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PROSTITUTION (Heb. זְנוּת, zenut), the practice of indiscriminate sexual intercourse for payment or for religious purposes. Prostitution was practiced by male and female prostitutes. The word zenut, applied to both common and sacred prostitution, is also often used metaphorically.


The prostitute was an accepted though deprecated member of the Israelite society, both in urban and rural life (Gen. 38:14; Josh. 2:1ff.; I Kings 3:16–27). The Bible refers to Tamar's temporary harlotry and to the professional harlotry of Rahab without passing any moral judgment. The visits of Samson to the harlot of Gaza (Judg. 16:1) are not condemned, but conform with his picaresque life. Harlots had access to the king's tribunal, as other people (I Kings 3:16ff.). Nevertheless, harlotry was a shameful profession, and to treat an Israelite girl like a prostitute was considered a grave offense (Gen. 34:31). The Israelites were warned against prostituting their daughters (Lev. 19:29), and priests were not allowed to marry prostitutes (21:7). The punishment of a priest's daughter who became a prostitute, thus degrading her father, was death through fire (Lev. 21:9). According to the talmudic sages, however, this law applies only to the priest's daughter who is married or at least betrothed (Sanh. 50b–51a). Prostitutes might be encountered in the streets and squares, and on street corners, calling out to passersby (Prov. 7:10–23); they sang and played the harp (Isa. 23:16), and bathed in public pools (I Kings 22:38). Their glances and smooth talk were dangers against which the immature were warned (Jer. 3:3, Prov. 2:16; 5:3, 6:24–25, 7:5, et al.).

In the Ancient Near East, temple women, of whom one class was called qadištu, probably served as sacred prostitutes. Sometimes dedicated by their fathers to the deity, they had special statutes, and provisions were made for them by law (Code of Hammurapi, 178–82). Customs connected with them are likely to underlie Herodotus' lurid and misleading statement that in Babylon every woman was to serve once as a sacred prostitute before getting married, thus sacrificing her virginity to the goddess Mylitta (Ishtar; 1:199). In Israel the sacred prostitutes were condemned for their connection with idolatry. Deuteronomy 23:18–19 forbids Israelites, men and women alike, to become sacred prostitutes, and states that their wages must not be used for paying vows.

It has been supposed that "the women who performed tasks at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting," mentioned in I Samuel 2:22, were sacred prostitutes – though this hardly suits their other occurrence in Exodus 38:8. There were male and female prostitutes in Israel and Judah during the monarchy, and in Judah they were, from time to time, the object of royal decrees of expulsion (cf. I Kings 14:24; 15:12; 22:47; II Kings 23:7; Hos. 4:14). Sacred prostitution, because of its association with idolatry, was the object of numerous attacks in the Bible, especially in the historical and prophetic books (cf., e.g., II Kings 23:4–14; Jer. 2:20; Ezek. 23:37ff.). Terms connected with harlotry are used figuratively to characterize unfaithfulness toward the Lord (Num. 25:1–2; Judg. 2:17; 8:27, 33; Jer. 3:6; Ezek. 6:9; Hos. 4:12; et al.).


M.G. May, in: AJSLL, 48 (1931–32), 73–98; B.A. Brooks, in: JBL, 60 (1941), 227–53; R. Patai, Sex and Family in the Bible and the Middle East (1959), 145–52; L.M. Epstein, Sex Laws and Customs in Judaism (1948), 152–78. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: J. Baskin, Midrashic Women (2002), 113–14, 154–60; Y. Assis, "Sexual Behavior in Medieval Hispano-Jewish Society," in: A. Rapaport-Albert and S. Zipperstein (eds.), Jewish History (1998), 25–59; A. Grossman, Pious and Rebellious: Jewish Women in Medieval Europe (2004), 133–47; E. Bristow, Prostitution and Prejudice: The Jewish Fight against White Slavery 1870–1939 (1983); R. Gershuni, "Trafficking in Persons for the Purpose of Prostitution: The Israeli Experience," in: Mediterranean Quarterly (Fall 2004), 133–46; N. Glickman, The Jewish White Slave Trade and the Untold Story of Raquel Liberman (2000); R. Rosen, The Lost Sisterhood: Prostitution in America, 1900–1918 (1982).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.