Sotah 19

Force-fed God’s name.

Sometimes you read a line in the Gemara and do a double-take because you simply can’t believe what you’ve just read. Such a line appears on today’s daf, which discusses at what point a woman can refuse to proceed with the sotah ritual once it has begun.  

According to a beraita, Rabbi Yehuda states that once the biblical passages describing the sotah process are dissolved in the bitter waters, the woman can no longer back out. Given this, Rabbi Yehuda teaches that:

A hook of iron is placed into her mouth, so that if the scroll was erased and she said: “I will not drink,” she is forced to drink against her will.

Even before encountering this detail, many of us likely felt uneasy with the details of the sotah ritual. Yet this practice seems beyond even what we’ve seen already. The notion that a woman’s mouth is forcibly held open with a clamp so she has to drink the sotah waters seems like nothing short of torture.

In seeking to explain this practice, some have claimed that a woman who refuses to drink at this stage of the ritual is expressing her guilt as an adulteress. If so, then she deserves to be punished. Others suggest that this intervention is necessary to prevent a desecration of God’s name, which is written on the parchment that is dissolved in the water. Once this has been done, aborting the ritual would result in God’s name being unnecessarily erased, though I suspect that many of us take the view that placing a clamp in a woman’s mouth and forcing her to drink ritual waters is itself a desecration of God’s name.

It should be noted that Jewish law is emphatic that even a sinner who is to be given capital punishment should be treated with dignity. In fact, we recently learned on Sotah 8 that notwithstanding her transgression, we apply the verse “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” to an adulteress. So what then is the justification for this practice?

The truth is that this is a hard question to answer, especially as Tosafot seems to claim that this action is required. So the question we’re really confronted with is what do we do with such a text? There’s no single answer to this question either, but one approach is evident in Maimonides’ writings on this topic. He does not mention the clamp in his summary of the sotah ritual, suggesting that he interprets our Gemara as ultimately rejecting this conclusion.

Rabbi Dr. David Weiss Halivni, in his essay “Can a Religious Law be Immoral?” writes that while the rabbis “were aware of a possible conflict between morality and religious law, and consciously resolved in favor of morality … historically they gave other reasons for their interpretation.” That is to say that the rabbis often tried to resolve tensions between what they deemed morally appropriate and the requirements of halakhah in favor of morality, but they didn’t necessarily justify their rulings on this basis. It’s possible that’s what Maimonides has done here — basing his ruling on halakhic reasoning even though what fundamentally  led him to this conclusion were moral, rather than technical, concerns.

Read all of Sotah 19 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 17th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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