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Thursday, December 7, 2017

Women: People or Chattel — BT Sanhedrin 22a (part 1) — #94

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.


  1. 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)
  2. 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?
  3. How should we read and teach texts such as this, that presume women are possessions and commodities?

Friday, December 1, 2017

How Much May I Give? — BT Ketubot 50a — #93

R. Ilai said, “The sages in Usha instituted that one who gives generously to charity [lit.: “scatters” or “squanders”] should give no more than one-fifth of their wealth.” It is similarly taught [in a baraita]: One who gives generously should not give more than one-fifth [of his income] lest he come to need [assistance from other] people. It once happened that an individual sought to dispense [in excess of one-fifth of their wealth to charity] but his colleague did not let him. Who was [his friend]? R. Yeshevav. But others say that R. Yeshevav [was the one who wanted to give away more than one-fifth of his wealth] but his colleague did not let him. Who was the friend? R. Akiba. Rav Nachman, and some say Rav Acha bar Yaakov, said, “What verse [teaches the principle of one-fifth]? Of all that You give me, I will surely give one-tenth (aser a’asrenu) of it to You (Genesis 28:22).” But the second tenth is not equivalent to the first tenth. Rav Ashi said, “[Since Torah says,] I will surely give one-tenth of it, [this implies] that the second tenth is equal to the first tenth.”

In America, the Tuesday following Thanksgiving has come to be known as “Giving Tuesday,” perhaps as a counterbalance to the consumer frenzy of Black Friday and Cyber Monday. With that in mind, this week we learn a text about giving which imparts a surprising lesson: There is a limit to how much tzedakah a person should give. 

To fully appreciate this text, it is helpful to know several things. First, the Rabbis deemed tzedakah—donations of money, property, or time—a mitzvah, a commandment incumbent upon all Jews. Second, the generally accepted minimum one should donate to tzedakah is one-tenth of one’s net income (these days, after taxes)—not 10% of one’s total wealth. This fraction is derived from the biblical institution of tithing, which means “tenth.” The text above addresses those who wish to give over and beyond the obligatory tenth. Elsewhere, we learn that those who cannot afford one-tenth should give one-third of a shekel each year. The Rabbis understood that giving to others preserves and promotes the dignity of the giver. Third, while there were certainly wealthy people and poor people in the ancient world, the disparities in wealth we find today are historically unprecedented. Notwithstanding, later commentators noted that while the one-fifth cap applies to ordinary people, those with greater means may, if they choose, exceed it.

In the aftermath of the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, the sages coalesced and organized themselves under the leadership of Rabban Yochanan b. Zakkai in Yavne, a small settlement north of Jerusalem, where the rabbinic tradition took root and blossomed. Following the Bar Kokhba rebellion of 135 CE, the rabbis removed to Usha in the Galilee. In truth, they moved frequently, returning to Yavne, back to Usha, then to Shefaram, Bet She’arim, and finally Tzippori. It is interesting to have a small window onto one of the periods of Usha.

R. Ilai tells us that the Sages of Usha, during the early rabbinic period set a cap on how much of one’s income one should donate to tzedakah. The Talmud bolsters R. Ilai’s report with a baraita from the era of the Mishnah that conveys the same rule: The limit is twenty percent. This refers to one’s earnings in any given year, not one’s overall wealth. Its rationale: Giving away too much of your income could compel you to require assistance from others. The goal of giving is to assure that everyone has sufficient sustenance. Giving so much that you now require tzedakah from others defeats that goal. The Gemara immediately cites an instance of someone who attempted to exceed the upper limit but was stopped by a friend. This anecdote confirms the broad acceptance of the one-fifth rule. As first reported, R. Yeshevav stopped the would-be philanthropist, but others heard the story told differently: R. Yeshevav was the person who attempted to exceed the one-fifth limit and R. Akiba was the friend who stopped him. The anecdote roots the rule in the era of the Mishnah and carries the imprimatur of no less than R. Akiba.

The Gemara asks for a biblical source for the rule, which is supplied by Rav Nachman (or, according to others, Rav Acha bar Yaakov). In Genesis 28:22, Jacob, fleeing his brother Esau, lies down for the night and dreams of a ramp (or ladder) leading to heaven. God appears to him in the dream and extends the promise made to Abraham and Isaac that his offspring shall be as numerous as the dust of the earth and shall inherit the Land of Israel. When he awakens, Jacob promises he will “surely give one-tenth (or: surely set aside a tithe) for You” of all God gives him. The Hebrew repeats the verb “tithe,” from which the Rabbis deduce that Jacob promised one-tenth twice. Jacob’s promise thereby sets the upper bound of two-tenths, or twenty percent. This also establishes the Jewish principle that giving tzedakah is, in effect, returning a portion of what God has given by channeling it to someone God wishes to receive it. The Rabbis wonder: How is this to be calculated? If I give one-tenth and then calculate the second tenth on the basis of what remains, that would be 10% of the remaining 90%, which is 9% (for a total of 19%). No, Rav Ashi tell us, this is not correct; when Torah says one-tenth of it, we infer that the first and second tenths are equal to one another.


  1. The purpose of tzedakah is to benefit people lacking sufficient means for shelter, food, and clothing. Do you think contributions to art museums and the symphony qualify to be considered tzedakah? Medical research and organizations that pursue social justice? Is there a difference between charity and tzedakah?
  2. In addition to preventing people from becoming impoverished and needing tzedakah themselves, what other reasons might there be to set a one-fifth-of-income cap on giving?
  3. How much of your yearly income do you or your family contribute to charities that address the needs of the poor?