The fifth chapter of Tractate Sotah, which we begin today, opens with a mishnah detailing a number of rulings that occurred “on that day.” What day was that?
To answer that, we need to go back to early in our Daf Yomi journey, when we read about a shakeup at the academy of Rabban Gamliel that elevated Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria to a position of leadership and changed the nature of the academy in significant ways.
On Berakhot 28, we are told:
It was taught: On that day they dismissed the guard at the door and permission was granted to the students to enter.
Rabban Gamliel was selective in his acceptance of students to the academy. But on the day Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria took over, he allowed all those who wished to learn to enter the study hall. So many came that several more benches were added to accommodate all the new students.
While the acceptance of additional students was of value to the students individually, open enrollment also benefited the study of Torah in general, since the new students helped sharpen the discussion in ways that allowed legal questions that were too difficult to adjudicate in Rabban Gamliel’s time to be set into law. Among those rulings are several attributed to Rabbi Akiva that are recorded on today’s daf. Fittingly, the first one concerns the sotah:
Just as the water evaluates her so too the water evaluates him, as it is stated: “And the water that causes the curse shall enter into her” (Numbers 5:24), and it is stated again: “And the water that causes the curse shall enter into her and become bitter” (Numbers 5:27).
Just as she is forbidden to her husband, so too is she forbidden to her lover, because (in contrast to the verse in Numbers 5:14 that states): “Is defiled,” (the verse in Numbers 5:29 states): “And is defiled.”
You may have been wondering why, if it takes two to tango, only the woman suspected of adultery suffers the effects of drinking the bitter water (if she is guilty). Based on a close reading of the biblical text, in which the phrase “And the water … shall enter” is repeated in two verses, Rabbi Akiva states that both the woman and her alleged lover are evaluated by her drinking. Maimonides confirms that the consequences for a guilty woman — the swelling of the belly, falling of the thigh and eventual death — will happen to the adulterer at the same time, wherever he is located (Mishneh Torah, Sotah 3:17).
Rabbi Akiva also rules that just as an adulterous woman is not allowed to have sexual relations with her husband anymore, neither can she sleep with her lover. He derives this ruling from the fact that the Hebrew letter vav, which means “and,” is appended to the second use of the word defiled, suggesting that both men are forbidden to her.
Further rulings of Rabbi Akiva on matters of purity and impurity brought on that same day are noted on our daf. These expositions are apparently so brilliant that Rabbi Yehoshua remarks:
Who will remove the dirt from your eyes, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, (so that you could live and see this)?
It’s fitting that Rabbi Akiva, who rose from poverty and likely would have been among those initially excluded from the academy by Rabban Gamliel, is the one who elucidates the laws on the day the academy doors were thrown open. It’s also fitting that Rabbi Yehoshua, whose excessive punishment by Rabban Gamaliel led to the latter’s ouster from leadership in the first place, is the one to exclaim that he wishes Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, founder of the academy and rescuer of Jewish learning during the time of the Romans, could rise from the grave to hear Rabbi Akiva’s brilliance.
Today, most Jewish day schools and yeshivas have robust scholarship plans to allow students from non-privileged backgrounds to attend, but inevitably some are still turned away. What would it look like if our Jewish community leadership found a way to emulate Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria and open the doors to a Jewish education to everyone by making it free? How many future Akivas are we turning away for lack of funding?
Read all of Sotah 27 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 25th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.