Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Va-Yera 5763/ October 26, 2002

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
Prepared for Internet Publication by the Center for IT & IS Staff at Bar-Ilan University.
Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,

gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il


210 Shemesh
Parashat Va-Yera 5763/ October 26, 2002

"In Praise of Elisha"

Dr. Yael Shemesh
Department of Bible

II Kings contains sixteen wondrous stories about the man of G-d, Elisha son of Shaphat. According to the picture that emerges from these stories, the most salient characteristic of Elijah's successor was his supernatural powers with which he was endowed and by which he wrought miracles, especially miraculous deliverance (as suits his name - El-Yisha, "the Lord shall deliver"). He healed the water of the spring at Jericho (II Kings 2:19-22); fed a hundred disciples of the prophets from a small quantity of food that he had received as a personal present (4:42-44); healed Naaman the Aramean of leprosy (ch. 5); with supernatural vision saw the ambushes that the Arameans were setting up in Israel's territory and "time and again" alerted the king of Israel about them (6:8-10); and so on and so forth.
These stories, which show admiration of Elisha, can be seen as the most ancient example in Israelite literature of the genre of hagiography.[1] This genre was used in the Mishnah and Gemara to shape the figures of miracle-workers and pietists like Honi the Circle-drawer and Rabbi Haninah ben Dosa,[2] it figures massively in later works such as Shivhei he-Ari (In Praise of R. Isaac Luria) and Shivhei ha-Besht (In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov), it appears in the literature on saints that developed in the Moroccan Jewish community,[3] and it appears in the extensive literature on saints that continues to develop today, especially the literature surrounding the figure of the Lubavitcher Rebbe,[4] which took a marked upswing after his death.
The Haftarah chosen for Parashat Va-Yera comes from chapter 4 of II Kings, a passage which includes, among other things, the story of the birth of the Shunamite's son and his resurrection.[5] The story has two main scenes - the miraculous birth (vv. 8-17) and the miracle of bringing the child back to life (vv. 18-37).

The Miraculous Birth
The story opens with Elisha visiting the home of a wealthy, respectable woman from Shunem.[6] The one-time hospitality was so successful that we are told immediately thereafter how it became a regular practice: "And whenever he passed by, he would stop there for a meal" (v. 8). The Shunamite, out of her admiration for Elisha, whom she called a "holy man of G-d," convinced her husband to build him a room in the attic of their house to provide him greater comfort and privacy (v. 10). Elisha, moved by the Shunamite woman's treatment of him, wished to return her the kindness and, initially, offered her assistance on the level of natural powers - lobbying on her behalf with the authorities, with whom he has connections: "Can we speak in your behalf to the king or to the army commander?" (v. 13). The Shunamite, who did not want to receive favors for the hospitality she gave the man of G-d, made it clear to him that she lacked nothing and expected no compensation from him: "I live among my own people" (ibid.). Elisha remained intent on doing something for the woman, and when his servant Gehazi informed him that "she has no son, and her husband is old" (v. 14), he decided to reward the Shunamite woman by supernatural means, miraculously enabling her give birth.
This scene sets the connection between the weekly Torah reading and the Haftarah portion: Abraham and Sarah received annunciation of a son in the wake of the generous hospitality they showed messengers of G-d (Gen. 18:2-15; 21:1-7); and the Shunamite received annunciation of a son due to the generous hospitality she gave Elisha. Both Abraham and Sarah, as well as the Shunamite reacted with incredulity to the announcement that they would have a son (Gen. 17:17, 18:12; II Kings 4:16). Both Abraham and Sarah, as well as the Shunamite woman's husband, were advanced in years when they were told they would have a son (Gen. 18:11-12; II Kings 4:14). In addition to the plot being analogous, the language is also analogous: Sarah laughs to herself, "... with my husband so old" (Gen. 18:12), and Gehazi says to Elisha, "and her husband is old" (II Kings 4:14; the linguistic parallel is stronger in the Hebrew: va-adoni zaken and ve-ishah zaken). Also, the messenger of G-d tells Abraham, "I will return to you next year, and your wife Sarah shall have a son," and similarly Elisha says to the Shunamite, "At this season next year, you will be embracing a son" (II Kings 4:16), again using the identical Hebrew expression.
These similarities make all the more poignant the differences between the account of the birth of the Shunamite's son and other birth stories in Scripture, including that of Isaac. In all the other biblical stories of a miraculous birth, it is the Lord who works the miracle.[7] The story at hand is the only one in which the miracle is wrought by a human being. This uniqueness is reflected in Midrash Tehillim (Shoher Tov) on Psalm 78, par. 5:
There are three keys that the Holy One, blessed be He, did not entrust to an emissary: the key to the womb, as it is said, "The Lord opened her womb" (Gen. 29:31)... And when the Holy One, blessed be He, so desired, he gave them to the righteous, giving the key to barrenness to Elisha, as it is said, "At this season next year, you will be embracing a son" (II Kings 4:16).[8]
Another difference is that in all the other biblical stories of miraculous birth there is an underlying notion that sons who are born as a gift from G-d have a special destiny as central figures in the history of the Jewish people: Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Samson and Samuel. The son of the Shunamite, in contrast, is of no consequence in and of himself. He was not destined for any role in the life of the nation, and his name is not even mentioned. The story does not focus around him, rather it is Elisha, the wonder-working man of G-d who brings about the miraculous birth and whose praise is the object of the story.

The Miracle of Restoring the Child to Life
In the second scene we learn that Elisha not only brought about the miracle of the birth, but also gave the child life anew several years later. The story opens with the child going out to the fields to see his father and the harvesters at work. Suddenly his head hurt, apparently due to sunstroke.[9] At his father's command he was returned to his mother, where he died on her lap. The Shunamite understood that only through intervention by the man of G-d who was responsible for the birth of her son could he be restored to life, and so she hurried off to Elisha, who was staying on Mount Carmel, over twenty kilometers away from Shunem. Before setting out, however, she laid her dead son down on the bed of the man of G-d, as it turns out for two reasons: 1) She did not want anyone who comes to the house to discover the dead body of her son, feeling that as long as others thought the child alive there was a chance of restoring him to life, but the minute his dead body were to be discovered and her close friends and relations begin to mourn for him, then the fact of his death would be sealed; even worse, she feared they might bury him before she had time to return. 2) She believed that the holy spirit of the prophet, that also imbues the objects with which he comes into contact,[10] would protect and safeguard her son, preventing the body from beginning to decay.
The Shunamite did not tell Elisha explicitly that her son had died, but, through her reproachful question, "Did I ask my lord for a son? Didn't I say: ‘Don't mislead me'?" (II Kings 4:28) intimated that the distress which caused her to come to him concerned her son. Elisha handed his staff to Gehazi and instructed him to rush to the home of the Shunamite and place the staff on the lad's face. He was guided by the same way of thinking that led the Shunamite to lay her son out on Elisha's bed - that the objects belonging to saints absorb the vitality and sanctity of their owners and that therefore miracles can be wrought with them. However, this attempt at restoring the child's life failed, just as the Shunamite had expected, for even after Gehazi had been dispatched, she insisted that Elisha come along with her (v. 30), but the question is how did he come?
The Midrash attributes Gehazi's failure to the fact that he did not believe in resurrection of the dead and did not keep to his master's instruction not to delay en route; rather, he answered anyone he met along the way jestingly, saying that he was going to resurrect the dead (Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 10.2). By the plain sense of the text, however, Gehazi did precisely as Elisha commanded him. Modern research tends increasingly to view this story as critical of Elisha,[11] one of the criticisms being that he showed lack of understanding, believing that the miracle of restoring life could be wrought by someone else sent on his behalf.
For reasons which this is not the place to detail, I do not share the view that the story aims at criticizing Elisha. As for Gehazi's failure to bring the boy back to life, I think another explanation can be given. As mentioned above, the Shunamite made it clear to Elisha that the reason she had come to him concerned her son, but she was careful not to say explicitly that the boy had died. Once again she was basing her actions on her feeling that if she uttered these words, that would make the child's death real and dash any hope of restoring him to life. Elisha apparently thought that the child was ill or had fainted, and therefore it sufficed to send his messenger, equipped with his staff, to heal the boy.
Retrospectively, Gehazi's failure makes Elisha's success all the more glorious, proving to all that only the holy man of G-d can perform the impossible. It was not until he entered his room in the Shunamite's house that Elisha realized the child was dead and that the miracle required of him was to bring him back to life and not simply heal him. His surprise when he encountered these new facts is well expressed in Scripture by the word ve-hinneh, "and behold" (the New JPS Translation misses this nuance), often used in Scripture to indicate the vantage point of the hero:[12] "Elisha came into the house, and [this is what he saw:] there was the boy [ve-hinneh ha-na'ar], laid out dead on his couch" (v. 32). At that point Elisha began a valiant struggle for the child's life. Combining prayer to the Lord with intensive and strenuous effort on his part, consisting mainly of bodily contact with boy's lifeless form, "giving the boy life in his limbs from the life in the limbs of Elisha" (Ralbag's commentary on verse 34), he succeeded in working the miracle of wondrously restoring the boy to life.
The obvious comparison to the miracle of resurrection which Elisha wrought is the story in I Kings 17:17-24 of Elijah miraculously bringing back to life the son of the widow from Sidon, in whose house he was living. The points of similarity are numerous: in both stories the one who dies is the son of a woman who has given hospitality to the man of G-d in her house; the mother blames the man of G-d for the tragedy she has suffered (the one, of bringing on the tragedy presumably because his living in the house caused greater Divine providence over the house and in this manner "recalled her sin"; the other, of bringing about a miraculous birth of a son who, retrospectively, it appears was not destined to survive); the man of G-d closes himself in the attic with the dead child's body, and through a combination of prayer to G-d and physical actions succeeds in bringing the boy back to life; the child is handed to his overwrought mother, who overwhelmed by the great miracle, faints.
More interesting, however, are the differences between these two stories of resurrection. Elijah was living in the house of the widow when the child died, so that he was able to begin efforts to revive him at once. Elisha, on the other hand, was more than 20 kilometers away when the Shunamite woman's son died. Thus many long hours elapsed from the moment the child died until the time Elisha attempted to restore his life. Of course this makes the miracle all the greater, and further aggrandizes Elisha as a miracle-worker. In the narrative involving Elijah the emphasis is on G-d's intervention. The words of prayer uttered by Elijah are relayed as direct speech. The prophet's physical endeavors, in contrast, are not detailed; all that is said is, "Then he stretched out over the child three times" (v. 21). In the narrative involving Elisha, on the other hand, the emphasis is on Elisha, not on G-d, and the physical endeavors of the man of G-d are described in full detail: "Then he mounted [the bed] and placed himself over the child. He put his mouth on its mouth, his eyes on its eyes, and his hands on its hands, as he bent over it. And the body of the child became warm. He stepped down, walked once up and down the room, then mounted and bent over him..." (vv. 34-35). It does mention that he prayed to the Lord, but the words that he uttered are not reported (v. 33). These differences between the two stories are further proof that the story of the birth of the Shunamite woman's son and of his being brought back to life belong to the literary genre of hagiography or praise of the saintly, and that the object of the narrative is to exalt Elisha.
Of course we may ask how such stories came to be included in Scripture, focusing as they do on a saintly man of G-d, and not on the Lord. The answer, it appears, is that the wondrous figure of Elisha, the saintly man of G-d, enabled the biblical redactors to show that the Lord's providence, might and mercy accompanied the people of Israel throughout history, albeit in a variety of forms in different periods. Support for this view can be brought, we believe, from the words of one Rabbi Moses son of R. Israel in his endorsement of Sefer Shivhei ha-Besht, to the effect that this book contained "something very much needed, in order that all know and understand that the Lord has not abandoned us, but in every generation has raised up for us faithful shepherds" (Horodetsky ed., pp. 15-16).


[1] Alexander Rofé, Sippurei ha-Nevi'im, Jerusalem 1986, pp. 24-25.
[2] S. Safrai, "Teaching of Pietists in Mishnaic Literature", Journal of Jewish Studies 16 (1965), pp. 15-33; D. Daube, "Enfant Terrible", Harvard Theological Review 68 (1975), pp. 371-376.
[3] Issaschar ben-Ami, Ha'aratzat ha-Kedoshim be-Kerev Yehudei Morocco, Jerusalem 1984.
[4] For example, see Leket Sippurim al ha-Rabbi mi-Lubavitch, 3 vols., Kefar Habad 1993.
[5] For a detailed analysis of the story, using the method of close reading, see Uriel Simon, "Elisha ve-ha-Shunamit: Meholel ha-Nes Nizkak le-Hadrakhat Ba'alat ha-Nes," in Keriah Sifrutit ba-Mikra: Sippurei Nevi'im, Jerusalem and Ramat Gan, 1997, pp. 279-316.
[6] Biblical Shunem is generally identified with Sulam at the foot of Giv'at Ha-Moreh, about four kilometers east of Afulah.
[7] The annunciation to Sarah: "The Lord took note of Sarah as He had promised" (Gen. 21:1); Rebekah: "Isaac pleaded with the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord responded to his plea, and his wife Rebekah conceived" (Gen. 25:21); Rachel: "Now G-d remembered Rachel; G-d heeded her and opened her womb. She conceived and bore a son" (Gen. 30:22-23); the wife of Manoah: "An angel of the Lord appeared to the woman and said to her, ‘You are barren and have borne no children; but you shall conceive and bear a son'" (Judges 13:3); Hannah: "... and the Lord remembered her. Hannah conceived and at the turn of the year bore a son" (I Sam. 1:19-20).
[8] Cf. Sanhedrin 113a.
[9] See what Rav Mana said in the Jerusalem Talmud, Yevamot 15.2, and Abarbanel's commentary on I Sam. 1:19-20.
[10] Regarding the view that there is a magic force in the objects of saints see Yizhak Ganuz, "Heftzeihem ha-Ishi'im shel Tzadikim ke-Otzarei Segulot," Proceedings of the Tenth World Congress of Jewish Studies, vol. 4 (1989), pp. 29-31.
[11] Cf., for example, Rofé (note 1, above), pp. 33-34; Simon (note 5, above), pp. 279-288, 307-316.
[12] We give two examples, the first from Genesis 18:2: "Looking up, he saw: [ve-hinneh] three men standing near him" - this is reported from Abraham's vantage point, seeing "men" when in truth they were messengers of G-d. The second, from Ruth 3:8: "In the middle of the night, the man gave a start and pulled back - [ve-hinneh] and beheld: there was a woman lying at his feet!" - reported through Boaz's eyes, not the writer's or the reader's, therefore she is not reported as being Ruth, for in the dark of the night Boaz could not recognize the woman.