Shaming Women Suspected of Adultery - What About Men?
The Mishnah’s Harsh Version of the Sotah Ritual
The Torah narrates the staging of a wife suspected by her husband of adultery:
במדבר ה:יח וְהֶעֱמִיד הַכֹּהֵן אֶת הָאִשָּׁה לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה וּפָרַע אֶת רֹאשׁ הָאִשָּׁה וְנָתַן עַל כַּפֶּיהָ אֵת מִנְחַת הַזִּכָּרוֹן מִנְחַת קְנָאֹת הִוא וּבְיַד הַכֹּהֵן יִהְיוּ מֵי הַמָּרִים הַמְאָרֲרִים.
Num 5:18 After he has made the woman stand before YHWH, the priest shall dishevel the woman’s hair (or “bare the woman’s head”) and place upon her hands the meal offering of remembrance, which is a meal offering of jealousy. And in the priest’s hands shall be the water of bitterness that induces the spell.
The disheveling or revealing of the woman’s hair “before YHWH,” i.e., in the Temple precinct, is a semi-private shaming ritual. The Mishnah adds many elements to this ritual, some of which contradict the simple meaning of the biblical text (Sotah 1:5-6).
- Standing at the gate, facing the public
... מַעֲלִין אוֹתָהּ לְשַׁעֲרֵי מִזְרָח לְשַׁעֲרֵי נִיקָנוֹר
…They take her up to the Eastern Gate which is across from the Nicanor Gate...
- Tearing her clothes
...וְכֹהֵן אוֹחֵז בִּבְגָדֶיהָ אִם נִיקְרָעוּ נִיקְרָעוּ וְאִם נִיפְרָמוּ נִיפְרָמוּ עַד שֶׁהוּא מְגַלֶּה אֶת לִיבָּהּ וְסוֹתֵר אֶת סְעָרָהּ...
…And a priest takes hold of her garments—if they were torn then they were torn, if they were ripped at the seam then ripped at the seam—until he uncovers her bosom. And he loosens her hair.
- Dressing her in black
הָיְתָה מְכוּסָּה בִלְבָנִים מְכַסָּהּ בִּשְׁחוֹרִים
If she was dressed in white, he would dress her in black.
- Removing her jewelry
הָיוּ עָלֶיהָ כְּלֵי זָהָב קְטַלָּיוֹת נְזָמִים וְטַבָּעוֹת מַעֲבִירִים מִמֶּנָּה כְּדֵי לְנַוְּולָהּ
If she was wearing jewels of gold and chains and nose-rings and finger-rings, they would be taken from her to deface her.
- Tying a rope above her exposed breasts
וְאַחַר כָּךְ מֵבִיא חֵבֶל מִצְרִי וְקוֹשְׁרוֹ לְמַעְלָה מִדַּדֶּיהָ
And then he brings a rope of wicker and ties it above her breasts.
- Making her a spectacle
וְכָל הָרוֹצֶה לִרְאוֹת בָּא וְרֹאֶה חוּץ מֵעֲבָדֶיהָ וְשִׁפְחוֹתֶיהָ מִפְּנֵי שֶׁלִּיבָּהּ גָּס בָּהֶן וּשְׁאַר כָּל הַנָּשִׁים מוּתָּרוֹת לִרְאוֹתָהּ שֶׁנֶּ׳ ״וְנִיָסְרוּ כָל הַנָּשִׁים וְלֹא תַעֲשֶׂינָה כְּזִימַּתְכֶנָה״ (יחזקאל כג:מח).
And whoever wishes to watch comes and watches, except her slaves and maids, since with them she feels no shame. And all women may watch her, for it is written “That all women may take warning and not commit lewdness as you have done.” (Ezek 23:48).
The Mishnah here takes a particularly hostile attitude to the woman accused of adultery and heaps extra humiliations on her as part of the process.
Critiquing the Rabbinic Version of the Ritual
Not all sages, however, were comfortable with the creation of this public humiliation ritual. In Sifrei Numbers (11), R. Yohanan ben Berokah dismisses completely the presence of an audience during the humiliating gestures of the ritual. The text begins with a description of some of the details similar to those in the Mishnah:
היתה מכוסה לבנים, מכסה שחורין. היו שחורין נאים לה מפשיטה ומלבישה כעורין. היו עליה כלי זהב קטלאות נזמין וטבעות, מסלקן הימנה כדי לנוולה.
If she were clad in white he would dress her in black. If she bore jewels of gold and chains and nose-rings and finger-rings, they would take them from her to deface her.
The Sifrei, however, records an alternative view:
ר' יוחנן בן ברוקה אומר אין מנוולין בנות ישראל יתר ממה שכתוב בתורה,
R. Yohanan ben Berokah says, “The daughters of Israel are not to be defaced more than what the Torah says.”
R. Yohanan ben Berokah opposes the excessive defacement narrated by the sages, advocating in its stead a plain reading of Scripture. He continues with new details that further protect the woman from humiliation, and abrogate entirely the audience’s participation:
לפני ה' ופרע את ראש האישה וגו' - סדין של בוץ היה פורס בינו לבין העם, כהן פונה לאחוריה ופורעה כדי לקיים בה מצות פריעה.
“[And the priest shall bring the wife] before God, and unbind the woman's hair”—[The priest] would stretch out a linen sheet between himself and the people. The priest would [then] go behind the woman and unbind her hair [to the minimal measure required] to perform in her the mitzvah of unbinding.
In his view, even the one humiliation the Torah does prescribe, the unbinding of her hair, must be done minimally, and behind a sheet, so that nobody other than the priest who performs the ritual sees her in this state. This is proven here based on a midrashic reading of the statement that the woman must stand “before God” when her hair is loosened, i.e., “before God” alone, and not before anyone else. Since Nikanor Gate is a public place (the public place of the Temple) a linen sheet must be used to create this concealment.
R. Yohanan ben Beroka’s colleagues are not convinced by his argument:
אמרו לו, כשם שלא חסה על כבוד המקום כך אין חסין על כבודה, אלא כל הניוול הזה מנוולה.
They said to him, “Just as she did not spare the Almighty's dignity, her own dignity is not spared, but rather He defaces her with all of this defacement.”
Like the Mishnah, the sages prefer the non-biblical, harsh depiction of the sotah ritual created by the rabbis.
The citation of R. Yohanan ben Beroka’s minimalistic approach, which combines a literalist meaning of Scripture with a moral pathos: “The daughters of Israel are not to be defaced more than what the Torah says,” in the Sifrei shows that rabbinic tradition was ambivalent about the rabbinic expansions. R. Yohanan ben Beroka is known from other places too to preserve more egalitarian (even “proto feminist”) views. Note however that he does not find fault with the biblical ritual per se, but only with the rabbinic expansion of it. Elsewhere in rabbinic literature, however, such criticism may be implied.
Cancellation of the Sotah Ritual—Is This a Critique?
At the end of the tractate, the Mishnah claims that the sotah ritual, among other rituals, was cancelled at a certain point (m. Sotah 9:9):
משרבו הרוצחנים - בטלה עגלה ערופה...
When murderers abounded, [the rite of] breaking the heifer's neck ceased…
This refers to the ritual described in Deuteronomy 21:1–9, performed when a body of a murder victim is found outside a city, and no one knows who the perpetrator is. The Mishnah continues:
משרבו הנאפים - פסקו המים המאררים. רבן יוחנן בן זכיי היפסיקן, שנאמר, ׳לא אפקד על בנותיכם כי תיזנינה ועל כלותיכם כי תנאפנה [כִּי־הֵם֙ עִם־הַזֹּנ֣וֹת יְפָרֵ֔דוּ]׳ (הושע ד,יד).
When [male] adulterers abounded, the rite of the water of bitterness ceased. Rabban Yoahanan ben Zakkai annulled it. For it is written, “I shall not punish your daughters when they fornicate, nor your daughters-in-law when they commit adultery, [for they themselves turn aside with whores.]” (Hosea 4:14).
Some scholars read this tradition about the ritual’s cancellation as an implied critique of the ritual itself. Specifically, they suggest that the use of Hosea 4:14 here shows that the reason of the cancelation of the ritual is gender-based: “When (male) adulterers abounded, the rite of the water of bitterness (for women) ceased.”
However, the immediate context of the Mishnah, which juxtaposes “When adulterers abounded” to “when murderers abounded,” suggests that the rabbinic annulment does not derive from a concern about gender fairness, but to an inherent problem of performing the ritual too much. The verse from Hosea does not explain why the ritual was annulled, but merely functions as a factual affirmation of this—i.e., the prophet Hosea predicted that it would be annulled, and it was.
A comparative reading of our Mishnah side by side with the parallel Tosefta strengthens this reading (t. Sotah 14:1–2):
רבן יוחנן בן זכיי אומר, משרבו הרצחנין בטלה ערופה, לפי שאין עגלה ערופה באה אלא על הספק, עכשיו כבר רבו ההורגין בגלוי.
Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai says: “When murderers abounded, [the rite of] breaking the heifer's neck ceased, for this rite functions only to dispel doubt, [but] now murder in the open abounds.
משרבו המנאפין פסקו מי מרים, לפי שאין מי מרים באין אלא על הספק, עכשיו כבר רבו הרואין בגלוי.
When adulterers abounded the water of bitterness ceased, for the water of bitterness functions only to dispel doubt, [but] now [adultery] in the open abounds.”
The argument “when X abounded” that both the Mishnah and the Tosefta share is based on the assumption that these rituals – addressing adultery and clandestine murder – belong to a well-regulated world order in which deviation is punishable, but have no place in a world in which such acts have become the norm. And yet, the rhetoric of ideal past vs. fraught present plays out differently in both texts.
Critique vs. Lament
Chapter 14 of Tosefta Sotah is dedicated to a description of the degenerate and contemptible present reality. Its recurrent slogan “when X abounded - Y ceased / was annulled” conveys the poor state of things in the present. In the Mishnah, the annulment of the sotah and heifer rituals appear as part of a list of annulments (along with the “divine oracle” [urrim and thummim], “men of faith,” “the Torah's dignity,” etc.), employing the formula “when X died / destroyed […] Y was annulled.” Thus, the Mishnah’s rhetorical aim seems not to complain about the contemptable nature of the present, but to lament an era gone by.
Be it as it may, neither the Tosefta nor the Mishnah criticize the sotah ritual, just as they do not criticize the ritual of breaking the heifer's neck. Both procedures are described as institutions belonging to the lost regulated world order. Changes in society brought about the demise of an entire system of an institutional religion, and the sotah and heifer rituals are but two examples of the loss of worthy ritual practices. Note that these two rituals serve to cope through ritualistic means with concealed crimes which, according to priestly theology, defile the land if are not taken care of (murder, adultery), and so it is no surprise that they are yoked together in the Mishnah.
What About the Lover?
While the annulment claim in the Mishnah and Tosefta do not express criticism of the ritual, a moral critique may stand behind an interpretation of the ritual found in Mishnah Sotah 5:1. In explaining how the sotah waters function, it notes:
כשם שהמים בודקין אותה כך המים בודקין אותו... שנאמר (במדבר ה') ובאו ובאו
Just as the water acts upon her so does it act upon him (i.e, her paramour)…
According to this source, parity between the guilty parties is achieved by the male adulterer suffering the same fate as the married woman he had the affair with. While this source is concerned about the unfairness of the perpetrating male getting away scot free, another source expresses concern about the gender imbalance between husband and wife.
When the Man is Free from Iniquity: Sifrei Numbers (Again)
The tradition about the annulment of the sotah ritual found in the Mishnah and the Tosefta has a parallel in Sifrei Numbers (21). Following a quote from Rabbi Akiva regarding what happens to the woman if the bitter waters find her guilty, the text turns to the final verse in the chapter:
במדבר ה:לא וְנִקָּה הָאִישׁ מֵעָוֹן וְהָאִשָּׁה הַהִוא תִּשָּׂא אֶת עֲוֹנָהּ.
Num 5:31 The man shall be clear of iniquity; but that woman shall suffer for her iniquity.
The Sifrei asks:
למה נאמר ונקה?
Why does it say [the man is] “free [from iniquity]”?
The simple meaning of the verse is that by bringing his wife for the text he is free from the iniquity of remaining with an adulteress woman, but the rabbis offer a midrashic suggestion:
כשהאיש מנוקה מעון האשה ההיא תשא את עונה.
When the man is free from iniquity “the woman shall bear her iniquity.”
In other words, the Sifrei reads the phrase as a condition, only when the husband is free of iniquity will the wife be forced to bear hers. While the Mishnah presents no explicit explanation for the annulment, and the Tosefta attributes it to the elimination of doubt ("for the water of bitterness functions only to dispel doubt”), the Sifrei homily attributes it to the failure to equally apply its moral standard to men: “since you seek the company of whores, the water will not examine your wives.”
This source criticizes the ritual itself, by coupling the annulment tradition with the call for equality, thus condemning the sotah ritual that subjects the women to inquiry, while the men fornicate as they please. In other words, the text is bothered by the hypocrisy of the woman’s husband, who can fornicate with impunity while holding her a much stricter construction marital fidelity. The point is emphasized by how Sifrei makes use of the Hosea prooftext in a different manner than the Mishnah.
Hosea’s Gendered Critique of Marital Hypocrisy
The Sifrei text continues by quoting the same proof text from Hosea 4:14 as cited in the Mishnah, but here it is read through a gendered lens:
לא כעניין שנאמר, לא אפקוד על בנתיכם כי תזנינה ועל כלתיכם וגו', אמר להן הואיל ואתם רדיפין על הזונות אף המים לא יבדקו את נשיכם. לכך נאמר, ונקה האיש מעון, את עון ההוא.
And not as it has been said, “I shall not punish your daughters when they fornicate, nor your daughters-in-law [when they commit adultery, for they themselves turn aside with whores.]” He [Hosea] said to them, since you [males] seek the company of whores, the water will not examine your wives. This is why Scripture says, “the man is free from iniquity” – [he must be free from] this same iniquity [i.e. fornication].
The homily from the Sifrei reads Hosea not as a matter-of-fact prediction about the future, but as a power critique of marital moral hypocrisy. This is for a good reason. From its very opening, the book of Hosea is occupied with marital relationship, which it uses as a metaphor for God’s relationship with His people.
Hosea’s model of marriage is monogamous and exclusive: a couple in the desert, with no competitors or potential suitors (Hosea 2:16-19). The first two chapters deal with marriage as a metaphor and therefore concentrate on the wife’s obligation to her husband and benefactor. Our verse, however, goes a step further, arguing that husbands too are obligated to marital fidelity.
I suggest that this verse from Hosea, first cited as a technical proof in the Mishnah, was reused by the Sifrei’s anonymous homilist as a source for a severe critique of the exceptionally harsh ritual. By doing so, the Sifrei homilist may have caught a deep sense of Hosea’s ethos.
Sifrei Numbers records two exceptional reservations against the ritual. One attacks the harsh, non-biblical defacement, and the other, the biblical ritual itself, with the gender inequality embedded in it. This latter critique made a strong and original use of Hosea 4:14, a verse cited already in the Mishnah, but whose critical potential was realized only in the Sifrei.
It seems no accident that these reservations were censured from the Mishnah and only appear in Sifrei Numbers from the house of R. Ishmael. Thanks to the Sifrei’s tendency to preserve dissenting views, we were granted two exceptional sources of reflection and self-critique in the Tannaitic study house.
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Prof. Ishay Rosen-Zvi is Professor of Rabbinic Literature in the department of Jewish Philosophy and Talmud at Tel-Aviv University, and a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Kogod Center. He holds a Ph.D. in rabbinic literature from Tel-Aviv University and was elected to the Israel Young Academy of Sciences in 2013. Among his many publications are Demonic Desires: Yetzer Hara and the Problem of Evil in Late Antiquity (2011); Body and Soul in Ancient Judaism (2012); and Goy: Israel’s Others and the Birth of the Gentile (2018, with Adi Ophir).
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