If you’ve ever paid close attention to the procedures at a Jewish wedding, you might notice a whole lot of theatre about witnesses, the rings, and the words the groom has to say. It’s not just for show, the formalities are actually essential, and we need to get them right. The source of the formalities is a Gemara in Kiddushin, which famously derives the halachic model of marriage from the transaction that took place when Avraham purchased the Cave of Machpela plot to bury his late wife, Sarah.
While the source is pretty familiar, the logic is not, and it is all too easy to misconstrue. Is a woman an object that is acquired? In what way is a man marrying a woman anything like a man buying some land?
R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch explains that confining the analogy to a superficial level collapses it and highlights the importance of getting it right because a woman is not an object. The analogy only works in the wider context of what the transaction signified.
The Land of Israel is indelibly woven into Jewish history and identity for eternity. The promise of the Promised Land is that it has been a driving force of our prayers for thousands of years, the happily ever after we can dream of that gets us through hard times, with the hope that one day life will be better. It is so tantalizing because it speaks to a human need deep within us.
When Avraham bought this plot of land, it was the first interaction by the first Jew on that Promised Land. Negotiating this little cave’s purchase and the adjoining field forged the very first link in the chain of the eternal bond that ties the Jewish People to the Land of Israel.
The cave itself was a multichambered double-storeyed structure – the word מַּכְפֵּלָה literally means “doubled up.” This unique structure enabled each of our ancestral couples to be buried together in private quarters, husband and wife, and it allowed for parent and child to be buried near each other, father and son. Even after death, the family would remain together. Sure, Avraham bought a little cave and adjoining field, but in that “trivial” action -the first act by the first Jew on the Land of Israel – Avraham secured family ties together for eternity.
The analogy of marriage to Avraham’s land acquisition appears in a wider context. At a Jewish wedding, the couple is bonded by mirroring the steps our ancestor Avraham took. Because it was never about the simple land transaction, it was about preserving family commitment.
The land is God’s eternal commitment to us, and marriage is our eternal commitment to each other.