This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Preparing for a Prophet*

p align="JUSTIFY">The prophet Elisha was an itinerant miracle-worker who wandered about the Galilee, seeking opportunities to assist those in need. One of the persons who benefited most from his acts of supernatural kindness was an anonymous woman from Shunem who offered hospitality to the prophet, and eventually persuaded her husband to build Elisha a room of his own in their small house.

The Shunamite woman would later be rewarded for her kindness, as Elisha blessed her with a cure for her prolonged childlessness; and later succeeded in restoring her son to life after he had been given up for dead.

The rabbis of the Talmud displayed a surprising interest in the technical details related to building Elisha's guest-room. A dispute arose between Rav and Samuel, two of the foremost Babylonian sages of the third century concerning the precise nature of the renovations that were introduced into the hosts' humble home.

One rabbi claimed that the project consisted of adding a wall to an existing hallway, thereby dividing it into two separate chambres.

The other rabbi insisted that there had been a walled area on top of the house, to which the hosts added a roof, thereby providing Elisha with a sort of penthouse.

If we take the trouble to read the biblical passage that they are expounding (2 Kings 4:10), then the dispute strikes us as most peculiar. After all, the Hebrew text is speaking quite clearly about the "attic of a wall," and it is seem reasonable to assume that such a structure contained both walls and a roof! And yet the Talmud understands that the argument between the rabbis was polarized: Either Mr. Shunamite built only a wall, or only a roof.

Even if we allow that the wording of the biblical verse is sufficiently ambiguous to tolerate either interpretation (after all, Hebrew employs similar roots to designate both a wall and a ceiling), it is still difficult to account for why the Talmud took such an intense interest in this particular issue. At the most, we seem to be dealing with an academic controversy over an obscure question of archeology. On other occasions, the rabbis were accustomed to dismiss such questions with the expression "What happened, happened!" implying that we should not be wasting our precious time on a matter that is of no practical relevance to us today.

Rabbi Solomon Eidels, the "Maharsha" (16th -17th centuries) was willing to entertain the idea that the passage cried out for explanation. However, he objected to the Talmud's assumption that the explanations ascribed to Rav and Samuel were mutually exclusive. What prevents us from assuming that in constructing Elisha's guest-room, the Shunamite couple added a roof and a wall to the attic.

In the end, Maharsha reasons that this kind of renovation could not work in your average attic, since once you have made allowances for the space occupied by the staircase, there would not remain enough area for two usable rooms.

Nevertheless, the talmudic discussion still appeared too mundane and prosaic to satisfy some of the other traditional commentators. An objection along these lines was registered by Rabbi Jacob Ibn Habib, the sixteenth-century compiler of the 'Ein Ya'akov, the definitive anthology of Aggadah (non-legal material) from the Talmud.

In his commentary to the relevant passage, Rabbi Jacob lamented: "It would be useful to know what issue of principle underlay Rav and Samuel's disagreement. For what practical difference could it make whether they added a roof to the attic, or whether there was a hallway? It is unacceptable to suppose that the rabbis were simply concerned with explaining the meanings of the words."

For a commentator wannabe like myself, this comes across as a personal challenge to supply a symbolic interpretation of the dispute between Rav and Samuel. One possibility that suggests itself is that they might have been proposing alternative paradigms for the ideal of a "holy man." The interpretation that focuses on the construction of a wall wishes to emphasize the "vertical" dimension of Elisha's sanctity, thereby demonstrating that it was his relationship to his Creator that was his foremost priority. Conversely, the rabbi who accentuated the "horizontal" building of a roof was stating thereby that holiness has more to do with how the righteous prophet interacted with the society around him.

Rabbi Jacob Ibn Habib offered his own attempt at a scenario, one that has practical implications for the setting of ethical priorities.

In his reading of the story, both of the rabbis concerned were in agreement that the fundamental objectives of the Shumanite woman and her husband was to provide Elisha with a modest habitation that would allow them to partake of proximity to the prophet's holiness.

Where the rabbis disagreed, however, was in determining at what stage the guest's nearness starts to infringe on their privacy.

Viewed from this perspective, the rabbi who claimed that the Shunamites divided their own living space in order to provide living quarters for their visitor was, in reality, making a point about the importance of hospitality as a religious value. For the sake of a guest, one should be prepared to make substantial sacrifices; especially if, as a consequence, the hosts will be privileged to bask in the aura of a great saint.

On the other hand (argues Rabbi Ibn Habib), the rabbi who insisted that Elisha dwelled in an attic was striking a blow for privacy. Hospitality, he implies, is normally a fine virtue, but it must be weighed against other considerations. It should not be stretched to such extremes that it prevents the hosts and the guests from conducting their lives within acceptable bounds of modesty and discretion.

Esteemed readers, I trust you to derive your own edifying interpretation from the Bible story and its talmudic discussion.

The important thing is to realize that, from a Jewish perspective, even the most humdrum of home renovation projects can serve as an opportunity for deriving moral and spiritual lessons.

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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free PressJune 14, 2001, p. 10.