Don Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508) was a preeminent Jewish thinker, scholar, and prolific Biblical
commentator. In Genesis chapter 23, Sarah passes away. As we shall see, Abraham leaves no stone
unturned in efforts to secure an honorable burial spot for his beloved Sarah.
“And Sarah died in Kiriatharba, the same is Hebron, in the land of
Canaan. And Abraham came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her.
And he spoke with them saying, If it be your mind that I should bury my
dead out of my sight, hear me, and entreat for me to Ephron the son of
Zohar…that he may give me the cave of Machpelah, which he has,
which is in the midst of you for a possession of a burying place.”
Abravanel asks: Of all places in Canaan, why did the patriarch set his sights exclusively on the cave of
Machpelah to inter Sarah? Wouldn’t any place in the Holy Land accord the first matriarch honor?
The Bible, Abravanel explains, places great importance on burial. Moreover, location matters. Here is
why. Man is comprised of body and soul. Add another factor: God punishes or rewards, depending on
how a person lived his life. If he followed God’s ways, his refined soul will garner high spiritual marks.
That soul will find its eternal rest in heaven, specifically in a befitting, spiritual realm or designation.
Now discussion turns from the deceased, righteous person’s soul to his lifeless body. Assuredly, the holy
person’s physical frame, too, deserves apt interment. No different than the soul, so too the physical
place of burial should reflect that person’s lofty accomplishments, while alive.
Abravanel is explicit. It is more than a mere slight for a pious individual’s body to be buried and lie next
to an evildoer’s body; it’s positively indecorous. Just as their respective souls do not share the same
otherworldly space, so too their bodies should not lie side by side.
Thus far, Abravanel generalizes about burial rules. But what about our verses quoted above? Why did
Abraham insist on the cave of Machpelah for Sarah? He posits that even within the Holy Land, some
plots are superior to others. Perhaps soil quality plays a role in grading plots. Geography can as well. In
Abravanel learns that some ground types will more quickly absorb and dispose of a deceased’s body.
Decomposition aids the soul’s ascension into the heavens, and helps bring catharsis to the dead. “And
does make atonement for the land of His people.”
Furthermore, custom or habit plays a part. Thus, if a particular or designated area has been a cemetery
for people of renown, generation after generation, that ground becomes hallowed by association.
Abravanel likens the ground where the righteous are interred to a mantle used to cover and adorn a
Torah scroll – holy by association.
Abraham had these sentiments and sensitivities in mind when he planned Sarah’s funeral arrangements
in the cave of Machpelah. That precluded burying the matriarch next to Canaanites, a nation infamous
for irreligious conduct. “After the doings of the land of Egypt, wherein you dwelled, shall you not do.
And after the doings of the land of Canaan, where I bring you, shall you not do. Neither shall you walk in
Instead, Abraham sought a special place for his wife, one that matched her uniqueness. The cave of
Machpelah would make a perfect fit, perhaps attesting to tradition that Adam and Eve had been buried
there. Later in the Bible, when Jacob felt his death nigh, he beckoned Joseph and requested to be buried
next to his parents and grandparents in the cave of Machpelah.
In closing, Abravanel learns that Abraham’s example and legacy provide thoughtful guidelines on burial