Oz Torah: Ask the Rabbi on prostitution


Question. What is the Jewish view of prostitution?

Answer. Based on the verses in the Bible,

“There shall be no harlot of the daughters of Israel” (Deut. 23:18)


“Profane not your daughter to make her a harlot” (Lev. 19:29), Jewish teaching strongly disapproved of prostitution.

Jewish Dress Code Based on Torah Value of Modesty. credit: unitedwithisrael.org

It condemned as flagrantly immoral both the woman “who is ready to prostitute herself to every man”, and also the man who resorted to prostitutes. It also warned against approaching a harlot’s door or passing through a “harlots’ market”.

Jews generally led lives marked by sexual modesty. Community regulations sought to prevent sexual licence, including prostitution. Communal leaders vigorously opposed attempts to establish or maintain brothels in the ghettoes or Jewish quarters of towns or cities.

Judaism remains adamant that prostitution debases sex, womanhood and human dignity, and it strongly disapproves of commercial ventures which cynically exploit people’s sexuality.


Question. Why do so many people study the Talmud?

Answer. Firstly, the Talmud is not a book. It is a 63-volume library. Its formal structure is six “s’darim” or “Orders”, i.e. general categories of knowledge. It reasons out innumerable subjects with close logic, bringing in information on an amazing range of subjects.

The rabbis liken the Talmud to a sea, carrying the human being to every kind of fascinating ports, but requiring navigational skills not only to reach the destination of the moment but to get safely home again.

There are of course translations – the pioneer Soncino translation is now supplemented by the rather more user-friendly Schottenstein (ArtScroll) and Steinsaltz (Koren) editions – but Talmud study groups and yeshivot utilise the original Hebrew-Aramaic text using a sing-song that enlivens the ancient discussions.

Studying the Talmud enhances one’s knowledge of Jewish law, ways and practices.

It also enshrines major philosophical ideas such as the power of truth, justice and peace: truth because the debates constantly seek out true answers, justice because Jewish teaching is the basis of a just society, and peace because the “chavruta” or study-pair end their discussion either agreeing or agreeing to disagree.


Question. Is there any connection between a shammes and a shamus?

Answer. A shammes (or shammas) is an official acting as the beadle, sexton, and caretaker of a synagogue (from the Hebrew “shammash”, “to serve”).

What my dictionary says about shamus is

“US slang: a police or private detective, probably from shammes, influenced by Irish Seamas, James”.

credit: mfi-miami.com

The origins of the shammes go back to Talmudic times. In those days his title was chazan, which did not denote a cantor but a synagogue overseer. He was a versatile individual with responsibility for the synagogue building, the conduct of services, the allocation of seats, the supervision (and sometimes teaching) of children, and even acting as court official and sheriff.

In time the offices of chazan and shammes were separated. The chazan chanted the services; the shammes became the general factotum whose duties ran from community administration to announcing lost property and proclaiming the results of law suits.

In old Anglo-Jewry, the beadle was regarded by some as a lowly servant, but this was far from the case in terms of his own self-estimation. In his own eyes, the beadle, with his top hat and robe and in some cases real livery and staff of office, was the real ruler of the synagogue. The wardens and ministers came much lower down and could not move an inch without his approval.

Even if the dictionary is right and the shamus derived from the shammes, there is a major difference between them in that the shammes would and could never leave the public gaze and go under cover.

Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.
Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com

Check Also

Whenever I feel afraid – Rosh HaShanah

Julie Andrews made it into a famous song – the notion that whenever I feel …