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Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Heartbreak of Divorce — BT Sanhedrin 22a (part 2) — #95

Rav Shaman bar Abba said, “Come and see how difficult is divorce, for King David was permitted to seclude himself [with Avishag] but he was not permitted to divorce.” R. Eliezer said, “Whenever a man divorces his first wife, even the altar [of the Temple] sheds tears for him, as it says, And this you do, as well: You cover the altar of Adonai with tears, weeping and moaning so that [God] refuses to regard the offering any more and to accept what you offer (Malachi 2:13). And it is written, But you ask, ‘Because of what?’ Because Adonai is a witness between you and the wife of your youth with whom you have broken faith, though she is your partner and covenanted spouse (Malachi 2:14).” R. Yochanan—and some say R. Eliezer—said, “One’s wife dies only if he is unable to pay his debts, as it is said, Let your bed [i.e., wife] be taken from under you when you have no money to pay (Proverbs 22:27).” And R. Yochanan said, “Any man whose first wife dies, it is as if the Temple were destroyed in his lifetime, as it is said, O mortal, I am about to take away the delight of your eyes through pestilence, but you shall not lament or weep or let your tears flow (Ezekiel 24:16). And it is said, And I spoke to the people in the morning, and my wife died in the evening (Ezekiel 24:18). And [shortly thereafter] it is written, I am going to desecrate My Sanctuary, your pride and glory, the delight of your eyes [and the desire of the your heart]…(Ezekiel 24:21)

In TMT #94, we noted the Rabbis’ interpretative machinations to explain King David’s relationship with Avishag, the young Shunammite woman, who was brought to “warm his bed”  toward the end of his life (1 Kings 1:1–4). Obviously, David’s relationship with Avishag raises many questions, chief among them: Was the relationship sexual? Did David marry Avishag and, if so, was the marriage consummated? The Bible confirms neither their intimacy nor whether they married, but Solomon’s response to Adonijah’s request to marry her suggests David did wed Avishag (see TMT #94 for detailed explanation). The Rabbis claim David abstained from sex with Avishag not because he was impotent (quite to the contrary!), but rather out of faithful adherence to Torah’s limitation as to how many wives a king may take. That he could have divorced one of his wives and married Avishag inspires a discussion of the heartbreak of divorce, which in turn leads to comments on the other way a first marriage might end: if the wife dies.

Rav Shaman bar Abba attempts to reconcile the Bible’s problematic assertion that David shared a bed with Avishag with the Rabbis’ assertion that David never married her, given that by divorcing one of his wives, David could have obeyed the rabbinic prohibition concerning yichud (secluding himself with a woman he is not permitted to marry, BT Kiddushin 80b). This would allow him to marry Avishag. Rav Shaman’s comment is a classic example of rabbinic spin: David already had dispensation (from whom?) to seclude himself with Avishag so he would not need to divorce one of his eighteen wives (the maximum permitted an Israelite king) in order to marry her. One might reasonably respond that with eighteen wives David hardly needed another! Why is there a need for a special dispensation? If David so desired Avishag, divorcing one of his wives was an option. To counter this response, R. Eliezer declares that divorce so saddens God that the very “altar sheds tears for him.” R. Eliezer quotes verses from Malachi to support his claim. There are several problems here, beginning with R. Eliezer’s assertion that the altar sheds tears “for him.” For him? Men had exclusive power to divorce their wives. While the ketubah offered women a measure of insurance, divorce often left them impoverished, unsupported, and socially ostracized. Why doesn’t the altar shed tears for her as well? Further, while the verses from Malachi seem to fit R. Eliezer's claim about God’s attitude toward divorce, in their biblical context they concern intermarriage—an entirely different scenario. Could R. Eliezer’s comment be construed as a   condemnation of divorce?

R. Eliezer’s comment inspires two more about another way a first marriage could end: through the death of the wife. These comments seem entirely out of place. Perhaps they are here because the first is also ascribed to R. Eliezer.  Its author finds a verse in Proverbs that supports his claim that a man’s wife dies only because he is unable to pay his debts. The claim goes unexplained and unchallenged, but one wonders if the “debt” referenced is her conjugal rights. This is followed by a comment attributed solely to R. Yochanan that a man experiences the loss of his first wife as a catastrophe comparable to the destruction of the Temple: his world crumbles. Within six verses, Ezekiel mentions “delight of your eyes,” “my wife died,” and “desecration of [God’s] Sanctuary,” which R. Yochanan weaves together to say that marriage is a peak life experience and therefore loss of a partner is a crushing experience. It would appear that the conversation has strayed from the topic of David’s relationship with Avishag to a generalized dirge on divorce.


  1. Deuteronomy 24:1–4) permits a man to divorce his wife for any (or no) reason. Given how emotionally difficult divorce is for the couple, their families and friends, and the community, does this passage’s claim that “the altar weeps” provide comfort or impose pain for a couple undergoing a divorce? How does “the altar weeps for him” color things?
  2. As noted above, R. Eliezer’s assertion that God is deeply grieved by divorce may be mentioned here to justify King David’s cohabiting with Avishag without first divorcing one of his wives and marrying her. Nonetheless, the altar analogy asserts that our sadness at divorce is matched by God’s. How might this impact peoples attitudes toward the propriety of divorce?
  3. How does ascribing human feelings to God affect your own understanding of the Divine?