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In B'reishit 23 Avraham pays 400 shekels to Efron for the cave of Machpelah. This seems to be an enormous amount of money and Rashi suggests it's even worse than it appears (referring to larger versus smaller shekels, whatever that means).

For comparison (all centuries later), in the desert census each Israelite paid a half-shekel (Sh'mot 30), the compensation for a slave gored by an ox was 30 shekels (Sh'mot 21:32), people (as part of vows) were valued at between 5 and 50 shekels (Vayikra 27), and a man who violates a virgin pays 100 shekels (D'varim 22). Jeremiah bought a field for 17 shekels (Yirmiyahu 32:9); whether he paid full price or a fire-sale price isn't completely clear.

We know he overpaid; I'm trying to get a sense of the scale. Did he overpay by a factor of 10? Factor of 100? What was the going rate for a burial cave in Avraham's time?

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    Seeing the contest now, I get the feeling his investment paid off (or not, his kids' descendants are literally fighting each other for the right to access it) – Noach MiFrankfurt Dec 11 '14 at 20:03
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    @NoachmiFrankfurt I dunno. If he'd put the money into a fund that returned a conservative 1% per year, we'd have about 4 exa-shekels now, or about 300 billion shekels per Jew today. – Isaac Moses Dec 12 '14 at 16:22
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    Doesn't the cave contain the graves of Adam and eve? Wouldn't that increase its value? – Clint Eastwood Jun 29 '16 at 4:18
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Based on a shiur by Rav Amnon Bazak at Yeshivat Har Etzion quoting the Arugas Habosem the amount paid by Avraham was enough to buy 2.4 million square Amos.

In an extraordinary piece of arithmetic computation, the Arugat Ha-bosem proves that 400 shekel - the price of sdei ha-machpela - was enough to buy 2.4 million square amot, based on the price of land given in Vayikra 27:16. In other words, there is 4 cubits, "daled amot" for 600,000 Jews

Per Chabad.org Avraham purchased 600,000 square Amos.

Thus, the area purchased by Abraham was eight beit kor, or 600,000 square cubits

Thus it seems that Avraham overpaid by 4 times its real value.

To get an idea of the exorbitant price.

Professor Daniel Sperber of Bar Ilan University based on R. Judah (son of R. Simon) ben Pazi the price Avraham paid for the cave of Machpelah was equivalent to 4 million dinars!

As R. Haninah said: Every time shekels are referred to in the Torah it means selas, in the Prophets litra, and in the Writings kintirin. Rabbi Judah bar Pazi said: Except for the shekels of Ephron, which were kintirin. How do we know this? Because it says "Let him sell it to me, at the full price" (Gen. 23:9).

R. Judah (son of R. Simon) ben Pazi, a famous homilist, belonged to the third-fourth generations of amoraim. According to his remark above, made in the fourth century, the price of the cave of Machpelah was four hundred kintirin. But how much were kintirin worth? This is a known coin, the centenarius (see Sperber, Roman Palestine 200-400, Money and Prices, 1974, p. 166) worth around 10,000 dinars. Thus, it follows from his remark that the price of the cave of Machpelah was 4 million dinars!

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Rabbi Sorotzkin compares it to the 100 kesitah that Yaakov paid for the land in Shechem on which to settle himself, his family and his flocks. IIRC, Rabbi Sorotzkin says that a kesitah was a quarter of a shekel (.25). Thus, 400 shekel was 1600 kesitah.

This means that Avraham paid 16 times what Yaakov did for just the burial cave. Of course, Efron "included" the field that the cave was in even though Avraham only wanted the cave and the field was useless for his purpose. Rav Hirsch and others say that Efron claimed that the field would no longer be of use to him once the cave was used as a burial site. Thus he insisted that the field go along with the cave.

I would use an analogy as buying an entire cemetary in order to be able to use one plot.

In any case, Rabbi Sorotzkin compares this to the area that Yaakov bought in Shechem which was large enough to support the entire family with its flocks. This means providing living space, pasture lands, and (at least) the kitchen gardens that they needed. At the very least, it would be a complete working sheep farm in modern day terms.

Thus Rabbi Sorotzkin says that Avraham paid 16 times for a single field what Yaakov did for a complete farm and pasture lands. He says this was definitely a case of price gouging.

Rabbi Sorotzkin says from the descriptive language used in the two cases, one can tell that the field was just a small field with the cave at the end. Otherwise different language to describe it would have been used

Rabbi Etshalom in 5773 suggested that Avraham actually did not pay for the field. Ephron "adopted" him as a member of his clan, who was therefore "entitled" to bury Sarah. Avraham paid the money as the price for the formal "adoption" into the clan. That is why the exchange had to be done before the council of the Bnai Cheis. Land could only be transferred to members of the clan and adoption into the clan required a formal procedure. Unfortunately, the link is currently broken so that I cannot copy the citation.

  • This seems more consistent with the text to me than an interpretation that he bought 600,000 square cubits. But could you tell me who Rabbi Sorotzkin is, please? Thank you. – Monica Cellio Jun 28 '16 at 20:24
  • Rabbi Sorotzkin wrote Oznaim Latorah – sabbahillel Jun 28 '16 at 23:51
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I remember hearing a shiur by R' Dovid Gottlieb (I think it was "Historical Verification of the Torah - Standards & Prophecy") where he explains that it was indeed the normal price, and that the back-and-forth regarding the sale was normal courtesy at the time.

  • Thanks. Does that mean that shekels were revalued along the way, or were burial plots just way more expensive than, say, people? – Monica Cellio Dec 11 '14 at 21:23
  • Hmm, it comes out to about $500/dunam, much less than todays prices, but today the land is largely occupied, whereas Avraham bought an empty field. – Adám Dec 11 '14 at 22:40
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The Ramban 23:15 brings it as a Machlokes between Onkelos and the Gemara in Baba Metzia 87a whether Avraham overpaid.

  • How much was it according to both sides? – Double AA Jun 28 '16 at 23:36
  • Welcome to Mi Yodeya Fireman! Thanks for the answer. This could be improved with a quote from Ramban (although this is not necessary). Consider taking the following short tour to learn a little more about the site. – mevaqesh Jun 29 '16 at 0:44
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The Gemara in Bava Metzia 87a says that 400 shekel kesef "oveir lasocheir" is equivalent to 1,000,000 ordinary shekel kesef.

  • How much is that in kilograms? – Double AA Jun 28 '16 at 23:33
  • No idea what the conversion is. – DonielF Jun 28 '16 at 23:34

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