The Sota's Husband

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion



The Sota's Husband


By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley



In the end of Parashat Naso, the Torah describes, for the third time, the excitement of the completion and dedication of the Mishkan.  We find that each narrative reflects the unique context of the book in which it is detailed.  Sefer Shemot describes the spiritual union of Moshe and the Cloud of Glory; in its final chapter (40), the Jewish people complete creating a space for God's presence, a process violated through the sin of the Golden Calf.  Sefer Vayikra, which details the laws of the offerings and the duties of the kohanim (priests), centers its version (Chapters 8-9) on the place of the daily service and focuses upon the Divine fire on the Altar (and the people's reaction to it).  In our parasha, the text (Chapter 7) emphasizes the opulence of the identical gifts of the nesi'im (princes), appropriate to the role that the Mishkan will perform as the center of the nation.  


This explains the importance of the two preceding chapters. With the integration of the Mishkan within their camp, every member of the Jewish people now shares the opportunity to partake of the new sense of sanctity that permeates the camp, as described in the beginning of Chapter 5. Then, In Chapter 6, we discover that the common man, should he so desire, can share the status of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) by taking a nazirite vow (vv. 1-21); at the same time, the kohanim receive the additional commandment to bless the people (vv. 22-27).


Still, more than any other commandment, the Mishkan's influence and ability to penetrate into the most intimate realms of human existence expresses itself through the commandment of sota (5:11-31).[1]  The sota is a married woman, suspected by her husband of committing adultery, who willingly sequesters herself with another man.  The drinking of the "bitter waters," containing the very earth of the Mishkan combined with the ink of God's written name, offers her the opportunity of either exposure or vindication:


The kohen shall take sanctified water in an earthen vessel, and taking some of the earth that is on the floor of the Mishkan, the kohen shall put it into the water.  (v. 17)


The kohen shall put these curses down in writing, and rub it off into the bitter waters.  (v. 23)


The "bitter waters" of sota, placed before the description of the Mishkan's completion, bring us full circle, to the impetus behind its construction.[2]


[Moshe] took the Calf that they had made and burned it.  He ground it to powder, and strewed it upon the water, and made the Israelites drink it.  (Shemot 32:20)


His intent was to probe them, like the sota (Avoda Zara 44a)


What are these waters?  The Torah uses two modifiers to describe these waters: "marim" (bitter) and "me'arerim" (cursed); in verses 18, 19, 24 (twice) and 27, these terms are combined, but they are used separately in verse 23 ("mei ha-marim") and verse 22 ("ha-mayim ha-marerim") respectively.  The Ibn Ezra notes that the Torah uses the phrase "mei ha-marim" (the construction denotes not "bitter waters," as we have translated it, but "waters of bitter things") and states cryptically, "its secret is known."  The Abarbanel, in explaining the two terms, ascribes the bitterness to both the flavor of the dust that is put into the water and the nature of the curses that will befall the guilty woman who drinks them. 


In explaining the purpose of this commandment, we find a fundamental disagreement between the Rambam and the Ramban.  According to the Rambam (Moreh Ha-nvukhim 3:49), the commandment's value lies in the deterrence factor.  The humiliation that the woman undergoes is so embarrassing, that "many people would rather expend their entire fortunes, and even die, than undergo such an ordeal."  In Mishneh Torah (Hilkhot Sota 3:5), the Rambam emphasizes the public aspect of the ceremony:


A great throng of women is brought about her, because all the women who are to be found there must see her – and any man who wishes to see her may come and see her.  She stands there without her veil and without her kerchief, in her [torn] clothing like a woman in the privacy of her own home. 


The Ramban (v. 31), however, stresses the supernatural abilities of the seemingly innocuous water to elicit the truth:


There is nothing in the laws of the Torah as dependent on a miracle as this matter, which is marvelous and a fixed miracle in Israel when the majority follows the will of God.  For He wishes, for the sake of his righteousness, to rebuke the women, so that they not act not in the licentious manner of other nations, and He wishes to cleanse and purify Israel from bastardy, so that they will deserve to have the Divine Presence in their midst.  Therefore, the miracle ceased when they became corrupted with sin, as the Sages say (Sota 47a): "When the adulterers increased, they stopped administering the bitter waters, as it is written, 'I will not remember to punish your daughters when the prostitute themselves, and your daughters-in-law when they commit adultery, because [the husbands] have set themselves apart with prostitutes and sacrifice together with the harlots, and a nation that does not understand will stumble' (Hoshe'a 4:14)."  This does not mean that the women who commit adultery are free from sin because their husbands are adulterers, but rather that this great miracle will not occur.  It takes place for their honor, and because they are a holy nation.  It is for a similar reason that they say (Sota 47b) that when the Torah closes the topic with "The man shall be free of sin" (v. 31), it means "when the man is free of sin, the waters test his wife; but when the man is not free of sin, the waters do not test his wife."[3]


In his explanation, the Ramban touches upon the role of the husband.  A superficial reading of the text's simple meaning creates the perception that the Torah is one-sided, totally partial to the jealous husband, at the wife's expense.   The entire process is based upon the husband's claims, and it is he who is seized with the spirit of jealousy.  He feels the need to clarify his suspicions; he is the one who drags his wife to the Mishkan.  From the outset, it appears that no one asks the view of the woman, and given the Rambam's description above, clearly no one would wish upon herself undergoing this humiliating ordeal.  


However, rabbinic thought, beginning with the first mishna in Massekhet Sota, endeavors to nullify this apparent lack of symmetry.  Based on this, the Rambam (Hilkhot Sota 1:1) says:


The jealousy about which the Torah speaks – "and he is jealous for his wife" (v. 14) - means that he tells her, before witnesses: "Do not seclude yourself with so-and-so!" 


No longer are we dealing with an incidental encounter between the woman and a man other than her husband, which gives rise to the latter's obsessive and uncontrolled jealousy. The "seclusion" discussed in verse 13 occurs after, not before, his official warning to her before witnesses, and only if she secludes herself with the specific man her husband has mentioned.  Apparently, the suspicion is strong enough that the husband has already warned his wife, in front of two witnesses, not to seclude herself with this man.  The woman acts, despite the stern warning, and indeed secludes herself with the man concerned for a period of time that would make it possible for her to have sexual intercourse.  Rashi explains the continuation of verse 14 as follows:


"And she was defiled, or he was overcome… and she was not defiled" - in other words, he warns her and she subsequently acts against his warning, and it is not known whether she has been defiled or not.


The Mizrachi notes that even at the beginning of the section, in verse 12, Rashi is bothered by the seemingly repetitive phrase "if his wife strays" ("tisteh," from which the term "sota" is derived) as well as "and she betrays him."  Why could the Torah have not said simply: if his wife betrays him?  Therefore, Rashi explains that even before she betrays or deceives him (the second verb), she has already provided grounds for suspicion in his eyes: "'If his wife strays' – if she veers from the paths of modesty and becomes suspect in his eyes."


For this reason, the Torah's formulation of the husband's suspicions is that of a certainty, not the jealous ravings and fantasies of an insecure husband (vv. 12-13)


Any man, if his wife strays and she betrays him, and a man lies with her and gives seed, and the matter is hidden from her husband, for she was secluded; and she was defiled but there is no witness…


Despite this, rabbinic thought emphasizes that the efficiency of the test is dependent upon the husband's own standards of behavior, as alluded to in the Ramban's words above.  Based on the Gemara in Sota, the Rambam explains similarly (Hilkhot Sota 2:8, 3:17-19):


If a man HAS EVER HAD ANY ILLICIT RELATIONS as an adult, then the waters that bring a curse will not test his wife…  As it is written, "The man shall be free of sin, and that woman shall bear her iniquity:" when the man is free of sin, then the woman bears her iniquity.


And all of these things apply only if the husband has never sinned himself (in this regard); but if he has engaged in any illicit relations, then the waters do not test his wife, as we have explained. And if he did transgress and then makes his wife drink the water, this adds rebellious sin to his error, for he causes God's Name to be blotted out in the water for no purpose, and he causes the waters of the sota to be cheapened; for his wife will tell others that she had engaged in adultery, yet the waters did not test her, and she will not know that it was her husband's deeds that caused this.  FOR THIS REASON, WHEN THE NUMBER OF THOSE WHO ENGAGED OPENLY IN ADULTERY DURING THE SECOND TEMPLE PERIOD INCREASED, THE SANHEDRIN CANCELLED THE PRACTICE OF THE BITTER WATERS…


An in-depth reading of the laws of sota, beyond the scope of this discussion, reveals another salient point – the ceremony and process is only used when both parties wish to maintain (and repair) the relationship.  Should the husband wish to divorce his wife, he may choose to do so (paying her the necessary sum as stipulated in the ketuba).  The wife may sue for divorce or may refuse to undergo the test.  Only when both parties desire to remain married does the process become necessary, and only then if the husband feels it necessary to clear his mind of any lingering suspicions. 


The rabbinic approach sees in the section the result of a husband who is too domineering and overbearing.  The Talmud (Gittin 6b) explicitly warns:


A husband must never terrorize his family.  Whoever rules over his family in fear will eventually bring about the committing of carnal sin, murder, and desecration of the Shabbat.


Yehuda ben Pappas, whose jealousy leads him to confine his wife in his house, becomes the rabbinic example of this principle (see Gittin 90a, Rashi ad loc.).


Finally, we should note that as part of the process, the husband must bring a "minchat kena'ot" (v. 15) – "a meal-offering of jealousies."[4]  Why the plural form of jealousy?  Rashi suggests that there are two jealous parties that must be appeased – God and her husband.  However, the Chizkuni says that the offering cannot be meant to achieve pardon for the wife, as we know that "the sacrifice of the sinner is an abomination" (Mishlei 21:27).  If anyone needs absolution and forgiveness, it is the husband.  He has allowed the situation to deteriorate and has not objected earlier.  Indirectly, he too bears a share in the responsibility for the erasure of God's name.


The Rashbam expresses a similar idea, but he links his thought to the closing verse "And the man shall be free of sin" (v. 31): only after the ordeal ends can the husband be considered not guilty.  If his wife is proven guilty by the ordeal, he will be free of sin; if, however, she is proclaimed innocent, he will be vilified for the sin of humiliating her.  Either way, he is initially considered guilty and requires a form of pardon.

[1]  All references are from this passage unless otherwise stated.

[2]  According to the approach of Rashi and Seforno, the commandment to build the Mishkan atones for the sin of the Golden Calf.

[3]  Other commentators ascribe the waters' potency to less supernatural sources.  For example, the Melekhet Machshevet explains them as deriving from the power of the imagination.  The kohen wishes to put fear into the woman's heart and prevent the erasure of God's name.  He relates to her the powerful nature of the water if she is guilty, as if she were to drink poison.  Her sense of imagination fills in the rest – when she drinks, her sense of taste actually relates to her the sensation that she is drinking bitter waters.

[4] This term appears in v. 18 and v. 25 as well; indeed, v. 29 calls the entire passage "torat ha-kena'ot," "the law of jealousies."