The Persistent Prostitute

In The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone – Especially Ourselves.(Harper Collins), Dan Ariely presents a  simplified version of a striking episode in Menachos 44a. What’s fascinating about this story (in striking contrast to the more famous episode with a a prostitute, which ends with the man’s teshuva and instant entrance in the World to Come) is that it does not end on the note of triumph for the man who resisted temptation and walked away. The story then shifts its focus to the prostitute who wants to understand what is this all about and then becomes Jewish herself and marries the very same man.   

Rabbi Nattan said: there is no "minor" mitzvah in the Torah whose observance isn't rewarded in this world and the next. How much is the reward? Let us use the mitzvah of tzitzit as an example:
There was once a man who was meticulous in the observance of the mitzvah of tzitzit. He heard that there was a harlot in a faraway city who charged four hundred gold talents for her services. He sent her the exorbitant fee and set an appointed time to meet her. When he arrived at the appointed time ... she prepared for him seven beds, one atop the other -- six of silver and the highest one was made of gold. Six silver ladders led to the six silver beds, and a golden ladder led to the uppermost one. The prostitute unclothed herself and sat on the uppermost bed, and he, too, joined her. As he was unclothing himself, the four fringes of his tzitzit slapped him in his face. He immediately slid off the bed on to the floor, where he was quickly joined by the woman.
"I swear by the Roman Caesar," the harlot exclaimed, "I will not leave you until you reveal to me what flaw you have found in me!"
"I swear," the Jew replied, "that I have never seen a woman as beautiful as you. However, there is one mitzvah which we were commanded by our G‑d, and tzitzit is its name. Concerning this mitzvah it is twice stated in the Torah 'I am the L-rd your G‑d' -- 'I am the one who will seek retribution, and I am the one who will reward.' Now the four tzitzit appeared to me as four witnesses, testifying to this truth."
"I still will not leave you," the prostitute said, "until you provide me with your name, the names of your city, rabbi and the school in which you study Torah."
He wrote down all the information and handed it to her.The woman sold all her possessions. A third of the money she gave to the government (as a payoff so that they would allow her to convert to Judaism), a third she handed out to the poor, and the remaining third she took with her -- along with the silver and gold beds -- and she proceeded to the school which the man had named, the study hall of Rabbi Chiya.
"Rabbi," she said to Rabbi Chiya, "I would like to convert to Judaism."
"Perhaps," Rabbi Chiya responded, "you desire to convert because you have taken a liking to a Jewish man?"
The woman pulled out the piece of paper with the information and related to the rabbi the miracle which transpired with the tzitzit.
"You may go and claim that which is rightfully yours [i.e. the right to convert]," the rabbi proclaimed.
She ended up marrying the man. Those very beds which she originally prepared for him illicitly, she now prepared for him lawfully. Such was his reward for meticulously observing the mitzvah of tzitzit.

There is a lot more going on here. Why do we have to know about the 6 beds of silver and one of gold?  I’d venture to say that the point is found in the spiritual significance of numbers, something the Maharal discusses in a number of places. The number 7 is the ultimate number is the natural cycle, as signified by the 7 days of the week. The prostitute could deliver that – the ultimate physical experience.  That’s what the man came for. The only thing that could stop him from going for the gold here was a more powerful force, and that is something in the number 8.

Eight is the number we celebrate on Chanukah, Shmini Atzeres, and at every bris. It is the number that signifies a force more powers than anything in nature. While the man explains that the tzitzis are made up of 4 witnesses, each one of the 4 corners falls into 8 strings. The power in those 8 strings outweighed the attraction of the 7 beds.
 
But the story doesn’t end there. He doesn’t just walk away because the prostitute doesn’t let him. She is so incredibly impressed by this that she gives up the life she had been leading to make a new one among the Jews. She clarifies that she is doing this for her own sake and not in order to marry a Jewish man who caught her eye. (Were they saying “Jewish men make the best husbands” back then?)   And in the end, both she and he get the best of both worlds. 




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