The Bible’s description of the ordeal of the sotah in Numbers 5:11–31 is brief. A graphic and troubling mishnah on today’s daf fills in some details missing from the Torah’s description; namely, what exactly happens to this woman between the time she arrives in Jerusalem and the time she is brought to the Temple courtyard for the ritual of the bitter waters. It is all painful and difficult and designed to deter her from going through with the ordeal and to encourage (or even force) her to exercise the option of accepting a divorce without benefit of her ketubah payment.
First, we are told that the judges attempt to “reason” with her:
They would bring her up to the Sanhedrin that was in Jerusalem and threaten her (in order that she admit her sin). And this was done in the manner that they would threaten witnesses testifying in cases of capital punishment.
And they would say to her: “My daughter, wine causes a great deal of immoral behavior, levity causes a great deal of immoral behavior, immaturity causes a great deal of immoral behavior, and bad neighbors cause a great deal of immoral behavior. Act for the sake of His great name, so that which is written in sanctity, shall not be erased on the water.”
This segment of the mishnah reads like a good cop/bad cop scene from a TV crime show. First, the judges terrify the woman by reminding her what will happen if she is found guilty of adultery, which is a capital offense. (Maimonides believes that if she fails the ordeal, she will also die.) Next, the judges switch tactics and list relatable reasons a woman might stray — intoxication, immaturity, or bad influencers — to make her more comfortable choosing divorce without payment. Finally, they try to guilt her about potentially causing God’s name to be dissolved in the bitter waters of the ritual. All of this psychological manipulation is meant to push her into admitting guilt and accepting a divorce.
But what if the woman steadfastly maintains her innocence? After bringing her to the Gate of Nicanor, on the eastern side of the Temple Mount, the woman is then publicly shamed by the priest overseeing the ritual. The Torah says her hair is unbound, but the mishnah goes further:
And the priest grabs hold of her clothing. If torn, they are torn; if the stitches come apart, they come apart. And he pulls her clothing until he reveals her heart. And he unbraids her hair.
After exposing her breasts and loosening her hair, the priest also removes her jewelry, and then ties a rope above the tear in her garment, presumably allowing her to cover herself. (The mishnah also tells us that, according to Rabbi Yehuda,if she’s particularly attractive they don’t strip her in this way, presumably so as not to titillate onlookers.)
The final element of deterrence is to make her a spectacle while also isolating her:
And anyone who desires to watch her may come to watch, except for her slaves and maidservants, because her heart is emboldened by them. And all of the women are permitted to watch her, as it is stated: Thus will I cause lewdness to cease out of the land, that all women may be taught not to do after your lewdness. (Ezekiel 23:48)
The woman’s own servants, who might sympathize with her and give her strength to resist, are barred from watching. The rest of the women are permitted to watch in order that they be deterred from any actions that might result in a similar outcome.
It is notably ironic that a woman who maintains her innocence from sexual misconduct is publicly denuded as part of the only procedure that can clear her name. The physical and psychological torment is cruel and intentional, but a divorce would leave her without her ketubah payment, and an admission of guilt to follow her for the rest of her days. The sotah has no good options — pain and misery are certain whichever path she chooses.
We have seen many moments in the Talmud when the rabbis go to great lengths to protect women’s rights, but this is not one of them. Perhaps there is some small comfort in remembering that the ritual was, by the time the rabbis wrote about it, defunct, and that their understanding makes it very difficult to put a woman in this position in the first place.
Read all of Sotah 7 on Sefaria.