The Death 
& Burial
of Sarah“And Sarah was an hundred and seven and twenty years old: these were the years of the life of Sarah. 2And Sarah died in Kiryat-Arba; the same is Hebron in the land of Canaan: and Abraham came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her.”     (Genesis 23:1-2)

Rav Richard



The passage above is the introduction to Genesis 23, as well as the parasha Chayei Sarah (lit., “The Lives of Sarah”). And as is typical of many chapters, it begins with a e (vav), which is translated “And.” The Rabbis tell us that the narrative of the Akeidah (Binding of Isaac in Genesis 22) is followed by the death of Sarah in Genesis 23 to indicate that she died as a result of that event. HaSatan had told her that Abraham had actually killed Isaac. She cried out in grief and died as a result. You can read about this association in Targum Yonatan,[1] as well as various Jewish commentaries, such as the Artscroll Chumash, and the Book of Jasher.

     I happen to believe that this association is correct. Abraham had journeyed to Mount Moriah in obedience to God, in order to sacrifice his son Isaac. We learn that this was a test of Abraham’s obedience. At the last moment, as the knife was coming down toward Isaac’s throat, an angel called out to him, “Abraham, Abraham.” The angel said, “Lay not your hand upon the lad, neither do anything to him: for now I know that you fear God, seeing that you have not withheld your son, your only son from me.” [2] 

     You know the story: Instead of sacrificing Isaac, Abraham sacrificed a ram. Even though God never demanded that any man ever offer his own children as a sacrifice, we find that 2000 years later, God offered His only begotten son as a sacrifice for the sins of mankind.

     However, Sarah wasn’t privy to all that was taking place. If you read the accounts in Midrash or in Jasher, you discover a horribly distraught Sarah, sure that Abraham had killed her only son as a sacrifice to God. She finally died from the extreme grief. Keep in mind that Sarah was 90 years old when her son Isaac was born. She was 127 years old when Isaac was taken to Mount Moriah. Isaac was 37 years old when his dad took him to Moriah. He wasn’t the little boy that is often pictured in religious art. His father Abraham was 137 years old, a full 100 years older than his son. It is obvious that Isaac went willingly to Moriah. He could easily have overpowered his father. Isaac allowed himself to be bound to the altar as a sacrifice. He fully expected to die that day. According to Hebrews 11:17-19, Abraham fully believed that God was able to raise Isaac from the dead, because he had already been told that the covenant promise was through his son Isaac.[3]

     An accurate translation of the Hebrew of Genesis 23:1 would read, “ And these were lives of Sarah: one hundred years, twenty years, and seven years, the years of Sarah’s lives.” That’s a very curious way of calculating the lifetime of Sarah. According to the Rabbis, it is to show us that at 100 years, Sarah had the beauty of a woman of 20 years, and at the age of 20, Sarah had the innocence of a 7-year-old girl.

     We should also note that Abraham was living in Beer Sheva (Gen. 22:19). Sarah died in Hebron (Gen. 23:2). It seems entirely possible that Abraham and Sarah were separated at the time of her death. Also, although this Torah portion is called Chayei Sarah (lit., “The Lives of Sarah”), it is more about the death and burial of Sarah. The names of the parashot usually come from key words in the first verse or two of each parasha.

     Whatever differences they may have had, Abraham continued to love Sarah. As a final tribute to his beloved wife, he sought to purchase a grave for her proper burial:

     "And Abraham stood up from before his dead, and spoke to the sons of Heth, saying, 4'I am a stranger and a sojourner with you: give me a possession of a burying place with you, that I may bury my dead out of my sight.' 5And the children of Heth answered Abraham, saying to him, 6 'Hear us, my lord: you are a mighty prince among us: in the choicest of our sepulchers bury your dead; none of us shall withhold from you his sepulcher, but that you may bury your dead.' 7And Abraham stood up, and bowed himself to the people of the land, even to the children of Heth8And he communed 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, 9that he may give me the cave of Machpelah, which he has, which is in the end of his field; for as much money as it is worth he shall give it me for a possession of a burying place amongst you.'  10And Ephron dwelt among the children of Heth: and Ephron the Hittite answered Abraham in the audience of the children of Hetheven of all that went in at the gate of his city, saying, 11 'Nay, my lord, hear me: I will give the field to you, and the cave that is therein, I give it to you; in the presence of the sons of my people I give it to you. Bury your dead.' 12And Abraham bowed down himself before the people of the land. 13And he spoke to Ephron in the audience of the people of the land, saying, 'But if you will give it, I pray, hear me: I will give you money for the field; take it of me, and I will bury my dead there.' 14And Ephron answered Abraham, saying to him, 15 'My lord, hearken to me: the land is worth 400 shekels of silver; what is that between me and thee? Bury therefore your dead.”'  (Gen. 23:3-15.)

     Even though God promised that the seed of Abraham would inherit all the land from the river of Egypt to the Euphrates River (Genesis 15:18), here we find Abraham purchasing land at an exorbitant price to bury his wife. It is also interesting to note that our very first acquisition in the Promised Land is a grave! We also have the contract for the purchase of this land written in the Scriptures. There should be no dispute about who this piece of land in Hebron belongs to. Jews continued to live in Hebron for many centuries, only to be thrown out by the British after the Islamic pogrom against the Jews of Hebron in 1929. Israel re-conquered Hebron in the Six-Day War of 1967. When Muslims controlled Hebron, Jews were not allowed to pray at Machpelah. Once again, Jews are living in Hebron. J Israel allows  Jews, Muslims, and Christians to pray there.

     We had the opportunity to go to the Cave at Machpelah in 1998. Inside the cave, there are burial chambers for the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) and the Matriarchs (Sarah, Rebecca, and Leah).[4] We were surprised to see that there were also burial chambers for Adam and Chava (Eve)! We can’t verify the authenticity of the burial chambers of Adam and Chava, but we also can’t prove that they weren’t buried there! The next column is quoted directly from Wikipedia:

"Judaism, and Islam agree that entombed within are the Biblical and Qur'anic patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) as well as three matriarchs (Sarah, Rebecca, and Leah).

"In Judaism, the Tomb of the Patriarchs is the second most sacred site in the world, after the Temple Mount. The Book of Genesis relates that Abraham specifically purchased the land as a burial plot from Ephron the Hittite, making it the first material purchase of real estate in the Land of Canaan (the "Pro-mised Land"). According to Jewish tradition, four biblical couples mentioned in the Book of Genesis are buried there:

Adam and Eve (Chava in the Hebrew text)

Avraham and Sarah

Yitzchak and Rivka (Isaac & Rebecca)

Yaakov and Leah - Jacob's other wife, Rachel, being buried near Bethlehem.

"An early Jewish text, the Genesis Rabba, states that this site is one of three that enemies of Judaism cannot taunt the Jews by saying 'you have stolen them,' as it was purchased 'for its full price' by Abraham.

"According to the Midrash, the Patriarchs were buried in the cave because the cave is the threshold to the Garden of Eden. The Patriarchs are said not to be dead but 'sleeping.' They rise to beg mercy for their children throughout the generations. According to the Zohar, this tomb is the gateway through which souls enter into Gan Eden—heaven.

"There is a Jewish tradition that praying at the Tomb will bring good fortune in finding a proper spouse. There are Hebrew prayers of supplication for marriage on the walls of the Sarah cenotaph.

"The Lubavitcher Rebbe declared that the Tomb of the Patriarchs ought to be in exclusively Jewish control, because 1) most Arabs today are not descended from Ishmael; 2) Ishmael, although the biological son of Abraham did not inherit from him, as Ishmael was the progeny of a maidservant (Hagar)."

[1] Targum Yonatan is an Aramaic paraphrase of the Tanakh (O.T.). “Targum” means translation, but the Aramaic Targums are part translation, and part commentary.

[2] Genesis 22:12.

[3] It is curious to note that the Muslims believe that Abraham offered up Ishmael, not Isaac. Of course, we reject this story from the Koran.

[4] Rachel was buried in Bethlehem.