It is a general assumption that when the word “zonah” appears throughout Tanach it is in reference to a prostitute. Whenever the word is used the association made is one of negativity. This isn’t so fair when, just as with a lot of other words in Hebrew and throughout Tanach, there is more than one accurate translation. In fact, it is more prevalent throughout Navi that when the word “zonah” is used it is not in reference to a prostitute at all. In this essay we shall take a look at a few instances of the term through Tanach and attempt to gain a better understanding of what it really means.
“Zonah” In Chumash
The first time “zonah” is used in the Torah is in Parshas Emor in the context of listing the laws of a Kohen, specifically who he is and is not allowed to marry. Rashi there defines “zonah” as someone who has been with a man that is prohibited to her (Vayikra 21:7). It is interesting to note that Rashi isn’t saying that she is a prostitute who sells her body for money or that she is willing to be with anyone and everyone. Rather, he delineates three examples of people classifying the type of man that she may have been with: someone who is obligated in kares, a netin, or a mamzer (Vayikra 21:7). Ibn Ezra there also explains that zonah does not always mean what it sounds like.
Of course, there are numerous times when the word “zonah” does mean exactly what we assume it means, namely a prostitute. In Devarim, for instance, the Torah discusses that being a zonah means being a prostitute for money. Further, in Yoel the passuk describes “boys [that] were sold for a zonah’s fee” (4:3). All of the mefarshim agree that this mashal is referring to a real prostitute.
“Zonah” In Navi
Things get particularly interesting once the word “zonah” begins to be used throughout Navi. The word is first used to describe Rachav in Sefer Yehoshua when the spies go to scout out Yericho. The passuk describes that the two spies went to “the house of an isha zonah and her name is Rachav” (Yehoshua 2:1). Upon first glance, this would seem strange. Why would two upstanding Jewish individuals go to the house of a prostitute (as the word “zonah” is classically translated)? Rashi clears up this quandary. He quotes Targum Yonatan who explains that zonah here means “pundekita”, or someone who sells food. This can mean either a grocer or an innkeeper. The latter explanation obviously makes more sense in this case, as the spies went to stay at her home. Metzudat Tzion also simply explains that Rachav was a seller of food. Radak, however, doesn't take a side in the prostitute/grocer debate. Rather, he explains that zonah means either what it sounds like — a prostitute — or a seller of food. It could also be that she’s both, a prostitute grocer, who has in her mind to be a zonah and abandon herself to all.
It is clear from the story of Rachav that the word “zonah” could have both positive and negative denotations. In the case of Rachav it seems that, based on Radak’s synthesis of the two interpretations, either way the word “zonah” in the context of Rachav would have a negative connotation. However, it is still important to recognize that the classification of zonah could mean something other than what we generally assume it to mean. This is important to keep in mind especially when looking at the next place the word “zonah” is used in Tanach.
“Zonah” in Shoftim
While the times of the shoftim were filled with a negative cycle of sinning, punishment, and repentance — and while it is known that many of the leaders weren't necessarily top notch — some of the shoftim were indeed of a higher caliber. Though Yiftach is called “a mighty man of valor” (Shoftim 11:1) in the text, the Artscroll commentary explains that post-Yiftach, and through the rest of Sefer Shoftim, HaShem didn't provide Bnei Yisrael with great leaders; they were all of a lesser status and had lesser victories. However, they were still leaders. Yiftach may not have measured up to the usual standards of the leaders prior to himself, but he was still chosen by God to lead His people. The passuk first introduces Yiftach as “Yiftach ha’giladi… the son of a zonah” (11:1). This is interesting; “son of a zonah” and leader of Israel. How could the son of a prostitute be chosen to be the leader of Israel? Unless, of course, the word zonah doesn't necessarily mean prostitute.
Metzudat David first explains that even though it says “zonah,” it was still clear that Yiftach’s father was Gilad. This is already very telling because generally it is challenging to determine who the father of a prostitute’s baby is. Radak therefore clarifies that she was a concubine, not a prostitute. The passuk calls her a zonah to highlight the fact that she wasn't with her husband in the context of a ketuba and kiddushin, thus creating a zonah-like situation. Because of this, she is called a zonah even though she was never with another man. Malbim agrees with both Metzudat David and Radak. Targum Yonatan translates zonah as pundekita (innkeeper who sells food) just as he does by the story of Rachav. Even though she is called a zonah, there is absolutely nothing halachically wrong with what Yiftach’s mother did. Ralbag actually explains that she is called a zonah because she came from a different shevet, which was discouraged because inheritance gets transferred from the woman’s shevet to the man’s. Most importantly, though, she was never unfaithful.
The next incident of the word zonah being used is later on in Shoftim, when Shimshon arrived in Gaza. The passuk says that “Shimshon went to Gaza and saw a zonah and came to her” (16:1). Here, as with Gilad, it’s not so clear as to the nature of the zonah that Shimshon visited. Radak and Ralbag explain that she was an innkeeper. Meam Loez, however, explains that he actually came to live with a prostitute.
Though at times it isn't clear what the word zonah means, it is important to keep in mind that it could mean more than one thing. We must make sure to always keep the edict of “judge thy fellow men favorably,” even when learning Tanach.