Prostitutes, Rabbis and Teshuvah (Return) By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

The Talmud tells two stories of Rabbis visiting prostitutes and subsequently doing Tehsuvah (return, repentance).  A comparison of the two stories yields deep insights about our own work of Tishuvah at this time of the year.   A good and inspiring Month of Ellul to all.

Story #1 (Babylonian Talmud, Minachot 44a)

Once a man, who was very careful about the commandment of tzizit, heard about a certain harlot in one of the towns by the sea who accepted four hundred gold coins for her hire. He sent her four hundred gold coins and appointed a day with her. When he came to  her door the harlet’s maid told her, “The man who sent you four hundred gold coins is here and waiting at the door”; to which the harlot replied “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 steps of silver, but the last were 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 (Tzitzit) of his garment struck him across the face; whereupon he slipped off the bed and sat upon the ground. She also got down from the bed and sat upon the ground and said to him, “I will not leave until you tell me what blemish you saw in me.”  He replied, “never have I seen a woman as beautiful as you are; but there is one commandment which God has commanded us, it is called tzizith, and with regard to it the expression “I am the Lord your God” is written twice, signifying, I am He who will exact punishment in the future and I am He who will give reward in the future. The tzizith appeared to me as four witnesses”.

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 bed clothes, however, she retained. She then came to the Beth Hamidrash (house of study) of Rabbi Chiyya, and said to him, ‘Master, give instructions that they may make me a convert’. ‘My daughter’, he replied; ‘perhaps you have set your eyes on one of my students?’ She thereupon took out the paper and handed it to him. ‘Go’, said he ‘and enjoy your acquisition’…Those very bed-clothes which she had spread for the student for an illicit purpose she now spread out for him lawfully.

Story #2 (Babilonian Talmud, Avodah Zara 17a)

It was said of Rabb Eleazar ben Dordia that there was no harlot in the world he did not have relations with. Once, upon hearing that there was a certain harlot in one of the towns by the sea who accepted a purse of gold coins for her hire, he took a purse of gold coins and crossed seven rivers to reach her. As he was with her, she had flatulence and said, “As this gas will not return to its place, so will Eleazar ben Dordia never be received in repentance.”

He thereupon went, sat between two mountains and exclaimed: “O, mountains, plead for mercy for me!” They replied: “How shall we pray for thee? We stand in need of it ourselves, for it is said, “For the mountains shall depart and the hills be removed!”” He exclaimed: “Heaven and earth, plead for mercy for me! They, too, replied: How shall we pray for you? We stand in need of it ourselves, for it is said, “For the heavens shall vanish away like smoke, and the earth shall wax old like a garment.””… He then pleaded with the Sun and moon and the stars and constellations to plead for mercy on his behalf but they all gave the same answer.

Said Rabbi Eliezer, “Then it depends upon me alone!” Having placed his head between his knees, he wept aloud until his soul departed (he died). Then a bath-kol (voice from heaven) was heard proclaiming: ‘Rabbi Eleazar ben Dordai is destined for the life of the world to come!’ When Rebi heard this story he wept and said: “One person may acquire eternal life after many years, and another person in but an hour!” Rebi also said: Not only are those who repent accepted but they are even called “Rabbi”!”

Questions and Explanation

Why in the first story does Rabbi Chiyyah’s student do tishuvah without dying and even merit marrying the harlot, but in the second story though Rabbi Eliezer ben Dordi does tishuvah the ending is more tragic?

I would suggest that the difference is in the differing attitude and motivations of the two rabbis with regard to tishuvah.   Rabbi Chiyyah’s student repents out of his appreciation for mitzvoth, for holiness.  He is able to weigh the infinite value of the spirit (his tzitzit) against the fleeting pleasure of the physical.  This well balanced approach brings him to teshuvah without losing himself, and the parts of himself that are of value and can be used for holiness.  He will be able to elevate the physical by his connection to the spiritual, and indeed in the end of the story he truly does this, as the Talmud points out, by marrying the harlot and transforming the bed clothes that were illicit into those of a mitzvah.

In the second story, in contrast, Rabbi Eliezer ben Dordi is only moved to tishuvah when the physical becomes repulsive, only when the harlot, the object of his desire, passes gas, and is thus suddenly stripped of her sensuality and the curtain of his idealization of her and her sensuality is lifted.  He does not have the spiritual tools with which to raise the physical and sanctify it, his obsession and desire are gone and he is left alone and empty.

The lesson is an important one for all of us as we engage in the process of tishuvah at this time of year.  There are many motivations for teshuvah.  Sometimes we feel empty and lost, grasping at straws.  Tishuvah can emerge from there but it does not always sanctify one’s life, rather such tishuvah often functions by jettisoning one’s current identity and replacing it with a different life.  In contrast one can add holiness to the life one already leads and let the mitzvoth not expunge who we are but sanctify us.  The second I think is more organic since it does not demand the severance of one’s self but the sanctification and tweaking thereof.

Much blessing for a New Year that is one not of, not repentance through rejecting who we are, but a “return,” a “tishuvah” to the Godly people that we truly are.  Shanah Tovah.

One Response to Prostitutes, Rabbis and Teshuvah (Return) By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

  1. Interesting, thank you. I had never thought to compare these two midrashim. Thank you.

    I’m reminded of Rav Kook that teshuva is like electric shock therapy (today, let’s say chemotherapy instead). In the effort to defeat the yetzer hara, we quench also the yetzer ha-tov. (As one of my rabbi notes, many baalei teshuva, when they become religious, abandon many aspects of their entire identities, such as playing musical instruments, etc.)

    But as Rabbi Dr. Eliezer Berkovits says in Crisis and Faith (“A Jewish Sexual Ethics”), the yetzer hara is simply man’s vital force. Therefore, says Rav Kook, the ultimate goal of teshuva is not to quench the vital forces, but rather, to redirect those forces from the yetzer hara to the yetzer hatov. Mathematically, we’d say to change the force from negative to positive but retain the same absolute value.

    According to Rav Soloveitchik, the difference between teshuva m’ahava and m’yirah is whether the teshuva cuts one off from his past entirely, forgetting his past and starting entirely anew; or whether he uses his past as a motivation, learning lessons from his past and using his past sinful experiences as positive educational material. Teshuva is not a boon from G-d (contra Mesilat Yesharim and others), because Reish Lakish says that even doing teshuva for mitzvot causes those mitzvot to be forgotten by G-d. Rather, the key to teshuva is that it changes one’s relationship to his own past, changing the meaning of his past, and changing his own identity. Therefore, G-d judges him differently. This all fits with Rav Kook as well.

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