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How much is 400 shekels worth?

Thursday, 12 November, 2020 - 6:17 pm

 How much is 400 shekels in today’s money?  The shekels that Avraham gave to Efron for the purchase of a gravesite for his wife, Sarah, as described in this week’s Parsha, were not ordinary shekels.  The Torah describes them as shekels that were accepted by all merchants, in other words very high quality.  In those days, the value of a coin was the actual value of the silver, and coins would wear out after a while.  Avraham’s coins were top of the line. 

The following is partially based on a wonderful commentary by Rabbi Schneur Ashkenazi. When Avraham asked the Chittite people of Chevron to give him a “burial property” for Sarah, they offered him “the choicest of our graves.”  Avraham was not satisfied, and asked for the mayor of the city, Efron.  Avraham did not want just a grave, he wanted a property, and specifically the Cave of Machpelah, and he offered to pay “its full value.”  Efron offered it to him as a gift, but Avraham insisted on paying its full value.  This was the first property that was purchased for the Jewish people in Israel, and Avraham did not want it as a gift.  So from offering it free, Efron moved to extortion.  “What is 400 shekels between good friends like us,” and Avraham paid it in full, with high quality shekels.  So how much did he overpay?  A couple of generations later, his grandson Yaakov bought a large property in Shechem to accommodate a large family and a huge number of sheep and cattle, servants and more.  He paid 4 shekels.  So Avraham paid 100 times as much as that for a small cave to use as a grave.  A search in the internet came up with values ranging from $100,000 to $128,000.  For a grave.  Why would Avraham go to such lengths and pay such an exorbitant amount for a grave? 

Another question is why would the Torah spend so many verses telling us about the negotiation on a real estate deal?  There must have been other real estate deals throughout the period of our forefathers, and the Torah doesn’t describe the negotiations!  An example is the purchase of the property I mentioned above by Yaakov.  The Torah just says that he bought it for “100 kesita” (which is about four shekels).

Avraham taught us the value of a human body.  There are many who question the reverence we give to “skin and bones.”  I was once having a conversation with a Jewish pathologist who defined himself as an “atheist,” and he told me: “I see what’s left after death, it’s just tissue.”  I asked him what this tissue was doing before death, and what made it alive before.  He did not have a good answer.  I think he said something about “biology.”  It is a tragic reality today that many people choose cremation (the Nazis’ destruction of choice) over burial, and there are even Jewish mortuaries that perform cremations.  Another non-Jewish practice that has crept into our communities is above-ground burial.  Avraham taught us that this “tissue,” this skin and bones, , is so precious that it must be buried properly, with dignity, in the ground. 

There is a lot to be said on the subject.  Here are just a few points.  In many cultures, when a person was executed, they would be hanged in order to make an example for others.  The Torah tells us that a person who is executed may not be left hanging and must be buried before nightfall, because “a hanged person is a curse to G-d.”  Our Sages explained that our body was created in the image of G-d, and leaving a body hanging would mean so to speak that the image if G-d is hanging.  (Exactly what ‘in the image of G-d means, since G-d does not have an image, is a great subject on its own.  Suffice it to say here that the human body is in the form of the spiritual Divine attributes through which Hashem expresses Himself in the creation of the worlds.)  That verse is referring to a murderer who has fallen to the lowest dregs of human behavior, yet his body must be treated with the reverence due to the image of G-d.

The body is the vehicle for the soul – the divine spark, the part of Hashem that is within each of us, that came to the world to bring light and transform the world to holiness.  It is specifically the physical body that is able to perform Hashem’s will – the brain thinks and understands Hashem’s Torah, the heart feels love and awe of Hashem and His creations, the mouth speaks good words, the hands and the rest if the body perform acts of goodness, kindness and holiness.  Every part of the physical body is connected to the soul and can be used to connect the world with its divine source.

In the Talmud, burial is compared to “planting.”  Just as when a seed is planted in the ground the seed decomposes and a new plant with new life emerges, so the body is planted in the ground to decompose and ultimately to be brought back to a new life during the resurrection after Moshiach comes.  Avraham recognized the unique greatness and holiness of Sarah, and did not want her buried in any grave among the corrupt Chittites.  He was willing to pay any amount to bury her with the dignity that such a great vehicle, or “temple” to the divine light deserved, in a cave designated for holy people like her.  This was the first “Jewish cemetery,” and this is something that throughout history Jews have insisted on – to bury our holy and revered bodies in a Jewish cemetery that has been properly consecrated. 

May we soon merit the coming of Moshiach and Techiyat Hameitim – the resurrection of the dead.  How great will it be to meet Avraham and Sarah, as well as all our ancestors and loved ones. 


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