י״ד בכסלו ה׳תשע״ג (November 28, 2012)

Shabbat 56a-b: Was King David a Sinner?

As we learned on yesterday’s daf, the Gemara offers a list of prominent Biblical characters who appear to have sinned, and states categorically that it is a mistake to view them as sinners. One of the examples was King David. The Gemara on today’s daf explains that King David was not a sinner because:

Although David sought to do evil and have relations with Bathsheba while she was still married to Uriah but did not do so.

As Rabbi Shmuel bar Naḥmani said that Rabbi Yonatan said: Anyone who goes to a war waged by the royal house of David writes a conditional bill of divorce to his wife.That was done to prevent a situation in which the soldier’s wife would be unable to remarry because the soldier did not return from battle and there were no witnesses to his fate. The conditional bill of divorce accorded her the status of a divorcee and freed her to remarry. As it is stated: “And carry these ten cheeses to the captain of their thousand, and to your brothers bring greetings and take their pledge [arubatam]” (I Shmuel 17:18). What is the meaning of arubatam? Rav Yosef taught: It refers to matters that are shared [hame’oravim] between him, the husband, and her, the wife, i.e., marriage.

The verse should be read: Take the bill of divorce that determines the status of the relationship between husband and wife. As, apparently, it was customary for men at war to send their wives a conditional divorce, since Uriah later died, Bathsheba retroactively assumed divorced status from the time that he set out to war. She was not forbidden to David.

The homiletic interpretations favorable to King David contradict the plain sense of the biblical text. Nevertheless, they may be understood in the following manner. A transgression can be judged by two sets of criteria: The first is strictly legal and the second factors in the transgressor’s intent and desires. The Bible judges David’s conduct according to his intentions. Since he ignored the severe prohibitions involved, he is deemed guilty. The Talmud, on the other hand, judges him according to the letter of the law. By this measure, his sin was not so severe. That is what the Gemara means in saying that King David sought to do evil but did not do so (Be’er HaGolah).

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