Sotah 48

The good old days.

Times have changed, and not for the better — at least according to today’s daf.

Tractate Sotah is near its close. Yesterday, we were reminded in a mishnah that by the time of the Talmud, the sotah ritual was no longer practiced:

From the time when adulterers proliferated, the performance of the ritual of the bitter waters was nullified.

This mishnah doesn’t view the nullification of the sotah ritual as a positive development. Rather, it is a consequence of societal decline. Today’s daf recounts many other ways that the world changed for the worse, correlating those changes to the destruction of the first and second Temples

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says that Rabbi Yehoshua testified: From the day the Temple was destroyed there is no day that does not include a curse. And the dew has not descended for blessing, and the taste has been removed from fruit.

Even worse than dry morning grass and tasteless tomatoes, since the Temple was destroyed, our means of communicating with God have waned. The rabbis also note that the urim and tummim, sacred tools used by the high priest for divining God’s will, disappeared with the First Temple. Moreover, the Jewish people lost the prophets as conveyors of the divine word:

From the time when Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi died, the ruach ha’kodesh (Holy Spirit) departed from the Jewish people, though they would nevertheless still make use of a bat kol (divine voice).

The Holy Spirit is a term with deep Jewish roots. Starting in Genesis, when the spirit of God hovers over the deep, the Hebrew Bible is filled with stories of God’s spirit and there are hundreds of references in rabbinic texts. That divine spirit eventually came to stand on its own as a way to dramatize and personify God’s communication. 

The bat kol (divine voice) is another vehicle of divine communication often found in rabbinic lore. Understood as a lesser means of communication, its pronouncements are usually more clipped and limited than those of the Holy Spirit, almost like divine PSA’s. But unlike the Holy Spirit, it remained with Israel long after the destruction of the Temples. Here are two examples from today’s daf:

On one occasion, the sages were reclining in the upper story of the house of Gurya in Jericho. A bat kol was issued to them, and it said: “There is one person among you for whom it is fitting that the Shechinah (divine presence) should rest upon him, but his generation is not fit for it.”

The sages directed their gaze to Hillel the Elder. And when he died, they eulogized him in the following manner: “Alas pious one, alas humble one, student of Ezra.”

On another occasion, the sages were reclining in an upper story of a house in Yavne, and a bat kol was issued to them, and said: “There is one person among you for whom it is fitting that the Shechinah should rest upon him, but his generation is not fit for it.”

The sages directed their gaze to Shmuel HaKatan. And when he died, they eulogized him in the following manner: “Alas humble one, alas pious one, student of Hillel.”

The message in both cases was that those generations — who lived in the wake of so much decline — didn’t deserve their best rabbinic leaders.

Admittedly, this is somewhat paradoxical. The biblical prophets, after all, were usually not sent to reward the people for good behavior, but to admonish sinful generations. Yet the passage fits in well with the lamenting tone at the end of this tractate, nostalgic for the “good old days” when the Temple stood and for the direct line to God through prophecy that’s since been lost.

Although the rabbis claimed that both prophecy and the Holy Spirit had departed from Israel, it’s clear that the tantalizing potential to reclaim the Holy Spirit could not be squelched. Even centuries down the road, they hoped it would return, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel described in Prophetic Inspiration After the Prophets—Maimonides and Other Medieval Authorities. At the end of Mishnah Sotah, a popular rabbinic tradition was later appended (it is not included in the Talmud that describes a virtuous but arduous means of attaining the Holy Spirit in the post-prophetic world:

Rabbi Pinhas ben Ya’ir says: Torah leads to care. Care leads to diligence. Diligence leads to cleanliness. Cleanliness leads to abstention. Abstention leads to purity. Purity leads to piety. Piety leads to humility. Humility leads to fear of sin. Fear of sin leads to holiness. Holiness leads to the Holy Spirit. 

This popular tradition implies that perhaps the Holy Spirit is still within reach. Times may have changed and the good old days may have ended, but the hope for greater spiritual realization has never actually departed.

Read all of Sotah 48 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 16th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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