Living on the Fringes: Lessons from a Prostitute

The Talmud tells a story of a man who once heard of a famous prostitute in a far away land. His desire overcame him, and he traveled to see her. The story develops in a not altogether surprising manner; at the last minute the man holds himself back from sinning, thanks to his careful observance of the mitzvah of tzitzit. But the story continues to an unexpected ending, which teaches us about the nature of human inclinations and the way Judaism relates to them. In the words of the gemara:

Once there was a man who was very careful in his observance of the mitzvah of tzitzit. He heard there was a prostitute in a distant town who accepted four hundred gold pieces for her services. He sent her four hundred gold pieces and made an appointment. When the appointed time came, he went and sat at her door…

“Enter,” she said, and he entered. She made him seven beds, six of silver and the seventh of gold, with a silver ladder between each bed, and to the top one, a golden ladder. She went up and sat unclothed on the uppermost bed, and he ascended to sit beside her. Suddenly the four fringes of his tzitzit brushed against his face and he slipped down and sat on the ground. She slipped down after him and sat beside him.

“By the Roman emperor,” she demanded, “I won’t let you leave until you tell me what blemish you saw in me!”

“By the service of G-d,” he replied, “never have I seen a woman as beautiful as you. But there is one mitzvah that G-d has commanded us called tzitzit, and regarding it, twice it is written ‘I am Hashem your G-d’ (Bamidbar 15:41), I am the G-d who will punish and the G-d who will reward, and [the four fringes of my tzitzit] will be as four witnesses against me.”

She said to him: “I won’t let you go until you tell me your name, the name of your city, the name of your Rabbi, and the name of the Beit Midrash where you study Torah.” He wrote it down and put it in her hand.

She then divided all her possessions – a third she gave to the kingdom, a third to the poor, and a third she kept for herself – except for her beds and bedding, and came to the Beit Midrash of Rabbi Chiya.

She said to him, “Rabbi, instruct me and I shall be a convert.”
He questioned her, “My daughter, might you have laid eyes on one of my students?” She showed him the note in her hand.

He said to her, “Go and enjoy your claim.”

The same beds which she had spread for him illicitly she now spread for him permissibly. (Menachot 42a)

At the end of the story the womene comes to the Beit Midrash of her not-quite-client and approaches his Rabbi, Rabbi Chiya, with the request to convert. Her request is greeted with suspicion and reservations about the purity of her motives. Indeed, Rabbi Chiya’s suspicion that she has “laid eyes on one of [his] students” is correct, but when he sees the note in her hand, he changes his mind and accepts her.

TecheletThough the gemara tells the story to demonstrate the power of tzitzit in changing a man’s heart, the prostitute also undergoes a process of growth in the story. As a matter of fact, she undergoes a much more dramatic and meaningful change than he does. When her visitor has a sudden change of heart, she initially fears that he has found her to be repugnant. He seeks to reassure her, telling her that his change of heart has nothing to do with her appearance, that actually, he has never seen a woman so beautiful. But his answer doesn’t leave her at rest. After witnessing his impressive behavior, his willingness to give up the object of his desire in which he had already greatly invested and instead respond to a higher call, she realizes that though she has no external blemish, something inside is missing, her way of life is not whole. So she makes a radical decision, abandons her lifestyle and wealth, and follows in the footsteps of the one who granted her this insight, eventually meriting to “enjoy her claim.”

Fringed Garments and Gilded Beds

The most interesting aspect of the story is the way the prostitute relates to the tools of her trade – her beds and her ladders. One would think that on her way to a new life, she would quickly seek to distance herself from those things most intimately associated with the life she seeks to leave behind, namely her beds, but she departs on her journey with the entire assemblage in tow. She isn’t the only one who sees them as important; the gemara itself makes a point of noting that after her conversion, she offers to her husband the same beds she had used in her trade. The key to the moral of this unusual story lies, in my opinion, in her beds.

First of all, there is a significance to the number of beds (seven) and the number of ladders (six). These numbers parallel the wrappings of the tzitzit. The strings of the tzitzit are wrapped in thirteen bands – seven bands of blue techelet, symbolizing the seven heavens, and six bands of white string, symbolizing the atmosphere between them (Menachot 39a). The top most bed is made of gold, and it corresponds to the last band of the tzitzit, which, according to the gemara, is the holiest one (ibid).

One would think that this parallelism comes to make a contrast, a sort of “this as opposed to this, made the Lord” (Kohelet 7:14). The movement toward holiness is expressed by the upper band of the tzitzit which represents the seventh heaven, whereas the prostitute’s seventh bed represents the approach toward sin and impurity. It is surprising, then, that ultimately the beds receive such positive treatment in the gemara.

To help understand the story’s message, let us turn to the torah of the Baal Shem Tov. The Baal Shem Tov teaches that there are three levels in the spiritual rectification of one’s inclination to do wrong: subduing, separating and sweetening. These three levels appear in our story. First, in the simplest sense, the urge itself is subdued. Ascending to the naked prostitute whom he has hired, the man manages to overcome his desire and withhold himself from sin. In the second step, separating, the man leaves her and returns to his town and his Beit Midrash, but before he does so, he writes her a note, “he wrote it down and put it in her hand.” The language of the gemara here is reminiscent of the language of the torah regarding divorce, “and he must write her a bill of separation and put it in her hand” (Devarim 24:1).

In the third step, the sweetening, the would-be sinners marry, and “the same beds which she had spread for him illicitly she now spread for him permissibly.” The inclinations have come to expression in a place of holiness, in marriage. The story teaches us that human urges and inclinations are not inherently wrong or evil, but when they hold the reins, they are liable to lead to negative places. The goal is not to uproot and destroy one’s inclination, but to channel it toward expression in the proper contexts. This is what the Baal Shem Tov means when he speaks of the sweetening of the inclination. The connection between the word for inclination, “yetzer,” and the word “yetzira,” creation, bears witness to the potential for good in Man’s inclinations.

Rav Yaakov Nagen
Yakov Nagen (Genack) is a Rom at the Hesder Yeshiva of Otniel and a member of “Beit Hillel”.

This article was translated from the Hebrew by Netzach Sapir


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