Sotah 24

Betrothed women don’t drink it.

Chapter 4 of Tractate Sotah begins with a mishnah that explains that both a betrothed woman and a yevamah (a widow whose husband died childless and who is obligated to enter into a levirate marriage with her brother-in-law) who secluded themselves with a man after being warned by the man to whom they are intended to marry do not drink the bitter waters. In other words, though they are legally obligated to the men for whom they are intended, they do not qualify for the sotah trial. Why? The mishnah explains:

It is stated in the Torah, “This is the law of jealousy, when a wife, while under her husband, goes astray, and is defiled” (Numbers 5:29). The verse excludes a betrothed woman and a widow awaiting her yavam.

Since these two categories of women are not yet married, they are not yet fully subject to the authority of the men for whom they are intended. Therefore, they do not fit the criteria stipulated by the Torah — which uses the word “wife” — and are not subject to trial by ordeal.

But the mishnah told us that the men in these women’s lives still warned them against seclusion with other men. The Gemara explains that even though a betrothed woman and a yevama are not subject to the sotah ritual, their husbands-to-be — who do, by the nature of their current relationship, have standing to insist that these women do not have relations with anyone else — are indeed permitted to warn them against seclusion:

She does not drink, but her betrothed, or her yavam, can warn her. From where are these matters derived? As the sages taught in a beraita: “Speak to the children of Israel and say unto them: If the wife of any man goes astray, and acts unfaithfully against him.” (Numbers 5:12)

The superfluous phrase “and say unto them” serves as an expansion and includes a betrothed woman and a widow awaiting her yavam in the halakhot of warning.

The Torah could have just said, “speak to the children of Israel,” but it added the phrase “say unto them.” So the rabbis ask: Who are the “them” that this phrase comes to include? And they conclude that it is the betrothed woman and the yevama. And so, while they are exempt from drinking the waters, they are still subject to being warned about seclusion and, as a result, if they do not adhere to the warning, and witnesses can substantiate that they have indeed secluded themselves with other men, they can become forbidden to their intended husbands and lose their rights to the financial supports stipulated in their respective ketubahs.

It’s not surprising that the rabbis would seek to clarify how the laws of the sotah apply to a betrothed woman and a yevama. As we have seen throughout Seder Nashim, these particular women do not fit neatly into categories of daughter, wife or widow — categories whose social and legal status is much clearer. And how do the rabbis approach this problem of figuring out what rules apply to them? Turn to the text of the Torah and comb the text for clues. With a midrashic approach, the rabbis are able to ascertain what feels like a reasonable answer to the question and root it in scripture.

Read all of Sotah 24 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 22nd, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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