Parsha Halacha

Parshat Vayeira

The Shunamite Woman

Background and Lessons

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The Haftorah for the Torah portion of Vayeira tells the story of the Shunamite woman and how she had a son who was brought back to life by Elisha, the prophet.[1]

This story relates to the Torah portion of Vayeira as there are many similarities between this story and the story of the birth of Yitzchak which is in the Torah portion.

At the time of Yitzchak’s conception, both of his parents were old, and his mother’s monthly cycle had ceased.[2] Similarly, in the Haftorah, the husband of the Shunamite woman is described as being old[3] while she was post-menopausal as her periods had ceased.[4] In both cases they were promised a son in the following year, and the prophecies were fulfilled. It is also noteworthy that just as the son of the Shunamite woman was brought back to life, so, too, Yitzchak’s earthly neshamah departed, according to the Zohar, when he was nearly slaughtered at the Akeidah, and a loftier soul took its place.[5] In fact, the Zohar states[6] that the son of the Shunamite woman was also revived by receiving a new soul – a masculine soul– to replace his original feminine soul.

The Shunamite Woman – A Brief Biography

While we do not know much about the Shunamite woman, here is the information I have gleaned from various sources.

●      Name

Her name remains a mystery as it is not given in the text; she is called by the place she lived, Shunam. This is similar to many women in Tanach whose names remain anonymous.[7]

●      Sister

According to our sages, she was the sister of Avishag, the Shunamite, who served King David and kept him warm in his old age but did not marry him. This is difficult to understand as Avishag lived more than a hundred years before the time of Elisha.[8]

●      Identifying the Boy – 3 Opinions

There are three opinions (that I know of) as to the identity of the boy who was born to the Shunamite woman.

1)     Ido, the Prophet

According to the Midrash,[9] the Shunamite woman was the mother of Ido, the prophet. (Presumably he was the son who was born to her and resurrected miraculously.) This opinion would disagree with the teaching in the Talmud[10] that Ido prophesized in the time of Yeravam who lived many decades before Elisha. Alternately, the Midrash may mean that Avishag, the Shunamite, was the mother of Ido[11] or, perhaps the correct reading of the Midrash is that the Shunamite woman was the wife of Ido.[12]

2)     Oded the Prophet

Another Midrash[13] identifies her as the mother of Oded, the prophet,[14] Oded being the name of the son born to the Shunamite woman. Oded prophesied during the era of Pekach ben Remalyahu, king of the Ten Tribes, which would have made him more than 100 years old at that time.[15]

3)     Chabakuk, the Prophet

According to the Zohar,[16] the boy who was miraculously born was Chabakuk, the prophet. This is alluded to because Chabakuk can be understood to mean “a double hug” as this boy was hugged twice, once by his mother when he was born and once by Elisha when he resurrected him.

According to the Seder Olam Rabbah,[17] Chabakuk prophesied during the era of Menashe. If he was the boy born to the Shunamite woman, he would have been nearly 200 years old at that time.[18]


The verse[19] describes the Shunamite woman as an אִשָּׁה גְדוֹלָה – a great woman. The commentaries have many suggestions as to how she was great. Here are some of them:

●      Important[20]

●      Wealthy, famous, and from an important family (sister of Avishag, see above)[21]

●      G-d fearing[22]

●      She ran the house and was more important than her husband[23]

●      She had a sterling character. She was able to control herself and not look at Elisha, even though he would stay at her house.[24] (Elisha’s face emanated intense holiness and it was not considered appropriate for women to look at him.[25])

●      Kind. Whereas some women hesitate to have guests, she went out of her way to have guests and even built separate quarters for Elisha to make it more comfortable for him.[26]

●      In addition, she was modest as we see she did not enter Elisha’s room when he called for her but stood at the door and was content with her portion as when asked by Elisha what could he do for her, she said she was satisfied to dwell among her people and did not want any special treatment.[27]

Lessons Learned from the Shunamite Woman

Our sages learn many things from the words and actions of the Shunamite woman. Here are some of them:

●      “Women can judge guests better than men”[28]

This is inferred from the fact that it was the Shunamite woman who said to her husband (rather than him saying to her),[29] “I am sure it is a holy man of G-d who co. mes this way regularly.” In addition, she was able to discern that Geichazi (Elisha’s student) was not holy, a fact that even Elisha was not aware of.[30]

●      Laws of Yichud

Some say[31] that the reason the Shunamite woman had a separate quarter built for Elisha was because of the laws of yichud – so that she not be alone with Elisha and Geichazi. The fact that her husband was in town was insufficient as the Shunamite woman was friendly with Elisha and Geichazi and in such a case, yichud is forbidden even if the husband is in town. Although a woman may be alone with two men, that only applies if they are both pious. Since she recognized that Geichazi was immoral, that leniency did not apply.

●      One should visit one’s Torah Teacher (Rebbi) on Shabbos and Yom Tov

This is based on her husband’s question to her (when she was going to the prophet after their son passed away),[32] “Why are you going to him today? It is neither Rosh Chodesh nor Shabbat?” The Talmud[33] infers that, were it a special day, her husband would have expected her to go to Elisha as one should greet one’s Rebbi (and listen to him teach) on special days.[34]

May we merit to the Resurrection Speedily in our days!

[1] See II Kings 4:8-37

[2] See Gen. 18:11

[3] See II Kings 4:15

[4] Yalkut Shimoni Remez 228

[5] Zohar vol. 1, pg. 60a

[6] Ibid. vol. 2, pg. 44b

[7] Here are several examples of women in Tanach whose names are not provided,

●       The mother of Shimshon (Judges 13:2) But see Talmud (Bava Batra 91b) that her name was Tzlelponit

●       The woman who killed Avimelech (Shoftim 9:53).

●       The wise woman of Teko’ah (II Shmuel 14:2).

●       The wise woman who negotiated the surrender of Sheva ben Bichri’s rebellion (II Shmuel 20:16). (Although it is not explicit, the sages say that she was Serach, the daughter of Asher.)

●       The widow who fed Elijah during the famine (I Kings 17:10).

●       Job’s wife (see Job 2:9). (Some say she was Dinah, the daughter of Yaakov.)

[8] According to the Codex Judaica by Rabbi Mattis Kantor, King David died in the year 2924 (or 837 BCE). Presumably Avishag, who is called a na’arah in the verse, was at least 12 years old at that time. The story of the Shunamite woman and Elisha occurred during the reign of Yehoram, son of Achav, which began in the year 3043 (or 718 BCE). Avishag would have been (approximately) 119 at that time (if she was still alive). Since, according to the Midrash the Shunamite woman had already ceased getting her period, perhaps she was approximately 70 years at that time which would make her 49 years younger than her sister. This is unusual but not impossible. (If their father had Avishag when he was 13, he could have fathered the Shunamite woman when he was 62.)

[9] Yalkut Shimoni (ibid)

[10] See I Kings 13:14 as explained by Sanhedrin 89b.

[11] The words of the Midrash are וקבלתו שם אשה גדולה בכבוד גדול אחותה של אבישג השונמית אמו של עדו הנביא. As such the words אמו של עדו הנביא can be referring to Avishag rather than her sister.

This is difficult as it seems from the text (see I Kings 2:22 and commentaries) that no commoner was allowed to marry Avishag since she was King David’s companion.

[12] This is how the Midrash is quoted by The Encyclopedia of Biblical Personalities by Yishai Chasidah

[13] Pirkei DeRabi Eliezer, 33

[14] See II Divrei HaYamim 28:9

[15] According to the Codex Encyclopedia, Elisha began his career as a prophet in the year 3043 (718 BCE) while Pekach became king in the year 3166 (595 BCE). See Ralbag on II Kings 4:8.

[16] Ibid

[17] 20

[18] See the Codex Encyclopedia that Menashe began his reign in the year 3228 (or 533 BCE). It is noteworthy that, according to the Zohar (ibid), Elisha only managed to add 70 years to his life.

[19] II Kings ibid

[20] Rashi

[21] Radak

[22] Targum Yonatan

[23] Abarbanel. See above that, according to some versions of the Midrash, say she was married to Ido, the prophet. This would mean that she had (some) qualities that even exceeded those of a prophet of G-d.

[24] The Chida in Chomat Anach based on Yalkut Shimoni, ibid

[25] See Yalkut Shimoni as to what would occur if women would gaze at him.

[26] The Chida in Nachal Sorek

[27] See II Kings 4:15 and 13. According to the Zohar (ibid), she even refused his offer to pray for her on that day which was Rosh HaShana.

[28] Brachot 10b

[29] II Kings 4:9

[30] Jerusalem Talmud, Yevamot 2:4. This is based on the verse (II Kings ibid) כִּי אִישׁ אֶלֹקִים קָדוֹשׁ הוּא – “A man of G-d,” he is holy. I.e., he is holy but his student is not holy.

[31] Rosh David (by the Chida) on Parshat Vayeira

[32] Ibid, verse 23

[33] Rosh Hashana 16b

[34] See Penie Yehoshua (on ibid) as to why we do not derive from the verse that one must visit their Rebbi on Rosh Chodesh

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom uMevorach!

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