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עשה תורתך קבע – אמור מעט ועשה הרבה

I’d like to buy the lady a drink

Posted by rabbiart on June 2, 2008

This Shabbat we are blessed with one of the more strange and mysterious practices described in the Torah; the ordeal of the Sotah. As puts it “If we could hold a contest to determine the most misunderstood commandment in the Torah, then the law of the sotah would have to be declared the hands-down winner.” There is an entire tractate of the Talmud devoted to the laws of sotah.

“Sotah” is not an easy word to translate. The more common Hebrew word for adultery is ni’uf, which is not used here. The context is an accusation of adultery.  The new Women’s Commentary on the Torah translates the opening line as “If any wife has gone astray”  (BaMidbar 5:12), an expression that is open to a wide variety of interpretations, and not limited to the physical.”

The ordeal of the Sotah is required because there are no eyewitnesses to prove or disprove the accusation. If witnesses see an adulterous couple in the act, both are put to death. (See Devarim 22:22)  The procedure requires writing and then erasing the YHVH, the only time this is allowed, much less required. One wonders whether the ritual protects the woman, or degrades her.  We may get one interpretation reading only the Torah, and another when we examine how the Talmud understood what was taking place.

In the Torah the proximate cause of the ordeal is the “fit of jealousy” רוּחַ-קִנְאָה that comes over the husband and not the woman’s behavior.  There may not have been any “behaviour” on the part of the woman!  And there is a character conspicuous in his absence – the offending male partner.  There is no procedure described for accusing or acquitting him, and no provisions for his punishment. It is difficult to construe this procedure as other than humiliating or debasing for the accused woman.  She is stood up in from of G-d, and, we can assume, more than one priest; her hair is uncovered and obviously, her belly and thigh will have to be examined.  She is made to drink the potion; whatever denials she may make will be ignored. And for a people warned against sorcery, there does seem to be some magic or spell-casting going on.

In the Talmud’s interpretation the sotah ordeal is all for the benefit of the woman.  She can decline to participate, thereby exiting the marriage (although she takes nothing with her).


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