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Sotah 15

The plainest sacrifice.

Numbers 5:15 describes the meal offering that a suspicious husband brings as part of the sotah ritual: “And he shall bring as an offering for her one-tenth of an ephah of barley flour. No oil shall be poured upon it and no frankincense shall be laid on it, for it is a meal offering of jealousy, a meal offering of remembrance which recalls wrongdoing.”

Normally, meal offerings — of which there were many in ancient Israel — were accompanied by oil and spices that made them tender and fragrant. But not the offering of the sotah: no oil, no spices, only plain barley flour. A mishnah on yesterday’s daf elaborates on this point:

All other meal-offerings require oil and frankincense, but this one requires neither oil nor frankincense. Furthermore, all other meal-offerings are brought from wheat, and this one is brought from barley.

Although the omer meal offering is also brought from barley, it was brought as groats whereas this one is brought as flour. Rabban Gamliel says: Just as her actions were the actions of an animal, so too her offering is animal food.

The offering made as part of the sotah ritual is intentionally of poor quality. It’s not made of fine flour, as most meal (i.e. grain) offerings are, nor even high quality barley groats, as the omer offering is. Instead, it is made of measly barley flour. Rabban Gamliel suggests a parallel that is grating, if not offensive, to our contemporary context about the wife suspected of adultery and the kind of offering to be made for her sin. That said, it seems that the rabbi believes that food which is barely fit for human consumption aligns with the adulterous behavior and is therefore fitting for the offering.

This raises an interesting theoretical question about sacrifice: Who is the focus of a Temple offering? Is it God? Or the offerer? One might suppose bringing an intentionally poor quality sacrifice would be a snub to the supreme king, but it seems here an important part of the ritual.

The Gemara points out that there is another meal offering that, as required by the Torah, is similarly plain:

But do all other meal offerings actually require oil and frankincense? Isn’t there the meal offering of a sinner, with regard to which the Merciful One states: “He shall put no oil upon it, neither shall he put any frankincense thereon; for it is a sin-offering.” (Leviticus 5:11)

The Torah makes an aesthetic distinction between sin offerings and other offerings. Sin offerings, reflecting the fact that the offeror has committed a wrong, lack the beauty and elegance of other meal offerings. Even though the sacrifices should appropriately honor God, sacrifices must also reflect the individual bringing the sacrifice and meet the reality of the offense committed.

A beraita, shared in the name of Rabbi Shimon, expresses surprise that the sinner is not required to add oil and frankincense to their sin offering:

By right, it should have been the halakhah that the meal offering of a sinner requires oil and frankincense, so that a sinner should not stand to gain by not having to pay for them.

His concern here is not, as we might have supposed, that the offering doesn’t befit God, but that the inexpensive nature of the offering benefits a sinner, who doesn’t deserve the financial boost. If we don’t permit the sinner to bring a meal offering with oil and frankincense, are we rewarding them by sparing them financially? Does that accidentally create a system where sinners can smugly sin and save money? Rabbi Shimon now answers his own question:

For what reason does the verse not require them? It is so that his offering will not be of superior quality.

Maybe there is some financial benefit to the sinner (or the husband of the sotah) in giving a plain offering, but the Torah intends for them to be poor quality offerings. This is not a full explanation, but it suggests that the poor quality of the offering is designed to match the poor behavior of the one who brings it. In other words, the sacrifice is really more about the one who brings it.

Which returns us to the core question of what a sacrifice means. If we thought the point of a sacrifice was to give honor to God, here the Torah and Talmud move the focus to the human offerer. Perhaps the jolt of offering an inferior sacrifice to the supreme deity will inspire them to confront the severity of their sin. And it must be acceptable to God, because after all it is what God requires.

Read all of Sotah 15 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 13th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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