Anatomy of a Harlot

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. Sender Rozesz is Jewrotica’s resident Double Mitzvah columnist. The views reflected in his writing represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated.

Rated R

The oldest profession in the world makes its formal debut in this week’s Parshah, Vayeishev.

Judah takes a break from his father and brothers, striking out on his own. He marries, has three sons, and settles down in a community in which he quickly becomes an influential member. When Judah deems his oldest son, Er, to be of marriageable age, he finds a beautiful girl named Tamar to be his wife. Tragically, however, Er dies, leaving Tamar a widow. Invoking the tradition of the Levirate marriage, Judah instructs his second son, Onan, to take Tamar as his wife, and to preserve his brother’s name. Onan suffers the same fate as Er, however, leaving Tamar a widow for the second time.

The laws of Levirate marriage dictate that Tamar now be given in marriage to Judah’s youngest son, Shelah. However, fearful that Shelah will suffer the same fate as his brothers, Judah procrastinates, telling Tamar that Shelah is not yet old enough for marriage.

Tamar waits dutifully, but she sees Shelah grow with no indication that Judah plans to finally marry her to his youngest son.

Then Judah’s wife dies, and after the period of mourning passes, Judah makes a trip to Timnah with his friend Hirah. Hearing the trip, Tamar takes things into her own hand, and implements a plan designed to lure her father-in-law, Judah, into bed with her.

So she took off her widow’s garb, covered [her head] with a veil and covered her face, and she sat down at the crossroads that were on the way to Timnah…

When Judah saw her, he thought she was a harlot, because she covered her face.

So he turned aside toward her to the road, and he said, “Get ready now, I will come to you,” for he did not know that she was his daughter in law, and she said, “What will you give me that you should come to me?”

And he said, “I will send a kid from the herd,” and she said, “[Only] if you give me a pledge until you send [it].”

So he said, “What is the pledge that I should give you?” And she said, “Your signet, your cloak, and the staff that is in your hand.” So he gave them to her, and he came to her, and she conceived his likeness.[1]

Let’s focus on the fact that Judah “thought she was harlot.” Was this her intention? Was that how she intended to lure Judah — by pretending to be a harlot? That’s quite a gamble; how did she know that Judah was the type to pay for sex with a stranger? Tamar’s instinctive knowledge of Judah’s likely behavior is fascinating; though perhaps she was counting on the fact that Judah might be feeling lonely after the death of her mother-in-law, and craving intimacy.

The Hebrew word for “harlot” is “Zona” (זוֹנָה). We have encountered this same word in last week’s Parshah, when Jacob’s sons justified their massacre of the male inhabitants of the city of Shechem after the rape of Dinah with the words: “Shall he make our sister like a harlot?”[2]

Interestingly, Rashi, quoting the Midrash,[3] defines the word “harlot” as “abandoned” (הפקר). It is unclear as to whether this definition is intended to be a contextual deviation from its ordinary meaning, or if the connotations of the word “Zona” in fact mean abandoned. If the latter, then a harlot under this definition would mean a girl who doesn’t have a family that guards her honor, who has been effectively abandoned, and whose sexuality is therefore free for the taking. Dinah’s brothers felt that Shechem had exhibited such a lack of exhibition when taking Dinah, that he acted as though Dinah had no one who would speak for her, or would defend or fight for her honor. He treated her as though she were abandoned. They therefore descended upon the city in such a display of force and retribution that no doubt would be left in anyone’s mind that Dinah was not abandoned.

Defined this way, a Zona represents the darker, sadder side of sexual promiscuity. It is not sex because of feminine emancipation, and a woman’s right to make decisions regarding her own body; it is sex because this girl is out on her own, without a support group, and without the fortifications and sense of self-worth that having a loving family often cultivates. She is abandoned, and whether her sex is taken or given, it does not flow from a wholesome and complete psyche.

What did Tamar do that led Judah to believe that she was a Zona?

Certainly, a young woman sitting by herself at the crossroads would be a clue. In fact, the Talmud suggests that “crossroads” might have an allegorical meaning, as even “the greatest harlot of harlots would not sit there.”[4] A girl in fact sitting alone at a crossroads might indeed seem abandoned.

But it also says that he thought she was a harlot “because she covered her face.” The commentaries are uncertain as to what this means. One opinion in the Talmud suggests that his initial thought was that she was a harlot. He obviously would have known that she was not had he known that she was his daughter-in-law Tamar; however, because she always covered her face in his home, he actually didn’t know what Tamar looked like, and had no idea that this beautiful girl was his daughter-in-law.[5] It might seem a stretch that Judah had never before seen his daughter-in-law to the point that he would not recognize her sitting ion front of him; on the other hand, it also makes sense that a prostitute would not cover the very charms that are intended to entice her customers. Plus, what, in the psyche of an abandoned girl, would cause her to cover her face?

Other commentaries, however, explain that in its most literal meaning, it is because her face was covered when he saw her that he thought she was a harlot. These explain that it was in fact customary for a harlot to cover her face with a scarf, but in a seductive and teasing fashion: leaving her mouth and eyes and some of her hair uncovered. This was intended to not only be more alluring, but on the off-chance that any of her customers might be a relative, she could still ply her trade with none (but her) being the wiser.[6]

Tamar’s plan got off (pardon the pun) without a hitch.

Judah bought her disguise, declared his interest, and they had sex.

Did Judah detect anything amiss during their intercourse?

It seems not. Judah went back home, and then sent his friend Hirah back to the crossroads to pay the fee that he had promised — one kid from the herd — and to retrieve the collateral that had left with her. Of course, she was nowhere to be found.

But there was one thing — something that goes unnoticed by the primary Torah commentaries. After they have had sex, even as he seeks to pay his erstwhile sex partner for her services, Judah no longer refers to her as a Zona. Now, as both he and Hirah seek her whereabouts they inquire: “Where is the Kedeisha (קְדֵשָֽׁה) that was at the crossroads?”[7]

What is a Kedeisha?

Rashi defines Kedeisha simply as one is “prepared (מְקֻדֶשֶׁת) and ready for harlotry.”

Rashi doesn’t explain, however, why the word changes from Zona to Kedeisha; why Judah initially thought she was a Zona, but then inquired as to the whereabouts of the Kedeisha.

Even accepting Rashi’s definition, it is clear that a Kedeisha is fundamentally different than a Zona. Whereas a Zona denotes an abandoned girl, a Kedeisha denotes one who has chosen prostitution as a lifestyle choice or a career path. She is “prepared and ready” for sex.

Does this mean that Tamar was so proficient in providing sexual pleasure that she convinced Judah that she was a professional?

We find a similar language-switch among the commandments of Deuteronomy. In one verse is states: “There shall not be a [female] prostitute of the daughters of Israel, and there shall not be a [male] prostitute of the sons of Israel.”[8] In that verse, it uses the word “Kedeisha.” The very next verse, however, states: “You shall not bring a prostitute’s fee . . . to the House of the Lord, your God, for any vow.”[9] In that verse, the word “Zona” is used. There is not prohibition against a daughter of Israel becoming a Zona; she is forbidden from becoming a Kedeisha — although a Zona’s fee may not be used to pay a pledge to the Holy Temple.

There are more contemporary commentaries that suggest that the fact that the word Kedeisha incorporates the word “Kadosh” — which ordinarily means holy — cannot be ignored. Thus, they interpret a Kedeisha as being a woman who might regularly use sex as a form of spiritual service. If this is true, it might present a different perspective on the Torah’s prohibition against being a Kedeisha. For example, we know how G-d felt when the sons of Eli, the High Priest, “would lie with the women who congregated at the entrance of the tent of meeting”[10] — and “the Lord desired to kill them.”[11] Thus, both the commandment not to offer the fee of a Zona and the prohibition against being a Kedeisha has to do with keeping sex away from the Temple.[12]

Perhaps this means that when Judah lay with Tamar, he found the sex that he experienced with her to be spiritually uplifting, and so he assumed that she was not merely a Zona, but a Kedeisha. Not abandoned, but devoted to a cause higher than herself.

Over time, the distinction between Zona and Kedeisha has doubtless been eroded to the point that the two terms are now essentially interchangeable. However, their etymological roots are still capable of providing insight, not only into our biblical ancestors, but into the underpinnings of our own sexual psyche.

Shabbat Shalom!

[1] Genesis, 38:14-18.

[2] Genesis, 34:31.

[3] Genesis Rabbah, 80:12

[4] Jerusalem Talmud, Sotah 1:4.

[5] Babylonian Talmud, Sotah, 10b.

[6] See, e.g., Nachmanides, Rabbeinu Bachye, Genesis, 38:15.

[7] See Genesis, 38:21-22.

[8] Deuteronomy, 23:18.

[9] Deuteronomy, 23:19.

[10] I Samuel, 2:22.

[11] Id., 2:25.

[12] Interestingly, Rashi’s definition of “Kedeisha” in Deuteronomy (23:18) combines his definition of Zona in Genesis (34:31) and of Kedeisha in Genesis (38:21): “one who is abandoned (מופקרת), prepared (מְקֻדֶּשֶׁת), and ready (זומנתמ) for prostitution.” However, it seems clear that a Kedeisha is not at all about abandonment. Uninhibited and unbridled, perhaps, but not abandoned as a person, in the way that Dinah might have seemed had her brothers not avenged her honor. Conversely, there was no concern that Dinah would come across as uninhibited and committed to prostitution. Thus, Rashi’s addition of the word “abandoned” to his definition of the Kedeisha in Deuteronomy is curious.