On its surface, the Sotah (Numbers 5:11-28), like other defunct practices in the Torah, may seem unworthy of much attention. In fact, in our times, the reader may find the section offensive to his/her sensibilities, and some will cite the Sotah as among the reasons to disparage Torah. I find myself drawn to these sections; they reveal something important about who we were and who we are; I offer my thoughts on why the Sotah procedure was actually insightful and worthy of extended attention.
I urge you to read the relatively brief Torah section three times; it is only 18 verses but there is much packed in. So first, read it for a general understanding, then re-read it, this time a little more slowly, to become familiar with its contours. And finally, for a third time, even more deliberately, to become aware of its fine points and, perhaps, upon some reflection, raise any questions you may have and consider what answers there may be.
Before you begin, however, I alert you that the translation you use may significantly affect what you learn. Unless the reader knows the original language well, in this case biblical Hebrew, or unless he/she reads more than one translation, he/she has no reason to believe that translation is anything other than what the original text represents. The Sotah actually has a major translation issue which affects the reading from the very outset.
In most English translations, the root word ק-נ-א / k-n-’ is translated in some form as jealousy. God is periodically called an א-ל קנא / El kana’ / a “jealous God.” And nearly all English translations translate that the initial impetus for the Sotah process begins when a husband has a fit of “jealousy” that overcomes him. ArtScroll, however, reflecting a later rabbinic tradition, as it often does, translates k-n-a’ here as “warning.” I will address the significance later on, but this is one of the benefits of studying the Sotah: it reveals issues with translation and the difference between the p’shat, the meaning of a word in its original context, in contrast to the d’rash, the creative interpretation a word acquires over time. With this in mind, please take this time to study the section.
The next step is to summarize the section. If I were teaching a class, I would ask the students to highlight the important details. I encourage you to
write out, as succinctly as possible, what those details are, without losing sight of the big picture. If you do so, pause here because what follows is my summary, in outline form:
1. A husband suspects his wife has been unfaithful.
a. There are no witnesses, but we can infer that an ongoing, deep suspicion lingers.
2. The husband brings his wife to the kohen/priest.
a. He also brings a minchah/grain offering - with the following stipulations:
i. It is barley
ii. No oil or frankincense may be added to it.
iii. It is called a מנחה קנאות/minchah k'na'ot/jealousy offering.
3. The kohen/priest/is now the focus: He
a. mixes sacral water with dust from the sacred floor--Mishkan/Temple.
b. bares the woman's head and places the minchah k'na'ot/jealousy offering in front of her.
c. warns the wife--"if you did not...if you did...your thigh will sag and your belly will distend."
d. rubs off (or dips) the ink of the scroll, dissolving the words into the "bitter" water.
3. elevates the minchah k'na'ot/jealousy offering and then burns a token on the altar.
4. The Sotah is given the water to drink.
a. If she is guilty--"her thigh will sag and her belly will distend."
b. If she is not guilty--"she shall be unharmed and able to retain seed."
Each of these needs attention.
1. The Torah states that there are “no witnesses.” Why? The law states: “If a man is found lying with another man’s wife, both of them — the man and the woman with whom he lay — shall die.” (Deuteronomy 22:22) Moreover, the legal procedure (Deuteronomy 19:15) is: “A single witness may not validate against a person any guilt or blame for any offense that may be committed; a case can be valid only on the testimony of two witnesses or more.” Therefore, a case of adultery proceeds in the legal sphere, only if there are two witnesses, according to the laws of valid witnesses. But here (Numbers 5:11-28), the case of the Sotah is the “suspected” adulteress; there are no witnesses. We are outside the legal system; this “no witness” situation leads us to the kohen / priest. (We will later see that Rabbinic teaching reads it otherwise.)
a. Why should the process therefore, without witnesses, not stop right here? There is no evidence! We must lose sight of the true intent of the Torah, reflected in the teaching that if she has not committed adultery, the couple returns home and she is able to retain seed. In other words, the Torah’s interest here is to preserve the marital relationship and the family. (When we forget that goal, we find ourselves in other battles.) The ongoing, deep suspicion is itself threatening the marital relationship and family. What to do? To expect that because there is no evidence, the case is dropped, is to minimize the problem. Sure, the husband may be the suspicious type, and that’s that. On the other hand, when adultery is taking place, there may be signs, but no evidence. In any case, the Torah has a procedure, outside the courts and rules of evidence, to deal with it. We will explore this further soon.
2. What do we make of the technical elements of the offering — barley and “no oil or frankincense”? Moderns may hardly notice ancient details of offerings. The answer to this question is found by understanding Leviticus 2:1-3: “When a person presents an offering of meal (grain) to the Lord, his offering shall be of choice flour; he shall pour oil on it, lay frankincense on it, and present it to Aaron and his sons, the kohanim / priests. The kohen / priest shall scoop out of it a handful of its choice flour and oil, as well as its frankincense; and this token portion he shall turn into smoke on the altar, as an offering by fire, of pleasing odor to the Lord. And the remainder of the meal offering shall be for Aaron and his sons, a most holy portion from the Lord’s offerings by fire.
a. In other words, there is a regular minchah / grain offering — of “choice flour,” i.e., the best of the wheat, known as semolina, with oil and frankincense added to it. It is also the least expensive offering, following Leviticus 1 which provides for three offerings, based upon one’s means, each less expensive than the previous type: A cow, a sheep or goat, or pigeons and turtledoves. The usual minchah offering is, for the Sotah, called a minchah k’na’ot / jealousy minchah / offering and it is further degraded because of its function here — barely, a lesser grain, and without the enhancements of oil and frankincense.
3. Now we come to the key item: The bitter water. It is composed first of sacred water, water from the holy area, administered by the kohen. This is serious business; after all, adultery may have been committed. The kohen adds another sacred element, dust from the sacred floor, and he mixes it together. It may be unappetizing, but it is clearly holy!
The kohen / priest now reads the consequences and the curses aloud, writes it onto a scroll (and by the way, it contains God’s holy name, so it too becomes holy), and he dips the ink (or scratches the ink) into that water — the final ingredient for the bitter water for the Sotah to drink: three holy elements.
Now it is possible that, if she has committed adultery, the all-knowing God will mystically cause “her thigh to sag and her belly to distend.” It is possible that the combination of sacral water, sacred dust, and ink with God’s name has a power when combined with guilt to create a reality. Indeed, RaMBaN comments: This ordeal is the only case in biblical law where a judicial decision depends on a miracle.
But another, rational and rather progressive answer is possible. The woman who drinks the bitter water does so because she knows she has not committed adultery. If she does not drink the water, she likely confesses. This is the Torah’s version of a lie detector test for the suspicion of adultery; again, it must be emphasized, there are no witnesses.
I am proposing that these details indicate a quasi-legal psychodrama, rather than a kind of magic (mixing potions, as some would read it) or even as a supernatural intervention, as per RaMBaN. Bringing the Sotah to the most imposing religious leader at the most imposing venue and mixing the sacred elements, then reading the curses aloud (though let us not forget the reminder of innocence), and then the dissolving of the scroll’s ink into the water to be drunk–how would the Sotah react? The believer will likely either confess or drink. True, a few might drink even though they have betrayed their husband; after all some people have succeeded in fooling lie detector tests, and perhaps occasionally one would confess even though she was innocent, but the Sotah procedure is likely, in a believing society, to succeed.
Despite its antiquity and appearance of irrelevance, the Sotah procedure does then address two contemporary issues. One is the suspected adulterer. The other is belief in God, One who holds humans accountable, which consequently restrains individuals and society. (I am not addressing for the moment the impossibility of proving God’s existence from a scientific point of view. According to traditional Jewish theology, God created the universe and therefore by definition, cannot be measured. If He could, He would not be God, but of the universe.) I am addressing the effect of belief in contrast with the effect of non-belief in accountability before God.
Imagine a so-called enlightened person in the biblical age. He or she does not believe in this curse by God for committing adultery. Congratulations! He/she is smarter than the believers — maybe. But how will you restrain adultery, especially when the only real restraint is self-restraint, or the fear of your spouses’ wrath, or the legal system — if they can prove it. The additional, last, and ultimate restraint — personal accountability before God — is lost, because you have “outsmarted” it. But are you really wiser when the pain of betrayal strikes your spouse, and its sting ripples into your family and your friends, damaging forever those relationships? And when it occurs once, it is bad enough, but what is the societal effect, the harmful dynamic between the individual and the society that continues generation after generation, when ultimate accountability is lost because we have overcome God?
Our age is filled with movies, books, plays, televisions shows, which, in glorifying the yetser ha-ra, the natural pleasure-seeking human drives, inclinations, and urges, make it seem justified, deserved, and right. Correspondingly, God, or at least the earnest struggle with God, is almost always absent from the presentation. And it is not just God who is absent — the victims are rarely acknowledged; they get in the way of the “real” story. Unlike the Torah, the movie-makers myopically care little about preserving the marriage, but about conveying the thrill and satisfaction that is ecstatically realized. I submit, which “dramatic presentation” should we ally ourselves with — the Sotah, or the movies of our age?
And of course, our age is not the only age to be beset by adultery. Our Torah called out adultery as a basic sin in the Decalogue, and our prophets spoke to it, and then connected adultery to idolatry, some, like Ezekiel 16, graphically. Both adultery and idolatry broke faith. And so the Sotah and God — the belief in that accountability — are connected. (I will soon address the rabbinic response and the institutional collapse of the Sotah procedure in the upcoming rabbinic section.)
Modern scholars advance another angle: Jacob Milgrom summarizes that the law protected “a suspected but unproved adulteress from the vengeance of an irate husband or community by mandating that God will decide her case.” In a more expansive explanation, Milgrom puts it this way: “Their purpose is to give weight to what might … be seen as a transparent charade … to protect the woman as wife in the disadvantaged position determined for her by the mores of ancient Israel’s society.” He explains “the community and, especially, the overwrought husband may not give way to their passions to lynch her. Indeed, even if proved guilty by the ordeal, they may not put her to death. Unapprehended adultery remains punishable only by God and there is no need for human mediation.
This explanation is similar to another Torah law that moderns find immoral: The case of the “ben sorer u-moreh” — the “wayward and defiant son” who can be executed. (Deuteronomy 21:18-21) Rabbinic understanding circumscribed the law making it virtually impossible to enforce. Modern scholars have suggested that the procedure, the parents’ taking the child to the elders, actually restrained the parents, because it was taken out of their hands to a more balanced court. In any case, the Sotah’s efficacy depended upon the personal and societal belief in God.
Finally, I now turn to the Sotah from Rabbinic teaching in the Mishnah, Midrash, and Talmud.
The first Mishnah in massechet Sotah, and subsequent Mishnayot, reveals a very different approach than what we read in Numbers: The process is a legal one. The Mishnah rules that the Sotah must first be warned, understanding the word k-n-a’ here as “warning.” (This accounts for ArtScroll’s translation.) The official and legal “warning” is by her husband, in the presence of two witnesses, to not speak to a certain man. It would seem that the living Jewish community evolved and the Mishnah reflects that development in its law, i.e, an historical version of Oral Torah. Moreover, a second stage of witnessing is also needed that the woman in fact did seclude herself with that man. The requirement of witnesses, despite the explicit statement in the Torah that “there are no witnesses,” is explained midrashically, and it, and certainly this two-step process, is not the p’shat of the Torah. But Jewish or rabbinic law is often not synonymous with the p’shat in the Torah.
In addition, it may be somewhat satisfying to those who are offended that only the wife can be a Sotah, to know that a midrashic case is made that men, too, were subjected to the Sotah procedure. Clearly, however, there is no such provision according to the p’shat of the Torah either.
Finally, the entire Sotah institution, according to the Baraitot, was abolished. In general, several practices that are legislated in the Torah were abolished because a significant element in the procedure required the Beit ha-Mikdash (Temple) or kohanim. When the Beit ha-Mikdash was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, they were no longer practiced — even to this day. This includes offerings, including the Pesach lamb, which is why we retain only its symbol in the shankbone.
But the Baraitot do not provide this reason for the abolishment of the Sotah, rather, “When the number of adulterers increased, the bitter waters were abolished.” The Baraita continues: R Yochanan b Zakkai discontinued [the rite] based on: “I will not examine your daughters when they commit harlotry, nor your daughters-in-law when they commit adultery. (Hosea 4:14) (Sotah 47a) Thus, no more “examining,” no more Sotah.
Another Baraita adds: When the number of women, described by Scripture as walking with “necks stretched forth and with winking eyes,” (Isaiah 3:16) increased, the use of the bitter waters increased, but they were discontinued (because of the very proliferation of immorality, as the Mishnah states.) RaMBaM summarizes the abolishments in a single sentence. (Hilchot Sotah 3:19) (See also Sefer ha-Chunich # 365.)
In other words we see historical development — as morality increased, the Sotah procedure, as rabbinically defined, increased, but when it got worse, it was abandoned. Things went too far. In this way the Baraita, and the psycho-drama as I proposed it, have something in common. Whether by rampant sexual immorality or whether due to “outsmarting” accountability before God, much is lost, and our culture will have only the movies to shape us, and where adultery is concerned, the sexual drive is sure to be glorified, no matter the price.
Jacob Milgrom also writes: Thus elsewhere in the ancient Near East, although adultery was considered a sin against the gods, it still had no juridical impact, whereas in Israel its inclusion in the Sonaitic covenant guaranteed legal consequences.
My colleague, Rabbi Noah Gradofsky, alerted me to another view. Our UTJ scholar Hakham Sasson in his “Destination Torah” posits that the husband’s suspicions are the result of her being pregnant. The meaning of the curse is: if she is guilty the result is a miscarriage; if she is innocent she gives birth to her husband’s child.
Curiously, the abolishment of the Sotah procedure is ascribed to Rabban Yochanan b Zakkai, who lived during the Roman destruction. Is there any relation between Greco-Roman influence and the proliferation of adultery, and to us, the inheritors of both cultures? In any case, we again see that if the people disregard the very institutions designed to protect them, then the institution is not worthy of keeping. This is in line with the interpretation that when Moses descended from the mountain and hurled the tablets and shattered them, that it was not out of anger (alone), but rather, “If the people turn away from God to idolatry, then what is the point of the tablets inscribed with God’s commandments?”