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Issues in Jewish Ethics: Prostitution

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

In Talmud & Halacha
Modern Period


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.).


The many warnings of Ben Sira against prostitution is evidence that it was widespread in the Hellenistic period. According to II Maccabees 6:4, Antiochus Epiphanes introduced sacred prostitutes into the Temple. Throughout the whole of the apocryphal and pseudepigraphical literature, in the Damascus Document, in the documents of the Dead Sea sects (Serekh ha-Yahad 1:6), in Josephus (Ant. 4:206), and by Philo (Jos. 43, Spec. 3:51), prostitution is vigorously denounced.

In Talmud and Halakhah

Different opinions are expressed in the Talmud with regard to the prostitute of the Bible, both concerning her hire and her marriage to a priest. Some were of the opinion that these references apply only to a professional prostitute, but there were also other opinions. With regard to her hire (Deut. 23:19) the halakhah was decided in accordance with the opinion of R. Judah ha-Nasi that it was not forbidden except to those for whom "cohabitation is a transgression" (Tosef., Tem. 4:8; see Prohibited Marriage). With regard to the unmarried woman who engages in prostitution, however, "her wage is permitted" (i.e., for use in the Temple; Maim. Yad, Issurei ha-Mizbe'ah 4:8). Some were of the opinion that her wage is forbidden only with regard to such reward "the like of which can be offered on the altar," but not to money (Tem. 6:4; but Philo refers explicitly to a prohibition on money). The term be'ilat zenut ("intercourse of prostitution") was, however, applied not only to those relations forbidden in the strict legal sense (see also Yev. 8:5) but also to any intercourse not expressly for the purpose of marriage (TJ, Git. 7:448d; Git. 81b), and even to a marriage not celebrated in accordance with the halakhah.

The halakhah imposed a general prohibition on the professional prostitute, and the term came to include any woman who abandoned herself to any man even if not for pay, and states that "Whoever hands his unmarried daughter [to a man] not for the purposes of matrimony," as well as the woman who delivers herself not for the purposes of matrimony, could lead to the whole world being filled with mamzerim since "from his consorting with many women and not knowing with whom, or if she has had intercourse with many men and does not know with whom – he could marry his own daughter, or marry her to his son" (see Mamzer; Sifra, Kedoshim 7, 1–5). The ruling is based on the verse "Profane not thy daughter, to make her a harlot" (Lev. 19:29), as well as the verse "There shall be no harlot of the daughters of Israel" (Deut. 23:18; kedeshah being taken as referring to every prostitute (Sanh. 82a)). The penalty for both parties is flogging (Maim. Yad, Ishut 1:4; Na'arah Betulah 2:17). Abraham b. David of Posquières in his gloss (ibid.) stressed that this law applies only to the woman "who is ready to prostitute herself to every man," and he makes an express exception in the case of a woman "who gives herself solely to one man without benefit of marriage." The rabbis were eloquent in their condemnation of the prostitute and her like, but in most cases their strictures apply to every kind of licentiousness. They warned particularly against approaching a harlot's door (Ber. 32a; Av. Zar. 17a) and passing through a "harlots' market" (ARN1 2, 14; ARN2 3, 13), such as were to be found in large cities (Pes. 113b; Ket. 64b), especially in Ereẓ Israel, where the Romans "built marketplaces in which to set harlots" (Shab. 33b). Sometimes inns served as brothels. The Targum gives pundekita ("woman innkeeper") as the translation of the "harlot" of the Bible (also Yev. 122a). After the destruction of the Temple and during the Hadrianic persecutions, the Romans placed Jewish women in brothels (ARN1 8, 37; Av. Zar. 17–18), and even men were taken captive for shameful purposes (Lam. R. 1:16, no. 45; cf. Or. Sibyll. 3:184–6, and 5:387–9). Some succeeded in maintaining their virtue and were ransomed; others committed suicide to avoid being forced into prostitution (Git. 57b). But there were also Jewish women who willingly engaged in prostitution (TJ, Ta'an. 4, 8, 69a) and Jews who were pimps (ibid. 1:4). There are even stories in the aggadah about sons of scholars who were very dissolute (BM 85a). The halakhot of ritual purity and impurity mention several garments which were peculiar to prostitutes: a "net" for the hair and a harlot's shift made like net work (Kel. 24:16, 28:9). The sages, who realized that the urge to prostitution is greater than that to idolatry (Song R. 7:8), considered it one of the important causes of the destruction of the Temple, and its spread as a sign of the advent of the Messiah (Sot. 9:13, 15). But there are also stories about prostitutes who repented completely (Av. Zar. 17a; SEZ 22), as well as about a gentile prostitute who converted to Judaism out of conviction (Sif. Num. 115; Men. 44a). Extensive aggadic material about the biblical Rahab portrays both her dissolute behavior as a harlot and her complete spiritual and social transformation when she accepted the truth of Jewish beliefs (Zev. 116a–b; Sif. Num. 78).


Jews in the pre-modern world lived, with few exceptions, in Jewish communities and under the yoke of Jewish tradition and halakhah. This affected every aspect of their lives, including sexual relations. As stated above, every sexual act between a man and woman outside marital relations was considered as coming within the definition of prostitution (be'ilat zenut), and the rabbis strongly condemned manifestations of sexual license in the Jewish community. Many regulations were issued by the various communities to fight prostitution in all its forms. Relations between Jews and gentiles were regarded as especially dangerous, because in most places they were against the laws of the land and the Church, and were therefore apt to evoke an undesirable reaction by non-Jews and involve the whole community.

Jewish communities were never reconciled to the existence of prostitution among them, especially organized prostitution on a commercial basis. They reacted energetically to every attempt to maintain a brothel in the Jewish quarter. There is mention of brothels actually being closed down by order of the communities in various German and French cities in the 17th and 18th centuries. Heavy fines were imposed on landlords who rented their houses for the purpose of prostitution. Anybody who knew of such a case was obliged to report it to the community. The Jews did not always manage to prevent brothels being opened within their neighborhoods, although protests against their establishment sometimes brought about their removal. In many places the laws of the country forbade their being maintained in the cities, so that they were relegated to the outskirts. Sometimes they were located in the vicinity of the Jewish quarter merely by chance, but in some cases they were established there deliberately, out of contempt for the Jews. At times the rabbis closed their eyes to the visits of unmarried men of the community to the brothels, in order to prevent other forms of lewdness.

There is evidence in the responsa literature that Jewish women engaged in prostitution, and no doubt there were also Jews who lived on pimping, but there is no data to the extent. The halakhah literature in the Middle Ages mentions several regulations against Jewish prostitutes and against Jews who frequented gentile prostitutes, but the prostitute was entitled to claim her fee (Rema). At the end of the Middle Ages it was laid down that a married man who frequented prostitutes was obliged to give his wife a divorce.

Modern Period

Prostitution is known to increase in times of chaos and upheaval and this was certainly true for East European Jews at the end of the 19th century. Violence and other forms of antisemitism, economic deprivation, and massive emigration led to various forms of significant Jewish involvement in the white slave trade, a euphemism for the trafficking of women across international borders for the purpose of prostitution.

Drastic impoverishment had always led some Jewish women, especially widows or abandoned wives, to occasional or part-time prostitution. The sexual mores of the Jewish community also meant that young women who had been seduced or had chosen to have premarital sexual relations, as well as unmarried older women, often had difficulty finding marriage partners. As it was nearly impossible for an uneducated single woman to support herself by other means, prostitution was often the only viable option. With the increasingly difficult situation in Eastern Europe in the late 19th century, and the large and mostly unregulated movement of population, it was particularly easy for profiteers to induce or entrap Jewish women to travel abroad and serve as prostitutes.

Traffickers used local agents to point them to young widows, abandoned wives, spinsters, or "ruined women," who were offered an escape from their poverty and shame and the promise of riches in distant lands. The procurers would then rely on a string of colleagues to obtain papers and tickets, arrange passage through borders, and accompany the women to their destinations. Upon arrival the women were usually placed in brothels where they had to work, initially without pay in order to pay back all of the fees incurred through their travels. Some professional procurers courted and married attractive women from poor families with promises of a prosperous new life abroad. The "groom" would then consummate the marriage and bring his "bride" to a large city before disclosing her fate. Procurers would often comb entire regions, collecting brides and depositing them with an agent in a larger city before transport abroad. The young women, even when not physically forced to serve as prostitutes, were often too ashamed to return to their homes and had no other alternative. Other procurers specialized in wooing and seducing young domestic servants working far from their families. Some Jewish women became prostitutes of their own volition to escape the drudgery of factory or domestic work or the grinding poverty of family life.

Jews neither controlled nor dominated the white slave trade but they did oversee the large and lucrative traffic in Jewish women. By the turn of the 20th century Jewish criminal gangs managed a complex system of routes, personnel, brothels, and corrupt officials. Obtaining accurate statistics on Jewish prostitution is nearly impossible. Although prostitution was legal in most European states in the late 19th century, it carried a social stigma and legal consequences, such as the need to submit to regular medical examinations. Additionally, many women engaged in prostitution only on an occasional basis. Nonetheless it is estimated that the proportion of Jews among prostitutes was never, even at its height, greater than the proportion of Jews in the population.

Jewish women from Europe were sent as far as southern Africa and the Far East, with England and Constantinople serving as major transit points, but one of the main destinations was South America. South American countries were eager to attract European immigrants and imported thousands of young men to serve in their growing economies. Open borders and underdeveloped law enforcement capacities led to rampant prostitution. In 1900, shortly after having been excluded by the local burial society, the Polish Jewish pimps of Buenos Aires chartered a mutual aid society and obtained their own cemetery. The groups that came to be known as the Zwi Migdal Society later had a synagogue as well. This was only the most infamous of a series of Jewish communal institutions established by and for criminal elements around the world.

America was another destination of the white slave trade, as well as a recruiting ground. Crowded and poor immigrant neighborhoods in cities across the United States provided ideal conditions. Polly Adler , a prominent brothel-keeper in the first half of the 20th century, described in her memoirs (A House Is Not a Home, 1950) how her rape by a co-worker, the extreme privations of working-class existence, and her attraction to the trappings of success led her gradually toward a career as a madam.

The uneasy alliance between official toleration of prostitution and public discomfort with its visible aspects began to deteriorate as prostitution, and especially large-scale trafficking, grew across Europe and the United States. Yiddish literature of the early 20th century contains a number of powerful portrayals of the social and personal costs of widespread prostitution including Sholem Asch 's God of Vengeance and Perets Hirschbein 's Miriam. A 1908 performance of the latter in Buenos Aires led to a bloody public riot.

Already in the 1880s outraged individuals involved in social purity movements in Britain and the United States had begun to sound the alarm about the problems of the white slave trade. By the beginning of the 20th century, the public began to listen. Sensational press stories about kidnappings of young girls contributed to raising public ire. Much of the press coverage focused on Jewish involvement. While major news outlets published unfounded reports of salacious deeds and hinted that Jews masterminded these events, the antisemitic press went even further in exploiting the association between Jews and the white slave trade. These antisemitic polemics gave the impression that Jewish men were raping and stealing Christian girls in a modern version of the ancient blood libel . In fact, although Jewish involvement in the white slave trade is not in question, Jewish traffickers dealt almost exclusively in Jewish women. The trade in non-Jewish women was generally over-seen by their own countrymen and correligionists.

Public opinion, however, was not limited to placing blame, and Jewish and non-Jewish organizations began to form to combat the white slave trade. In 1899, Britain's fiery evangelical campaigner William Coote toured Europe trying to raise awareness about the need to regulate cross-border traffic and protect women. His trip was financed in part by the Rothschild family. Only several years previously the formation of the Jewish Association for the Protection of Girls and Women had created a central agency for British Jewish action. The group was ably and energetically run by Arthur Moro for the next several decades.

In Germany, Bertha Pappenheim tirelessly fought for the rights of women. Combating the trade in women was one of the central platforms of her Juedischer Frauenbund , established in 1904. Hers and other voluntary association across Europe established travelers aid stations at major terminals and worked to have laws changed to prevent the free movement of human traffic. Equally important, they established international communication lines. The National Council of Jewish Women in the United States undertook similar initiatives in the American immigrant community. Although these networks were never as sophisticated as those of the traffickers, they were still able to cause disruptions by sending advance warning to law enforcement and other voluntary societies around the world. The Jewish community in South America was particularly grateful for the monetary and informational support of their correligionists in Europe. At times Jewish and non-Jewish groups worked together on such projects but often their relations were soured by antisemitism.

In the early 20th century, the success of social work and legal activism in Western Europe, and the awareness that the root of the problem lay further east, led to calls to treat the blight of prostitution at its source. In 1913, a group of Jewish social workers and nurses were preparing to travel to Galicia and Romania to establish institutions to help Jewish women avoid the snares of poverty and the white slave trade. This work, however, ended as Europe descended into war.

The onset of World War I meant a severe deterioration in Jewish life in Europe, as well as the closure of escape routes. Both increased presence of soldiers and failing economic conditions led to an increase in non-professional prostitution among Jews and non-Jews on the continent. At the same time the international white slave trade routes were interrupted, and would never fully recover. World War I essentially put an end to the period of major Jewish involvement in prostitution. Jewish prostitution, and even small scale procuring and trafficking continued, but the conditions were no longer ripe for large-scale activities as emigration slowed down and Jews in western countries increasingly moved up the economic ladder.

Prostitution once again came to the fore in Jewish communal concerns following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the large-scale immigration of former Soviet citizens to Israel in the 1990s. Among the many immigrants was a small minority of individuals involved in a variety of criminal activities, including trafficking and prostitution. The relatively open immigration policies contained in the Law of Return made Israel a useful hub for international criminal enterprise. Vulnerable women from all ethnic groups in the former Soviet Union were brought into Israel either voluntarily, or in some cases by deception, to serve as prostitutes in Israel or to be shipped elsewhere. Following time-tested methods, many of the women were forced to serve their procurers for lengthy periods to repay the cost of their travel. Others had their personal papers confiscated and were imprisoned in brothels or intimidated through the use of violence.

As the scope and size of the problem became clear, the Israeli government worked with internal non-governmental organizations and women's groups as well as international bodies to craft appropriate policies on judicial and criminal matters as well on as issues of rehabilitation and repatriation. Although these efforts did not end the international traffic in women, by 2004 they had proven effective in increasing both the prosecution of leaders of criminal rings and the rehabilitation of their victims.


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).

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