09 November 2012

The Cultural Milieu

23 Marcheshvan 5773

In every place and in every time, there is a cultural milieu which defines how people relate to one another.

In the time and place where I grew up, it was considered very rude to ask for something. One had to wait until he was invited. For instance, I could not ask to go over to my friend's house, unless first an invitation was extended. The thinking was that it might be an inconvenient time for guests, but by asking outright, my friend would be put on the spot and feel embarrassed to turn me down. One did not ask for a piece of cake or a cup of coffee. He waited until it was offered and even then, it was rude to accept on the first offer. A typical exchange might go something like this:

Hostess: "Can I get you anything? Coffee, tea?"

Guest: "No, thanks."

Hostess: "Are you sure?"

Guest: "I wouldn't want to put you to any trouble."

Hostess: "It's no trouble at all."

Guest: "Well, in that case..."


The third time is the charm here. If you turn the offer down the third time, the hostess understands that you really don't want anything.  You can imagine my surprise the first time I confided to a friend that I was hurt that I had not been invited for many months and she responded, equally surprised, that I had never mentioned that I wanted to come.

I have to say that I prefer a more honest interaction, but as we see in this week's parshah, social rules of engagement are nothing new. There are some interesting clues in the opening scene which provides some insight into what it must have been like in Avraham Avinu's time.

Then Abraham rose from beside his dead, and spoke to the Hittites, saying, "I am a resident alien among you; sell me a burial site among you, that I may remove my dead for burial." And the Hittites replied to Abraham, saying to him, "Hear us, my lord: you are the elect of God among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our burial places; none of us will withhold his burial place from you for burying your dead." Thereupon Abraham bowed low to the people of the land, the Hittites, and he said to them, "If it is your wish that I remove my dead for burial, you must agree to intercede for me with Ephron son of Zohar. Let him sell me the cave of Machpelah that he owns, which is at the edge of his land. Let him sell it to me, at the full price, for a burial site in your midst."

Ephron was present among the Hittites; so Ephron the Hittite answered Abraham in the hearing of the Hittites, all who entered the gate of his town, saying, "No, my lord, hear me: I give you the field and I give you the cave that is in it; I give it to you in the presence of my people. Bury your dead." Then Abraham bowed low before the people of the land, and spoke to Ephron in the hearing of the people of the land, saying, "If only you would hear me out! Let me pay the price of the land; accept it from me, that I may bury my dead there." And Ephron replied to Abraham, saying to him, "My lord, do hear me! A piece of land worth four hundred shekels of silver-what is that between you and me? Go and bury your dead." Abraham accepted Ephron's terms. Abraham paid out to Ephron the money that he had named in the hearing of the Hittites-four hundred shekels of silver at the going merchants' rate.

So Ephron's land in Machpelah, near Mamre-the field with its cave and all the trees anywhere within the confines of that field-passed to Abraham as his possession, in the presence of the Hittites, of all who entered the gate of his town. And then Abraham buried his wife Sarah in the cave of the field of Machpelah, facing Mamre-now Hebron-in the land of Canaan. Thus the field with its cave passed from the Hittites to Abraham, as a burial site.


It was the custom in ancient times for the men to meet at the city gates to conduct public business. Many interested observers would also be present and at times would act as witnesses when required. It was probably under such circumstances that Avrahamn Avinu approached Ephron with an offer to buy his field.

The parshah begins by telling us that Avraham spoke to the Hittites in a general way as if to see what places might be on offer to buy as a burial place for Sarah. But, we know that he already has his heart set on the Cave of Machpelah which lies in the field owned by Ephron the Hittite. Notice how Avraham, when he makes his specific request known, does not speak directly to Ephron, but continues speaking in a general way to the Hittites as a group, as if Ephron were not there. But, then we read "Ephron was present among the Hittites."

I can only guess, but this seems to be a cultural way to save face. If Ephron is not interested, he will remain quiet since he was not spoken to directly, but if he is interested in making a deal with Avraham, this is his chance to speak up, which he does.

The prescribed social interaction continues as Ephron magnanimously offers to "give" the field to Avraham. It would be socially crass to ask for money from a man seeking a place to bury his dead wife. However, business is business and a field is a valuable commodity. He doesn't really intend to give it away for free and this is understood by everyone present.

It's interesting that while negotiations are progressing, Avraham is still addressing himself by way of the group at large and not to Ephron directly. And Ephron responds by mentioning a monetary value for the field without saying specifically that this is what he wants for it. But all present understand the cultural milieu and that this is how such business plays out. We know that it was always Ephron's intent to sell the field as it says "...Abraham accepted Ephron's terms."

~Shabbat shalom!~