כ״ג באדר ה׳תשע״ז (March 21, 2017)

Bava Batra 58a-b: Marking Burial Caves

On yesterday’s daf we were introduced to Rabbi Bena’a, who offered instruction on proper deportment for Torah scholars. The Gemara on today’s daf continues with more stories about this interesting personality.

The Gemara relates that Rabbi Bena’a was marking burial caves, and when he was in Me’arat ha-Makhpela, the cave where Avraham, Yitzhak and Ya’akov are buried, he met Eliezer, Avraham’s servant, and inquired as to what Avraham was doing at that time. Eliezer answered that Avraham was lying in his wife, Sarah’s arms, and Sarah was examining his head. Rabbi Bena’a asked for permission to enter so that he could measure and mark the cave, which Eliezer granted, explaining that in the world that he inhabited there is no evil inclination – which would have been reason to keep out, were he in the ordinary world where seeing such intimacy between husband and wife would have been inappropriate. When Rabbi Bena’a exited and went to enter the cave where Adam was buried, a heavenly voice stopped him and explained how that cave should be marked.

For generations, the tradition in Israel was to bury in caves. Marking burial caves was necessary because ritual defilement that emanates from the dead must be avoided by kohanim, as well as others who desired to remain in a state of ritual purity. Since the caves often extend well beyond the surface opening to the cave, it was necessary to mark the area of the underground cavern in order to warn people to stay away from that place.

The story of Rabbi Bena’a and his interaction with Eliezer is already interpreted by the early commentaries as being a dream or an allegory that should not be understood literally. The Maharal suggests that the description of Avraham and Sarah should be understood to represent the ideal relationship between husband and wife, which reaches its fullness only after death, when they are beyond the physical realm.

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