By Gary Konecky

Copyright © 2013 by Gary Konecky

We now come to a verse that seemingly has nothing to do with gays and lesbians. Deuteronomy 23:18 states: “There shall not be a prostitute of the daughters of Israel, and there shall not be a male prostitute of the sons of Israel.” (note 1) This verse is also sometimes translated as saying: “There shall be no sodomite of the sons of Israel.” (note 2)

This verse is interesting, not for what it says, but for how it has been interpreted. Christian scholars think this verse has to do with Temple prostitutes and Jewish homoerotic cultic practices. Jewish sages have a host of different commentaries about this verse including that it bans male-male sexual relations.

The Christian teachings appear to come from a very interesting phenomenon of the Hebrew language. Hebrew is typically written without vowels. The Hebrew root word that is usually translated as holy is the same as the Hebrew root word for prostitute (see parts six and 19). This linguistic phenomenon could be the basis for the Temple prostitute teaching. It appears to be the starting point for Theodore W. Jennings’ extensive discussion of this topic in his book, Jacob’s Wound, Homoerotic Narrative in the Literature of Ancient Israel. This may also be a starting point for much of Bruce L. Gerig’s analysis in his series of articles on Homosexuality and the Bible at

Another source for the concept of Temple prostitutes are the idol worshiping peoples that lived in the Land of Canaan and the Land of Israel. As the First Temple period drew to a close, righteous King Hezekiah was succeeded on the throne by the idol worshiping King Manassah (a king who was determined to end worship of G-d and institute the worst forms of idol worship). He was then succeeded by King Josiah, who lead the Jewish people in a spiritual renewal and destroyed the idols. We are told in the Book of Kings that King Josiah smashed the rooms of the idolaters that were located in the Temple. One of the commentaries on this passage informs us that these were the rooms where the women would weave draperies for the shrines of the idols. Another commentary believes these were the rooms of the male prostitutes. (note 3) Additionally, the Canaanite cults had males and females commit sexually immoral acts as part of their idol worship, which appears to be part of what this verse is prohibiting. (note 4) Therefore, we can conclude that Temple prostitutes were used in idol worship.

It is also worth noting that I cannot find any mention of a temple prostitute as a Jewish practice in any of the traditional Jewish texts.

Further condemning the practice of prostitution is the verse immediately following the banning of prostitutes. Deuteronomy 23:19 states: “You shall not bring a prostitute's fee or the price of a dog, to the House of the Lord, your G-d, for any vow, because both of them are an abomination to the L-rd, your G-d.” (note 1) The great Jewish sage Rashi explains this as follows:

a prostitute’s fee: [For example,] if one gave her a lamb as her fee, it is unfit to be offered up as a sacrifice. — [Sifrei 23:127]

the price of a dog: If one exchanged a dog for a lamb [this lamb is unfit for a sacrifice]. — [Sifrei 23:127; Temurah 29a]

because both of them [are an abomination to the Lord, your God]: …[The extra word …lit.“also,” comes] to include [a prostitute’s fee or the price of a dog, which has been] converted [to another form]. For example, wheat, which he (sic) made into flour. — [Temurah 30b] [Sefer Yereim ch. 207 reads: which she made into flour.]”

(note 1)

The reasoning behind the above teachings is that nothing acquired through any inappropriate means may be brought to the Temple, or used in fulfillment of a vow, or used for any religious purpose. (note 4)

The word dog is used with two meanings in this verse, its literal meaning and a figurative meaning. The literal meaning being that dogs were used in idol worship according to the great Jewish sage Ramban. (note 4) The figurative meaning being a male who practiced immorality in a religious rite was called a dog. (note 4)

Jewish teachings on this subject are very much concerned with the purity of offerings brought in the Temple. This includes any offering acquired by means of prostitution (either directly or indirectly) was prohibited. It is inconceivable how Jewish cultic prostitution would be permitted in light of these prohibitions.

Furthermore, Hebrew does not really have a word for holy. The word typically translated as holy actually means separate, for holy and separate reinforce each other (as was discussed in parts six and 19 of this series).

As explained earlier in this series, to understand the meaning of a word used in the Hebrew Bible, it is typical to see how that word is used in other passages in the Hebrew Bible. Therefore, we will turn to Leviticus 19:2 in our quest to understand the meaning of the Hebrew word that is typically translated as holy. Leviticus 19:2 states: “Speak to the entire congregation of the children of Israel, and say to them, You shall be holy, for I, the L-rd, your G-d, am holy.” (note 5)

Rashi explains this as follows:

Speak to the entire congregation of the children of Israel: [This] teaches us that this passage was stated in the assembly [of the entire congregation of Israel] because most of the fundamental teachings of the Torah are dependent on it [i.e., they are encapsulated in this passage]. — [Torath Kohanim 19:1; Vayikra Rabbah 24:5]”

You shall be holy: Separate yourselves from sexual immorality and from sin, for wherever one finds a barrier against sexual immorality, one finds holiness, [for example:], “[They (the kohanim) shall not take in marriage] a woman who is a prostitute or one who was profaned…I, the Lord, Who sanctifies you [am holy]” (Lev. 21:78); and, “he shall not profane his offspring…I am the L-rd, Who sanctifies him” (Lev. 21:15); and, “They shall be holy…[They shall not take in marriage] a woman who is a prostitute or one who was profaned” (Lev. 21:67). - [Vayikra Rabbah 24:46; and see also Sefer Hazikkaron]”

(note 5)

To apply this to the Hebrew root word meaning separate, Jews are commanded to keep the prostitutes separate because G-d teaches us that prostitution is unacceptable to the

L-rd. The Jewish people are also taught rules regarding foods that can and cannot be eaten, fabrics that can and cannot be worn, mourning practices that can and cannot be observed and so on. The purpose of these rules is to separate the Israelites from their idol worshiping neighbors. By separating the holy from the profane, the holy is protected.

Now lets turn to several Jewish interpretations of Deuteronomy 23:18.

The great Jewish sage the Rambam interprets this verse as prohibiting pre-marital sex. (note 6)

The Talmudic scholar Ra’avad, maintains this verse only prohibits prostitution and not pre-marital sex. (note 6)

The Ramban feels this verse was addressed to the Sanhedrin, which were the courts of ancient Israel and were responsible for the moral climate of the people. Consequently, they are therefore obligated to eradicate all forms of prostitution. (note 6)

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 54b) according to some rabbis interprets the prohibition against male prostitution as a warning against all forms of homosexuality. (note 6) It is important to note that there are other Jewish scholars and Talmudic experts who have translated this passage in the Talmud as not referring to homosexuality, but to pederasty. (see the Appendix to part 15 of this series for additional information about this point).

The Targum forbids sexual relations between the Jewish people (men and women) and their servants. (note 6)

To have this many interpretations of a verse is not unusual. We are taught in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 34a): “Is not My word like as fire? Said the L-rd; and like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces?” (Jer. 23:29). “As a hammer divideth fire into many sparks, so one verse of Scripture has many meanings and many explanations.” (note 7)

If our analysis of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 (part 14 of this series this series) is correct, then this verse is about prostitution. Being a prostitute is considered to be humiliating or degrading, therefore this verse works with Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 to ban sexually humiliating or degrading behavior.

Furthermore, some of the sages are making a leap from male prostitution to banning homosexuality. Why? Could it be that only men frequented prostitutes at this time? Keeping in mind that women were in some ways treated like property, and that men were allowed several wives at one time, then it would follow that only men had the money and opportunity to patronize prostitutes. If this is true, than every client of a male prostitute was another male. Therefore, to the sages, there was a logical relationship between male prostitution and homosexuality. The problem with their interpretation is that this is no longer true. Today, men and women have the money and opportunity to frequent prostitutes, and members of both genders have been known to use the services of homosexual and heterosexual prostitutes. Furthermore, not all male homosexuals are prostitutes, nor are all male prostitutes homosexuals. Lastly, committed same sex couples are seeking legal recognition (same sex civil marriage) and religious recognition (commitment ceremonies and religious marriage) of their monogamous long-term relationships, something at great odds with the concept of prostitution.

While a long time ago this verse might have had some meaning in terms of homosexuality, I do not believe that it has anything to do with homosexuality in this day and age. I also do not think it can serve as proof for the existence of Jewish homoerotic cultic practices. I think the best possible understanding of this verse is that of Ra’avad, who maintained that this verse only prohibits prostitution.


Note 1:

Note 2: Talmud - Mas. Sanhedrin 54b, The Soncino Talmud, Judaic Classics by David Kantrowitz, Version 3.0.8, Copyright 1991-2004, Davka Corporation. See also the appendix to part 15 of this series.

Note 3: Pages 435-437 of The Complete Artscroll Machzor / Pesach / Nusach Sefard by Rabbis Gold, Zlotowitz and Scherman, copyright 1990, Mesorah Publications, Ltd.

Note 4: Page 848 of The Pentateuch and Haftorahs, Hebrew Text, English Translation and Commentary, edited by Dr. J. H. Hertz, copyright 1960, published by Soncino Press.

Note 5:

Note 6: Pages 61-63 of The Torah Anthology / Me’Am Lo’Ez, Book 18, Laws & Warnings, by Rabbi Shmuel Yerushalmi, translated by Rabbi Eliyahu Touger, copyright 1991, Moznaim Publishing Corp.

Note 7: as quoted on page 33 of The Talmudic Anthology, Tales & Teachings of the Rabbis, edited by Louis I. Newman in collaboration with Samuel Spitz, copyright 1945, published by Behrman House, Inc. 

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