The Field and the Cave: Yitzchak in the Land

  • Rav Yoel Bin-Nun
This shiur is dedicated in memory of
Alexander Sender Dishkin z"l
whose yahrzeit falls on the twenty-third of Cheshvan,
by his great-granddaughter, Vivian Singer.
  1. Avraham’s Negotiations

The negotiations between Avraham and Efron ben Tzochar the Hittite are rather peculiar. Avraham asks for a burial place and the Hittites offer him their choicest plots, but Avraham refuses, seeking the cave in Efron’s field. Efron offers the field as a gift, but Avraham again refuses, insisting that he wants to pay. Ultimately he ends up paying 400 shekels of silver.

We might imagine the scenario in today’s terms: A person wants to buy an apartment, but he is told, “We can’t sell you just one apartment; you have to take the whole building.” The cave can’t be sold; Efron is only willing to sell the whole field, including the cave.

Why will Efron only sell the whole field?

Various answers have been proposed. The one that seems most likely is that Efron seeks to dissuade Avraham from the deal. But Efron doesn’t understand Avraham’s mind and his real motivation. From the moment Avraham hears of the idea of buying the field, everything changes. From this point onwards, the text speaks of “the field and the cave” – first the field, and only afterwards the cave:

“… But if you will give it, I pray you, hear me: I will give you the price of the field, take it of me… And the field of Efron that was in Makhpela… the field and the cave which was in it, and all the trees that were in the field... were made over to Avraham… And the field, and the cave that is in it, were made over to Avraham…” (Bereishit 23:13-18).

  1. “The Field” and Only Afterwards “The Cave”

His first attempt to deter Avraham having failed, Efron tries again, this time setting an exorbitant price for the field and the cave. We cannot know exactly what the value of four hundred shekels of silver was in those days, but we have some indication from later on in the Torah. At the end of Sefer Vayikra (27:16), we are told that the yield of a small field of barley is worth a shekel of silver per year, or fifty shekels of silver for fifty years. Also, we learn from the story of Yosef (Bereishit 37:28) that in the forefathers’ time, a slave was sold for twenty pieces of silver. All of this leads us to conclude that four hundred shekels of silver represents a fortune. To my understanding, “the field of Efron” was not in the fertile valley below the cave, but rather on the steep, rocky hill above. All Avraham needed to hear was that this whole hill could be purchased – and he paid immediately. This is precisely what he wanted: a foothold in the land.

Thereafter, a scale was used to determine that each piece of silver was “of merchants’ standard” (Bereishit 23:16). In addition, when a field was purchased, note was made of all the trees surrounding the borders of the field, and so it was in this instance too.

All this time, Sara’s body lay waiting for burial. Was it proper to leave Sara and to undertake negotiations over a piece of land? Logic would seem to suggest that Sara’s burial should take preference over commercial transactions. However, if Avraham buried Sara right away, he would lose the opportunity to persuade the Hittites that he had to have a burial plot. He would miss his chance to move from the status of “a prince of God” to the status of resident with civil rights – a landowner.

Thus, Avraham was faced with a conflict of values with halakhic significance. Should the dignity of the dead take precedence over the opportunity to purchase a field in the Land of Israel, or vice versa?

Chazal (Bava Kama 80b) describe a similar clash involving purchase of a field on Shabbat. According to the sugya, if a person has the opportunity to purchase a field in Eretz Yisrael on Shabbat, then he is permitted to instruct a non-Jew to conclude the purchase and to sign in his name so that the opportunity will not be missed. Avraham taught us this lesson: burial and the dignity of the dead are extremely important values, but buying a field in Eretz Yisrael takes precedence over them.

For future generations, too, it is not so much the Cave of Makhpela and the graves of the forefathers that are the crux of the parasha, but rather the order of priorities: first the field, afterwards the cave. The field is the possession, the foothold in the land, the empty, rocky hill that Avraham’s children will hold onto and where they will plant.

  1. The Land – And The Wife

Avraham asks his servant to swear to him:

“And I will cause you to swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and the God of earth, that you will not take a wife for my son of the daughters of the Cana’ani, among whom I dwell, but you will go to my country and to my kindred, and take a wife for my son, for Yitzchak.” (Bereishit 24:3-4)

How did the servant understand this oath that Avraham asked of him? Seemingly, he understood that owing to the moral decay of the population of Cana’an, Avraham did not want a local woman as a wife for his son, such that there is no choice but to take Yitzchak to Avraham’s birthplace. The servant therefore asks,

“Perhaps the woman will not be willing to follow me to this land (ha-aretz ha-zot); must I need bring your son back to the land (ha-aretz) from whence you came?” (24:5)

As the servant sees it, many different places can be called “ha-aretz.Eretz Yisrael is no different from Aram Naharayim; every place is part of God’s creation of “heaven and earth.” Even today, there are many Jews who believe, as Avraham’s servant did, that a person can raise a good family anywhere in the world.

Avraham is shocked by the suggestion and warns his servant,

“…Beware lest you bring my son back there (shamah).” (24:6)

For Avraham, there is no such thing as “the aretz from whence you came;” there is only “there.” He uses this term three times (at the ends of verses 6, 7, and 8), repeating the reason for the oath, and concluding, “Only do not bring my son back there” (24:8).

Avraham agrees that God is the Creator of all that exists, “heaven and earth.” Nevertheless, he insists, God spoke to me and made a promise to me concerning “this land,” and therefore only “this land” is worthy of being called “ha-aretz” – the land in which the supreme goal of the choice of Avraham and his descendants will be realized. Any place outside of the land will always be “there,” and the descendants of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov will not be able to maintain sanctified families “there.” The family of the forefathers will be built, from this point onwards, only through and by virtue of rootedness in the land.

  1. Yitzchak

The commentators concern themselves with an issue that seems hardly worthy of discussion, but is in fact very important. Ibn Ezra and Ramban address the “living standards” of Yitzchak’s household. Ramban starts off by citing Ibn Ezra:

R. Avraham [Ibn Ezra] errs exceedingly in saying that [“Esav despised the birthright because he saw that his father had no wealth. Many would question this, pointing out that Avraham left him much wealth – as though they have never seen someone who was wealthy in his youth, but ended up impoverished in his old age. And the proof is that Yitzchak loved Esav because of his hunting. Had there been plenty of food in his father’s house, and had he considered his father to be wealthy, he would not have sold his birthright for a pottage. And if his father had eaten sumptuous meals every day, for what reason would he have said, ‘Bring me venison’ (Bereishit 27:4)? And why did Yaakov have no fancy garments [of his own]? And why did his mother not give him silver and gold for the way, such that he asks God, ‘… and give me bread to eat and a garment to wear’ (Bereishit 28:20)? And why did she not send him money, if she so loved him, such that he had to work as a shepherd? The verse stating that ‘the man [Yitzchak] grew great’ (Bereishit 26:13) refers to the time before his old age. The ignorant might think that wealth is a distinction for the righteous, but Eliyahu comes and proves otherwise. They might further ask why God would have deprived Yitzchak of wealth. Perhaps they would then inform us why he was deprived of his eyesight. And let them not dismiss us with some midrashic justification. For there is a matter that is concealed here, and it is not for us to seek it out, for God’s thoughts are deep, and the human mind cannot understand them. Likewise, others would say: But see – he [Yitzchak] did have flocks, for Rivka tells [Yaakov], ‘Go, I pray you, to the flock.’ Perhaps he did still retain some small amount of livestock, but it is also possible that the request, ‘Go, I pray you, to the flock’ means ‘to the place where sheep are sold.’”]

All this [Ibn Ezra] writes.

And I wonder who blinded his reasoning in this matter. For behold, [according to his interpretation,] Avraham left [Yitzchak] great wealth, but all this wealth was lost just before this story happened, and for this reason [Esav] despised the birthright… Afterwards he grew wealthy again in the land of the Pelishtim, to the point that he became exceedingly great and the princes of the Pelishtim were jealous of him. Thereafter he returned to poverty, and longed for his son’s venison and sumptuous treats – all this cannot be taken seriously. Furthermore, the text says, “And it was, after the death of Avraham, that God blessed Yitzchak, his son” (Bereishit 25:11). A blessing means additional wealth and assets and honor – so where is the blessing, if he lost his father’s wealth and became poor? Thereafter [God promises], “I shall be with you and I shall bless you” (Bereishit 26:3) – did he then grow rich and then poor afterwards? While there are some righteous people who suffer the fate deserved by the wicked with regard to riches, this surely does not happen specifically to those who have been blessed by God, for “God’s blessing makes one rich, and no sorrow is added with it” (Mishlei 10:22). Rather, the forefathers were all like kings, and the kings of the nations came before them and forged covenants with them… If Yitzchak had suffered misfortune and had lost his father’s wealth, how could [Avimelekh king of Gerar and Pikhol the head of his army] say, “For we have surely seen that God is with you” (Bereishit 26:31), if he was already in dire straits?

The birthright was scorned by Esav because of his hard-heartedness… And as for “he relished his venison” (Bereishit 25:28), this was the practice of princes and kings, to choose venison over other types of food, and all peoples would bring this as an offering of reverence. And Esav flattered his father, bringing all his venison to him to eat to his heart’s desire, and [in any case] it is easy for a father to love his firstborn son.

Concerning the fact that he intended to bless him after he had prepared the food for him – this was not meant as a reward, or evidence of bribery. Rather, [Yitzchak] wished to enjoy the food, so that his soul would be bound up with [Esav’s] soul when he brought it to him, such that he would bless him willingly and wholeheartedly. Or perhaps he knew that after eating his soul would have pleasure and joy, and the Divine spirit would rest upon him, as in, “But now bring me a minstrel. And it came to pass, when the minstrel played, that the hand of God came upon him.” (Melakhim II 3:15)

And [Yitzchak] did not give [Yaakov] money, for he was fleeing, and he left the land alone, without his brother’s knowledge. Had [Yitzchak] given him wealth and slaves and camels, these would have compounded [Esav’s] desire to ambush him and kill him. And our Sages taught that [Yaakov did in fact leave with much wealth, but] Esav [later] stole it from him. And how does [Ibn Ezra] reach the conclusion that Yaakov did not have fine clothes? The text simply tells us that when Esav would go to the field to hunt, he would change into hunting clothes, and since Yitzchak would always touch his son and his clothes, [Rivka] put the clothes on Yaakov, so that he would recognize them. Indeed, that is what he does: “And he smelled the smell of his garments” (Bereishit 27:27), for he would place them in nard and saffron, as it is written, “All your garments are fragrant with myrrh, and aloes, and cassia…” (Tehillim 45:9). And since these spices grow in Eretz Yisarel, therefore [Yitzchak] said, “like the fragrance of the field” (Bereishit 27:27), meaning that because he was a man of the field, his clothes smelled of these [herbs], or of the trees, as our Sages taught – “like the fragrance of the field – of apples.” And as to the matter of his blindness – the question of “the ignorant”: if there was a reason for God to do this, then it was so that he would bless Yaakov, and this is what the text in fact tells us: “… And his eyes were dim, so he could not see, and he called to Esav…” (27:1). Behold, with regard to Yaakov it is written, “And Yisrael’s eyes were dim from age, so he could not see” (48:10), and concerning Achiya the Shiloni it says, “his eyes were set by reason of his age” (Melakhim I 14:4), and concerning Moshe Rabbeinu the text records the marvel that “his eye was not dim” (Devarim 34:7).” (Ramban, Bereishit 25:34)

Anyone unfamiliar with the approach of the classical commentaries might wonder what all the fuss is about here, and especially why both commentators seem to be so insistent in proving their point.

The two world-views reflected in this dispute might be explained by historians against the backdrop of the quality of life during the Golden Age of Spain and afterwards, especially in terms of the personal lives of Ibn Ezra and Ramban.[1] Of course, we cannot ignore this angle altogether, and it is certainly an interesting perspective. However, I believe that it is of only marginal importance. More important is the fundamental issue raised by the commentators here and its relevance for a broader understanding of Sefer Bereishit: How did Yitzchak make his living, and what was the “standard of living” in his home? Was it a wealthy home, like that of Avraham (and also of Yaakov), or did he and his household live in poverty?

This question is of great importance because of Yitzchak’s general “differentness” in relation to the other forefathers, as manifest in the following ways, among others:

  • Yitzchak’s story is brief and concise, and his passivity is evident throughout.
  • Yitzchak’s appearance on the stage of the Biblical narrative casts him as secondary in importance to Avraham (and Sara), to the point of being bound to the altar like a sheep. Sara distances the “son of the handmaid” from him, with God’s agreement, and he himself walks “together” with Avraham to his own sacrifice.
  • The project of finding a wife for Yitzchak involves everyone but himself. He receives his bride in the land of the Negev, in a field, as he meditates in the field towards evening. What a contrast this is to Yaakov’s marriage in Charan, his long years of work for his wives, and his exhausting labor, alone in exile, to build his household.
  • One single chapter (24) is devoted to Yitzchak himself. All that he seems to do in that chapter is to continue the digging of wells that was begun by Avraham and contend with Avimelekh and the Pelishtim against the background of the wells and the taking of wives by the king. Even God’s promise to Yitzchak is given by virtue of his father: “For the sake of Avraham, My servant” (Bereishit 26:24), “because Avraham obeyed Me and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes and My laws” (26:5).
  • It is Rivka who inquires of God concerning the children striving within her, and it is she who is given the answer. Yitzchak is not party to this revelation, and in light of the continuation of the story, it seems that he knows nothing of God’s message to Rivka.
  • It is Rivka who initiates and plans Yaakov’s flight to Charan; Yitzchak merely acquiesces.

If we can find some connection between the manner and standard of living of the forefathers’ family and the exceptional case of Yitzchak, perhaps we will have the key to a new understanding of Yitzchak’s story, and perhaps even more.

The Forefathers’ Occupation – Shepherds or Merchants?

The forefathers seem to have engaged in shepherding, as Yosef’s brothers declare before Pharaoh:

“Your servants are shepherds, both we and our fathers.” (Bereishit 47:3)

But closer scrutiny of the context of that declaration would seem to indicate that Yosef and his brothers plan what to say to Pharaoh so that they will appear to be simple people. They present themselves as shepherds – an abomination to the Egyptians (46:34), lacking in any sort of learning, knowledge, or skill. The reason that they go to the trouble of creating this “low profile” is clear from Pharaoh’s words as well as their own: Pharaoh may want to recruit them for various positions in his imperial service (“make them rulers over my cattle” – 47:6) and disperse the family throughout Egypt. The brothers want to maintain family unity and to settle together in Goshen. Had their presentation of themselves as shepherds been the plain truth, there would have been no need for the careful preparation and planning of what to say.

Of course, the forefathers did have flocks and they did engage in shepherding. The question is whether this was their exclusive or even main occupation. Did they shepherd their flocks themselves, like Yaakov during his stay with Lavan, or did they have shepherds in their service – their sons, “brothers”, or servants?[2] If shepherding was not their primary occupation, and if they hired shepherds for their flocks, then what else did they do for a living?

There are many verses that hint to the idea that the family of the forefathers engaged in commerce, starting with Terach, who initiated the family’s journey to the land of Cana’an (11:31). However, he stops in Charan and settles there, while Avraham sets out from there to continue the journey. The land of Cana’an is the junction where the main trade routes between Mesopotamia and Egypt meet.

There are a great many verses testifying to the wealth and assets of Avraham’s family:

And Avram took Sarai, his wife, and Lot, his brother’s son, and all their substance which they had gathered, and the souls that they had acquired in Charan… (12:5)

And Avram was very rich in cattle, in silver and in gold. (13:2)

And Avram heard that his brother had been taken captive, and he led forth his trained servants, born in his own house – three hundred and eighteen – and he pursued them to Dan. (14:14)[3]

And the king of Sedom said to Avram, “Give me the souls, and take the goods for yourself.” And Avram said… “I will take nothing, from a thread even to a shoe-latchet, and that I will not take anything that is yours, lest you should say, I have made Avram rich.” (14:21-23)

And Efron answered Avraham, saying to him, “My lord, listen to Me: a piece of land worth four hundred shekels of silver – what is that between me and you? Bury therefore your dead.” And Avraham listened to Efron, and Avraham weighed to Efron the silver, which he had named in the hearing of the sons of Chet – four hundred shekels of silver, current money with the merchant. (23:14-15)

And the servant took ten camels of the camels of his master,[4] and he departed, with all the goods of his master in his hand. (24:10)

And the servant brought out jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and garments and gave them to Rivka, and gave precious things to her brother and her mother. (24:53)

And Avraham again took a wife, and her name was Ketura. And she bore him Zimran and Yokshan and Medan and Midian… And Avraham gave all that he had to Yitzchak. But to the sons of the concubine, which Avraham had, Avraham gave gifts, and sent them away from his son, while he yet lived, eastward, to the east country.[5]

And they [the descendants of Yishmael] dwelled from Chavila to Shur, which is before Egypt, as you go towards Ashur… (25:18).[6]

“And you shall dwell with us, and the land shall be before you: dwell and trade in it, and acquire property in it.” (34:10)

“… Let them dwell in the land and trade in it, for the land, behold, it is large enough for them… Shall not their cattle and their substance and every beast of theirs be ours? Only let us consent to them, and they will dwell with us.” (34:21-23)

And they sat down to eat bread, and they lifted up their eyes and looked, and behold, a company of Ishmaelites came from Gilad with their camels bearing gum balm and ladanum, carrying it down to Egypt. (37:25)

Then there passed by Midianites, merchants, and they drew and lifted up Yosef out of the pit, and sold Yosef to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver.” (37:28)

And the Midianites sold him to Egypt… (37:36)

“And bring your youngest brother to me; then I shall know that you are not spies, but that you are true men, so I will deliver your brother to you, and you shall traffic in the land.” (42:34)

And Yisrael their father said to them, “If it must be so now, do this: Take of the best fruits in the land in your vessels, and carry down a gift for the man – a little balm, and a little honey, gum, ladanum, nuts and almonds, and take double money in your hand…” (43:11-12)

Taken together, these verses present a fairly clear picture: the family of Terach, Avraham, Nachor, Lot, and their descendants, the sons of Ketura and the sons of Yishmael – as well as the family of Yaakov, from the moment he parted from Lavan, as the head of an independent household – were wealthy merchants.[7] On the one hand, they did possess large herds and flocks (which were generally the responsibility of young sons or professional shepherds). On the other hand, they led caravans of camels, bearing expensive merchandise and spices, from Assyria, the lands of the east, and Gilad, on the way to Egypt. Even during drought years, much merchandise was to be found in Yaakov’s household, and even when there was no bread to eat, there was money to buy food elsewhere.

Avraham signaled a different direction – the land of Gerar and the digging of wells, and Yitzchak diligently pursued its realization. Yitzchak, the exception in this exceptional family, had no part in merchant caravans and the lifestyle followed by the other forefathers, leaving all that for the Yishmaelim and the sons of Ketura, Avraham’s other descendants. His choices were based on his understanding of God’s explicit command to him:

“Do not go down to Egypt; dwell in the land which I shall tell you of; sojourn in this land and I will be with you, and I will bless you…” (Bereishit 26:2-3)

This was an ideological revolution in the forefathers’ lifestyle, an attempt on the part of one individual to change his lifestyle completely. Yitzchak dwelled in the land of Gerar, becoming a farmer, a man of the field, in order to fulfill God’s command to Avraham – and the command given to him personally – to dwell in the land, adopting a fixed, non-nomadic, agricultural way of life.

It turns out, then, that Ibn Ezra is right – but not in the way he meant. Yitzchak’s modest circumstances are not the result of bad luck or irresponsibility, but rather a conscious lifestyle choice. Ramban’s arguments fall away – as he himself might acknowledge. What we have here is not a matter of someone being cursed or someone losing or squandering his father’s fortune, but rather God’s blessing in a new and different form.

Ibn Ezra offers no explanation for why Yitzchak became poor – and it is for this reason that Ramban attacks his interpretation, with some justification. However, Yitzchak did not “lose” Avraham’s wealth; rather, he separated himself from commerce and from the material comforts that accompany it, in order to dwell in the land, to cultivate it, and to watch over it – to start anew.

And God did bless his work, such that Yitzchak achieved great success within a short time. But then the Pelishtim began to grow jealous of him and to persecute him, expelling him and blocking his wells; they hounded him from Esek to Sitna, and from Sitna to Rechovot, until he went and dwelled in Beer Sheva. There, too, he achieved great success – although not the sort of success enjoyed by families of nomadic merchants, who invest their fortune in expensive merchandise and flocks (and other fluid assets that can be moved relatively easily in the event of trouble).


Yitzchak is the only farmer in the forefathers’ family, the only one who actually settles in the land, according to God’s word. He is the only one who is born in the land and who never leaves it. He is unique in the story of his birth, as encapsulated in his name; in having been bound as a sacrifice, and in being saved from the knife by the angel of God – a sort of rebirth. No less so, he is unique in his lifestyle as a man of action, a man of silence and of labor – so different from both his predecessors and his descendants.


Translated by Kaeren Fish


[1] Ibn Ezra suffered all his life, roaming from Spain to North Africa and back, then to Italy, and then on to France and England. He composed lamentations about his penury and his wanderings and his exile, about the suffering caused by those who scorned him and by the deaths of his dear ones. Ramban, in contrast, lived most of his life peacefully in Gerona, admired and respected by all – including the king and his court – until he was forced to leave in the wake of his victory in the famous Disputation of Barcelona, at which point he moved to Eretz Yisrael.

[2]  See Bereishit 13:7-8. Cf. 31:46; 32:16-19. In contrast, see also 37:2,12-17.

[3] This indicates that “Avraham’s household” comprises a large, powerful, and wealthy tribe, numbering thousands of souls.

[4]  Although it is known that camels were domesticated and kept as herds by desert nomads only much later (see Shoftim 6-8), there was sporadic use of camels earlier on in small numbers for caravans. The most important evidence supporting this is the Ration List from Alalakh in northern Syria, dating from the 18th century B.C.E., which includes the item “one measure of camel feed.” Alalakh is not far from Charan, and the period is more or less the time of Avraham. See W.Y. Wiseman, “Ration List From Alalakh VII,” JCS 8 (1959), p. 29, line 59.

[5]  This refers to the eastern side of the Jordan, from Gilad to Damascus, a fertile area where many merchants would pass through.

[6]  The important trade route on the eastern side of the Jordan, from the Sinai and the Negev to Damascus and Assyria.

[7]  This helps to explain why Terach set off on his journey to Cana’an in the first place.