266. Don’t Call Her That: The prohibition against a kohein marrying a “zonah”

A woman who is a “zonah”… (Leviticus 21:7)

A kohein is not allowed to marry a “zonah,” though many people misunderstand what a zonah really is. Like “mamzer,” the word is used as an insult in a manner separate from its actual, halachic sense. People often use the word zonah to mean a woman of loose morals, a prostitute or a tramp. Really, a zonah is a woman who has had intercourse with one of the forbidden sexual relationships and the term has no bearing on whether or not she is promiscuous. A woman who has had relations many times with multiple partners, all of whom would have been fit for her to marry, is not a zonah. A woman who had a single incestuous liaison (for example) is considered a zonah because she had relations with a person she cannot marry under Jewish law. So the term is meant to reflect a technical situation and does not deserve the stigma of the colloquial epithet. (See Talmud Yevamos 61b for further clarification of the definition of a zonah.)

Only relations with an inherently-forbidden man disqualify a woman from marrying a kohein. A woman who had relations during her niddah period (with a man who is of a generally-permitted nature) or a woman who had relations with an animal (which is not a man at all) may still marry a kohein. (Make no mistake – these are serious matters! Do not infer that they are permitted or overlooked; we are only addressing what disqualifies a woman from marrying a kohein according to the parameters of this particular mitzvah.)

This mitzvah is not a reflection on the woman any more than a kohein’s inability to attend a funeral is a reflection on the deceased. The basis of this mitzvah is the kohein’s enhanced level of sanctity, which prohibits him from doing certain things that other Jews might do. Just as a kohein cannot attend a funeral except for his closest relatives, he may not marry as broad a spectrum of potential mates as non-kohanim.

This mitzvah applies to male kohanim in all times and places. It is discussed in the Talmud in the tractate of Yevamos (56a-b, 59a-61b) and codified in the Shulchan Aruch in Even Ha’ezer 6. It is #158 of the 365 negative mitzvos in the Rambam’s Sefer HaMitzvos and #138 of the 194 negative mitzvos that can be observed today in the Chofetz Chaim’s Sefer HaMitzvos HaKatzar.