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.