Why the Nazirite Laws Follow those of Sotah
As careful readers of text, the rabbis noted when two seemingly unrelated topics were juxtaposed and were interested in knowing what the present order of texts came to teach. To this end they often asked, “Why was one parasha (pericope or literary unit) placed next to (nismekha ) another?” As opposed to the chronological order of biblical stories, called אין מוקדם ומאוחר בתורה (there is no chronological order in the Torah), סמיכות deals primarily with the adjacency of laws for which chronology is not an issue. The juxtaposition of the law of thesotah—a woman suspected by her husband of adultery—and the law of the nazirite in Numbers is a parade example of this approach, called סמיכות פרשיות, the adjacency of units.
Why does Nazirite Passage Follow that of Sotah?
Numbers 5 presents the law of the sotah or wife suspected of adultery by her husband, followed by the law of the nazirite in Numbers 6. The sotah must undergo an ordeal to prove her guilt or innocence. The nazirite is a man or woman who undertakes not to be contaminated by ritual defilement (טומאה), not to cut his/her hair, and not to drink wine or any intoxicant made of grapes.
Explaining the Juxtaposition through Midrash: The Talmud
The Talmud writes (TB Berakhot 63a; Sotah 2a):
תניא, רבי אומר: למה נסמכה פרשת נזיר לפרשת סוטה? לומר לך שכל הרואה סוטה בקלקולה יזיר עצמו מן היין.
It was taught – Rabbi says: “Why does the section of the nazirite follow immediately on that of the sotah? To teach you that anyone who sees a sotah in her disheveled state should completely abstain from wine.”
As in most midrashic juxtaposition, the end result is a moral teaching: if one is intoxicated, his or her chance to be involved in illicit sex is much greater. If people abstain from wine, as nazirite men and women are commanded to do, they stand a better chance of avoiding such temptation. This is the reason the two laws are juxtaposed.
Explaining the Juxtaposition through Peshat: Ibn Ezra
Ibn Ezra, the twelfth century Spanish exegete from Toledo (1089–1164), who represents the high point of peshat in Spain, offers a different interpretation of this juxtaposition:
ולפי דעתי כי נסמכה בעבור נזירת האשה, שהיא הפך המועלת, כי רובי העבירות סבתם היין.
In my opinion the two portions are juxtaposed in order to contrast the woman who abstains from wine with the one who commits adultery, as most sins involve wine (Num 5:31).
The errant wife in the chapter of the sotah personifies the licentious woman who defiles herself as a result of drunkenness. In contrast, the following chapter speaks of a woman who undertakes a vow of abstinence from wine in order to become consecrated. This is a juxtaposition of comparison (two texts that deal with women and wine) and contrast (consecration versus sacrilege; abstinence versus hedonism). Relying on the juxtaposition of form and pattern, Ibn Ezra arrives at the same moral teaching as the Midrash: “Wine is often the root of all evil.”
Midrashic Gap-Filling vs. Ibn Ezra’s Literary Approach
The Midrash links the two passages of the sotah and the nazirite by creating an additional scene not stated in the story: the man who took a vow to be a nazirite did so after seeing the horrific ordeal of the wayward woman.
Ibn Ezra on the other hand links the two passages through a contrast based on the text alone. To help him do this, ibn Ezra created the neologism mo’elet, a woman who commits a sacrilege, to describe the sotah because this word is the antonym of “holy” (קדש) which describes a nazirite man or woman. Ibn Ezra, an advocate of the peshat, saw juxtaposition as he interpreted it to be a form of peshat, because it derived from the text itself and not from outside considerations.
An Academic Approach to Juxtaposition: Linguistic Association
Umberto Cassuto (1883-1951) used a different principle to understand juxtaposition. Near Eastern literature is often organized by linguistic association, by the repetition of the same word or root, or through a word-play. In our case, Cassuto observed that the root prc (פרע), an uncommon word, comes up in both pericopae.
- In the sotah law, we read:(וּפָרַע אֶת-רֹאשׁ הָאִשָּׁה) “the priest shall dishevel the woman’s hair” or “let the hair of the woman’s head go loose” (Num.5:18).
- In the law of the nazirite we read, ((גַּדֵּל פֶּרַע שְׂעַר רֹאשׁוֹ, “he shall let the locks of the hair of his head grow long” (Num.6:5).
Both passages, though unrelated, speak of growing the hair or letting it out and both use the same uncommon word, פ-ר-ע. This is the reason why the portions are adjacent.
Conclusion: Juxtaposition through the Ages
The phenomenon of juxtaposition has been noted by two millennia worth of commentators. examples from Midrash, Ibn Ezra, and Cassuto, show that the interpretation of juxtaposition in the Bible was not limited to one particular period or to one type of interpretation.
Rabbinic literature naturally served as the primary source for later attitudes towards sequence, by enunciating the principle that סמיכות פרשיות, the juxtaposition of passages, is not accidental, but is meant to teach the reader something. Medieval exegesis in its day, followed by modern commentary, raised additional interpretive explanations for the order of passages in the Bible. For critical Bible scholars, comparison with other ancient texts that have been unknown for millenia offers us a window into the organizational principles—in this case the principle of linguistic association—that may explain why particular biblical passages are juxtaposed.
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May 26, 2015
October 31, 2020
Dr. Isaac Gottlieb is an associate professor in the Bible Department at Bar-Ilan University. He received his M.A. from Yeshiva University and his Ph.D. from New York University. He is the author of The Bible in Rabbinic Interpretation (with Menachem Ben-Yashar and Jordan S. Penkower) and Order in the Bible.
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