The practice of indiscriminate sexual intercourse for payment or for religious purposes. Prostitution was practiced by male and female prostitutes. The word zenut, applied to both common and sacred prostitution, is also often used metaphorically.
The prostitute was an accepted though deprecated member of the Israelite society, both in urban and rural life (Gen.38:14; Josh. 2: 1ff.’ I Kings 3:16-27). To treat an Israelite girl like a prostitute was considered a grave offense (Gen. 34:31). The Israelites were warned against prostituting their daughters and priests were not allowed to marry prostitutes.
In the Ancient Near East, temple women, of whom one class was called qadistu, probably served as sacred prostitutes. In Israel the sacred prostitutes were condemned for their connection with idolatry. Deuteronomy 23:18-19 forbids Israelites, men and women alike, to become sacred prostitutes and states that their wages must not be used for paying vows.
The halakhah imposed a general prohibition on the professional prostitute, and the term came to include any woman who abandoned herself to any man even if not for pay, and states that “Whoever hands his unmarried daughter to a man not for the purposes of matrimony,” could lead to the whole world being filled with mamzerim since “from his consorting with many women and not knowing with whom, or if she has had intercourse with many men and does not know with whom – he could marry his own daughter or marry her to his son”.
In the Post-Talmudic era the sex life of Jews was generally distinguished by modesty, and in those places and times where Jewish life was conducted in the framework of a community under the domination of tradition and the halakhah, extra-marital sexual relations were rarer among Jews than among other peoples. Many regulations were issued by the various communities to fight prostitution in all its forms.