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What Was Wrong with Sodom?

What Was Wrong with Sodom?

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The cities of Sodom and Gomorrah have come to epitomize moral depravity and cruelty. As we read in this week’s Torah portion, G‑d’s only recourse was to completely destroy them and their environs.

Scripture is characteristically sparse when telling us of their failures, only saying that “the people of Sodom were bad, sinning to G‑d very much.”1 Talmudic and Midrashic sources give us a much fuller account of the hair-raising wickedness and godlessness that characterized these towns.

Sodomite Hospitality

The Sodomites enjoyed a relatively high standard of living. Regarding Sodom, the Torah tells us that the entire plain was “well-watered . . . like the garden of G‑d,”2 and it follows that the crops were plentiful and good. The selfish Sodomites did not want to share this bounty with outsiders. To this end, they enacted laws and took great pains to repel travelers.

For example, in order to enter Sodom, one had to cross a river. The townspeople built a bridge over the river, and charged a fee of four zuzim for all who chose to cross it. Now, should someone try to bypass the toll by swimming across the river, the law was that he would pay a double fee of eight zuzim as a penalty.

It once happened that a traveler, ignorant of the local custom, swam across the river, hoping to save himself four zuzim. As he tried to enter the city, the guards stopped him.

“Pay the bridge fee!” they demanded.

“But I did not use the bridge,” the hapless fellow replied. “I swam across the river instead.”

“In that case, you owe us eight zuzim.”

The stranger refused to pay the exorbitant fee, and the guards soundly beat him. When they were finished with him, the wounded man dragged himself to the magistrate and demanded recompense for his suffering. The judge listened carefully to his tale of woe and then issued his verdict:

“For having crossed the river, you owe eight zuzim, as is the law. As to the beating, you must reward each of the fine gentlemen at the gate, because everyone knows the medical benefit of an occasional bloodletting.”3

The Talmud does not tell us what happened next to the poor man. However, we hope that he left posthaste, because an even worse fate awaited those who chose to remain.

The thoughtful Sodomites provided guest houses in their city, each with beds of a single standard size. When a guest came looking for lodgings, they would make sure that the bed fit perfectly. If he was shorter than the bed, his hosts would stretch him out until he fit. Should he be too tall for the bed, they would hack off his feet.4

An unfortunate beggar once wandered into Sodom and began going from door to door, begging for alms. To his surprise, every householder greeted him warmly and gave him a coin.

Overjoyed, he rushed to the nearest store, hoping to purchase some food, his first meal in days. But the shopkeeper turned him away. The same thing repeated itself wherever the man proffered his coins. Eventually the poor man expired from hunger. The clever Sodomites, who knew that this would happen, came running to retrieve their coins, upon which they had each thoughtfully marked their names.

Sodomite Social Engineering

The Sodomites were not much nicer to their own. In fact, the Midrash tells two tales of moral women who dared extend a helping hand to beggars and were put to death:

Two maidens of Sodom met at the well, where they had both gone to drink and fill up their water jugs. One girl asked her friend, “Why is your face so pale?” Her friend answered, “We have nothing to eat at home, and are dying of starvation.” Her compassionate friend filled her own jug with flour, and exchanged it for her friend’s jug of water. When the Sodomites found out about her act, they burnt her to death.5

A second tale:

It was announced in Sodom, “Whoever will give bread to a poor person will be burnt at the stake.”

Plotit, the daughter of Lot, who was married to a prominent Sodomite, once saw a poor man who was so hungry that he was unable to stand. She felt sorry for him. From then on, she made sure to pass him every day on her way to the well, and she would feed him some food that she had stashed in her water jug.

People wondered how the man managed to live. Upon investigation, they discovered her act and prepared to burn her. Before she died, she turned to G‑d and cried, “Master of the world, carry out justice on my behalf!” Her cries pierced the heavens, and at that moment G‑d said, “I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached Me.”6

What It Means to Us

The sins of the Sodomites stemmed from their intense selfishness, their unwillingness to part with anything they possessed.

The sages of the Misnah teach:7

One who says, “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours"—this is a median characteristic; others say that this is the character of Sodom.

The every-man-for-himself attitude may seem harmless, but as these stories reveal, it will ultimately lead to true evil.

While the cities of Sodom have long receded into the past, the mentality they epitomized is alive and well. Our job is to uproot and destroy this mindset wherever we can, replacing it with love and goodwill.

Footnotes
3.

Talmud, Sanhedrin 109a.

4.

Ibid.

5.

Genesis Rabbah 48.

6.

Genesis 18:21; Yalkut Shimoni, Bereishit 83.

7.

Ethics of the Fathers 5:10.

Rabbi Mendy Kaminker is the editor of Beit Chabad, the Hebrew edition of Chabad.org.
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Eliezer Zalmanov for Chabad.org March 7, 2017

To Anonymous in London It was a lot more than just that, as you can see in the article. Reply

Anonymous LONDON March 6, 2017

The sin of Sodom + Gomorrah was of inhospitality.

God wiped out a city because they did not offer tea and biscuits. Reply

Sojourner November 10, 2014

The Judgment of Sodom. In spite of all their terrible cruel and perverted excesses, it will be easier on the Day of Judgment for Sodom than it will be for many cities and civilizations of more recent era, for Sodom was as ignorant of G-d's righteous ways as it was possible to be. Had they heard the preaching of the prophet Johah, or certainly One Greater, then like Nineveh, whom Johah did warn of coming Judgment, Sodom would have repented in sackcloth and ashes and I am sure that had One Greater than Johah preached in both, then both cities would still be here today.

The warning of Sodom's fate is still as valid today as it was then. Reply

Shaul USA November 7, 2014

Not to forget, as well in Yechezkiel 16:49 "Behold, this was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom: pride, fulness of bread, and careless ease was in her and in her daughters; neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy. " Reply

Sojourner New South Wales. November 8, 2012

The essential sin of Sodom and the other cities of the plains was idolotary, the very first wrongdoing addressed in The Commandments and Sodom and Gommorrah had ritually interwoven all other abominations, including sexual excess, abuse of strangers and just about every deplorable practice into this most fundemental of sins. Reply

David Perlman Minneapolis, MN USA via chabadminneapolis.com November 4, 2012

Sodom and homosexuality Leviticus says it is abomination and thou shalt surely die. Meanwhile, Torah has death penalties for all sorts of things, like violating Shabbos, which probably means most of us would likely be killed by now. It is said that a Sanhedren that executes two people in 70 years is bloodthirsty, and Talmud tells us that the death penalty requires two eyewitnesses to the crime. My rabbi concludes that although Torah says it is a sin, the level of that sin is just keep your sex life private, and no one will bother you, which is, of course, sage advice for all of us.. Reply

jan Ireland November 4, 2012

If the Torah had been followed as God intended, then the countries would not be in the mess they have made of the world. The country which has held onto its roots and principles is the one which has tried to maintain Torah. Would that all countries would follow suit.God in His wisdom gave us Torah for every part of living: if we choose not to keep Torah, then whose to blame?! Reply

Jorge Qro./MEXICO November 3, 2012

Then, what does it mean to be a sodomite? After reading the whole, article and commentaries, I felt prone to conclude -are the sodomites individuals with nationalist, socialist, and communist traits? Reply

Fred New Bern, N.C. November 3, 2012

And Democracy is... To Karl in Afula. When free market capitalism elevates itself to individuals purchasing regimes to blockade themselves from paying any taxes in the name of sovereign entitlement. Reply

Asher Askew Pikesville, MD November 3, 2012

Sodom & Gomorah vs. Socialism Just to add to the conversation....... I certainly appreciate all of the responses on chabad.org as there are so many different "angles" of logic that present themselves, giving our minds an opportunity to stay sharp. Can I add just a dime to throw on the table?

Sodom and Gomorrah certainly had hospitality 'issues', but we need not forget or 'dismiss' the fact, that homosexuality too was a part of the equation of destruction. Commentaries are wonderful, the Talmud certainly has its place in our history, but we have to come to terms with the stated wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah, which was homosexuality, in addition to, not in place of, the sin of not being hospitable. I'm surprised that no one has addressed this behavior as of yet. How can we fail to mention something that clearly was an issue even during that time period in those cities, not to mention the prevalence of it in our own day. With all of the discussion on this issue, please let us not forget the obvious. Reply

BIll Montreal November 2, 2012

socailism to Karl
I think socialism can also be viewed as tzedakah on a larger scale. When Canadians came out and voted substantially for the NDP in the last election they were partly voting for a fairer redistribution of wealth -such as programs to help the needy, social assistance etc. People vote for these socialist parties knowing full well that their taxes will not be lowered. Reply

David Perlman Minneappolis, USA via chabadminneapolis.com November 2, 2012

Laissez Faire Ayn Rand would have loved the Sodomites, and conversely, demonstrating nicely that modern conservative economic theory is evil. Reply

Karl Afula, EmekIsrael via chabadisraeli.com November 1, 2012

difference between socialism and tzedakah to Uri in St. Louis. Tzedakah is when an individual helps another individual. Socialism is when a regime forcefully taxes people to help anybody who happens to be regime supporters.... and keep a nice commission to boot. Reply

Mendy New York, NY November 1, 2012

What really happened at Sodom About 10 years ago, I asked a rabbi why God punished Sodom and Amorra so lightly. “Lightly?” he asked, “Why, He destroyed the cities and killed all the inhabitants!”

I pointed out that only a week before, God sent rain for 3 days in Nicaragua, turning a mountain into mud, and causing a mudslide that buried and killed every man, woman and child in the nearby village—3,000 innocent people. An ordinary village, not a hotbed of immorality. So, I asked, if that is what God does to innocents, why did He do essentially the same thing to the infinitely worse people of Sodom?

The reality, of course, is that we live on a planet full of natural disasters. Earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, volcanoes, etc. They kill at random: good people and bad ones. And sometimes they occur in places where there are no people at all.

It’s people looking for "ethical" explanations—where the true explanation is only the hefker laws of nature—who make up stories about evil people getting their due. This is Sodom. Reply

Uri St Louis November 1, 2012

Laissez Faire I have a question. One of the tenets of modern conservative economics is that the government shouldn't be involved in redistribution of wealth. In taxing the rich heavily in order to provide the poor with social programs. Isn't this the same idea of the Sodomites, who said, "what is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours" - every man for himself attitude? What exactly is the difference? Reply

Stephen Charest Lincoln October 30, 2012

Lashon Hara in Sodom and Gomorrah If I remember correctly, the Chofetz Chayim taught that one of the sins of the Sodomites was intense gossiping, talebearing, back stabbing and general lashon hara. Reply

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