It specifically says several times in Yehoshua chapter 2 and chapter 6 that Rachav was a Harlot " וְאֶת רָחָב הַזּוֹנָה". Why is it that it is accepted that she wasn't a harlot but an innkeeper and someone who sold mezonot (wheat). Some opinions that I read say because she made herself available to everyone as she sold many provisions and because she was an innkeeper (" הַזּוֹנָה").

I just want to know why we cannot take this literally? It says it quite a few times. Why couldn't the Torah just say that she was a provisioner or an innkeeper?

And I know not everything is made to be taken literally in the Torah, like 'an eye for an eye'.

  • 6
    I would not say this is the definitively accepted interpretation. Some opinions do in fact say she was a prostitute (e.g. Radak on Y'hoshua' 2:1; also, related question: judaism.stackexchange.com/q/25753). As far as opinions that consider her merely an innkeeper, they would probably consider "innkeeper" to merely be a secondary literal definition of זונה.
    – Fred
    Commented Jan 29, 2015 at 3:38
  • It serves the purpose of the plot -- whether innkeeper or harlot, it explains why this lady has a big building with random men visiting.
    – Shalom
    Commented Jan 29, 2015 at 10:52
  • 1
    related: judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/11379/…
    – jake
    Commented Jan 29, 2015 at 17:21
  • If you like an answer, consider marking it correct.
    – mevaqesh
    Commented Aug 19, 2016 at 4:44

4 Answers 4

  • Targum Yonassan followed by Rashi (2:1) explain that she was an inkeeper (that "zona" in this context relates to the word "mazon" for bread).
  • Radak explains that she was actually a prostitute and that even Targum agrees, and that sometimes Targum uses the term for innkeeper to mean harlot.
  • Abarbanel writes that the two explanation arent mutually exclusive and that the secondary role of an innkeeper was usually being a prostitute
  • 2
    Why does Yonassan have two "s's"? If it's a soft thau then even in Ashki-speak it should be one s
    – Aaron
    Commented Jun 2, 2018 at 22:35

The Talmud Bavli (Zevachim 116b, top) states quite plainly that she was a harlot:

דאמר מר: אין לך כל שר ונגיד שלא בא על רחב הזונה. אמרו: בת י' שנים היתה כשיצאו ישראל ממצרים, וזנתה [כל] מ' שנה שהיו ישראל במדבר, אחר נ' שנה נתגיירה, אמרה: יהא מחול לי בשכר חבל חלון ופשתים.

[A]s a master said, There was no prince or ruler who had not possessed Rahab the harlot. It was said: She was ten years old when the Israelites departed from Egypt, and she played the harlot the whole of the forty years spent by the Israelites in the wilderness. At the age of fifty she became a proselyte. Said she: May I be forgiven as a reward for the cord, window, and flax. (For hiding them in flax, and then letting them down by a cord through a window (ibid. 6, 15).)

(Soncino translation)

  • Welcome to Mi Yodeya, afuna, and thanks for the sourced answer. Hope to see you around. :)
    – Scimonster
    Commented Jan 29, 2015 at 20:10
  • Great answer, +1 :) ....I hope you don't mind that I edited your answer to add a link, and a translation. If you don't like what I did, you can always edit the post yourself. I hope to see you around! :)
    – MTL
    Commented Jan 29, 2015 at 20:12
  • Tosafos also seems to imply that this is the meaning behind R' Yitzchak's statement in Ta'anis (5b, s.v. ביודעה ומכירה קאמינא).
    – Fred
    Commented Jan 29, 2015 at 21:11

There is a basic idea that whenever we have an opportunity to say good about a good person, we will. Likewise whenever there is the opportunity to say bad about a bed person we will. Rachav was a nice lady, professed a deep belief in and fear of God. She endangered herself to save the Jewish spies. As such she qualifies for chazzal and our mipharshim to find a way to explain the things said about her as meaning something nice.

As an aside it is not universally accepted that she was dealing with mezonos, but it is widely mentioned.

EDIT: Here's a third explenation for the word zona in this type of context. Rabbeinu Bichaya in Parshas Masei 36:8 says it means a women who had no brothers who married out of her tribe. By doing so her father's inheritance is lost from the tribe, and she would be called zona, as we find Yiphtach bring called the son of a zona, Shophtim 11:1.

  • "..whenever there is the opportunity to say bad about a bad person we will."?!? I'm far, far, far from a halacha expert, but doesn't that part of the "basic idea" go against some Lashon Hara rules/guidelines?
    – Gary
    Commented Jan 29, 2015 at 15:18
  • @Gary lashon hara rules don't apply to personalities in tanach. See also the pirushim on the mishna to judge all people favorably, a bad person who does a seemingly good act is still assumed to have done it with bad intentions for a bad purpose. What I said is a common theme in agadata.
    – user6591
    Commented Jan 29, 2015 at 15:27
  • thanks for clearing that up...like I wrote, I don't know too much about the official stuff..I guess there's differently defined levels of "bad person"..it just sounded wrong, because saying bad things about a bad person-- who might be thinking about teshuva and "turning a new leaf" -- wouldn't help inspire him to do the right thing "aaah, they say I'm an evil bast-d anyway, might as well keep on keeping on..."
    – Gary
    Commented Jan 29, 2015 at 15:34
  • This is the only answer that actually address the question!
    – user4736
    Commented Nov 26, 2017 at 23:52
  • Related: judaism.stackexchange.com/q/13594. The principle that the simple meaning of the verses can magnify the sins of righteous individuals beyond the actual sin can be inferred from the juxtaposition of Sh'mos 32:4 and 32:24 (that Aharon was initially described as actively fashioning the calf, while later the verse clarifies that he did not) and the unusually pointed juxtaposition within B'reishis 35:22-23 where the selfsame verse immediately insists that Reuvein remained in good standing.
    – Fred
    Commented Dec 30, 2020 at 3:19

A number of sources have been provided already. Another one that points to the fact that she was a harlot is in Sifrei Zuta - Bamidbar 10:29:

ד"א רחב הזונה שהיתה מזנה עם בני המדינה מבפנים ועם הליסטים מבחוץ שנאמר כי ביתה בקיר החומה ובחומה היא יושבת

Alternatively, Rachav the harlot offered her services to the people of the city within the city, and with robbers from outside. As it says, "For her dwelling was at the outer side of the city wall and she lived in the actual wall" (Yehoshua 2:15).

However, on balance, it is also worth noting that the Sifrei Bamidbar 78 understand this title of 'zonah' in a different way:

ר' אליעזר אומר: זו רחב הזונה, שהיתה עסוקה באכסנאי

Rabbi Eliezer says this is Rachav the 'Zonah' that was busy/engaged with an inn.

So in this context, the Sifrei chooses to understand 'zonah' from the word 'mazon', to provide food. Thus she was an innkeeper through which she earnt the means to feed her family. And as such she was referred as Rachav 'the feeder' and that is what 'zonah' means.

Building on what @user6591 said, I would imagine that a reason why we possibly don't dwell on the fact that she was a harlot was because she later converted and married Yehoshua (Megillah 14b) and was famed (like Yisro) for her righteousness (Yerushalmi Brachos 2:8)1, as such we don't draw attentions to a convert's past as it may be a source of great shame and embarrassment. As it says in Shemos 22:20

וְגֵ֥ר לֹא־תוֹנֶ֖ה וְלֹ֣א תִלְחָצֶ֑נּוּ כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃

And a stranger [from another land] you shall not taunt and you shall not oppress him [by theft], for you were strangers in the land of Egypt [and are equally vulnerable to taunting].

1 It writes there: כך בשעה שישראל עושין רצונו של הקב"ה מחזר בכל העולם כולו ורואה אי זה צדיק באומות העולם ומביאו ומדבקו לישראל. כגון יתרו ורחב - At the time when Israel does the will of Hashem, He chooses a righteous person among the nations of the world and He brings him and joins him to Israel. For example, Yisro and Rachav.

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