Having read about how sotah ordeal works, on today’s daf we get a glimpse into why the rabbis think the accused woman must go through the torment it entails. As we learn from a beraita:
The sotah placed her eyes on one who is unfit for her. That which she desired is not given to her and that which she had was taken away from her.
As the beraita tells it, the sotah has desired and been intimate with a man who is not her husband. As a result, she becomes forbidden to both men, the one she had andthe one she longed for. The rabbis are so uncomfortable with her because she has disdained what was hers and grabbed at something that was not. For them, her overreaching should serve as a warning to all of us:
This teaches that anyone who places their eyes on that which is not theirs is not given what they desire, and that which they had is taken from them.
As the Gemara explains, a prototypical example of this kind of overreaching is the snake in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3) who, according to its midrashic reading, not only sought to entice Eve with the garden’s forbidden fruit, but seduced her as well. Like the sotah, suggests the beraita, the snake placed his eyes on that which was unfit for him. And, as a result, not only did he not receive what he coveted (Eve) but that which he was given was taken away — his divinely intended role as king of the animals.
The beraita presents us with a long list of other biblical characters who make the same mistake of trying to take what is not theirs and suffer a cataclysmic downfall as a result (one might say this is a biblical motif), including Cain (Genesis 4), Korah (Numbers 16), Balaam (Numbers 22), Absalom (1 Kings 1) and Haman (Esther 3). King David’s son Absalom is a particularly apt example, as he desired intimacy with his sister and the throne of his father, violating moral, social and political norms in an attempt to take them for himself. He succeeded only briefly, and ultimately suffered an ignominious death as a direct result of his overreaching.
The Bible is not the only literary work that seeks to persuade us to be happy with our lot and not try to take what is not ours. It’s a common theme across cultures and throughout time. When applied to the sotah, this principle seems to justify the ordeal she must endure. By pursuing that which she does not merit, she has caused her own downfall.
Except the sotah is not a biblical character whose story is told to us as part of our cultural narrative to remind us of the lessons of our past in an effort to shape our present and future. Her story does not appear in our sacred scrolls. She is not an archetype nor a moral exemplar. She could very well be our neighbor, a valued member of our community.
Moreover, unlike the biblical characters described in the beraita, the sotah is not necessarily guilty of taking what was not hers and disdaining what was. After all, the point of the ordeal is to prove her guilt or innocence — the latter is still a real possibility.
So why do the rabbis sometimes speak of the sotah as if she is guilty of the crime of which she has so far only been accused? That is a difficult question to answer, but here is my take: I think the rabbis feel better about what happens to the woman if she is guilty, because her guilt would justify her humiliation and torment.
I also think that the rabbis hope to use any means to extract a woman from having to go through the trial. Ideally, they’d like it to never happen. But, according to the rules of the system, there are only two ways for the accused woman to avoid the ordeal: her husband has to withdraw his accusation or she has to confess and accept a divorce without payment of her ketubah. That leaves the innocent woman with an adamant husband stuck, and the rabbis don’t have a good solution for the problem.
We know from elsewhere in the tractate that the rabbis canceled the practice of the sotah ritual even before the destruction of the Temple. The Mishnah says they did it because there were too many adulterous women and so the rabbis relied on a verse from Hosea that says God will forgive the adulterers. But perhaps they also did it because of their discomfort with a procedure that leaves an innocent woman with no good options.
Read all of Sotah 9 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 6th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.