Parashat Hayyei Sarah--Genesis 23:1-25:18
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Questions for Young Children

  • How do you think Yitzhak feels after his mother dies?  How does Avraham try to make him feel better?
  • Avraham's servant takes 10 camels with him to go and look for a wife for Yitzhak.  Why do you think he takes so many?  How would you feel if you were at a well, looked up, and saw someone arrive with so many camels?
  • Rivka runs up to Avraham's servant and offers him water and then gets water for the camels, then invites him to her home. Often parents tell us not to talk to strangers today.  Why was it okay for Rivka to talk to a stranger?

Questions for Older Children

  • There are a lot of rules in Judaism about how to behave after a close relative dies. Which customs and laws of mourning that are still practiced today do you see in this account of Avraham coping with his wife's death?  How are rules for mourning meant to help mourners?
  • Sarah is buried in the Cave of Machpelah which is in Hebron.  Today Hebron is governed by the Palestinian Authority.  How important do you think it is that Hebron be easily accessible to Jews?
  • Why do you think Avraham is so insistent that his son Yitzhak marry someone from his own family instead of a local girl in C'naan?  Do you think your parents care who you might marry when you're grown?
  • Aside from the fact that Rivka is family, what other good traits do you see in Rivka from this parasha?
  • When a vow is made, the person making the promise is asked to put his hand under the other person's thigh.  Why do you think that's part of making a solemn promise?

Questions for Teens and Adults

  • What do you think of Rabbi Shapiro's commentary in A Dash of Feminist Commentary?  Can you think of an example of a person who changed after the death of his or her spouse?
  • Examine the negotiation between Avraham and Ephron.  Why wouldn't Avraham accept the kindness of Ephron to give him the plot of land for free?  What's the psychology behind the negotiations?
  • The Torah rarely characterizes a person beyond a few words.  We can discern a lot about Rivka from her actions in this parasha.  How would you describe her character?  From this parasha do you get the sense Yitzhak or Rivka will be the dominant partner in the marriage?


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The negotiation between Lavan and Eliezer for Rivka's hand in marriage to Yitzhak involves elaborate food.  Eliezer arrives at the well where Rivka offers both him and his ten thirsty camels water.  Then Eliezer is invited to Rivka's home where the camels are given straw and shelter, the travelers wash, and then they sit down to eat. But Eliezer wants to conclude his business before the meal.  Notice that after the deal is done, Eliezer pulls jewlery for Rivka and delicacies for Rivka's family.  

Create a centerpiece of Rivka's dowry

  • Include nose rings (if you have them), earrings, bracelets and delicacies.

Create a centerpiece to commemorate the meeting at the well.  You can use any of the following components.

  • a simple pitcher of water
  • toy camels
  • a mock up of a well 


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Parashat Hayyei Sarah begins with the death and burial of Sarah and ends with Yitzhak’s marriage to Rivka (Rebekah). Avraham purchases land in Hebron for Sarah’s burial even after Ephron, the seller, insists he will give the land to Abraham as a gift. Once Sarah is buried, Abraham’s next task is finding a wife for his son Isaac. Abraham sends his servant Eliezer back to his hometown to search out the right woman. Eliezer chooses Rivka because of her kindness to him at the well and succeeds in persuading her to journey to Eretz Yisrael with him and become Yitzhak’s wife. The narrative also introduces Lavan, Rivka’s brother, who will figure prominently in the marriages of Rivka’s son, Ya'akov (Jacob). Sadness is dispelled by the end of the parasha as Yitzhak is comforted by his wife, Rivkah, and Avraham takes another wife, Keturah. 


Find the food connection...

וּמִגְדָּנֹת--נָתַן לְאָחִיהָ, וּלְאִמָּהּ

He [Eliezer] gave sweet delicacies to her [Rivka's] brother and to her mother.

---Genesis 24:53
Sweet delicacies! ( Read under A Dash of Rashi and a Dash of Babylonian Cuisine to see what this might be).

The Side Dish

Sarah's death seems to catch Avraham by surprise. (Gen. 23)  He's not with her in Hebron, he has no burial plot ready.  Avraham, the public figure arrives and then immediately the Torah tells us vayispod l'Sarah which I understand to mean he offered a eulogy about Sarah.  Following the speech, "he cried for her."  (Notice the tiny kaf in the Hebrew script for "he cried for her." Avraham then gets up and negotiates very wisely with Ephron the Hittite for a burial plot. At last Sarah can be buried.  I find this part of the parasha heart wrenching and many years when I've read this parasha I think of the funeral of John F. Kennedy.

Avraham the public personality and man of substance in Eretz Yisrael had to cope with how to mourn and bury his wife, how to secure a wife for the son who would carry on the brit. He cannot even cry for Sarah until after he has given a public speech.  The commentators imagine that the local elite had gathered awaiting Avraham's return so that when he arrived, he had to honor those awaiting him and eilogize Sarah before he spoke.  Then he could cry.  

I remember watching with horror the funeral of President John F. Kennedy.  At that time I'd never been to a funeral.  No one can forget the pageantry and the stoicism of Mrs. Kennedy and her children.  Perhaps the most famous photo is the one which captures John-John saluting the caisson. I remember Walter Cronkite and almost every other adult commending the Kennedy family for not crying.  I tried to reconcile that sentiment with the image of my dad returning from Norfolk after his grandmother's funeral and tearfully telling us about Baubie's funeral.  I couldn't believe that meant my dad was a weak person.  By the time I attended my first funeral I was already sixteen and everyone was in tears not only during the funeral, but at the shiva. When I returned to school following my  nineteen year old cousin's funeral, teachers reminded me to smile, encouraged me to "get over it."  At Hebrew High School teachers cried with me.  

Like anyone my age, I've now been to too many funerals. I see the wisdom in the halakha for mourner that moves us through the process and helps us cope.  We're not expected to smile the day after our loved one dies. We don't "get over it." We slowly absorb the reality and move back into community and into life.  After the episode of Sarah's death and burial, the Torah tells us that Avraham was getting up there in years וַה׳ בֵּרַךְ אֶת-אַבְרָהָם, בַּכֹּל, and God blessed Avraham with everything. (Gen. 24:1) The statement about Avraham's blessing is followed by a probelm--Yitzhak is a bachleor. How can the Torah tell us an old man who lost his wife and has no heir to carry on the brit is blessed?  Perhaps the Torah is reminding us that even at the most desperate times of our lives we have to also search to see how we're blessed and, like Avraham, take a little action to activate the b'rakha.






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A Dash of Rashi

Rashi is puzzled by the word migdanot.  He explains it as fruits from Israel that Eliezer brought as gifts for Lavan's family.  Although Rashi doesn't specify dates, we know from the Torah that dates, figs, and grapes grew in Eretz Yisrael and I imagine Eliezer bringing dried fruit on a long journey. The photo below may resemble a cluster of olives or grapes, but it's a cluster of fresh dates that have been ripened in the freezer. To eat, you simply peel the skin and enjoy.  It has a sweet delicious taste different than the dried dates that probably traveled with Eliezer to his hosts in Paddan-Aram.  My cousin Miri buys date clusters to decorate her Rosh haShana table, freezes them after Rosh haShana and enjoys through the month of Heshvan.

rsz fresh dates copy


A Dash of Babylonian Cuisine from 1700 BCE

Archeologist Jean Bottero discovered a culinary treasure when he decoded a cuneiform tablet currently held at Yale University. The tablets included a Sumerian-Akkadian dictionary with words for over 800 food items. In addition he discovered recipes that would have been prepared for the elite of ancient Mesopotamia.  Some of the dishes are as elaborate as those described by ancient Roman gastronome, Apicius.

What might Lavan have served Eliezer?  Below is a recipe for a Babylonian delicacy called Mersu. The original recipe on the cuneiform tablet omitted amounts but gifted cooks have guessed the amounts.


Makes 12

  • 1 cup pistachios, shelled                    rsz babylonian treat 2 copy
  • 1 cup pitted dates
  • 1/8-1/4 cup pistachios, ground for rolling 
  • sesame seeds 


  1. Blend dates into a paste using a food processor
  2. Add the pistachios.
  3. Pulse until a coarse mixture forms.
  4. Form into small balls.
  5. Roll the date balls in ground pistachios and sesame seeds.

The photo to the right isn't Mersu and, obvioudly, we have no photos from our Babylonian chef, but this was my variation on Mersu on a day when I didn't feel like getting out my food processor.  I took Medjool dates, removed the seeds, and stuffed them with coarsely ground pistachios.  




A Dash of Contract Law

B’reishit contains six contracts. This week’s parasha includes a purchase agreement between Avraham and Ephron. Although Ephron was willing to give Avraham the land for burial, but Avraham insisted on paying 400 shekels for the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron. You'll notice the boundaries and the inclusions within the contract.  Avraham seemed to understand that a contract is a formal transmission of expectations even in the absence of a state to enforce the contract. We shouldn't be too surprised that Avraham negotiated for a contract.  After all, his relationship with God was also governed by a contract, a brit. Although some of the contracts in B'reishit may be morally problematic, the contract between Ephron and Avraham is clearly above board. Below are the six contracts.

1. Avraham purchases land from Ephron (Gen. 23)
2. Jacob sells stew to Esau for the birthright (Gen. 25)
3. Eliezer serves as an agent to contract for a wife for Yitzhak (Gen. 24)
4. Ya’akov extracts a blessing/contract from Yitzhak through fraud. (Gen. 27)
5. Ya’akov makes a labor contract with Laban. (Gen. 29)
6. Ya’akov’s sons make a contract with Shechem (Gen. 34)

A Dash of Feminist Commentary

Rabbi Rona Shapiro posits Sarah as the greater hero of the Akedah story which we read last week.  Rather than celebrate Avraham's complete commitment to God to carry out any command God gives, Rabbi Shapiro writes:  " Sarah's death says that this trip [for the Akedah] to the mountaintop, this near-sacrifice of a son, is unnecessary.  There is no truth on the mountaintop, there is no kedushah, no special holiness up there.  Truth is right here, at home..."
Rabbi Shapiro continues to explain why this parasha is entitled Hayyei Sarah, the life of Sarah.  She sees Avraham becoming a different person after Sarah's death.  He learns from Sarah and he turns away from external matters and refocuses on his own household.  He buys a burial plot, secures a wife for his son Yitzhak, and remarries.


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Squash with Silan
Vegan and Pareve


  • Butternut squash or any winter squash
  • Zataar
  • Kosher salt
  • Olive oil
  • Date syrup (Silan)*


  1. Cut the squash in half lenghthwise and remove the seeds. At this point you can cut the squash into large chunks or leave them in halves.
  2. Oil a baking sheet, place the squash on the baking sheets and brush lightly with olive oil.
  3. Season with zataar and salt to taste. Use a heavy hand with zataar and a lighter touch with salt.
  4. Bake at 400º 20 min or longer until the squash is tender.
  5. Remove from the oven and brush with silan.
  6. Return to the over 5 min. longer so that the squash is glazed.
  7. Turn the oven off and hold the squash in the oven until ready to serve or serve immediately.

Can be served with tehina.

Silan is available at every Israeli grocery--use the סילאן טבעי.  Outside Israel, silan is available in Middle Eastern markets or, of course, on

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