This ancient ritual represents supreme inequality.

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In general, the biblical status of adultery is different from that customary in the ancient East. Moshe Greenberg showed that while most cultures in biblical times perceived adultery as an offense against the husband and therefore left the punishment of the adulterers to him, in biblical law adultery is perceived, first and foremost, as a religious transgression that carries the death penalty (note that adultery in biblical as well as rabbinic literatures, is defined as sexual relations between a married woman and a man other than her husband. The paramour's marital status is irrelevant to the case.)

However, the near eastern traditions are echoed in a few places in the Prophets, where the adulteress's punishment is given over to the community and sometimes even to her paramours. This includes public disrobing and humiliation and death at the hands of the community (Ezekiel 16:36-41; 23: 46-49).

In the Mishnah

We have no accounts from biblical times about the performance of the ritual. The only existing accounts of the performing of the ritual are a few places in the Mishnah (Yoma 3:10; Eduyyot 5:6), but the Mishnah's non-historical character does not allow us to derive solid historical accounts from it. Even if we accept that the ritual was performed, it is hard to know exactly what form it took. Various descriptions of the Sotah ritual are preserved in pre-rabbinic compositions--Philo of Alexandria (De Spec. Leg. 3: 52-62), Josephus Flavius (Ant. 3: 270-273), and Qumran (4Q270.4)--and certain details in their descriptions are indeed different from biblical ones.

It appears, however, that the changes come from interpretive traditions as well as ideological trends, but contain no hint of actual familiarity with the ritual. Indeed, a Tannaitic tradition, given in the name of Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, maintains that the ritual was discontinued because "adulterers proliferated." (According to Mishnah Sotah 9:9, he was the one who discontinued it, but according to Tosefta Sotah 14:1, he merely tells of its annulment, which occurred before his time).

An entire section in the Mishnah, Tractate Sotah, is devoted to the ritual. The ritual described in the Mishnah differs significantly from the scriptural version (much more so than the versions of Philo and Josephus). The Mishnaic ritual contains stages of abasing and humiliating the woman in public and ends with her death in the Temple. Indeed, some Tannaitic sources oppose these stages explicitly, claiming that: "It is not appropriate to degrade the Israelite daughters in a manner that exceeds what is written in the scripture" (Sifre, Numbers 11).

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Ishay  Rosen-Zvi

Ishay Rosen-Zvi is a professor of Talmud and Ancient Jewish Thought in the Scholion program for Jewish Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His Ph.D. work dealt with textual and cultural aspects of Tractate Sotah. His research interests focus on gender and sexual ethics in the Talmud as well as ancient Jewish hermeneutics.