After the priest sternly explains to the sotah how the bitter waters will affect her, he then calls on her to reply, “amen, amen.” (Numbers 5:22) The double amen fires up the rabbinic midrashic imagination and, in a mishnah on today’s daf, Rabbi Meir explains why she repeats that word:
Amen that I did not become defiled in the past and amen that I will not become defiled in the future.
The accused woman’s first amen affirms that she is currently innocent of adultery and the second, says Rabbi Meir, functions as a promise about the future. The Gemara brings a beraita that explains Rabbi Meir’s thinking further:
When Rabbi Meir said, “Amen that I will not become defiled,” he did not mean that if God knows she will become defiled in the future, the water (that she drinks now) evaluates her for the future. Rather, he meant that in the event that she becomes defiled, the water that she drinks now will evaluate and expose her.
The rabbis believed that it is God who gives power to the bitter waters and, perhaps more importantly, God who knows whether she is guilty. But can God also know whether she will commit adultery in the future? Through Rabbi Meir’s reading, we might have supposed that the second amen, through which the woman declares her future innocence, opens the door for God to turn the waters against her now with the knowledge that she will commit adultery down the line.
But the Gemara is uncomfortable with this proactive punishment. Unwilling to think that God would punish the woman for an action she has yet to commit, the beraita instead explains that through the second amen the woman acknowledges that drinking the waters will not only afflict her in the present if she is already guilty but they will also afflict her if she commits that crime at a later date.
The Gemara’s reading of Rabbi Meir suggests that God does not hold us accountable for our actions until we have actually acted. And while God may know the future, we don’t. It follows that we can and should do all we can to avoid future sin — because doing so is within our power. As Pirkei Avot 3:15 has it: “All is foretold, and free will is given.” And this applies also to the sotah.
The double amen is a reminder: Should the sotah survive her trial by ordeal unafflicted, this does not mean she is free to behave in any way she wishes without consequence. She is now a marked woman. Should she choose to commit adultery with the same suspicious man later, the waters she drinks today will still have the power to reveal her sin.
Read all of Sotah 18 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 16th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.