Discussions at Shabbat Table – zonah

Last week’s Parsha (specified Torah reading) spoke a lot about priesthood, and included in that was the list of the women a Kohen (priest) is forbidden to marry. My 7 year old came home with a bunch of questions he had to answer on the parsha. One question was – name the three types of women a Kohen is not allowed to marry. The answer given was “divorced woman, zonah and challalah”. We know zonah is another word for prostitute, and challalah is the female child of a Kohen who “married” a divorced woman. Interestingly enough they were not taught that a Kohen cannot marry a female convert either.

Firstly I was a little insulted that divorced women were lumped together like that right next to a zonah. But in time I got over that. Secondly, I asked my son how his rebbe explained zonah to them. I was curious how you explain that to second graders. Unfortunately my sweet little son must have misunderstood his rebbe because he told me a zonah was a divorced woman. OUCH!!

So we explained to him that that wasn’t what it meant. But I was at a loss at how to explain to him what a zonah really is. So I asked my big boys how their Rebbeim explained it to them. (We do have the most interesting discussions at our table). The older boys are well aware what a prostitute is. They explained it correctly as a woman that sleeps with a man for money. But one of their rebbeim explained it as a woman who “shares” your house. Hmm. The sixth grader had it explained as a woman that you “marry” for money. I guess being “married” is a euphemism that is well used in yeshivot. But to an innocent second grader – who doesn’t yet know about the birds and the bees – why even bring up the subject? Why does he need to know a Kohen cannot marry a zonah if he doesn’t even know what a zonah is? I told him to go back and ask his Rebbe to explain to him what it is. Still waiting for an answer.

How would you have explained it to such a young child, or would you just have left it out of your lesson?

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21 responses to “Discussions at Shabbat Table – zonah

  1. Off the top of my head, I would say it’s a woman who spends time with you for money without getting into the what activities are involved.

    • ah, but my son would counter that if you have to buy friends, it’s really sad. people should like you for who you are. It’s a lesson I taught him recently after him wanting to give some lego to a classmate so he will like him.

      • batya from NJ

        well, your son’s right, having to buy friends like this kind of a lady (the zonah) IS indeed very sad ;)!
        this conversation reminds of last week when i was studying with my daughter for her navi (prophets) test & she learned about (Rahav the Zonah) which her 4th grade teacher simply explained as Rahav the inn-keeper (from the word mazon-meaning food). i remember learning this midrashic (& more family friendly interpretation) when i was younger & it was fine for me for my 10 year old to understand that Rahav was merely an inn-keeper. i don’t think she needs to know any other interpretations for zonah just yet…

        • Exactly, it IS sad! My son learned it as inn-keeper too. I didn’t correct him (but I snickered quietly to myself…)

          • batya from NJ

            so did i, chanie ;)!

          • Chanie – My son learned it as inn-keeper too. I didn’t correct him (but I snickered quietly to myself…)

            “Inn keeper” isn’t all that bad a description. Think of it as an inn with “extra” services!

            • Well, it might be slightly discriminatory for Inn-keepers.

              By the way, I heard a sex worker defining her profession as “infirmière de la sexualité publique”.

              That’s a nice term…

  2. No but we had to explain it last night in Hebrew to the goyim. They had no clue and the parsha we we were learning used the term. It seemed to translate better as one who strays…

  3. First at issue here is that Zonah in the context of a marrying a Kohen does not mean a prostitute, as it states in the Rambam Issurei Bia 18:1&2

    Halacha 1
    Based on the Oral Tradition, we learned that the term zonah1 used by the Torah refers to one who is not a nativeborn Jewess,2 a Jewish woman who engaged in relations3 with a man she was forbidden to marry, violating a prohibition that is universally applicable,4 or a woman who engaged in relations with a challal5 even though she is permitted to marry him.6

    Accordingly, a woman who engages in relations with an animal, even though she is liable for execution by stoning is not deemed as a zonah, nor is she disqualified from marrying into the priesthood,7 for she did not engage in relations with a man. [Similarly, when] a man engages in relations with a woman in the niddah state even though she is liable for kerait, she is not deemed as a zonah, nor is she disqualified from marrying into the priesthood, for she is not forbidden to marry him.

    Halacha 2
    Whenever a person has relations with an unmarried woman, even if she is a harlot who wantonly makes herself available to everyone, although she is liable for lashes,8 she is not deemed as a zonah, nor is she disqualified from [marrying] into the priesthood. For she is not forbidden to marry [the people with whom she engaged in relations].

    [When, by contrast, a woman] engages in relations with a man with whom relations are forbidden by a negative commandment that is universally applicable – the transgression is not specific to priests – or with whom they are forbidden by a positive commandment, she is forbidden to marry him, she is a zonah.9Needless to say, [this applies if she engages in relations with a man] who is forbidden to her as an ervah, a gentile, or a servant.
    (note this is from the Moznaim translation)

    The Shulchan Aruch rules in the same manner in Even HaEzer. Considering that the Rambam, and also the Shulchan Aruch, both go on to rule that a rape victim and a molestation victim qualify as a “zonah” disqualified from marrying a Kohen, I would be careful from stating that it necessarily impinges upon the moral character of the individual.

    In the end, until the children are of an age to understand the concepts and their implications, I think I would simply tell the children that “Zonah” is a very complicated concept that is applied to a number of situations, and like many things in Torah they are going to have to wait until they are a little older to fully understand it.

  4. My mother has to explain this to my brother as a young boy for some reason – she told him that sometimes there are men who are unfortunately so lonely that they need to pay someone to keep them company. A prostitute is a woman who will keep men company for money. I think that’s a great age-appropriate explanation and it paints prostitution in a sad light, which is appropriate too ;o)

  5. I wouldn’t worry so much: unless my child comes back from school and tells me he learnt something that really goes against the values I am personally trying to teach in general, I have let it go, because I know pretty well that if the child comes and says nothing, it hasn’t really sunk in his/her mind, and they are more than likely to revisit the topic anyway later, as you perfectly well experienced it with your elder.

    My rule of thumb is to see what kind of question the child is asking themselves: if your son had come up with “Ima, how come a cohen is forbidden from so and so” because he would identify so and so as a zonah for instance, then that’s when I wonder about what can I say.

    It lets you see what are really the points the children catch or not. Some of the 2nd grade teachings are just exposure to questioning, and my understanding is that teaching this first is because then it becomes easier because the children have been exposed at difficult topics from the get go.

  6. As Mekubal points out you are confusing the use of the word in Modern Hebrew with the technical legal meaning as applied to whom a Cohen can marry. The latter is fairly easy to explain to young boys.

  7. I agree with you that it doesn’t make sense to teach them about a zonah when they are too little to know what that is.

  8. In Yiddish cheder they use the word ‘voinen’ for being intimate. It means ‘living [with]”, VeAdam Yada es Chava would be translated into Yiddish as Un Odom hot ge”voint” mit Chava.

    But as mentioned Zona in this verse as it is interpreted in Talmud Yevamos 61:2 refers to a female who [forgive my explicit-ness] was penetrated by man who is forbidden to her to “marry”. That applies even to being raped.
    So even a woman who was in prison we assume that she was raped [by her captors], cannot marry a Cohen. There is a large body of Halachic Responsa in dealing with 1000’s of women holocaust survivors and their suitability in marrying Cohanim. Under the question of them falling into the category of being a ‘she’vuah’ in other words a “zonah” .

    Sounds harsh?

    Well virtually all Rabbinim who wrote on this issue found multiple ways to rule that these victims are chas vesholem not forbidden to Cohanim.

    Rabbi Yoel Teitlebaum wrote major responsa on this issue and they were published separately in a booklet during his lifetime, and later included in the Sefer Shu”t Diverei Yoel.

    • Why chas vesholem not forbidden to Cohanim. ? Personally I say Baruch HaShem that these Rabbanim stood up for the victims of such a national tragedy.

      Once when I was discussing this subject with Rav Ovadiah Yosef Shlit”a, I asked him how a Kohen(being one myself) should respond if Has V’Halila his wife were ever to tell him she had been raped. His answer was, “Say to her, ‘I don’t believe you, now let us get you some help.'” As there are rarely ever two halachic witnesses to a rape, there is no hiuv to “believe” that the incident ever occurred. So long as the Kohen never says with his own mouth that such and such occurred, he is able to prevent a double tragedy, the need to divorce his wife.

      I later asked Rav Eliyashiv Shlit”a(he is the halachic head of the Va’ad HaKohanim here in Jerusalem) for his view, explaining what Rav Ovadia had explained to me. His answer was, “Yes, this is halacha, why would you want to hurt the woman more, as surely a divorce would, as well as damage the children.”

      So I don’t understand your use of “Chas V’Shalom”.

    • I think “voynen” comes from “beiwohnen” which means (among others) having sexual relationships.

  9. Its taken me a couple of days to fully roll this one over in my head.

    First the problem lies, as the Rambam and other halachic literature illustrates, that when dealing with a Kohen, the term Zonah has a very different meaning then it normally does.

    Often when dealing with Znut we are dealing with an issue of morality, or rather the lack thereof on the part of the person. However, with a Kohen we are not, quite the opposite. A Kohen can marry an immoral woman, so long as she has only had relations with Jews. A prostitute that services only Jewish areas, is according to the halachic literature completely permissible. Primarily because it is not a matter of a forbidden relationship.

    According to the Rambam and the Shulchan Aruch a Zonah can be a giyoret, a rape victim, a molestation victim, any number of things for which questioning the morality of the woman is at once both insulting and degrading.

    That the Rebbeim involved haven’t looked at the sources and instead insist on maligning, disparaging and otherwise casting aspersions on the morality of a person is quite honestly somewhat infuriating. Quite honestly this type of mis-education has lead to tragedies in which uninformed Kohanim have been forced to divorce their wives who were the victims of attacks.

    Here is another killer scenario, a girl was molested as a child by an older brother, she is not engaged to Kohen. Both of them have had the same poor education. Hours before the Huppa when the Rav is filling in Ketuba, the girl raises the question as to what is written because of had happened to her. The Rabbi then, as gently as possible explains that the wedding, to which guests will begin to arrive at any moment, cannot go forth because halachicly she is a Zona and forbidden to marry a Kohen. The girl is devestated and overwhelmed with guilt, because no matter how much the Rav tries to explain to her then and there that Zona in this context has nothing to do with guilt or morality, that is what she has been taught her entire life. This was an unfortunate case that I actually witnessed.

    So what would I do if my child asked what a Zona was? I would explain that it in the context of who may or may not marry a Kohen it means a giyoret or a woman who has had any number of severe tragedies befall her, of no fault of her own, which they are yet too young to understand. If their “Rebbe” taught them something different, I would correct them, and send the “Rebbe” a stern note correcting him, with the relevant sources.

  10. Mekubal no matter how much you whitewash the term, you can not take away the stigma, which is the last thing a rape victim needs to deal with.

    Fault or no fault, you suddenly become tainted, second class, who would “profane” the cohen’s children.

    If the halacha wants to stigmatize me, who willingly had relations with non-Jews, I can deal with it. I’m a big girl and I made my decision knowingly.

    For a victim of rape or abuse, this is unconscionable.

    It would be much better if the halacha would have stuck with the moral aspect of the “zona” as it nearly always means in the bible.

    (Not that I think it’s good, I just think it would be better than the status quo).

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