Welcome to Tractate Sotah, in which we will explore a singular ritual by which a man who suspects his wife of adultery can put her to a supernatural test that will prove her guilt or innocence.
According to the Torah, a man who suspects his wife of infidelity, or is even so overcome with jealousy that she might have been unfaithful, can bring his wife to the Temple priest who, after offering a sacrifice to God, concocts a potion from water, earth from the Temple floor and dissolved ink from parchment on which various curses have been written. The woman is then made to drink the water. The biblical text describes what happens next:
Once he has made her drink the water — if she has defiled herself by breaking faith with her husband, the spell-inducing water shall enter into her to bring on bitterness, so that her belly shall distend and her thigh shall sag; and the wife shall become a curse among her people. But if the woman has not defiled herself and is pure, she shall be unharmed and able to retain seed. (Numbers 5:27-28)
Let’s imagine, for a moment, how this ritual might have functioned socially: Adultery, generally committed in private, can be impossible to prove. But even the suspicion that it has taken place can irreparably damage a marriage. Therefore, this ritual may have allowed couples in this situation to eliminate the doubt — to prove, once and for all, a woman’s guilt or innocence — and thereby restore shalom bayit, peace in the home.
That doesn’t mean that the sotah ritual was a perfectly clean solution. It was neither easy nor fair; the woman bore the burden of it. Whether she was innocent or not, the ritual was clearly designed to be difficult and humiliate her. It was probably also terrifying.
Jews don’t perform the sotah ritual anymore since there is no longer a Temple standing in Jerusalem. But you may be surprised to know that, according to the rabbis, it was canceled even before the Temple was destroyed. The penultimate mishnah of this tractate (found on Sotah 47a) explains:
From the time when adulterers proliferated, the bitter waters ritual ceased. And Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai canceled it, as it is stated: “I will not punish your daughters when they commit harlotry, nor your daughters-in-law when they commit adultery…” (Hosea 4:14)
Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai — the same rabbi who had himself smuggled out of Jerusalem in a coffin while it was under Roman siege, who went to the emperor himself to beg for a small academy at Yavneh to keep the Jewish people and their teachings going — is the one who put an end to the sotah ritual. According to this mishnah, he did it because there were too many adulterers, and he relied on a verse from Hosea that God would not punish them.
And yet, the rabbis devote an entire tractate to studying the sotah ritual (plus a bunch of other stuff — the halakhot of battle, the practice of breaking the neck of a heifer at the scene of an unsolved murder, and other details of Temple ceremony). And not only that, but the rabbis transform the ritual in significant ways. For instance, let’s look at the very first mishnah on today’s daf:
One who issues a warning to his wife (not to seclude herself with a particular man): Rabbi Eliezer says he issues a warning to her in the presence of two witnesses. And the husband gives the bitter water to her to drink based on the testimony of one witness who saw the seclusion, or even based on his own testimony.
According to the Torah, a man can initiate the sotah ritual even if there are no witnesses to her adultery, even if he is merely swept up in a fit of jealousy based on no evidence. Rabbi Eliezer here flips the script. The sotah ritual can be undertaken only if he warned her about it beforehand — and in the presence of two witnesses, no less — not simply because he got jealous after the fact. It’s a fairly dramatic departure from the plain meaning of the Torah text, and undoubtedly would have served to make the sotah ritual a much more uncommon occurrence.
Rabbi Yehoshua goes further. Here’s the next part of the mishnah:
Rabbi Yehoshua says: He both issues a warning to her based on two witnesses and gives the bitter water to her to drink based on the testimony of two witnesses.
According to Rabbi Yehoshua, not only must she be warned in the presence of two witnesses, there must also be two witnesses that she actually secluded herself with her potential paramour long enough to have relations.
Rabbis Yehoshua and Eliezer lived a generation after Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai and therefore in a time when the sotah ritual had already been canceled. Nonetheless, they issued rulings that were clearly meant to limit its use. No longer can any husband, in a jealous rage, demand that his wife undergo the ordeal. He must prove that she was warned and that she ignored the warning.
As we progress through this tractate, we will learn that there are other ways the rabbis limit the use of the sotah ritual. For instance, a man with reasonable suspicion of adultery can choose to divorce his wife instead of subjecting her to the ordeal. If he does ask for her to undergo the ordeal, she too has a choice — she can divorce him (forgoing her ketubah payment) rather than agree to submit to it.
There’s a lot going on here at the intersection of intimacy, privacy, passion, jealousy, rage and magic. That it is all basically theoretical for the rabbis doesn’t stop them from exploring it in detail — nor will it stop us. Welcome to the next tractate.
Read all of Sotah 2 on Sefaria.