For the ancient Israelites, the priesthood came with responsibilities to the Temple and the community, but also the privilege of getting to eat sacred foods and tithes, known as terumah. We learned in tractate Yevamot that if a non-priestly woman marries a priest, she is permitted to eat terumah as well. The mishnah on today’s daf lays out five scenarios in which an Israelite woman married to a priest is forbidden to eat terumah, all of them involving the court’s suspicion that she has committed adultery:
One who says: I am defiled to you
One for whom witnesses came and testified that she is defiled.
One who says: I will not drink (the bitter water of a sotah).
One whose husband does not want to force her to drink.
One whose husband engaged in sexual intercourse with her on the way (to the Temple to undertake the sotah test).
In that last case, the concern is that her husband impedes the effectiveness of the ritual by not separating sexually from his wife between the time of the accusation and the ritual. In all these cases, because there is the possibility that the wife has committed adultery and thereby irreparably damaged the marriage, she is forbidden from eating terumah.
The Talmud dives into the details of each case, but since none of this is immediately relevant to us today, let’s instead take a step back and ask: What would it mean for the wife of a priest to be unable to eat terumah?
We learn in Numbers 18 that the priests are not given a portion of the land of Israel. That means, they can’t farm or raise animals. Instead, as God puts it in Numbers 18:20, “I am your portion and your share among the Israelites.”
The priests and Levites lived spread out among the tribes of Israel, serving the people and God, but unable to support themselves. That meant that, according to the system laid out in Numbers, they were sustained on the gifts and tithes given to them by the Israelites, a big chunk of which was terumah. The priest’s household — wives, children, enslaved people and animals — all depended on terumah as well.
For a woman to be unable to eat terumah, therefore, is to be functionally cut off from the household during mealtimes — to be unable to eat the same things as her husband or children, and to be forced to find alternative food sources and prepare them separately. Indeed, a woman who can’t eat the household’s food might be forced to leave the household entirely. In a world where a woman might not have had a separate source of income, being unable to eat the household’s food might require moving back in with her non-priestly parents so she has access to food that isn’t terumah, leaving any children she has behind.
Today’s daf reminds us of the stakes for the accused wife — not just the life and death trial of drinking the bitter water, but the more mundane consequence of being unable to eat the household’s food if she is married to a priest. If the family that eats together stays together, what does that mean when it’s rabbinically forbidden? And when there is no recourse to the ritual of the bitter water to permit reconciliation?
Read all of Sotah 6 on Sefaria.