When We Read the Story of David and Jonathan

David and Jonathan were the most unlikely friends, whose deep love rose above palace intrugue and King Saul's irrational hatred. The Talmud describes the love of David and Jonathan as a pure one that was not contingent on any factor and therefore blessed to remain forever. The story of David and Jonathan is read in synagogues on Shabbat that is day before Rosh Chodesh, the first of the new moon.

Rosh Chodesh has been, throughout all of Jewish history, a day of distinction. In Temple times, a Musaf (additional) sacrifice was brought on this day; today, special prayers and Hallel are added to the daily service. If Rosh Chodesh and Shabbat coincide, the haftarah of the week is replaced with a special haftarah for Shabbat Rosh Chodesh. Furthermore, if Shabbat is the day preceding Rosh Chodesh, we also replace the regular haftarah with this special reading, called Machar Chodesh (“Tomorrow is [Rosh] Chodesh”) after a phrase in its opening verse.1

The Friendship of David and Jonathan

The story of our haftarah really begins a few chapters earlier. Young David from Beit Lechem had just become a national hero. Singlehandedly he had slain the mighty Goliath, the terrifying giant from the Philistine nation, archenemies of the Jewish people. King Saul had pledged that anyone who would overcome Goliath would receive his daughter’s hand in marriage. David had now won the admiration of the entire people, and soon became Saul’s right-hand man, presiding over all military matters. Then, after a series of events, he also ended up marrying Michal, the younger daughter of Saul.

Prior to all this, the book of Samuel tells us, G‑d had already chosen David as the next king of Israel. Saul had forfeited his position due to his lack of ability to follow Divine instructions, and he knew that his kingdom would not continue for much longer. Now, as David’s popularity grew, Saul began to be increasingly hostile towards him.

Conversely, at the very same time, Jonathan (Yehonatan), eldest son of Saul and the crown prince, forged an incredibly deep friendship with David. Jonathan loved David “like his own soul,” the verse tells us. At this time, Saul had gone public with his grievance towards David. The verse attests that an “evil spirit from G‑d rested upon Saul,” causing him what might be defined as melancholy or depression, and many a time driving him into a literal frenzy of vengeance against David.

David's Life Is in Danger

To make matters more complicated, this “evil spirit” did not haunt the king on a constant basis. There were times when he was free from it and returned to his rational self. Jonathan was determined to dissuade his father from his ridiculous quest to kill David. He beckoned David to go into hiding in a field, and that he would come there the next morning with his father. In this way David could hear for himself what Saul’s true intentions were.

Jonathan was actually successful that morning in convincing his father that his hunt for David was ludicrous. “He has not sinned against you, and his deeds are very good toward you… Why should you sin against innocent blood, to put David to death for no reason?” Saul agreed. He swore then and there to his son that he would not touch David. But, as mentioned, Saul’s melancholy spirit would return to him periodically. It was triggered once again when David led yet another spectacular victory against the Philistines. Saul, forgetting all about his oath, now renewed the effort to chase David down.

Although Saul now gave the impression that he was out to kill David, Jonathan still doubted this fact. His father was a righteous man. If he had taken an oath not to kill David, it was inconceivable that he would now break it. It was true that Saul had once again displayed great hostility to David, once throwing a spear towards him in a way that only just missed him; but even in his state of melancholy, he had never officially confined to Jonathan that he intended once again to kill David. This, argued Jonathan, meant that it was still safe for David to be around the royal palace and not have to go into hiding. David however, was not convinced. He therefore asked Jonathan to conduct the following test.

The Test of Missing David

Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the moth, is observed till today with many elements of a holiday. In those days the observance of Rosh Chodesh was quite impressive: people would relax, or even stop their work schedule, and many would assemble in the Tabernacle. In the king’s palace, it was a time when all the members of the court would gather for the daytime meal. Even if they missed doing so on other days, Rosh Chodesh, like a festival, was different.

David arranged with Jonathan that he, David, would be visibly absent from the meal on the next day, which happened to be Rosh Chodesh. This would be unusual, and so Saul would probably inquire as to the whereabouts of David. Jonathan would give an agreed-upon excuse that David had been summoned home by his older brother for a family get-together. The idea was to see Saul’s reaction. If Saul was bent on killing David, then he would be visibly angry at the fact that David was able to easily slip away and was essentially out of the king’s control.

Jonathan's Sign to David

As they were devising this plan, David and Jonathan went out to the field. Once there, Jonathan pledged to personally inform David of the results of the test. Lastly, Jonathan, in his deep love for David, solemnly made a covenant with him concerning his future reign.

The two agreed that David should hide in the very same place that he had hidden at the time when Saul made the oath not to kill him. If Saul’s anger would flare up, it would surely be dangerous for Jonathan to report back to David in the open. The message would be given in the form of a code.

Jonathan would come to the field within earshot of David, accompanied by a young lad. He would feign practicing his shooting skills with a bow and arrow. He would shoot the arrow, and have the lad run after it. If he would say to the lad, “The arrow is on this side from you”—meaning that he had run too far, and the arrow was closer—this would be the sign that there was no danger and that David could return. If, however, he would call to the lad, “Behold, the arrows are beyond you,” this would mean that David had to flee.

The next day came, and the members of the king’s household were filling their spots around the table. David would usually recline right next the king. Although Jonathan was the king’s son, it was not respectful for a son to casually recline right next to his father. For this reason, David would take the place next to Saul, thus interposing between Jonathan and his father. Now that David was absent, Jonathan would be reclining with his father without anyone dividing them. Jonathan therefore switched places with Avner (Abner), the king’s chief of staff. In this way Avner would sit between Jonathan and his father, and David’s seat would still be conspicuously empty.

On that day Saul said nothing. He assumed that David’s absence was due to his having become tamei (ritually impure). Although they were not partaking of foods for which one would be halachically required to be tahor (pure), it was nevertheless a common practice by many to maintain a standard of taharah concerning food on a continuous basis, unless it was impossible otherwise.2

Saul's Rage

On the next day David was absent again. This time Saul inquired as to David’s whereabouts, and Jonathan repeated the agreed-upon excuse of a family get-together that David had to attend. Saul flew into a rage."You son of a straying woman deserving of punishment!” he shouted. What he meant was that Jonathan, in his unfaithfulness to him, had acted like a woman gone astray with a man other than her husband. Saul continued to vociferate: “Do I not know that you choose the son of Jesse, to your shame and to the shame of your mother’s nakedness?” This allegiance that Jonathan portrayed to his father’s enemy was an embarrassment both for him and for his mother. People would say that Saul’s wife must have had him with another man, for how could Jonathan possibly be Saul’s son if he aligned himself with his father’s enemies?…

Saul concluded by ordering Jonathan to fetch David and bring him to the palace, for he was deserving of death. Jonathan stood his ground and challenged his father once again: “Why should he be put to death? What has he done?” In response, Saul lifted his spear in a gesture as if to smite Jonathan. Angry and mortified for himself and for David, Jonathan left the table.

The Final Parting

The next morning, as agreed upon, Jonathan went out to the field accompanied by a young lad. He shot the arrow, and, as the lad ran to get it, he called out: “Isn’t the arrow beyond you?” This was a clear indication to David that the situation was not good. After Jonathan quickly sent the lad home, David came out, falling and bowing to Jonathan three times. They kissed one another and cried. Jonathan bid David farewell and reminded him of the covenant they had struck with one another. It was a covenant to which G‑d was witness, one that would bind both themselves and their descendants forever.