The portion of Chayei Sarah is all about continuity. Abraham has grown old, and the burning question that occupies his mind is the continuation of his family and legacy. Abraham and Sarah’s only son, Isaac, is not married yet. Our Parshah gives us the detailed account of the search and eventual finding of Isaac’s wife, Rebecca.

The haftarah carries a similar theme. King David had been handpicked by G‑d to establish the Jewish kingdom. G‑d had promised him that Jewish kings for all time would be of his descent. As David had many sons, there was going to be a need to clarify who would be the heir to David’s throne. Earlier in his life, David had made it clear that it was Solomon, the son of his wife Bathsheba, who would take over the kingdom after him.

But David had grown old and weak, and was no longer involved in matters of state as he once had been. Taking advantage of this situation, David’s oldest living son, Adonijah (Adoniyahu), thought it was a good time to self proclaim himself as the next king. He was handsome and evidently popular, while Solomon was a mere twelve years of age.1 He went about parading himself with great pomp around the kingdom. He threw a large party and invited a number of powerful and influential people whom he knew would support his cause.

Getting news of this, the prophet Nathan came to Bathsheba and encouraged her to go to the king and implore him to do something. Nathan went in after her, and they both reminded David of his promise and asked him to intervene. The old king reaffirmed his oath that Solomon would be his heir. In the verses following the conclusion of the haftarah, David orders that Solomon be crowned and officially proclaimed as king during his lifetime.

David and Abishag

In the beginning of the haftarah we read how in his old age King David suffered from constant cold. Even many layers of clothing could not warm him. The solution that was effective was bringing in a very beautiful and never-married girl who would serve as the king’s nurse, warming him with physical body heat. Abishag the Shunammite was the girl found fit for this, and she in turn served the king until his death. It is evident from the narrative that the king spent his time with her alone.2

It is important to note that the kind of solution found in Abishag for King David is not usually permitted under Jewish law. It is forbidden for a man to be alone with a woman, even if potentially they are permitted—or even planning—to get married. This is to say nothing of intimate physical contact.

Moreover, it is particularly interesting that it was actually King David himself who had enacted this prohibition. Biblically, it is forbidden to be in seclusion or to have intimate contact with someone one is prohibited to marry. It was David and his court who extended this to seclusion even with someone who one may potentially marry.3 How then could David do this?

The answer that automatically comes to mind is that this was a case of mortal danger, in which most Torah prohibitions are waived. The commentaries explain that it was understood that only someone with the beauty and virginity of Abishag would be able to provide adequate warmth to the king.4 The cold was a hazard to David’s health, and there was no other choice.

This, however, requires further clarification. There are some exceptions when even in a case of mortal danger we do not instruct the violation of certain prohibitions. One such an example is in the following law:

“If someone becomes attracted to a woman, and is lovesick to the extent that he is in danger of dying, although the physicians say he has no remedy except engaging in sexual relations with her, he should be allowed to die rather than engage in sexual relations with her. This applies even if she is unmarried. He is even not to be given instructions to speak to her in private behind a fence. Rather, he should die rather than be given instructions to speak to her behind a fence. These restrictions were instituted so that Jewish women would not be regarded capriciously, and to prevent these matters from ultimately leading to promiscuity.”5

The reason, then, why it was permitted for King David to have Abishag warm him was because the healing to him was the warmth Abishag provided, and it did not involve any motive of a different nature. Since it was a serious health concern, the sages permitted this to him.6

However, from the narrative in the Talmud7 a different story emerges. The Talmud seems to understand that even though it was only Abishag who could warm the king, nevertheless if David married Abishag the same therapeutic results could have been achieved. Moreover, the Talmud states that Abishag actually asked the king to marry her. David declined the request because he had already married eighteen wives—the limit on how many wives the Torah allows a king to marry. The dilemma that faced the rabbinate at the time, then, was this:

The simple solution here would be for David to divorce one of his wives, marry Abishag, and problem solved. Divorce, however, is a sad and terrible thing, regardless of the situation. In view of the fact that this was a case of mortal danger, the sages preferred to waive the “prohibition of seclusion” that they had enacted, rather than having David divorce one of his wives.8 (As mentioned above, this was permitted in the first place because the motive was only the therapeutic warmth, and not physical attraction.)

The supporters of Adoniyahu

The verses identify the key supporters and opposers of the Adonijah conspiracy. Adonijah was backed by Joab (Yoav), David’s general, and Abiathar (Evyatar), the high priest. These men had been devoted to David throughout his entire reign. Why did they join Adonijah, knowing that this was against David’s instructions?

In the past, Joab had taken the law into his own hands in killing a number of individuals who had betrayed David. One of these was David’s son Absalom, who had rebelled against his father. These actions were all against David’s wishes. Joab suspected that David would instruct his heir to punish him for this (which is what actually occurred). By supporting Adonijah, Joab assumed he would escape any such eventual consequence.

Abiathar had an agenda of his own. His ancestor, Eli the high priest, had been told by G‑d that eventually the high priesthood would leave his household. This was because his sons had not conducted themselves as befitting such a position. This had actually come to pass in Abiathar’s time: during Absalom’s rebellion he had attempted to seek counsel of G‑d via the Urim Vetumim,9 but had failed. With this he knew that his time as high priest was up. Since then, it was his colleague Tzadok whom David had recognised as the worthy high priest. Finding it difficult to concede to this, Abiathar turned to supporting Adonijah; this way, the future king might favor him and allow him to keep his position.

The Cause for Adonijah’s behavior

With regard to Adonijah, the verse states: “His father had not angered him all his days, saying, ‘Why have you done so?’ And he too was of very handsome appearance, and she bore him after Absalom.” It is to this that the verse accredits Adonijah’s presumptuous character.

Abarbanel, in his commentary to this verse, explains that Adonijah had not actually done wrong in his youth. He was, however, a royal prince and very good looking. His mother had reared him in the same way as she had her older son, Absalom: in a culture of pride and self-worth. The verse mentions these things, pride and lack of discipline, as the cause for Adonijah’s actions. Even though had done nothing wrong, it was the lack of discipline and humility in his youth which ultimately led to this situation.

The lesson of this for generations to come is self-evident.