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The Tale of the Harlot by the Sea

This article is an essay published in Marc Gafni’s English language book The Mystery of Love, and discussed in his audio series, On the Erotic and the Holy. In recent study, Marc Gafni has added and revised this article.

In Talmudic Textual Koans, we will post readings of Talmudic texts. Marc Gafni has developed, together with other teachers in the last thirty years, a unique way of reading Talmudic texts as Textual Koans. Textual Koans are written by rabbinic authors who often represent a SUBVERSIVE viewpoint, which undermines and challenges the classic rabbinic view.

In order to read the texts properly, one must engage them with full heart, body and mind. Each of these represents a different dimension and method of reading. Moreover, it is critical to divide up the text into clearly demarcated scenes, with each scene having its own distinct acts. Then one needs to notice the several levels of possible interpetation which the text suggests, and feel into the one which offers the most shocking and subversive illumination. Although not always, it is often in this place of provocation that the text shares its wisdom and invites the reader who successfully navigates his or her way inside.

The Harlot by the Sea

A Tale of Pleasure, Self-Creation, Story, Voice and Name.

All of the themes of the previous several chapters come into sharp focus in a fabulous but little known myth told by the third century Babylonian wisdom masters.

In the style of the Talmudic study hall, I will first tell the story. Then we will raise a series of literary queries which highlight what is strange and demanding of explanation in the tale. Finally, together we will unpack its underlying mythical erotic themes.

The story: Once there was a man who was very careful in his fulfillment of the law of ritual fringes. This man heard of a certain prostitute by the sea who accepted four hundred gold coins as her wage. He sent her four hundred gold coins and fixed a time for their encounter. When the day arrived, he came and waited at her entrance. Her maid came and told her, “That man who sent you four hundred gold coins is here and waiting at your entrance.”

To which she replied, “Let him enter.”

When he came in she prepared for him seven beds, six of silver and one of gold, and between one bed and the other there were steps of silver, but the last steps were of gold. She went up to the top bed and lay down on it naked. He also went up after her to sit naked, facing her.

At that very moment his ritual fringes themselves instantaneously ascended the stairs and slapped him in the face, whereupon he slipped off the bed and sat on the ground. She also slipped off and sat on the ground. She swore, “I will not leave you alone until you tell me what blemish you saw in me.”

He swore, “Never have I seen a woman as beautiful as you….however there is one commandment called ‘ritual fringes,’ and the ritual fringes have appeared to me… They represent to me a higher order of value –I cannot sleep with you.”

She said, “I will not leave you until you tell me your name, the name of your village, the name of your teacher, and the name of the academy in which you study Torah.” He wrote it all down and placed it in her hand. She then arose and divided her wealth in three parts. A third she used to pay taxes, a third she gave to the poor, and a third she retained. However, the beautiful bed sheets she used on her harlot’s bed she kept with her.

She then came to the study hall of Master Hiyya (the man’s teacher). “Give me instructions,” she said, “so that I may convert.”

“My daughter,” replied the master, “Perhaps you have set your eyes upon one of my students.” ( In which case her desire to convert may have been insincere and thus legally invalid.)

She took out the paper the man had written to her with his name and the name of his village master and school. R. Hiyya upon seeing the note agreed to convert her. “Go,” he said, “and enjoy your acquisition.”

The very sheets she spread for the man as a harlot she now spread for him as his wife. This is the reward of ritual fringes in this world.

A strange and wonderful story to be sure. In the way of the myth masters, let’s re-read, this time keeping our eyes and hearts open for ‘remize d’orayta’ glimmering of light and ‘lechisha’ whispers of meaning.

First we have a man who is very careful about ritual fringes. The Hebrew word for careful is zahir which means both careful and illuminated or shining. Remember that the image for one’s story is light. The word zahir derives from the word Zohar which as we have seen, also means eros or fullness. Your story is always the source of your fullness and eros.

In a different passage, the Talmud asks a wonderful soul print question about one of the spiritual teachers. “In what was the master most zahir?” Literally, in what spiritual practice was the master most careful? What was the source of his illumination? Or, in our language, what was his soul print? Our passage is playing off of this set of allusions when it says, “He is zahir – he shined – in the mitzvah of ritual fringes.” This indicates to us that his soul print – his special calling – perhaps even his particular struggle – was somehow connected to ritual fringes.

Biblical law speaks of a spiritual practice in which one places specifically designed ritual fringes on all four corners of a garment. The reason given for the injunction is “in order that you not stray after your hearts and eyes which you tend to stray after.” The word in Hebrew for “stray,” zonim, plays with the Hebrew word zonah – harlot. Thus, ritual fringes are in some measure designed as a countermeasure to unredeemed sexuality. It is certainly not a thematic accident that the protagonist in our story, uniquely engaged in ritual fringes designed to prevent zonim, sexual straying, is on his way to see a zonah, a harlot.


The soul print of our hero is clearly bound up with his struggle with emptiness. He is going to a harlot not because he is overcome with natural sexual desire. He is not one who passes by a brothel or an Internet site and is temporarily overcome by desire. This harlot lives far away by the sea. She takes 400 coins as her wage. 400 in biblical myth means an enormous amount. She is the highest paid courtesan in the land. He makes an appointment with her months in advance. He is looking for a peak experience, something that “will take him there,” that will break through the emptiness that plagues his days. “If only I would have that experience” – whatever “that” may be – “then I would be satisfied.”

He has heard of this harlot by the sea. The sea – water – is always the symbol of overwhelming passion in myth. At this moment of intensity in his landlocked world, the visit to the harlot by the sea seems to be his only way out. He makes an appointment, and he waits with great anticipation for the meeting. The desire and yearning fill him and at least temporarily his emptiness abates.

This is an encounter with shadow to be sure. A meeting with the most primal of energies. He has paid not only with coins, 400 coins, but with golden coins. “In the shadow is the gold,” writes Jung. In Jung, as well as in the sources he draws from in alchemy and biblical myth, gold always represents shadow. The children of Israel leave Egyptian slavery and begin the journey to the promised land, the mythic journey from sickness and fragmentation to wholeness and health. However, they take with them from Egypt vessels of gold and silver which they have taken from the Egyptians – definitive shadow symbols. That shadow will erupt in the flames of the golden calf, formed from those very vessels. In the end, the journey can only be successful if that same gold can be melted down and re-smelted as the gold of the Temple, the gold of the ark and the two cherubs. These are the three stages in the journey of gold/shadow in biblical myth. So the gold in our story evokes images of primal energy and shadow work. The alchemical process of turning darkness into light, shadow into spirit.

But who is she, our harlot woman? At this point, she is an archetype, she is the sexual incarnate. Relationship, depth and commitment are not her trade. She deals in fantasy, filling up men’s emptiness with peak experiences that crash the next morning. In the image of the Zohar, she is the Shechina in exile, the lost princess.

The week of the appointment arrives. The man has been telling himself for weeks that he should not go, but when the time draws near he simply cannot resist. His legs carry him almost magically to the village of the harlot by the sea. He knocks on her door. In the Hebrew text, it reads, “He comes and sits at her opening.” A liminal place. A pivoting point. Surely a sexual image.

“Let him enter,” says the harlot. She – master of her trade, sets up seven beds, gold and silver, ladders between each one, gold and silver, which evoke in us the shadow images we remember all too well from the Exodus story.

Seductively she climbs the ladder, naked, inviting him to follow. He does, and she sits kenegdo, facing him, or more literally opposite him. And yet, the climb was not easy. The Hebrew text speaks of the ladder being bein – between the beds. Bein is a word we are familiar with from the mystery of the cherubs. God rests in the space “between the cherubs”, in the empty space between the cherubs. Only by walking through the emptiness – “between the cherubs” – can one touch the divine. This is the emptiness that the Buddhist masters yearn towards and that the Kabbalists call ayin. He climbs the space “between the beds,” reaching, yearning, struggling, hoping.


The story is about to reach its natural climax. But then something magically strange and unexpected happens. The man’s ritual fringes somehow ascend the ladder through the emptiness, following him. And as he stretches his hand to caress her cheek, the fringes slap his face.

He recoils. She draws back. Almost in unison they flee the elevated bed and sit on the ground, facing each other, still naked. She does not understand. For the first time, there is conversation between them. Voice is introduced.

“Am I not pleasing to you?”

“No, that is not it,” he responds gently, “You are more beautiful than I could’ve ever imagined. And your face is kind. But I cannot be with you. If I cannot be with you fully in the world, then I do not want you like this.”

She is at first confused, and then when she realizes his intention, overwhelmed.

For the first time in all her years, during which her body has been exposed in all of its intimacies to so many men, for the first time she feels seen.

She says to him, “What is your name? The name of your master? Your village? Your school?”

A cacophony of questions of names spills from her throat and heart.

Remember, up till this point, the entire text was in pronouns and subjects. The man, the harlot, the maid, that man, she said, he said, she said…no names. A desperate encounter – faceless, nameless, anonymous and sad.

In the midst of it all, his ritual fringes interrupt. The biblical verse describing the function of the fringes is, “And you shall see and you shall remember and you will not stray..” To see: perception. Sexual seeing models love – but love goes deeper. It is seeing with God’s eyes. Taking in a kind face, eyes that have suffered.

“What is your name?” she asks. Lishmah – for the sake of the name. The whole encounter turns around. How did we define prostitution earlier in our conversation? Sex without a story. The prostitute whose name you do not know, to whose dreams and vulnerabilities you are impervious, is the archetype of the impersonal. She is de-storied. She lives in a world of pronouns. She is never “there” (sham). She has no name (shem). Both she and the man who seeks her services express the prostitute archetype. They are the Shechina in exile. Their redemption is when they move out of their anonymity and begin to weave the strands of shared story. The impersonal becomes personal.

It is not that the biblical myth masters did not recognize the power of the impersonal and even cosmic erotic. They did. Indeed, in the myth of Luria, the world itself is recreated every moment. In every second and in every space, cosmic circles and lines erotically penetrate and existence is brought forth anew. Ecstasy, dance, music, prayer, study and meditation were all part of the prophetic service. They were all practiced in a way that would allow the initiate to access the coursing eros of being as it washed and revitalized his soul.

Impersonal cosmic eros was vitally important to the prophet. However, it is the prophet who replaced the ancient cult of the Temple prostitutes with the cherubs. Though the cherubs themselves are explicitly sexual figures,1 they are not personal – that is to say they are not human beings who are depersonalized and transformed into symbols of cosmic eros. The Ashera goddess was often thought to be represented and even incarnated by the Temple prostitute. The goddess and her prostitute were commonly refered to as “My Lady of the Sea”. Ashera temples and their prostitutes were usually found in towns by the sea. It is very likely then that our passage about “a prostitute who lived in a town by the sea” is precisely the Ashera temple prostitute archetype. She is the manifestation of the powerful, impersonal erotic force. It is to this depersonalized eros that the prophet was fiercely opposed.


In asking for the names, our harlot invites in story. By engaging story, she is transformed from a prostitute into the Shechina. The merely sexual becomes erotic. What is your name, the name of your village, the name of your master, the name of your school? Four times. Each time, a hundred gold coins of shadow are transformed into a hundred gold coins from which the Temple may be built.

The Holy of Holies in the Temple, in the image of the wisdom masters, is no less than the erotic marriage bed. It is that bed- the bed with a story – rooted in commitment and depth that she seeks. She has left the faceless world of the void and entered the world of the name.

The harlot who is transforming before our eyes asks for all of the man’s names. She says, in a literal translation of the Hebrew; “I will not be comforted2 until you tell me…your name.” Her comfort zone has been violated. She had lived her life being invisible even when she was fully in view. She did not know anything else was possible. When he fled her bed because he wanted her in a much deeper way, she was shaken to her very core. All of the compromises on which she had based her life no longer seemed necessary. She knew she could never return.

So, she broke her one great rule to which she had held fast all these years. She asked his name. In that moment she was no longer a harlot and he no longer a client. They became authentic, fragile, hopeful, scared vulnerable…and real. Not naked of body, but naked of soul.

He does not respond to her request in spoken words. Language cannot hold in its weak and paltry vessels what he feels at this moment. It is not a silence of absence. It is silence of presence, pure and simple. “He writes and puts it in her hand.” This is the very verse in the Bible used to establish the requirement of lishmah in issues of marriage and divorce. Lishmah – for the sake of the name. He writes in silence and gives her all four names that she requests. His name, his village, his master, his school. In writing, the essential self is given over.

It is an act of trust and vulnerability. His writing identifies him. The harlot could use it against him, it could sully his name, the name of his teacher, of his school. He goes on his way. There are no words of parting. Silence again. She closes her business – liquidates her worldly possession, pays taxes and gives a large amount to the poor. Even at its height the erotic must never obscure the ethical.

The harlot travels to the village written on his piece of paper, to the school and to the master. He is a disciple of Master Hiyya – one of the great teachers of the day. It is not every day that a woman of her beauty and worldliness shows up at the study hall asking for lessons in conversion. Conversion in this myth is not concerned with the dogmas of religion but with personal transformation. The legal requirement for conversion is that it be le’shem shamayim, for the sake of heaven. Translated more literally, leshem shemayim means lishmah – for the sake of the name. Master Hiyya doubts her intentions are “for the sake of the name alone.” Perhaps it is merely marriage that she is interested in. He questions her. Again, silence. Like him, she does not have words which suffice to hold her truth. She takes out her slip of paper. It is filled with names. The name of his student – one of his best, of the village, of the school, and his own name, Master Hiyya.

A paper filled with the names. From the scrap of paper, he understands everything. He smiles to himself. He is a true master. Yes, this conversion is lishmah –for the sake of the name. He performs the conversion and perhaps officiates at their wedding as well. Remember that marriage, like conversion, is an act lishmah – for the name’s sake. The master understands that this conversion is her claiming of her deepest name.

Until this point in the narrative she remains anonymous. She is the harlot. She lacks a sense of personal story or name. She is first awakened to personhood by the man’s last minute refusal to engage her sexually. He is totally ready – throbbing with passion and desire. She is ready to receive him. And just then his ritual fringes, symbols of his inner story and commitments, step in. When they prevent him from acting sexually at the height of passion she realizes that there is something in his personal story more powerful than her most potent allure. When he sits on the ground with him she feels seen for the very first time.

Part of what moves her towards conversion and transformation is the wondrous experience of being seen. To be seen is to be loved. Love is perception. This provokes for the first time her desire to see, to know her client’s name, to be a lover, to connect sex and story. She blurts out her song of names. Yet, he cannot call her by name. For in a conceptual sense she does not yet have a name in the story. The entire narrative is about her moving towards name. The word lishmah is most literally translated from the Hebrew as “Towards her name”. The story crescendos in her conversion. On the outside her conversion seem not to be “for the sake of God’s name”. After all she wanted to marry Master Hiyya’s student. On the inside however it was fully for the sake of God’s name, for it is the encounter with Hiyya’s disciple that prompts her journey towards the claiming of her name. In this deeper sense, the conversion can be said to be for the sake of God’s name, for we manifest God’s name when we live our unique stories.


The tale is almost over. One critical point however remains to be told: the satin sheets she used as a harlot. Those she did not sell. She remained the same seductive woman she had been. Her sexual allure and the magic of her body was not lost in her spiritual transformation. “The same sheets she spread for him as a harlot she now spread for him as his wife.”

Remember the first passage we saw in unpacking the secret of the cherubs? A man is smitten by a married woman, but he remains attracted only if she remains unavailable. ‘Stolen waters are sweet.’ The sexual intoxication quickly evaporates at the thought of a ‘licit’ sexual encounter. Remember the fall of the Temple is the exile of the erotic into the sexual. In the image of the Zohar, the Shechina becomes a prostitute.

The myth we just unpacked together now becomes clear. It is the story of the Shechina’s redemption. The prostitute becomes the Shechina once again. The seductive thrill of the forbidden is rejected. Sexual fulfillment in all of its raw and primal power is delayed. He wants her. She wants him. But only if they can share their story will they share their bed. The sheets of forbidden sex are now spread as sheets of erotic love. The transformation has been made. No longer are stolen waters sweet. The taste of sex is returned to the bayit, the home and hearth of depth and commitment. The full erotic sexual inebriation which he waited for on that day is fulfilled as husband and wife meeting on the marriage bed, the Holy of Holies where the Shechina dwells. The Shechina has been redeemed.


With all of this in mind, we understand the calling out of the name which is our ultimate cry, both at times of intense pleasure and at times of great pain. We have talked in this chapter of pleasure, of orgasm, of the high priest and the lover. And yet, the world is also filled with pain. There are many times we reach for the Shechina seeking comfort and embrace, understanding that ultimately we participate in God. For this is the ultimate comfort and the only embrace. We are part of divinity. In this deep and intimate knowledge we are held. We know that God is the force for healing and transformation in the world, that eventually good will triumph, that in the end we will know that is has always been good. We trust the name. We are part of the name.

This article given by Marc Gafni


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