance. He knows negative negotiations when he hears them. So he insists: “If only you would hear me out, just accept the price of the land from me, and I will bury my dead there.” Now Ephron piles on the con. “No, my lord, hear me out. Land worth 400 silver shekels – what is that between me and you?” In other words, this is such a trifle!  And just incidentally, here is the price.

Abraham proceeds to weigh out 400 shekels of silver to Ephron at a rate that the Torah describes as oveir lasokheir – literally “passing to the merchant.” In other words, the going rate. No discount. Nothing off for inflation. Just the going rate.

Did he overpay? Clearly he did not survey neighborhood property values, and he did not make a counter-offer. He heard a figure and he paid it. Not what Abraham usually does; in fact, didn’t he engage in a determined bargaining session with G-d Himself on behalf of the few righteous people in Sodom? And here he just accepts Ephron’s price?

Consider what Jeremiah paid for a comparable field a few centuries later: “So I bought the field from Hanamel… for 17 shekalim.” Seventeen, not 400. Of course, that field was already in his family so he had the first right to redeem it. Also, Jeremiah and his generation were coping with defeat and economic recession. Still, quite a difference.

However, regardless of the price Abraham paid, he established ownership of the Cave of Machpelah long before the country even became Eretz YisraelThis piece of land would always be his – not a mere grazing ground for his livestock, but property to include in his children’s inheritance. He bought it fair and square, for the going rate.

The cave is still there, in Hebron. As far as we know, all our Patriarchs and Matriarchs are buried there, except for Rachel. Rachel’s Tomb, near Bethlehem, became a target for Israel’s enemies in our time, as did Joseph’s Tomb. And Hebron itself witnesses conflict now. Visiting the Tombs of the Patriarchs is a risky experience these days. Those who would drive all Jews from the Jewish state make it their policy to attack our most ancient and sacred places, from Hebron to the Temple Mount.

Very likely, Abraham could not buy the Cave of Machpelah for 400 NIS (New Israeli Shekels) today. But he set a precedent. No squatters rights. None of this “The Ottoman rulers put us here” or “The British protectorate put us here – so it’s our land!” No way. You want to establish ownership? Just pay the going rate.

Rabbi Baruch Cohon is an ordained Rabbi and Cantor. 


4 Responses to “At the going rate”

  1. Yefim Pargamanik December 16, 2013 at 11:45 am #

    Since Abraham is considered by the biblical tradition to be an ancestor of several Semitic peoples, Jews and Arabs included, the mmmmmmention of Israel only and Jewish rights exclusively is inappropriate in this context.

  2. Yefim Pargamanik December 16, 2013 at 11:52 am #

    If I’m not mistaken, the bargaining for the righteous of Sodom was done by Lot, not by Abraham.

  3. Yefim Pargamanik December 16, 2013 at 11:55 am #

    My mistake – it was Abraham.

  4. redcowpress January 1, 2014 at 12:24 am #

    Hi Rabbi- Shalom. We love Torah talk!

    The 400 silver shekels that Avraham paid was not just the ‘going rate’ it was an exaggeratedly high price. But he paid it in 400 pieces of silver because silver is internationally accepted currency. In other words he didn’t just want to buy the land to be it’s owner- he bought a country to be it’s king. (Pretty sure it’s Rashi who says this)

    And we believe that that transaction is still valid to this very day.


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