Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1 – 25:18)

Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1 – 25:18)

The First Recorded Real Estate Transaction

A D’var Torah by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

It’s small wonder that Sarah died shortly after the Akeida incident which precedes this parasha. If your husband trekked your obedient, only child, one thankfully born to you at a late age, up a holy mountain with the intention of sacrificing him to God on an altar, you’d possibly have cardiac arrest too. Would you forgive your husband for what he did without consulting you, even if he tried to atone for it by buying you – and your family thereafter — a beautiful burial cave?

In any case, after mention of Sarah’s death (in Kiriath-arba, now Hebron, in the land of Canaan), in the second verse of “Chayei Sarah” (the life span of Sarah), a momentous transaction takes place. In fact, it is the Torah’s first recorded real estate transaction: the purchase of a family burial plot by the first Jewish patriarch, Abraham, from Ephron the Hittite. Even the price, 400 shekels of silver, is recorded in the written Torah.

After Sarah died, the sympathetic, neighboring Hittites, who considered Abraham the “elect of God among us,” had actually offered to give the site to Abraham as a gift. But Abraham, who called himself a resident alien, a “ger vtoshav,” insisted on formally paying for it, thus establishing legal ownership of the Cave of Machpelah facing Mamre, now Hebron.

At the divine level, though, ownership has limitations. Jewish people have long recognized that every corner of the earth belongs to God, and that, as God’s creations – whatever the financial transaction — we humans have only temporary custodianship of the land. It is ours as long as we keep the covenant with our Creator.

So, from a metaphorical (and metaphysical) perspective, all the land belongs to God. As human beings, we belong to God too; we are merely vessels, containers for the divine spirit. That’s why (just like the American dollar), we are not allowed to deface our bodies – they are on loan to us for the time we are on earth. The divine spark within each of us, by contrast, is part of the wholeness of God.

In temporal terms, however, through our patriarch Abraham, we Jews bought the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron, and we paid for it in the coin of the land. A fact. Recorded in writing in the Torah and passed down through the centuries.

“Abraham accepted Ephron’s terms. Abraham paid out to Ephron the money that he had named in the hearing of the Hittites [i.e.,witnesses] – four hundred shekels of silver at the going merchants’ rate….Thus the field with its cave passed from the Hittites to Abraham, as a burial site” (Genesis 23: 16-20).[1]

There are no Hittites living in Israel anymore; but, despite persecution, the Jews of the world have survived for thousands of years. Even though Hebron is a tinderbox of political unrest today, Jewish people certainly have the right to access the purchased cave of their ancestors.

* * * *

Another real estate purchase — a very important one, in the time of King David – is also recorded later in the Bible. After King David makes Jerusalem his capital around 1,000 BCE, he “buys the upper part of the hill above the northern boundary of the city,”[2] the site of the future Temple – the Beit HaMikdash on Mount Moriah, the place where he will eventually bring the Holy Ark.

Why, in the midst of combat with his adversaries, would David urgently want to buy the threshing floor on Mount Moriah?  Because pestilence is sweeping the land of Canaan. The beleaguered David wants to set up an altar to God – in the hope that prayer will help his people avoid the terrible plague. Once again, the selling price is recorded in the Bible, but this time in two different places. [3]

In the 2 Samuel (24:18-25) account, David buys the threshing from Araunah the Jebusite (like the Hittites, the Jebusites are also long gone from Israel). Just as the Hittites did earlier, Araunah offers to give the land to King David for this purpose, and once again, David will not accept the land as a gift.

“But the king repied to Araunah, ‘No I will buy them from you at a price. I cannot sacrifice to the Lord my God burnt offerings that have cost me nothing.’ So, according to this account, David bought the threshing floor and the oxen for fifty shekels of silver from Araunah the Jebusite.

However, according to1 Chronicles (21:25-26), written at a later date, the price of the land was much higher: Here King David purchased the land from Ornan (rather than Araunah) the Jebusite for 600 gold coins, then a large sum. “So David paid Ornan for the site 600 shekels worth of gold. And David built there an altar to the Lord and sacrificed burnt offerings and offerings of well-being.”

Of course, Mount Moriah is famously the spot where Abraham brought his beloved son, Isaac, to show his devotion to God – and where an angel or messenger of God – prevented human sacrifice. Instead a ram was miraculously provided.

Although the Torah doesn’t specifically say so, there is no mention of Isaac ever talking to his father, Abraham, again. Surely Isaac was traumatized by this incident. Abraham had to send a servant to fetch a suitable wife for his son from Canaan. Despite all of this, Isaac loved his wife, tried to live a tranquil life peacefully with his neighbors, and he never left Israel. Biblical scholars, unfortunately, often describe him as “a placeholder” in the Bible.

Perhaps Isaac was a weaker man than his father, but he was always true to the land and his family, including his half-brother, Ishmael. Apparently, when Abraham died, Isaac and Ishmael reconciled. Thus in “Chayei Sarah,” the Torah recounts that, as Abraham joined his dearly loved Sarah in the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron, the two half-brothers buried their father together, as Abraham joined his dearly loved Sarah in the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron.

“His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the Cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron son of Zohar the Hittite, facing Mamre, the field that Abraham had bought from the Hittites: there Avraham was buried, and Sarah his wife. After the death of Abraham, God blessed his son Isaac” (Genesis 25:9-11). [4]

As for Mount Moriah, where the first Temple once stood – the Temple Mount — the Islamic Dome of the Rock is now situated, often a place of controversy in recent times. But what is below the earth tells the story in a different, very beautiful way. Hidden behind the Western Wall [5] and under the golden dome of this Muslim shrine is “an exposed piece of the bedrock of Mount Moriah – metaphysically known as the shatiya, literally, ‘drinking stone.’ Water and spirituality are synonymous, and the Torah is known as mayim chayim, ‘water of life.’ According to [mystical]Judaism, the world is spiritually nourished from this spot, this stone — which is the metaphysical center of the universe” [6].

May God’s blessings shine on us all.

[1] JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh, The Traditional Hebrew Text and the New JPS Translation. Second Edition. Ed. David S. Stein. (The Jewish Publication Society, 1999).

[2] king. See

[3] See 2 Samuel 24:18-25 and 1 Chronicles 21:25  for two different accounts of this purchase.  

[4] JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh translation. The Torah also mentions that, after Sarah died, Abraham had taken another wife, Keturah (which means “the exotic one”). Since Isaac and Ishmael buried their father together, there has been some speculation that Keturah may have been an oblique reference to Hagar. In any case, “Chayei Sarah” ends with listing the genealogical line of Ishmael.

[5] Although today Jewish people pray at the Western Wall (the Kotel) and insert written hopes between its stones, it was not originally intended as a shrine. Rather, more than 2,000 years ago, Herod the Great built it as a retaining wall around Mt. Moriah (see Talmud, Sanhedrin 107a).

[6] king. See

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2017. All rights reserved.