Talmudic pages

Sotah 26

What does God have against dogs?!

The saying goes that dogs are man’s best friend. As a dog owner, I can confirm that between the unconditional love, companionship and snuggles, they really are the best. Unless you read Deuteronomy.

In Moses’ final speech to the Israelites, he lays out a series of laws and commitments that the Israelites will need to undertake when they enter the land of Israel. According to the JPS translation, Deuteronomy 23:19 reads: “You shall not bring the fee of a female prostitute or the hire of a dog into the house of your God in fulfillment of any vow, for both are abhorrent to your God.

Reading this translation, you might conclude: If you rent out your body or your dog, you can’t use the money you make to pay for Temple offerings. 

What does God have against dogs?! My pro-canine bias is surely showing, but I actually think the answer is: nothing. Biblical scholars have noted for centuries that the word that Deuteronomy uses for dog — kelev — has multiple meanings in the ancient near east. Yes, it means dog. But it is also a term used to describe a male sex worker. It’s a pretty derogatory euphemism, but this meaning makes a whole lot more sense in a biblical discussion of using the wages of sin to bring offerings to the Temple. The point is that you can’t use the proceeds of sex work, whether by a male or a female, to make a sacrifice to God. Indeed, when read this way, we can see that the two parts of the biblical verse are parallel to each other and the whole thing makes a lot more sense!

So when did it come to be read as an actual dog? On today’s daf we see a really interesting Hebrew language shift relating to this verse that moves us in that direction. 

The context is a discussion of what kinds of sexual activity qualify as adultery when it comes to the laws of sotah. Numbers 5:13 says about a married woman, “if a man lie with her,” and her husband suspects it, then he can begin the process of the sotah ritual. The Mishnah says that this phrase comes to exclude “one who is not a man,” and the Talmud examines exactly what this means: 

Rav Pappa says: To exclude an animal, as licentiousness does not apply with regard to an animal. 

Rava of Parzakya asks Rav Ashi how we know that concerns about licentiousness do not apply to animals. Rav Ashi explains by calling up the verse from Deuteronomy: 

It is written: “You shall not bring the hire of a harlot, or the price of a dog.” (Deuteronomy 23:19) And it is taught in a rabbinic traditionthe hire of a dog, and the price of a prostitute are permittedas it is statedFor both of them are an abomination to the Lord” — two and not four

For context, the rabbis are distinguishing between “hire,” meaning to rent someone’s labor for a period of time or a particular task, and “price,” meaning the purchase of a person or animal as a whole. Rav Ashi reads the second part of the verse from Deuteronomy, “for both of them are an abomination to the Lord,” to suggest that only in two very specific situations are the wages of forbidden — renting the labor of a sex worker, and buying a dog — but not if the situations are reversed, that is, not if the dog is rented and the sex worker is sold. This in turn suggests that “hiring” a dog — read here with some inuendo — is not the kind of sin act that can legitimately generate suspicions and lead to an accusation of sotah.

From the Talmud’s perspective — a discussion about whether licentiousness exists in human-animal relationships — it’s clear that the rabbis read the word kelev to mean an actual dog. As Hebrew shifted, and perhaps as wider cultural practices changed, the derogatory euphemism for male prostitute seems to have fallen out of usage. And yet, the rabbis retain the verse’s association of the kelev with forbidden sexual acts. Language evolves, but some of the original resonance remains. 

Read all of Sotah 26 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 24th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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