Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Hayye Sarah 5762/ November 10, 2001

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Hayye Sarah 5762/ November 10, 2001

Inflation and the Price of the Cave of Machpelah
Prof. Daniel Sperber
Dept. of Talmud

In the time of the patriarch Abraham coins had not yet come into use. They were only invented in the eighth century B.C.E., and the "four hundred shekels of silver" (Gen. 23:16) that Abraham gave Ephron the Hittite was actually a certain weight of silver. In the time of the Sages, however, an attempt was made to translate this weight into monetary value in terms of the current coinage of the day. As we read in the Jerusalem Talmud, Kiddushin 1.3:

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!

On the face of it, 4 million dinars seems an exaggeratedly large sum to have been charged for a field and a double cave! But actually, this is not so, for we noted that R. Judah's remark was made in the first half of the fourth century, at a time of rampant inflation. We know this to have been true from several inscriptions discovered from this period: the tomb inscription at Mjedil, indicating that its price was 5,000,000 dinars, or the building at Kharsan, which cost 50,000,000 dinars.

Various homilies of the Sages also contain indications of these hard times. For example, Exodus Rabbah 2.9: "'How much is this [gem]?' 'A million [dinars],' he answered. 'And how much is the bigger one?' 'Ten million.'"

It is hard to determine exactly when R. Judah ben Pazi's remark was made, insofar as this period was marked by great fluctuations in prices and even differences in rates from place to place. To a certain extent, however, we can narrow down the possibilities, arriving at a fairly good approximation. On one hand, there is a tendency in the writings of the Sages to view the cave of Machpelah as a place which cost Abraham dearly (see Bava Mezia 7a). Therefore, we can say that in the era under discussion a sum of 4 million dinars for a field and a double cave was quite a stiff price. On the other hand, in the Jerusalem Talmud, Ma'aser Sheni 1.2, we have R. Jonah asking: "If a person's wallet were to fall into a well, and there were a million [dinars] in it, and by spending half a million he could recover the wallet, is it as if he has in his possession the half million?"

Needless to say, R. Jonah's words were said quite some time after the remarks by R. Judah ben Pazi, since according to R. Jonah a million dinars was a relatively small amount of money, such as might be carried by a person in his wallet, whereas according to R. Judah it was quite a considerable amount of money.

It seems that R. Jonah's remark was made in the 60's of the fourth century. Presumably R. Judah ben Pazi's words were said earlier, perhaps in the 40's of the same century, when four million dinars was a reasonable sum. Moreover, in the next decade or two there was a sharp decline in the value of the currency, to the extent that a million dinars became almost a negligible sum, and this devaluation of the currency led to a sharp rise in prices.

In the interpretation of R. Judah ben Pazi the homilist sought to translate the biblical price of "four hundred shekels of silver" into the monetary terms of his day, terms that would have concrete meaning to his audience. In his computations the homilist seems to have relied on current prices in the country in order to arrive at the price paid for the cave of Machpelah: four million dinars.