Pure And Unadulterated, Sotah And Rabbi Meir

A midrash on the Sotah ritual emphasizes the lengths to which we go to bring peace between spouses.

Commentary on Parashat Nasso, Numbers 4:21-7:89

The following verses describe the ritual of Sotah, the Temple ritual that would ascertain whether a wife had committed an act of infidelity. The usual norms for determining guilt do not apply presumably because the need to alleviate jealousy between husband and wife require extraordinary measures. The verses describe a stark ritual that Maimonides sees as a means for deterring a jealous husband from bringing charges and also as a deterrent for infidelity in general. (Guide of the Perplexed Section III:49).

The Mishnah, written nearly a thousand years before Maimonides says that Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai stopped employing this ritual because adultery had become commonplace in Israel, and the ritual no longer worked either as a deterrent, or as a means for getting at the truth. (Mishnah Sotah 9:9).

In other words, according to the Mishnah, the Sotah ritual was abolished while the Temple was still standing. Look at the following verses, and use these questions to guide you:

1. List the stages of the ritual.
2. Why do you think the verses must be erased in water?
3. Is it significant that God’s Name is erased in the document? Why?
4. The symbols of water and dirt and words make this ritual unique. Why are these things appropriate?
5. What is the man’s iniquity?
6. Once the ritual has been abolished, can any moral instruction be gleaned from its description?

Numbers Chapter 5

(11) YHWH spoke to Moses, saying:

(12) Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: Any man, any man whose wife goes astray, breaking faith, yes, faith with him, (13) in that a man lay with her, (with) an emission of seed, and it was hidden from the eyes of her husband, she concealed herself, since she had made herself tamei (impure) and since there was no witness against her, she was not apprehended?

(14) and the rush of jealousy comes over him, and he is jealous toward his wife, she having made herself tamei; or the rush of jealousy comes over him (15) and he is jealous toward his wife, though she did not make herself tamei, the man is to bring his wife to the priest. He is to bring a near offering for her: a tenth of an efa of barley meal; there is not to be poured on it any oil, there is not to be put on it any frankincense, for it is a grain gift of jealousy, grain gift of reminding that reminds of iniquity.

(16) The priest is to bring her near and have her stand before the presence of YHWH; (17) then the priest is to take holy water in an earthenware vessel, and from the dirt that will be on the floor of the Dwelling the priest is to take (some) and place (it) in the water.

(18) When the priest has had the woman stand before the presence of YHWH, he is to loosen (the hair of) the woman’s head and is to place on her palms the grain gift of reminding; he is to loosen (the hair of) the woman’s head and is to place on her palms the grain gift of reminding “it is a grain-gift of jealousy!” and in the hand of the priest is to be the Water of Bitterness Bringing the Bane.

(19) The priest is to have her swear, saying to the woman: If a man did not lie with you, and if you did not stray to make yourself tamei under your husband(‘s authority), be clear from this Water of Bitterness Bringing the Bane! (20) But you, if you strayed under your husband(‘s authority), if you made yourself tamei, and a man gave you his emission, other than your husband:

(21) the priest is to have the woman swear the oath curse, and the priest is to say to the woman: may YHWH make you a curse and a cause for oath in the midst of your kinspeople, when YHWH makes your thigh fall and your belly flood; (22) may this Water of Bitterness enter your innards, when YHWH makes your thigh fall and your belly flood; And the woman is to say: Amen! Amen!

(23) Then the priest is to write these curses in a document and is to blot (them) into the Water of Bitterness, (24) he is to make the woman drink the Water of Bitterness Bringing the Bane, so that the Water Bringing the Bane may enter her, for ‘bitterness.’

(25) Then the priest is to take from the hand of the woman the grain-gift of jealousy, he is to elevate the grain gift before the presence of YHWH, and is to bring it near, to the slaughter site. (26) The priest is to scoop out of the grain gift its reminder portion, and is to turn it into smoke upon the slaughter site; after that he is to make the woman drink the water.

(27) When he has had her drink the water, it shall be: if she made herself tamei and broke faith, yes, faith with her husband, the Water Bringing the Bane shall enter her, for ‘bitterness,’ her belly shall flood and her thigh shall fall, and the woman shall become an object of curse among her kinsfolk.

(28) But if the woman did not make herself tamei and she is pure, she is to be cleared and she may bear seed, yes, seed.

29 This is the Instruction for cases of jealousy, when a woman strays under her husband(‘s authority) and makes herself tamei, (30) or when there comes over a man a rush of jealousy, so that he is jealous toward his wife: he is to have the woman stand before the presence of YHWH, and the priest is to perform regarding her (according to) all this Instruction. (31) The man shall be clear of iniquity, but that woman shall bear her iniquity.

The following midrash, which recounts an event that occurred years after the Sotah ritual had been abandoned, describes an event where a wife returns home later than expected from Rabbi Meir’s Torah lesson. Her husband is enraged…

Bamidbar Rabba Parshat Nasso

R. Zechariah, the son-in-law of R. Levi, related the following incident: R. Meir used to hold regular classes in the synagogue every Sabbath eve. A certain woman was present who regularly came to listen to him.

On one occasion he went later than expected. When she arrived home, she found the lights out. Her husband asked her: “Where have you been?” She told him: “I have been listening to a class.” He replied: “You may not enter this house until you go and spit in the face of the teacher.”

Through the Holy Spirit Rabbi Meir witnessed this. He then pretended to be suffering from pain in the eyes, and announced: “If there is any woman skilled in whispering charms for the eyes, let her come and whisper.” Her neighbors related this to her and said: “This is a chance for you to return home. Pretend you are a charmer and spit into his eyes [which was part of the charm].” When she came to him he said to her: “Are you skilled in whispering charms for the eyes?”

Daunted by his presence she answered in the negative. He said to her: “Nevermind, spit into this one seven times and it will get better.” After she had spat he said to her: “Go and tell your husband: ‘You bade me do it only once; see, I have spat seven times!’”

His disciples said to him: “Master! are the words of the Torah to be treated with such contempt as this? Had you told us, would we not have sent and fetched the man and given him a flogging on the bench and forced him to become reconciled with his wife?”

Said he to them: “The dignity of Meir ought not to be greater than that of his Divine Master.” If in the case of [the Sotah ritual where] the Holy Name which is so sacred, the Torah orders that it is to be blotted out in water, in order to bring about peace between a man and his wife, what does the dignity of Meir matter?

Your Midrash Navigator

1. According to Rebbe Meir, what is the purpose of the Sotah ritual?
2. Does Rebbe Meir feel responsible for creating the problem between the man and his wife, or is he just making peace?
3 .Would you have rather seen the students’ solution implemented?
4. How does Rebbe Meir view the fact that the Name YHWH is blotted out in water?

A Word

The story of Rebbe Meir and his intervention raises many issues. It, in many ways, is a troubling story, just like the Sotah ritual is troubling. What strikes me as most powerful is not how Rebbe Meir “solves” the problem, but the fact that he accepts responsibility for what happened. He spoke longer than he was expected to, and he witnessed how that innocent discrepancy created discord at home. By the time she got home the lights had gone out in the house. It was very late.

Instead of castigating the husband for being calloused and unreasonable as he certainly was, Meir only focuses on how he can restore the relationship to what it was before this happened. He knows he can’t fix the dynamics between this man and his wife, he can only accept responsibility for making them worse. For this, he is willing to humiliate himself and the dignity of the Torah for a fragile piece of peace.

Provided by Hillel’s Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning, which creates educational resources for Jewish organizations on college campuses.

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