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In Genesis 23, we learn that Sarah has died and Abraham is looking to acquire a grave for her. He approaches the children of Heth and meets Ephron the Hittite who, initially, offers his land (which includes the Cave of Machpellah) for free, giving the appearance that he is very generous. At this point his name (Gen. 23:10-11), in the Hebrew text, is spelled Ayin-Feh-Resh-Vav-Nun. At verse 14, Ephron names his price, "My lord, hearken unto me: a piece of land worth four hundred silver shekels, what is that between me and you? Bury your dead. J.H. Hertz tells us that Ephron has just suggested an exorbitant amount which, according to the Code of Hammurabi, the annual wages of a working man during that era would be six to eight regular shekels. At verse 16, Abraham pays the price, and the Bible removes the vav from Ephron's name (as if I spelled it "Ephrn" -- you'd be able to pronounce it, but you would assume the letter "o") after he accepts the money. Is that spelling change intentional? If so, what message is being sent?

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I personally wouldn't think anything of it. I mean, sometimes "David" is spelled with the yod (דויד), and sometimes without it (דוד). And, yod is a mater lectionis just like vav. –  H3br3wHamm3r81 Apr 22 '13 at 20:41
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@H3br3wHamm3r81 The placement of the misspelling is interesting and the rabbis, who believe that every word and every letter of the Torah was put there intentionally, jump on it big time. I'm not sure about Christian theologians, however. If you don't read Hebrew, you miss it entirely. –  Bruce James Apr 22 '13 at 20:54
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I'm familiar with Akiva's reasoning. Doesn't necessarily mean it's valid. But, to each his own. I guess it all makes for interesting midrash. –  H3br3wHamm3r81 Apr 22 '13 at 22:13
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2 Answers

up vote 3 down vote accepted

The classic Jewish commentator Rashi quoting the Medrash and the Talmud says:

and Abraham weighed out to Ephron: עֶפְרֹן is spelled without a “vav,” because he promised much but did not do even a little [i.e., he promised the cave as a gift but took a great deal of money for it], for he took from him large shekels, viz. centenaria [worth one hundred smaller shekels], as it is stated:“accepted by the merchant,” i.e., they are accepted as a [full] shekel everywhere, for some places have large shekels, viz. centenaria, centeniers or zenteniyers in Old French,(hundred-unit weights.) -

Expanding the answer:

The OP asked "(1) Is that spelling change intentional? (2) If so, what message is being sent?".

The answers are: (1) Yes.

(2) Earlier in the narrative, Ephron promised the cave as a gift (his apparent generosity acknowledged with the full spelling of his name) , verse 11

"No, my lord, listen to me. I have given you the field, and the cave that is in it, I have given it to you. Before the eyes of the sons of my people, I have given it to you; bury your dead."

but in the end took a great deal of money for it (the fact that he did not fulfill his earlier promise acknowledged with the defective spelling).

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Welcome to BH! Thank you for providing the rabbinic answer to this question. We hope you like it here and continue to provide answers from a Jewish perspective. We certainly welcome it! –  Frank Luke Apr 26 '13 at 15:50
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I echo @FrankLuke's comment. I was wondering, though, if you could help us understand the implications of your source and bring it to bear on the question itself? Thanks! I look forward to hearing more from you. –  swasheck Apr 26 '13 at 17:02
    
@swasheck Expanded answer as requested. –  Avrohom Yitzchok Apr 27 '13 at 23:01
    
So you're saying that it's a literary device ... we'll call it, "irony." –  swasheck Apr 27 '13 at 23:04
    
Thank you for expanding the answer. It is very nice. –  Frank Luke Apr 29 '13 at 1:13
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When the Tanak was first written, it was written without vowels. In the early Middle Ages (ca AD 800), scribes known as the Masoretes added the system of vowel points (niqqud or "diacretic markings") that are used in pointed Hebrew texts since then. Other systems were developed at roughly the same time (as Hebrew became less of a spoken language), but only the Masoretic system is used to any extent today.

Before the use of niqqud, a system of differentiating words came about that marked when a long vowel should be pronounced. This system, known today by the Latin name matres lectionis (i.e. "mothers of reading") uses certain consonants (aleph, he, yod, and waw) to mark where a long vowel would be and thus differentiate between words that otherwise would be spelt the same way. When a word is written using the full niqqud, it is called plene or male. If it is written without the niqqud, it is called haser or defective).

When the masoretes designed the niqqud, they made use of the mater. Aleph marked long a sometimes but kamets alone is more common. He marked e or long a. Waw marked tone-long o (holem-waw) and tone-long u (shurek). Yod marked long i (hirek-yod) and long e (Tcere-yod). However, Hebrew words could still be written without these marks. This is especially true regarding holem-waw (tone-long o) and tcere yod (long i). Both of those niqqud exist in full and defective forms. That is, both holem and holem-waw make the same sound as do tcere and tcere-yod.

As you mentioned, the pointed Hebrew text of Genesis 23:16 uses the full spelling of Ephron first (holem waw) and then the defective spelling (simply holem). The pronunciation is the same, and I would draw no conclusions from it (but them I'm neither Akiva nor Mitchell Dahood).

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Frank, you would have a good point but for the fact that you're wrong. The letters vav and yud were not added to the Torah scrolls by the Masoretes, only the vowel marks above and below the letters. The yud and vav, although vowels, are exceptions because they can be seen on any Torah scroll, none of which contain the vowel marks added by the Masoretes. -1 for making an assumption that you can't back up. –  Bruce James Jun 6 '13 at 17:33
    
@BruceJames, read my answer again. I said that the matres were in place before the Masoretes. (as you can see, I have not edited since you made this comment.) See especially: "Before the use of niqqud, a system of differentiating words came about that marked when a long vowel should be pronounced. This system, known today by the Latin name matres lectionis (i.e. "mothers of reading") uses certain consonants (aleph, he, yod, and waw) to mark where a long vowel would be and thus differentiate between words that otherwise would be spelt the same way." –  Frank Luke Jun 7 '13 at 13:56
    
The first paragraphs of your answer imply that since there were no vowels before the Masoretic text, therefore the dropping of the vav in the spelling of Ephron's name may not have existed in the original Torah. If that was not what you meant to imply, then your entire answer could have been summarized by your last paragraph which admitted that the spelling is clearly different, but that you wouldn't draw any inference from the spelling change despite the context. That would not be a worthy answer for Frank Luke or Akiva (not sure why you mentioned him -- this was Rashi's commentary). –  Bruce James Jun 7 '13 at 16:25
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I was probably thinking of some of the things I've read Akiva do in interpretation. Such as where he draws meanings based on the shape of the letters. And those letters in 23:10,11 may or may not have been used at writing time. We don't know exactly when the matres were first introduced. –  Frank Luke Jun 7 '13 at 17:30
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