When Abraham sought a fitting burial site for his beloved wife Sarah, he approached the local Hittite tribe to seek their approval for a particular plot he had his heart upon:

If it is your will that I bury my dead from before me, listen to me and entreat for me to Ephron the son of Tzohar that he may give me the machpelah (“double”) cave, which belongs to him, which is at the edge of his field …1

What exactly was double about this cave?

Rashi provides two explanations.

  1. The cave was “a two-story house.”
  2. “On account of the couples buried there it is called double.”

Rashi’s first explanation is broadly understood to mean that the cave held a lower cavern and upper cavern, making it somewhat similar to a two-story house. There are a variety of ways that a cave can be considered “double” – such as one cavern in front of, or next to, the other – and Rashi is saying that in this case it was in fact one above the other.

But there are several significant problems with this explanation. Firstly, how does Rashi know that it was one cave above the other? Logically, it would make more sense to say it was one cave in front of the other, because in that case the only way to get to the second cave would be through the first one, making it a true double cave. If, on the other hand, they were on top of each other, that would just make them two separate caves, each with its own entrance.

Even more confusing is Rashi’s wording “a two-story house.” We are discussing a cave, so why mention a house? Surely, Rashi could have easily avoided confusion by simply saying “a two-story cave”; why refer to a house altogether?

Rashi’s second explanation, “On account of the couples buried there it is called double,” refers to the fact that over time, it would become the burial place of several couples: Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah.

This explanation is also problematic: the fact that this would eventually be the burial site for couples occurred years, even generations, later. When Abraham is speaking to the Hittites, how would referring to it as the “caves of the couples” make any sense? Surely they had no way of knowing what use those caves would have in generations to come!

The Rebbe provides an interpretation of Rashi’s commentary that overturns nearly a thousand years of presumed understanding.

The Rebbe draws attention to an anomaly in the Biblical text. When Abraham finally completed the purchase of the burial site, the Torah says, “So the field of Ephron which was in machpelah, facing Mamre, was established (as Abraham's possession) …”2 This wording implies that the cave and the field around it were in a place called machpelah.

Moreover, two verses later, the Torah says, “Afterwards, Abraham buried Sarah, his wife, in the cave of the field of machpelah…”3 Here again, the Torah says that the cave was situated in a field which was part of machpelah. So was the cave double, or the field double?

Hence, the Rebbe suggests a radical idea: Neither! Neither the cave was double, nor the place in which it was situated was double. Rather, on the field right next to the cave stood a two-story house – an actual house! Four thousand years ago, during the times of Abraham, two-story houses were highly unusual. As this field had a two-story house built on it, it received the moniker machpelah. The cave also received that name because it was adjacent to the house.

When Rashi says “a two-story house” he means exactly that! He did not mean a two-story cave, or he would have said so explicitly. Indeed, Rashi does not say that the cave was one in front of the other, as in his view the cave was not double at all, but merely referred to as such because of the adjacent house. For the longest time, it had always been assumed that the cave was somehow double, and here in a stunning twist we discover within Rashi’s brief commentary an entirely new possibility.

There remains, however, a small problem with this explanation. In the opening verse cited at the beginning of this article, Abraham added a second identifying feature: “... which is at the edge of his field.” If, as we have established, the cave was next to this famous two-story house, why give additional markings?

For this reason, Rashi adds a second explanation: that it was suitable for the burial of couples. Abraham was not saying that the Hittites would know who would later be buried there, but merely pointing out that the cave was highly suited for twin burials. As Abraham was seeking to bury his cherished wife, it was entirely reasonable that he would want a site that would one day allow him to be buried alongside her.

As Abraham was seemingly only seeking a burial place for Sarah, it would have seemed strange to the Hittites that he was insisting on a site that had space to bury four couples. Rashi therefore favors the first explanation.

The treatment of this single short comment from Rashi is just one striking example of the Rebbe’s uniquely brilliant way of analyzing the Biblical text, and his novel approach to interpreting Rashi’s commentary.

Adapted from Likutei Sichot, vol. 5, Parshat Chayei Sarah II.