The Beds of Sodom

No city has such a bad reputation as Sodom. Its people were known for their wickedness, moral decadence and sexual irresponsibility. Yet they were not quite as lawless as history seems to think. The evidence points to a

Evidence points to a society where the law was highly regarded.

society where the law was highly regarded and the people would not willingly break the rules.

The real problem, as Pinchas Peli explains in a noteworthy essay, was the law itself. Sodom had a law and the citizens were law-abiding - but the law was harsh and unkind. It enabled them to regard charity as decadent and to deem visitors a nuisance.

Josephus says, "The Sodomites became so proud on account of their riches and prosperity that they were unjust toward humans and impious toward God.... They hated strangers and they abused themselves with sodomical practices." (Antiquities of the Jews, 1:11).

Yet, it was all quite subtle. When a stranger arrived at the gate, they didn't turn him away. They brought him in and offered him a bed. There were two beds reserved for guests, one long and one short. If the stranger was short, then they would give him the long bed - and stretch his limbs so that he fitted the bed. If the stranger was tall, then he would get the short bed - and he was trimmed to size. Hence, in Jewish literature mittat s'dom, "the bed of Sodom", became legendary. Greek mythology had a similar idea of "the bed of Procrustes" (Plutarch's Lives, Theseus, 11). Pir'kei Avot (5:13) and other sources speak of middat s'dom, "the usage of Sodom", whereby terrible things are done in the name of political correctness and legalistic pedantry.

Mittat s'dom and middat s'dom - a nice play on words, but nothing to be proud of. No wonder Sodom and its sister city, Gomorrah, needed to be destroyed.

Righteous in the City of Sodom

Abraham tried hard to save the city of Sodom. Maybe, he said to God, there are 50 righteous people there, and for their merit the city deserves to survive? Maybe there are a few less than 50, but still enough to keep the city from destruction?

In the end, the negotiations did not work and Sodom went under. But there are interesting features about Abraham's argument, in particular in Genesis 18:24. In speaking of the possible righteous people of Sodom, Abraham uses the word tzaddikim, the word we would expect - but with a difference: one yod is missing from the text.

Does this mean that there might be something lacking in the righteousness of these tzaddikim? Presumably yes, and Abraham is arguing that even if the tzaddikim are not perfect, they still deserve to be rewarded. It is true that according to Tanach no tzaddik is ever perfect, for, "There is no righteous person on earth who is completely righteous and never sins." (Ecclesiastes 7:20). But in Sodom righteousness must have been especially difficult, and what mattered there was how much one tried to be a tzaddik when it meant fighting against the environment and one's own limitations.

In the synagogue or beit midrash it is easier to be a tzaddik.

A second feature of the verse is Abraham's reference to where any possible tzaddik was to be found. He says, "If there are 50 righteous people in the city" - "in the city," not in the synagogues and houses of study (if indeed there were any in Sodom).

In the synagogue or beit midrash it is easier to be a tzaddik, but the real test is b'toch ha'ir, "in the midst of the city." If a person can be a tzaddik at work, in the street, wherever they deal with people, when all the temptations are to take the line of least resistance and adopt the grey morality of most other people, then that's the sign of success.

Abraham knew where to look for his tzaddikim, and it was such a pity that there were so few of them there.