The Sotah Ritual: Mistrusting Women and Their Torah Study
When our eldest daughter became a bat mitzvah, she chanted the entire Torah portion of Parashat Nasso, including the lengthy section about the sotah. Given our daughter’s age and the formative nature of the event, however, we had deliberately avoided addressing the sotah in any of the studying we had done together and the speeches we had written for that event.
How could we justify to our not-yet twelve-year-old daughter a ritual that allowed a husband to subject his wife to public humiliation and torment solely on the basis of jealousy and sexual suspicion? How could exposure to such a ritual, however historically ancient, contextualized, or justified in rabbinic or scholarly literature not undermine her budding sense of the relevance of the Torah to her own, newly adult life?
Instead, we opted for Marc Brettler’s view of the Torah as a sourcebook and his strategy of metaphorically setting those morally resonant parts of the book in large, easily readable font and conversely, setting the more objectionable parts in “tiny font that can hardly be read and followed,” thereby reducing the sotah presence in our consciousness to something too small to notice. But even if one tries to minimize the place of the sotah in one’s religious consciousness, it asserts a stubborn presence.
The Sotah: Ancient and Modern Understandings
Taking a historical-contextual approach, the ritual of the sotah can be understood against the backdrop of analogous rituals in ancient Near Eastern law collections. It is a trial by ordeal that acknowledges the lack of sufficient (human) evidence and thus resorts to a combination of sacred word and divine intercession for its resolution.
Taking a modern, anthropological perspective on the ritual, it can be understood as an oath ritual or psychodrama meant to resolve the psychological uncertainty, either by scaring a guilty woman into a confession before drinking the waters, or convincing a suspicious husband of his wife’s actual innocence, thereby enabling a reconciliation.
The Rabbinic Reception: Women’s Bodies and Minds
The Mishnah transforms the arbitrary initiation of the ritual from being based only on “ruaḥ kin’ah” (a spirit of jealousy)—the phrase used in Numbers 5:14, 30— into a formal system of requiring the woman be warned in the presence of witnesses, which protects the woman from being subject only to his whims (m. Sotah 1:1). At the same time, the rabbis also expanded the original biblical ritual to include more degradation. The Torah has the priest unravel or uncover the woman’s hair (וּפָרַע אֶת רֹאשׁ הָאִשָּׁה, Num 5:18), but the rabbis have her publicly stripped.
The Mishnah further states that if a woman has special merit, it will delay the effects of the sotah waters, even for years:
משנה סוטה ג:ד אֵינָה מַסְפֶּקֶת לִשְׁתּוֹת, עַד שֶׁפָּנֶיהָ מוֹרִיקוֹת וְעֵינֶיהָ בוֹלְטוֹת, וְהִיא מִתְמַלָּא גִּידִים, וְהֵן אוֹמְרִין: "הוֹצִיאוּהָ, הוֹצִיאוּהָ!" שֶׁלֹּא תְטַמֵּא אֶת הָעֲזָרָה. אִם יֶשׁ לָהּ זְכוּת, הָיְתָה תוֹלָה לָהּ. יֵשׁ זְכוּת תּוֹלָה שָׁנָה אַחַת, יֵשׁ זְכוּת תּוֹלָה שְׁתֵּי שָׁנִים, יֵשׁ זְכוּת תּוֹלָה שָׁלוֹשׁ שָׁנִים.
m. Sotah 3:4 She hardly finishes drinking until her face turns yellow and her eyes bulge and her veins swell, and they say, “Take her away! Take her away!” so that she not defile the Court. But if she had any merit it would suspend her punishment. Some merits suspend punishment for one year, some merits for two years, and some merits for three years.
Surprisingly, the rabbis use this as a jumping off point to discuss whether women should learn Torah:
מִכָּאן אָמַר בֶּן עַזַּאי: חַיָּב אָדָם לְלַמֵּד אֶת בִּתּוֹ תוֹרָה, שֶׁאִם תִּשְׁתֶּה תֵדַע שֶׁהַזְּכוּת תּוֹלָה לָהּ. רַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר אוֹמֵר: כָּל הַמְלַמֵּד אֶת בִּתּוֹ תוֹרָה, כְּאִלּוּ מְלַמְּדָהּ תִּפְלוּת.
Hence Ben Azzai says: A man must teach his daughter Torah so that if she drinks she may know that the merit suspends her punishment. R. Eliezer says: One who teaches his daughter Torah it is as though he teaches her frivolity.
Ben Azzai is known for his powerful yearning to study Torah, which even led him not to marry, despite his belief that it is a supreme obligation. His commitment to Torah study thus transgresses social norms, even encouraging women’s Torah study to counter the effects of the sotah ritual on an adulteress.
R. Eliezer, in contrast, identified elsewhere in the Talmud with a conservative, originalist stance with respect to Jewish law, links female knowledge inexorably with promiscuity. His rejection of women’s learning as a form of potential licentiousness becomes the last word on this subject, effectively suppressing the possibility of women’s Torah study, turning the exceptional case of the sotah into a guiding principle with respect to all women until very recent times.
Daniel Boyarin stresses the post-Temple context of this rabbinic discussion. In a time when the rabbis were taking over the former functions of the Temple priests and establishing a new realm of knowledge, they were particularly anxious to establish their (male) authority. Likewise, in Ishay Rosen-Zvi’s understanding, the rabbis’ issue with the sotah is not just adultery but “suspicion [of women] itself ... Her suspected adultery is a radical example of the threat innate in all women, however, latent.”
The Sotah’s Body, Knowledge, and Text
The connection between women’s body, knowledge, and text in the rabbinic material is already at work in the biblical sotah account. The verb ש.ט.ה (Num 5:12), used to describe the woman’s straying—כִּי-תִשְׂטֶה אִשְׁתּוֹ “when his wife strays”—appears nowhere else in the Bible. This underscores the exceptional and uncertain nature of these circumstances.
The suspected adulteress poses a special danger to male society in her being the only party involved in the ritual who actually knows what happened. Despite her crucial knowledge, though, the sotah is not allowed to exculpate herself by means of her own words once the husband’s jealousy takes hold. All she can do is assent to the ritual (and its truthfulness) and say, “amen, amen.”
Conceivably, the biblical text could have included the man with whom she is suspected of “straying” in the ritual, but no such option is suggested; it is the sotah’s own body that needs to be activated or plumbed for these purposes, most likely because of the fear of an illicit pregnancy. Indeed, the ritual seems to punish the guilty with miscarriage or infertility and the innocent with fertility:
במדבר ה:כז ...וְהָיְתָה אִם נִטְמְאָה וַתִּמְעֹל מַעַל בְּאִישָׁהּ וּבָאוּ בָהּ הַמַּיִם הַמְאָרֲרִים לְמָרִים וְצָבְתָה בִטְנָהּ וְנָפְלָה יְרֵכָהּ וְהָיְתָה הָאִשָּׁה לְאָלָה בְּקֶרֶב עַמָּהּ. ה:כח וְאִם לֹא נִטְמְאָה הָאִשָּׁה וּטְהֹרָה הִוא וְנִקְּתָה וְנִזְרְעָה זָרַע.
Num 5:27 …if she has defiled herself by breaking faith with her husband, the spell-inducing water shall enter into her to bring on bitterness, so that her belly shall distend and her thigh shall sag; and the wife shall become a curse among her people. 5:28 But if the woman has not defiled herself and is pure, she shall be unharmed and able to retain seed. 
As Bonna Devora Haberman observes, the biblical text “endows the priests not only with special ritualized access to truth, but also with magical powers pertaining to the sexual potency of words.” Moreover, she notes, the ritual itself is exceptional; the suspected adulterous “imbibes a potion in which the divine ineffable name is dissolved with the text of a bodily curse,” rendering her body a kind of “textual territory.”
David Frischmann’s Sotah
The nexus between women’s bodies, knowledge, and text in the sotah ritual are taken up by David Frischmann (1859–1922), a Polish-born modern Hebrew and Yiddish writer and editor, literary critic, translator, poet, and fiction writer. While Frischmann spent most of his career encouraging the creation of an elitist, refined Hebrew literature that could parallel the achievements of classic works of Western literature, later in his career, he published a series of neo-midrashic stories set during the period of the Israelite wandering in the wilderness and later collected under the title Bamidbar, including a story called “Sotah.”
The background, names, and aura of these stories wed them to the classical, masculine textual tradition of the Bible and the rabbis; however, the free-wheeling creativity of the stories, including invented characters and scenarios entirely different than the biblical, represent a “setiyah,” an imaginative, wayward turn away from this tradition. Frischmann labeled these stories “Ma’asiyot bibliyot,” the first part of the title linking them to the storytelling habits of the rabbis and the Hassidic masters, and the second, non-Hebraic term, to modern critical approaches to studying the Bible.
The introduction to the first story in the Bamidbar series begins with this matriarchal storytelling frame:
אמי קיבלה את הדברים מאמה ואמה מאמה, זקנתה מזקנתה וזקנתה מזקנתה, דור מפי דור – ואמי מסרה לי את הדברים.
My mother received these words from her mother, and her mother from her mother, her grandmother from her grandmother, and her grandmother from her grandmother, from the mouth of one generation to the next – and my mother passed these words on to me.
If the biblical and rabbinic sources respond to the sotah by having the male priest recite and inscribe a text that the sotah is compelled to orally ingest and disclose the “truth” without listening to her words, the framing of Frischmann’s story cycle contributes an alternative female oral counter-tradition.
Iʿezer ben Makhir Falls in Love with Shifra bat Sered
Set during the 34th year of the Israelite wandering in the desert, Frischmann’s “Sotah” tells the story of a man named Iʿezer (איעזר) ben Makhir, the husband of six wives who suddenly gets smitten by a beautiful young woman named Shifra bat Sered and wants to take her as his (paradigmatically numbered, perfect) seventh wife.
Iʿezer importunes Shifra to marry him, but she refuses him on account of his other wives; he tries repeatedly to convince her, but she continues to demur. Iʿezer becomes so obsessed and determined to marry her that he eventually divorces all six of his wives in one day, so as to convince Shifra to become his only wife, at which point she finally acquiesces to his proposal.
According to the narrator no one before had ever divorced six wives in one day. One might think that doing so would subject Iʿezer– whose name can be translated as “helpless,” or “no help-meet”—and also brings to mind R. Eliezer from the Mishnah discussed above—to communal criticism. Instead, Iʿezer’s multiple, simultaneous divorces add to the mystique that attaches to Shifra’s physical beauty. But Shifra herself remains entirely oblivious to her super-allure:
הלוא זאת שפרה. תמימה היתה כילדה קטנה וענווה ובאין הבין.
After all, that was Shifra, innocent like a child, and modest, understanding none of it.
Throughout the story, Shifra is described as modest and obedient, but childishly ignorant, both of her own beauty and of the systems at work around her. The little knowledge she has about religion, God, and history dates back to her childhood, when she heard stories about God and Sinai from her mother and nursemaid.
Enter the Lecherous Priest
In the Torah, the sotah story appears alongside a register of the service, rituals, and accoutrements of the priestly families as well as the contributions to the tabernacle made by the tribal princes. Frischmann’s sotah story, also takes place against this backdrop of priestly organization, with Shifra coming to the tabernacle along with the rest of the people to offer her own contributions and sacrifices.
Shifra’s combined innocence and ignorance make her a ready target, though, for a particularly corrupt priest, referred to generically as Hakohen (The Priest), who catches sight of her lovely shape and insists that she take off her veil as she offers her sacrifice so he can get a closer look. Recalling the link forged in the Mishnah between knowledge (or the lack thereof) and promiscuity, Frischmann’s presiding priest takes advantage of Shifra’s ignorance and undermines her strategy of self-protection by insisting that piety requires her to expose herself before him.
Seeing her great beauty, the priest, like Iʿezer before him, becomes obsessed with possessing her carnally, and thus sets out to use his priestly role to his own sexual advantage. The priest first tries to get her to meet him in the cranny of the mountain rocks–an allusion to the sexual play of the man and woman in Song of Songs 2:14:
ויום אחד בהיותו [הכהן] עומד עמה לבדו אל המזבח אשר לפני פתח אוהל מועד והוא מקריב את קורבנה[...] – אז החזיק פתאום באצבעותיו הניקשות בידה וידרוש מעמהּ כי תבוא אל מאחורי חגווי הסלעים אשר עם ההר והוא יחכה לה בערב. [...]
One day, when the Priest was standing alone with her [Shifra] by the altar at the opening to the Tent of Meeting, and offering her sacrifice [...]-- the Priest suddenly grabbed her with the snare of his fingers and demanded that she come behind the cleft mountain rocks, where he’ll wait for her in the evening. [...]
When she ignores his request, he threatens to tell her husband that she is cheating on him.
ויום אחד בעומדה אל המזבח עם עשירית האֵיפה סולת לחטאת [...] – ופתאום לטש לה את עיניו באיבה ובקול קר כקרח הנורא אמר: “שפרה בת סרד! עוד יום אחד אנוכי נותן לך מועד. אם לא תבואי היום אל מאחר לחגווי הסלעים כדבר אדונָי, ואֶגְלֶה את אוזן אישך…” [...]
And one day, she was standing by the altar with her tenth of an ephah of flour for the sin offering… when suddenly, he flashed his eyes with hatred and with a voice as cold and terrifying as ice, he said, “Shifra daughter of Sered! I’m giving you one more chance. If you don’t come today to the cleft rocks as God commands, I’ll disclose to your husband…” [...]
When she once again refuses, the priest makes good on his threat, denouncing her to Iʿezer and subjecting her to the sotah ordeal:
והכהן ניגש לאיטו ובצעדים מדודים ויכתוב את כל דברי האלות בדיו על מגילת עור וישם את העור במים המרים, ויינקו המים החריפים את הדיו וימחוה, ואחר-כן ניגש שנית אל האישה. ואולם האשה לא ידעה עוד את הנעשה בה. גלגלים שחורים ואדומים וכחולים החלו להתגלגל לנגד עיניה וניצוצי-אש עפו לפניה, והיא לא ראתה ולא שמעה עוד דבר.
And the priest slowly approached in measured steps and wrote all of the curses in ink on the parchment and placed it into the bitter waters, and the sharp waters blotted out the ink, and afterward he approached the woman a second time. However, the woman did not yet know what was happening to her. Swirls of black and red and blue began swirling before her eyes and sparks of fire flew before her, and she neither saw nor heard a thing.
והכהן לקח מיד האשה את מנחת הקורבן אשר על כף ידה, והניף את המנחה במועל ידיו ואת עיניו העווה למרום, ואחר-כן קמץ מן המנחה את האזכרה המעטה אשר שומה עליו להבעיר באש והקטיר את המעט הזה אל המזבח, ואחרי-כן פנה לקחת את המים אשר בכלי-החרשׂ – –
And the priest (=following the script of Numbers 5, WZ) immediately took the meal offering from her palm, and waved the offering with his raised hands and lifted his eyes to the heavens, and afterward took a handful from the memory offering that she had given him to burn upon the fire, and he offered this bit of incense on the altar, and then turned to take the waters in the clay vessel —
In this proto-#metoo modern midrash, Frishmann homes in on the idea that a “ruaḥ kin’ah” –a spirit or suspicion of jealousy–might easily be catalyzed by someone in power as a cunning means of extorting sexual favors. Given what we are told at the beginning of the story of Iʿezer’s obsessive lust for Shifra, and his willingness to divorce six other wives in one day in order to possess her, one can easily see him succumbing to rumors and lies about Shifra’s supposed infidelity.
At the same time, Shifra’s want of understanding of the rules of engagement–her lack of direct Torah knowledge, her inability to muster the words to tell her husband that she is being blackmailed, or to understand the super-charged atmosphere of masculine sexual impulse–literally dooms her to death. She is so stupefied and traumatized by the initial stages of the ordeal that she drops dead even before she is given the waters that might, according to the logic of the ritual, clear her of suspicion and “seed her” with a child.
ברגע ההוא נפלה האשה מלוא קומתה אחורנית ארצה. הכהן ניסה להקימהּ ולא יכול, כי לא היה בה רוח חיים.
At that exact moment, the woman fell backward from her full height. The priest attempted to stand her back up but could not, because the spirit of life was no longer with her.
That her name is Shifra, recalling one of the midwives from Exodus 1 who saves the boy babies from Pharaoh’s decree, proves ironic, given her utter lack of sway over her own wellbeing. Though her premature death deprives the priest of his exclusive control over words, text, and their use in the ritual, and therefore some of his magical power, it does nothing to clear her or secure her future progeny. While the husband is broken by his wife’s fate, The Priest leaves the stage unscathed.
ואיעזר השׂתער פתאום על גופת האשה ויאחז בה, והוא קורא בקול לא-אדם: “סִלְחִי לי! אני האשם ואת הצדיקה, אנחנו כולנו הרשענו לך, ואת סְלָחִי!” ההמון נפוץ מעט מעט. ואולם הכוהן עמד קוממיות וישא את כפיו ויאמר: "אלוהים נתן ואלוהים לקח יהי שם אלוהים מבורך!" ואחר-כן פנה וילך לאיטו בצעדים מדודים.
And Iʿezer [her husband] suddenly fell upon his wife’s body and took hold of her and called out in an otherworldly voice: “Forgive me! I am the guilty party and you, the righteous. All of us betrayed you. Forgive us!” The crowd slowly dispersed. But the priest stood upright and raised his palms to say, “God has given and God has taken. May God’s name be blessed!” Afterwards, he turned and slowly walked away with measured steps.
Like other works of maskilic literature that pit individuals against the coercive power of community and inveigh against the position of women in Judaism as a means of targeting the rabbinic establishment, Frischmann’s story makes its argument by heightening the sense of female victimization and powerlessness in the face of a power elite.
Teaching the Sotah Ritual as a Woman Rabbi
It was Shabbat Parashat Naso, the fifteenth anniversary of our eldest daughter’s bat mitzvah. I had been invited to serve as Scholar-in-Residence at an Upper West Side Orthodox congregation, charged for my Shabbat morning talk to discuss the sotah from a feminist point of view.
After presenting a variety of approaches and sources about the Sotah, including Frischmann’s story, a member of the synagogue where I was teaching raised a hand to object to what he perceived as the distortedly radical feminist nature of my presentation. “I always thought this was a nice story, a brilliant means on the part of the Torah to find a way to enable a couple placed under these circumstances to stay together.”
A hush fell over the congregation. A nice story. It was clear, I told the man, that he and I came to this material with different assumptions and predispositions. Nevertheless, the fact that I had just delivered this talk in an Orthodox synagogue, as an ordained rabbi, was its own last word and merit, evidence that one of the major lasting implications of the rabbinic engagement with the sotah story—the prohibition against women’s Torah study—had itself been erased, like a curse blotted out by holy waters.
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Prof. Rabbi Wendy Zierler is the Sigmund Falk Professor of Modern Jewish Literature and Feminist Studies at HUC-JIR. She received her Ph.D. and M.A. from Princeton University, her MFA in Fiction Writing from Sarah Lawrence College, her B.A. from Stern College (YU), and her rabbinic ordination from Yeshivat Maharat. She is the author of And Rachel Stole the Idols: The Emergence of Hebrew Women’s Writing, and co-editor of Prooftexts: A Journal of Jewish Literary History. Most recently she co-edited the book These Truths We Hold: Judaism in an Age of Truthiness.
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