Shelaĥ: The Prostitute and the Tzitzit

The Talmud relates the story of a young student who, upon learning of a famous prostitute in a faraway city, is overcome with desire and travels to meet her. Predictably, at the last moment he is spared from sin due to his stringent adherence to the mitzva of tzitzit. But the story does not end there, and there is a final twist that conveys much about the approach to desire and passion:

Once a man, who was very scrupulous about the precept of tzitzit, heard of a certain harlot in one of the towns by the sea who accepted 400 gold [denars] for her hire. He sent her 400 gold [denars] and appointed a day with her.

When the day arrived he came and waited at her door…she [said], “Let him come in.” When he came in she prepared for him seven beds, six of silver and one of gold; and between one bed and the other there were ladders of silver, but the last was of gold. She then went up to the top bed and lay down upon it naked. He too went up after her in his desire to sit naked with her, when all of a sudden the four fringes [of his garment] struck him across the face; whereupon he slipped off and sat upon the ground.

She also slipped off and sat upon the ground and said, “By the Roman Capitol, I will not leave you alone until you tell me what blemish you saw in me.”

“By the Temple,” he replied, “never have I seen a woman as beautiful as you are; but there is one precept which the Lord our God has commanded us, it is called tzitzit, and with regard to it the expression ‘I am the Lord your God’ is twice written, signifying, I am He who will exact punishment in the future, and I am He who will give reward in the future. Now [the tzitzit] appeared to me as four witnesses [testifying against me].”

She said, “I will not leave you until you tell me your name, the name of your town, the name of your teacher, the name of your school in which you study the Torah.”

He wrote all this down and handed it to her. Thereupon she arose and divided her estate into three parts: one third for the government, one third to be distributed among the poor, and one third she took with her in her hand; the bedclothes, however, she retained. She then came to the beit midrash of Rabbi Ĥiyya, and said to him, “Master, give instructions about me that they make me a proselyte.”

“My daughter,” he replied, “perhaps you have set your eyes on one of the disciples?”

She thereupon took out the script and handed it to him.

“Go,” said he, “and enjoy your acquisition.”

Those very bedclothes which she had spread for him for an illicit purpose she now spread out for him lawfully. (Menaĥot 44a)

At the end of the story, the prostitute comes to the man’s beit midrash, to his rabbi, Rabbi Ĥiyya, and asks to convert to Judaism. The request is met with suspicion as to the purity of her motives. Rabbi Ĥiyya finds out that, indeed, the woman has “set her eyes” on one of his disciples, but is appeased by the letter she bears and accedes to her application.

It is clear that not only the man undergoes a transformation – so does the woman, and hers is the far more dramatic process. When the man leaves her alone in her bed, she worries that he has found some blemish in her and is repulsed by it. He tries to mollify her and tells her that she has nothing to worry about; on the contrary, he says, “Never have I seen a woman as beautiful as you are.” But she is not satisfied by his response. Faced with the young man’s impressive capacity to heed a loftier call and forgo sexual gratification, the prostitute realizes that despite her flawless exterior, she is lacking internally; her life is unfulfilled. She makes a courageous decision to leave it all behind and pursue the young man, and eventually she succeeds.

Tzitzit and Beds

To my mind, the most interesting element in the story is the prostitute’s attitude toward the “tools of her trade” – the beds. We would perhaps expect that when she sells off her assets, the first things she would want to rid herself of would be those tools of her trade that symbolize her previous depraved life – that, at most, she would take one bed on which to sleep. But she chooses to take all of her bedclothes. She is not the only one who assigns great importance to the beds. The rabbi whom she approaches in order to convert encourages her to make use of the beds in her marriage to his disciple. The beds are, I think, key to the story.
First, the numbers of beds (seven) and ladders (six) are significant, in that they establish a parallel with the tzitzit. Each of the four fringes of the tzitzit is wound thirteen times: seven times with the blue thread, which symbolizes the firmaments, and six with the white threads, which denote the air between the firmaments (Menaĥot 39a). The topmost bed is made of gold, and corresponds to the final winding of the tzitzit. According to the Talmud (ibid.), that is the holiest winding.

Ostensibly, the parallel is drawn in order to highlight a contrast, an example of the idea that “God hath made even the one as well as the other” (Eccl. 7:14). The passage into holiness is symbolized by the topmost winding of the tzitzit, which signifies the seventh firmament; for the prostitute, on the other hand, the seventh bed stands for the passage into depravity. It is thus surprising to encounter the rabbi’s positive approach to the beds further along in the story.

There is an idea put forth by the Baal Shem Tov that can help us understand the moral of the tale. He teaches that there are three stages to spiritual work when it comes to desire: overcoming (hakhnaa), separation (havdala), and sweetening (hamtaka). The three stages also appear in our story. First there is an overcoming of desire – a man who has come to a situation where he is in bed with a prostitute succeeds in refraining from sinning. In the second stage, separation, he returns to the benches of his beit midrash. But first, before taking leave of the prostitute, he hands her a letter: “He wrote all this down and handed it to her.” The Talmud’s formulation is reminiscent of a Torah verse that says that a man who wishes to divorce his wife must “write her” a bill of divorce and “hand it to her” (Deut. 24:1).

In the third stage, sweetening, the disciple and the woman marry, and “those very bedclothes which she had spread for him for an illicit purpose she now spread out for him lawfully” – meaning that desire is actualized in marriage. The story teaches us that desire is not inherently negative, but can bring people to bad places when it takes over. The point is not to neuter desire but rather to express it in a positive context, in which it can be sweetened. The etymological link between the Hebrew words for desire (“yetzer”) and creation (“yetzira”) is evidence of the positive potential of human desire.

This nuanced approach to desire is also apparent in the rabbi’s first response to the woman’s request to convert. Before giving his assent, he asks her suspiciously, “Perhaps you have set your eyes on one of the disciples?” An intention to marry is, to him, not a legitimate reason to convert to Judaism. Ultimately, it emerges that he is right to suspect her – for the woman has indeed been pursuing the disciple. And yet, he accepts her conversion and gives his blessing to the union. A desire to marry is not necessarily an illegitimate motive for conversion, but it must still be examined. Once the rabbi establishes that the woman’s desire to marry his disciple issues from a deep place within her soul, and that she is drawn to his inner world, which led her to Judaism, he blesses their union.

About the Author
Yakov Nagen is a Rabbi at the Yeshiva of Otniel, located near Hebron. His book "Be, Become, Bless - Jewish Spirituality between East and West" was recently published by Maggid.
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