(2 Kings 4:1-37)
October 30, 2004
Elisha’s status as a prophet and miracle worker established for him a special position in society so his visit to the town of Shunam probably caused quite a stir. It should not be surprising then that he was invited to share a meal in the home of a prominent family in town and that after a few visits to town the family should decide to provide him with more permanent accommodations: “One day Elisha visited Shunam. A wealthy woman lived there, and she urged him to have a meal; and whenever he passed by, he would stop there for a meal. Once she said to her husband, ‘I am sure it is a holy man of God who comes this way regularly. Let us make a small room for him upstairs and place a bed, a table, a chair, and a lamp there for him so that he can stop there whenever he comes to us.’” (2 Kings 4:8-10)
This episode prompted the following statement in the Talmud: “Abaye said, or some say it was Rabbi Yitzchak: If one wants to benefit from the hospitality of another, he may benefit, as Elisha did; and if he does not desire to benefit, he may refuse to do so, as [the prophet] Samuel the Ramatite did…” (Berachot 10b) According to these sages, this story raises the issue of whether it is appropriate for public officials or religious functionaries to accept gifts. Abaye asserts that either behavior is appropriate.
Not all commentators to this passage accept Abaye’s opinion at face value. Rabbi Shlomo Luria (Maharshal), the 16th Polish Talmud commentator, objects to the model identified with Elisha because it contradicts the verse: “But he who hates gifts shall live” (Proverbs 15:27) which the Talmud interprets to mean that it is prohibited to benefit from others. (see Megillah 28a) Luria resolves the contradiction that one is only allowed to benefit from others if you are a traveler since only then is a person truly in need.
Rabbi Menachem Meiri, the 13th- 14th century Provencal interpreter, maintained that one is only allowed to benefit from others provided that one compensates for the provisions. (Beit Habehira, Dickman ed. p.20) Maimonides emphasized the differences between Elisha and Samuel. Elisha was allowed to accept gifts because his position would not be affected by the gifts. Samuel, on the other hand, served as a judge and therefore could not accept gifts. Maimonides also points out that it is not a good practice to make a habit of accepting gifts. (see Maimonides, Commentary to the Mishnah, Avot 4:5)
Rabbi Meir Leibish Malbim, the 19th century Bible commentator, modified the position associated with Elisha. He claimed that Elisha followed certain rules before he would benefit from others. These “rules”, Malbim found in a story about Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair, who would only allow another person to host him as a guest under very particular circumstances. He would not accept anything from a stingy person nor from a person in need. He would also not accept anything from a person who he knew something bad about. (see Hullin 6b) Malbim asserted that the Shunamite woman and her husband met these standards.
What is obvious in these interpretations is the great care necessary for public figures to take in all they do.