MISHNAH: No one may ride [the king’s] horse, sit on his throne, or make use of his scepter; no one may see him when his hair is being cut, when he is naked, or when he is bathing, for it is written, You shall surely set over yourselves a king (Deuteronomy 17:15)—that is, his awe shall be “over you.”
GEMARA: R. Yaakov said in R. Yochanan’s name, “What is Avishag? Avishag [the Shunammite woman] was permitted to Solomon [in marriage] but not to Adonijah. She was permitted to Solomon because he was a king and a king may make use of the king's scepter. But she was forbidden to Adonijah because he was a commoner. What was Avishag [to David]? It is written: King David was now old, advanced in years, etc. (1 Kings 1:1). And it is written: His courtiers said to him, “Let a young virgin be sought, etc. (1 Kings 1:2). Further it is written, So they looked for a beautiful girl, etc. (1 Kings 1:3) and it is written, The girl [Avishag] was exceedingly beautiful. She became the king’s attendant and waited upon him (1 Kings 1:4).” She said, “Let us marry.” [David] said to her, “You are forbidden to me.” She said to him, “When courage fails the thief, he becomes virtuous.” Then he said to [his servants], “Summon Batsheva.” It is written: So Batsheva went to the king in the chamber (1 Kings 1:15). Rav Yehudah said in Rav's name, “On that occasion, Batsheva dried herself thirteen times.”
Rabbinic legislation and discussion of women has justifiably come under much scrutiny and criticism. Today, it is part of a larger reconsideration of how women are treated in every culture and religion, indeed every human institution. Recent revelations of sexual harassment, abuse, and assault, and concomitant failures to protect women, will hopefully lead to positive change.
Deuteronomy states that if the Israelites elect to have a king rule over them, the king may not amass excess wealth and shall not have many wives (Deuteronomy 17:14-17). This could be a less than subtle criticism of Solomon, who took more than 700 wives. How many is “many wives?” Deuteronomy does not specify an upper bound, so the Rabbis derive it from traditions concerning King David: According to 1 Chronicles chapter 3, King David had seven wives, but oral tradition holds he had a total of eighteen wives and concubines. Hence, the Rabbis conclude that the “many wives” limit in Deuteronomy means eighteen. At the time Avishag was brought to keep David warm (read more here), he had reached the limit of eighteen wives.
The mishnah creates a sense of reverence and awe for the king by stipulating that no one may use his possessions. Only one who assumes the throne may use the king’s possessions; anyone else is considered to have committed a treacherous misappropriation and is presumed to have pretensions to claim the throne. To prevent such misappropriation, it was customary in the ancient world to destroy the king’s possessions, including his horse and bed, when he died. Mishnah further notes that it is forbidden to observe the king engaged in private, personal acts that make him appear “merely human” and thereby less awe-inspiring.
The Gemara recognizes this principle applies to the king’s wives, as well, who are deemed royal chattel. In the ancient world, when a king assumed the throne other than by inheriting it from his father, he took possession of the king’s wives and harem and routinely had intercourse with each one to signify his claim to the throne. The Rabbis wonder: When Solomon became king, what happened to Avishag, the nubile young woman selected by David’s courtiers to serve as his bed-warmer, as recounted in 1 Kings chapter 1. After David died, the Gemara asks: Could Solomon have legally married Avishag? The answer is yes. This means David had not married Avishag because a son may not marry his father’s wife (Leviticus 18:8). As noted, a king may take possession of the property of the previous king, including his wives and harem. Avishag could not have married Solomon’s older half-brother and rival to the throne, Adonijah, because to do so would have signaled Adonijah’s intent to seize the throne. Indeed, according to 1 Kings chapter 2, after Adonijah conceded that Solomon would succeed David, he requested Avishag as his wife. To Solomon, this was tantamount to claiming the throne and he had Adonijah executed. The Tana”kh claims (1 Kings 1:1-4) that King David did not have sex with Avishag. The Gemara asserts that he did not marry her, all of which seems to suggest that David’s strength and virility had waned.
The Gemara redeems David’s manhood with a strange and problematic aggadah: Avishag asked David to marry her but he declined because he had reached his allotted eighteen wives—he adhered to the halakhic limit. Avishag, however, mockingly accused David of refusing to marry her because he was too old to consummate the relationship. In response, David summoned Batsheva (who, in fact, walked in on the scene of David and Avishag together because she came to plead Solomon’s case for the throne—see 1 Kings 1:11-27) and had intercourse with her thirteen consecutive times (she dries herself after each instance), proving his virility. (The number thirteen seems to be derived from the number of words in 1 Kings 1:15.) Hence, it was David’s virtue rather than impotence that prevented him from marrying Avishag.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
- R. Yaakov asks, “What is Avishag?” meaning, “What was her status?” What question would you have asked about Avishag and how would you have answered it? (For background: 1 Kings 1:1–4)
- Whether or not David was adhering to the halakhic limit to the number of wives an Israelite king may take, and whether or not he was impotent, how does he treat both Avishag and Batsheva? What message is conveyed by both the biblical story and the Talmudic aggadah about women?
- How should we read and teach texts such as this, that presume women are possessions and commodities?