Let’s suppose that, in a fit of jealousy, a husband issues a warning to his wife not to seclude herself with a particular man. At some point later, however, the husband’s jealousy subsides and he reconsiders. Perhaps his concerns have dissipated, perhaps he continues to be suspicious but would rather address his concerns privately and not through a public ritual. Whatever his reasons, he retracts the warning. The question is: Can this retraction stop the sotah process?
To answer this question, the Gemara turns to one of its tried and true, although not always conclusive, problem solving methods: Examining other rulings to see if they can help it reason things out. Here’s the first:
Come and hear: These are the women to whom the court issues a warning in place of their husbands: One whose husband became a deaf-mute or became an imbecile, or was incarcerated in prison.
If a husband is unable to issue a warning to his wife because he has lost his mental capacities or his ability to speak, or because he is in prison, the rabbis rule, the court can step in and issue a warning on his behalf. How does that help us understand our case?
Well, the Gemara now suggests that we would not be inclined to give the court the ability to issue a warning that a husband, upon regaining his legal standing, could retract (as Rashi explains, allowing an individual to overturn a court decree would undermine the standing of the court). So, by allowing the court to issue warnings, we can infer that a warning cannot be revoked. And this would lead us to the conclusion that once once started, the sotah ritual cannot be stopped by the husband.
But, says the Gemara: ordinarily a person concurs with the opinion of the court. That is, as Rashi explains, the rules are based on what people usually do and people tend to support the actions of a rabbinic court. So, this case may not be so helpful as the possibility of retraction is not really what’s at issue here.
So, the Gemara turns to another ruling that might shed light:
Come and hear: When the husband takes the sotah to the Temple, the court provides him with two Torah scholars who accompany them, lest the husband engage in sexual intercourse with her on the way to the Temple.
As we’ve learned earlier, if the husband has sex with his wife before the sotah ritual is complete, this will damage the integrity of the proceedings, and she is also forbidden to him in case she has committed adultery. But how does this help us understand whether he can retract his warning to stop the sotah ritual altogether?
Well, explains the Gemara, if a husband could effectively retract his warning, there would be no need for Torah scholars to accompany them on their trip to prevent them from having relations. Why? If they want to have sex, the husband could retract his warning and then they will be permitted to do so. Since, however, the mishnah requires them to be chaperoned, it implies that the husband is not allowed to retract his warning and the Torah scholars are needed to keep the couple separate.
Playing devil’s advocate with itself again, the Gemara suggests that this is not the only possible conclusion we could reach. Perhaps, it argues, the Torah scholars are needed to let the husband know that if he wants to be intimate with his wife, all he has to do is retract his warning. In other words, they are present to enable the husband to retract his warning rather than to prevent him from doing so. And so, this case also does not help us resolve our dilemma in one way or the other.
Finally, the Gemara cites a tradition that addresses the matter directly:
Come and hear what Rabbi Yoshiya says: Ze’eira, of the men of Jerusalem, told me three matters: (One of which is that) a husband who retracted his warning, his warning is retracted.
Based on what he learned from Ze’eira, Rabbi Yoshiya holds that a warning may be retracted. Or, perhaps not. It turns out, the meaning here is not as clear as it as first seems. Rav Aha and Ravina disagree about what this teaching in fact means:
One says that if he retracts his warning before her seclusion with another man, his warning is retracted, but if he retracts his warning after her seclusion with another man, it is not retracted. And one says that if he retracts his warning after her seclusion with another man, it is also retracted.
In other words, Rav Aha and Ravina agree that a husband can retract his warning if his wife has not yet ignored it, but once she does so and secludes with the man in question, they disagree about whether retraction is still possible.
Hoping for an answer? Today we get one, as the Gemara informs us:
It is reasonable to hold according to the one who says that the husband’s warning is not retracted after her seclusion with another man.
The husband can retract his warning, up until the point where his wife ignores it. After that, even if he changes his mind or wants to be forgiving, he no longer has the power to do so: His wife becomes a sotah and must face the bitter waters to display her guilt or prove her innocence.
Read all of Sotah 25 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 23rd, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.