Thursday, October 28, 2010

400 - Evil Eye or Messianic Redemption

This can also be read at the Jewish Star

Parshat Chayei Sarah

Rabbi Avi Billet

When we consider the 400 silver shekels Avraham paid for the Cave of Machpela the number sounds quite familiar. Two weeks ago we read of the promise G-d made to Avraham that his descendants would be strangers in a strange land for 400 years.

It is funny that Ephron would arrive at such a random figure, considering that he seemed intent on giving Avraham the land for free. Why would he pick a number that is so negatively significant to Avraham if he is really trying to do our patriarch a favor? Is there a connection between the purchase of the burial plot and the exile to Egypt?

The Baal Haturim notes that Ephron’s name appears in the Torah “chaser” (חסר), missing the letter vov as its vowel, because Ephron’s role served as a bad omen, “ra ayin,” a bad eye. He misled Avraham and then charged him an exorbitant sum for a land he seemed willing to part with for nothing. The name Ephron without a vov equals 400 (70+80+200+50) (ע+פ+ר+נ), as does the term Ra Ayin (200+70+70+10+50) (ר+ע+ע+י+נ).

The Baal Haturim derives this teaching from a Talmudic passage (Baba Batra 9b) which says “One who gives money to the poor is blessed six times, while one who has a ‘ra ayin’ [evil eye] against the poor, and does not give anything, does not receive the six blessings.” Thus Ephron’s name is missing a “vov,” whose numerical value is 6, because he was denied these blessings on account of his “evil eye.”

The Kli Yakar takes this a step further, suggesting that the number 400 in general comes to represent a “bad luck number” which accompanies “ra ayin” [the evil eye], a concept that plays itself out in four places in the Bible.

Ephron takes Avraham for 400 silver pieces.

The “exile of 400 years” (even though it ended up being 210 years), began on account of the evil eye Yosef’s brothers put upon him. Their jealousy of Yaakov’s preferential treatment of Yosef led directly to his exile to Egypt, and to their eventual exile and enslavement as well. (This fulfilled the promise to Avraham of a 400-year estrangement from home.)

Esav exhibited an evil eye against his brother, Yaakov, because of the blessings he received from Yitzchak. Esav therefore pursued him with 400 men.

King David had made a simple request of Nabal of Carmel, who ungraciously rebutted David’s question and insulted him – after he had been anointed to be Saul’s replacement, but before he was actually king. Nabal’s attitude is considered “ra ayin” which caused David to pursue him with 400 men to pay him back for his evil treatment of David.

It seems that 400 is a negative number utilized in cases of jealousy or downright negative treatment of others.

Why it was foreshadowed for Avraham that his children would descend to Egypt for 400 years seems to be a mystery that commentaries have difficulty explaining. Was it a punishment to Avraham? A blessing to him? A test? Was it meant to give the people a common experience that would turn them into a collective nation with a shared history? Abravanel says 400 years includes being strangers, slavery, and suffering, with the breakdown of the 400 years into those categories being unspecified. Perhaps some questions are better than their answers.

At the same time, it is the opinion of Rabbi Dosa in Sanhedrin 99a that the days of the Messiah will be a period of 400 years based on the number of years promised to Avraham, and the verse in Tehillim 90 – “Have us rejoice like the days of our affliction.” Slavery was to be 400 years, so the days of ultimate joy will be 400 years.

Like most of our experiences, there are two perspectives we can consider. With the number 400, we can look to its negative side — a number utilized for bad luck, inspired by jealousy or motivated by revenge. Alternatively, we can envision a future of a 400 that is ultimate bliss – the period of the Messiah, for example, or some other experience that imitates heaven on earth. Perhaps a simcha with 400 guests, or a tzedakah donation of a multiple of 400.

May our experiences in life merit to focus more on their positive side as we continue to grow spiritually in our pursuit of the final redemption.


  1. I have heard it said that the letter Toph(400) is at the end of the hebrew alphabet which is the opposite extreme to Aleph which signifies the yichud of Hashem
    Michael London

  2. Thanks for your comment. One can also say (in keeping in line with the second perspective that offers a positive twist) that Alef and Toph (along with Mem) are the letters which comprise the word "Emet" (truth), which puts them all on a level playing field.

  3. From the Torah Temimah:
    The Medrash says that when Eisav was pursuing Yaakov with 400 men, he went and consulted with the customs collectors of Egypt… He took the tax responsibilities of Egypt and passed them on to Yaakov. This is difficult. How does it explain the 400 men? And why specifically from Egypt? Look at the insights of Rada"l… But the truth seems to be that the explanation for "customs collectors" is that Eisav sought permission to be a tax collector. And this hints to the idea that he sought permission specifically from Egypt because they were the ones to be enslaving Yaakov's family for 400 years – this is the reason for his having "400 men."

    תורה תמימה הערות בראשית פרק לב הערה א

    וע' במ"ר כאן על הפסוק וארבע מאות איש עמו, הלך ונטל [עשו] אגרומי ממצרים, ועמלו מאוד המפרשים בבאור זה, ופירשו שלקח מכס שנוטלין במצרים להטילן על יעקב, וכמה קשה באור זה, וגם מה זה הסבר על ד' מאות איש, ולמה דוקא ממצרים, ועיין בהגהות הרד"ל, אבל האמת נראה, כי הפי' אגרומי הוא רשות להיות מוכס, ורומז שלקח רשות ממצרים שעליהם הובטח לשעבד ביעקב ד' מאות שנה, וזהו הרמז מד' מאות איש: