Parshat Hayey Sarah: Revisiting Machpelah

This week’s parsha, Hayey Sarah, begins with the death and burial of Sarah, and concludes with the death and burial of Abraham. Both are buried in the cave of Machpelah, a site which has a rich and colorful history in the Talmud and midrash. According to the Talmud in Eruvin (53a), four couples are buried in this cave: Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah. For the most part, these dead are left undisturbed, until Rabbi Banaa comes along in the third century and knocks on the door of the dead.

Rabbi Banaa, as we are told in the Talmud (Bava Batra 58a), used to mark the burial caves of the dead. (Until medieval times, Jews generally placed their dead in caves rather than burying them underground.) Presumably he did so in order to prevent people from accidentally contracting impurity as a result of contact with a corpse. As Rashi explains, Rabbi Banaa would enter burial caves, measure their dimensions, and then outline with lime the corresponding surface above the ground so as to ward off anyone who might otherwise walk right over them unaware. At some point in his grave markings, he came to the cave of Machpelah, as the Talmud relates:

“When Rabbi Banaa reached the cave of Abraham, he found Eliezer, the servant of Abraham, standing in front of the entrance. He said to him: What is Abraham doing? He said to him: He is lying in the arms of Sarah, and she is peering at his head. He said to him: Go and tell him that Banaa is standing at the entrance. Abraham said to him: Let him enter. It is well known that there is no physical desire in this world.”

Rabbi Banaa finds himself at the threshold of Abraham’s grave. Abraham, as we know from last week’s parsha, was famous for his hospitality, and so of course he instructed his servant Eliezer, who was guarding the door, to let Banaa inside. Even though Abraham and Sarah were engaged in a moment of intimacy—he was lying in her arms, and she was peering at his head or perhaps picking out the lice from his hair—Banaa was invited to enter. “There is no physical desire [yetzer] in this world,” Abraham explains cryptically from the crypt. Does he mean that he and Sarah’s behavior is entirely innocent, since after all they are already dead? Or does he mean that Rabbi Banaa, having entered the world of the dead, is in another realm where such voyeurism would not be titillating? Why is Banaa permitted to observe this intimacy?

In fact, intimacy and voyeurism are themes central to this sugya and to the opening chapters of tractate Bava Batra, where this story appears. The first chapter deals with Hezek Reiya, visual trespass, the notion that observing another’s activities is tantamount to trespassing on his domain. Banaa, who ostensibly wishes to prevent others from inadvertently trespassing over dead bodies and contracting impurity, instead “visually trespasses” over the private domestic space of Abraham and Sarah. He observes them in a moment of intimacy, much like the laundering women who are described in the halakhic sugya that immediately precedes this story, which deals with the question of Hazaka, that is, the duration of time that property must be owned and uncontested in order to establish the legal presumption of ownership. The Mishnah on 57a considers which uses of property indicate that the user has acquired rights to use the property in this manner from the property’s owner. The Talmud quotes Rabbi Banaa, who states that residents who share a jointly-owned courtyard can prevent each other from engaging in most activities that are disruptive, except for the washing of clothes, “for it is not the practice of Jewish daughters to debase themselves by washing clothes in public.” While washing clothes, a woman had to roll up her sleeves and expose herself in ways that would not be appropriate in a more public setting; therefore, a woman may not be barred from doing laundry in the private space of her own courtyard.

In the continuation of this halakhic sugya, Rabbi Banaa goes on to make other remarks about privacy and intimacy, including the stipulation that a Torah scholar’s tunic must be long enough “so that his flesh should not be visible below the hem.” He also states that the bed of a Torah scholar must have nothing stored beneath it. The Meiri explains that conceivably this could result in a member of the household entering the bedroom at an inopportune time. Immediately after this statement, the Talmud launches into our story of Rabbi Banaa, who “walks in on” Abraham and Sarah lying in each other’s arms.

As the story proceeds, we follow Banaa deeper and deeper into the cave, until a heavenly voice stops him dead in his tracks and forbids him from trespassing any further:

“Rabbi Banaa entered, surveyed [the dimensions of the crypt], and departed. When he reached the crypt of Adam, a heavenly voice came forth and proclaimed: You have gazed at the likeness of My image. Do not gaze at My image itself.
[Rabbi Banaa replied]: But I wish to mark the crypt!
[The heavenly voice said:] As the dimensions of the outer crypt, so are the dimensions of the inner crypt…
Rabbi Banaa said: I glimpsed his two heels and they were like two orbs of the sun.”

Rabbi Banaa, after measuring the chamber of the cave where Abraham and Sarah are buried, wishes to go even further and measure the chamber where Adam and Eve lie. But instead of Eliezer, it is God Himself who stands guard at the entrance and warns Banaa that he has seen enough: “You have gazed at the likeness of my image. Do not gaze at My image itself.” This is a strange protest, since presumably Adam—who was created in the image of God—is the likeness of the divine image, and yet Banaa has not yet gazed at Adam. This confusion is resolved in the heavenly voice’s next declaration: “As the dimensions of the outer crypt, so are the dimensions of the inner crypt.” The outer crypt where Abraham is buried resembles the inner crypt where Adam is buried. By gazing upon Abraham, Banaa has effectively gazed upon Adam, who is God’s likeness. Were he to proceed to gaze upon Adam, he would effectively be gazing upon God Himself, which no human being is permitted to do. But Banaa, ever the voyeur, proves unstoppable. He insists on exposing publicly the intimacy he witnesses when he peeks in at Adam’s grave, where it seems Adam is lying on the ground with his feet facing Rabbi Banaa. “I glimpsed his two heels,” he cannot resist gushing exultantly, “and they were like the two orbs of the sun!” Ostensibly on a mission to notify others about the location of burial caves, Banaa’s true purpose seems to be to document what he sees inside them.

At this point, the story comes to a close, and the Talmud goes on to enumerate two genealogies of beauty, one consisting of Biblical figures and one linking rabbinic figures to their Biblical forbears:

1. “The radiance of any person’s countenance in comparison to that of Sarah is like that of a monkey in comparison to a human being. Sarah in comparison to Eve is like a monkey in comparison to a human being. Eve in comparison to Adam is like a monkey in comparison to a human being. Adam in comparison to the divine presence is like a monkey in comparison to a human being.

2. The beauty of Rav Kahana was a semblance of the beauty of Rav. The beauty of Rav was a semblance of the beauty of Rabbi Abahu. The beauty of Rabbi Abahu was a semblance of the beauty of Jacob. The beauty of Jacob was a semblance of the beauty of Adam.”

The first genealogy reads like a sort of reverse evolution, in which we are not descended from monkeys, but rather our beautiful human ancestors degenerate into ugly monkeys. The starting point is Sarah, whom Banaa has just glimpsed in our story. We know from the Torah that Abraham regarded his wife as beautiful, to such an extent that he insisted on two occasions that she present herself as his sister. But even Sarah paled in comparison to Eve, the first woman. And Eve could not hold a candle to Adam, a reading that presumably accords with Genesis 2 rather than Genesis1, in which Eve is not created simultaneously with Adam but is rather fashioned from his rib. Finally, Adam, who was created in the image of God, was still just a monkey when compared to God. Each generation thus degenerates into monkeys when compared with its more aesthetically pleasing forbears.

Likewise, in the second genealogy, each subsequent rabbinic generation represents only a fraction of the beauty of preceding generations, and the leap from rabbinic to Biblical figures is accomplished without remark: Rabbi Abahu resembles Jacob. This sugya thus establishes continuity between the sages like Banaa who mark burial caves, and the Biblical characters buried therein. And the story of Banaa, the only aggada (until the very last page) buried in a Talmudic chapter that deals with matters of property ownership, is set in the cave of Machpelah, which was the first piece of land ever purchased by a Jew — thus establishing the Jewish people’s connection to the land of Israel. Though Ephron the Hittite offered to give Abraham the cave for free, Abraham insisted on paying full price for it, a fact that the Torah emphasizes both at the beginning and end of the parsha lest the matter be contested. There he buried his beautiful wife Sarah, in whose arms he lies to this day, waiting for us to read the story of Banaa and to knock on the door once again.

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