Abishag: from Biblical Obscurity to Literary Fame


A beautiful virgin; an aged, enfeebled monarch; and their perplexing (and unconsummated) relationship. The tale of Abishag (“very beautiful”) and King David, from the biblical book of Kings, was fodder for the poet Rilke—and for three subversive Yiddish writers after World War I.

The story of King David and Abishag, from the biblical book of Kings, is one of the more striking Bible stories. Yet it didn’t inspire much interpretation until modernist writers—and in particular, secular Yiddish writers—began exploring it, making their own artful, smart and subversive way through the story. In 1923, David Pinski’s five-act play, King David and His Wives, presented a strikingly unconventional analysis of the legendary King. Pinski, a Yiddish poet and playwright, exploited his audience’s familiarity with the biblical narrative, which begins with these four verses:

King David was old and advanced in years; and although they covered him with clothes, he could not get warm. So his servants said to him, “Let a young virgin be sought for my lord the king, and let her wait on the king, and be his attendant; let her lie in your bosom, so that my lord the king may be warm.” So they searched for a beautiful girl through all the territory of Israel, and found Abishag the Shunammite, and brought her to the king. The girl was very beautiful. She became the king’s attendant and served him, but the king did not know her sexually.

Thus Abishag is introduced; her function described; her role in David’s life delimited. Pinski’s play opens with a youthful David’s conflicted courtship of Michal, and by the fourth act, the play has shed light on the King past his prime, entering his harem and finding “old, cold mothers” instead of the young wives he once loved. When Abishag is brought to the King, she learns of her role as would-be wife. For her part, she is overjoyed.

Here it is not impotency—or a halakhic consideration—that prevents David from consummating his relationship. Rather, it is the King’s own intellectual stance, which he explains in exceedingly Greek and Platonic terms. (A Platonic relationship is one in which sexual attraction exists, but it is redirected toward intellectual enlightenment, as in Plato’s Phaedrus.) A second interesting feature is that although the topic appears to be religious, the play is entirely secular in subject matter. Pinski's audience was familiarity with the biblical narrative, but there’s nothing else religious about this play. Thus, Pinski presents a complex portrait of biblical personages that can be read both as continuous with past tradition (as a midrash), or as definite break from the past.

Pinski wasn’t the only Yiddish writer taken with the Biblical story. Three years later (1926), also in New York City, Jacob Glatshteyn wrote a poem entitled “Abishag,” which foregrounds the anxieties and weariness that overwhelm the King late at night. Glatshteyn used the David/Abishag story to a different end: he sought to emphasize the alienation endemic to modern urban life. Outside the King’s chambers, loud troublemakers await the King’s demise and displacement. David thus commands Abishag:

Shout into the street: King David is not yet dead.
But King David wants to sleep and they won’t let him.
Adoniyahu with his gang shout my crown off my gray head.

One could argue that King David, peaceless, tired, and remote, is supposed to symbolize the spirit of Jewish culture, and that Abishag, the lovely youth, symbolizes Yiddish literature, which has arrived too late to enliven the Jewish people. This might allude to how the new sensitive, Introspectivists Yiddish poets (Glatshteyn was one himself) happened upon Yiddish at the worst time—just as its potential audience was declining.

However Abishag is not given enough credit in Glatshteyn’s poem to justify this reading. The Introspectivists appreciated Yiddish language and poetry too much—“We believe in Yiddish. We love Yiddish” their manifesto states—to equate it with a marginal character, doomed to play a silent part in Jewish history. If anything, Glatshteyn and his colleagues saw Yiddish language as the son who “must break away altogether from his father and set up his own tent.” The poem’s title is “Abishag” because her name conjures up a vague recollection that’s troubling when brought into focus: an image of helpless youth and hopeless old age unproductively joined together.

Following Pinski and Glatshteyn, Itzik Manger (1936) was the first and only poet in the interwar period to treat Abishag’s position with poignant sympathy. In his poem, “King David and Abishag,” he describes the sense of loss that Abishag feels:

She is the royal warming-flask
And warms the old man’s bed.
She had supposed—such notions as
A country girl conceives.
Often at night, sees her fate,
And silently, she grieves.

By transporting biblical scenes to rural Eastern Europe, Manger was able to blend folksy and modern, thus emphasizing the spatial, chronological, and moral distance between biblical events and the contemporary social standards. By highlighting the unjust and tragic roles played by heroines in Jewish narratives, Manger exposed the bankruptcy of ancient Jewish texts. At the same time, by drawing on familiar texts, Manger created a sense of intimacy and exclusivity with his audience, which allows him to criticize the biblical texts with some impunity.

These three Yiddish writers, Pinski, Glatshteyn, and Manger sensed that the intimate distance between David and Abishag was a fitting analogy to the individual’s encounter with modernity. In these works they do not express an anxiety about passing into obscurity. As Abishag’s revival in literature in the last century demonstrates, we cannot predict what aspects of their cultural heritage future generations of Jews will appreciate. Like Abishag, Yiddish literature may be rediscovered. The Jewish people have already proven once that they can resuscitate a neglected language; perhaps they will come to realize that two languages are necessary to express their ever-conflicted national character. If they do come to this realization, they will find a language and literature capable of coming to terms with the challenges of any age.

This piece was adapted, with the author’s permission, from a longer essay.