Oy, Those Bitter Waters


Greetings my Dear Friends!

Front-and-center in this week’s parsha, Parshas Naso, stands the outrageous ordeal of the “Sotah”—the woman suspected of cheating on her husband. Now, it has come to my attention that a few unfortunate misconceptions inevitably emerge when discussing this topic. These misconceptions I find to be “unfortunate” because they necessitate a very negative portrayal of the “sotah” woman or, at the very least, the ordeal she is made to endure. However, as we will hopefully see, the “hard facts” about the “sotah” reveal an entirely different story! With this dvar Torah, it is my hope to dispel at least two of the popular sotah misconceptions in an effort to redeem the negative image of the sotah and the very important lesson she comes to teach!

So who is the sotah and what ordeal is she made to endure? Let’s fast forward to the middle of this week’s parsha to find out:

“G-d spoke to Moshe, telling him to speak to the Israelites and say to them:

[This is the law] if any man’s wife is suspected of committing adultery and being false to her husband [aka. becomes a sotah]. A man may have lain with her carnally, keeping it hidden from her husband, and they may have acted secretly so that there could be no witness against [the woman]. [The woman] was not raped. [This is a case where] the man [had previously] expressed FEELINGS OF JEALOUSY against his wife, and she then [may have been] defiled. [However,] he may have expressed such feelings of jealousy against his wife, and she [may have not been] defiled” (Numbers 5:11-14).

OK, so the sotah is a woman accused of VOLUNTARILY cheating on her husband. Does the husband have proof for his claims? Nope. Does it matter whether he has proof or not? Apparently not! The Torah has designed an outrageous ordeal to determine the truth!

“[The law is] that the man must bring [his wife, the sotah] to the kohen…. The kohen shall bring forth [the woman] and have her stand before G-d. The kohen shall take sanctified water in a clay bowl. He shall [also] take some earth from the Mishkan floor and place it in the water. The kohen shall stand the woman before G-d and uncover her hair. He shall place on her hands the reminder offering, the jealousy offering. In the priest’s hand shall be the curse-bearing bitter water.

The kohen shall administer an oath to the woman, saying to her, ‘If a man has not lain with you, and you have not committed adultery so as to be defiled to your husband, you shall be unharmed by this curse-bearing bitter water. But if you have committed adultery against your husband and have become defiled, and if a man other than your husband has had intercourse with you…’ [At this point] the priest shall administer to the woman [the part of] the oath containing the curse. The priest shall say to the woman, ‘[In such a case], G-d will make you into a curse and an oath among your people, causing your sexual organs to rupture and your belly to blow up. This curse-bearing water will enter your body and it will cause your belly to blow up and your sexual organs to rupture’. The woman shall respond, ‘Amen. Amen’.

The kohen shall then write these curses on a parchment, and dissolve [the writing] in the bitter waters. He shall then make the woman drink the bitter curse-bearing waters, and the curse-bearing waters shall begin to take effect. The kohen shall take the jealousy offering from the woman…. When the woman drinks the water, if she has been defiled and untrue to her husband, the curse-bearing water, will enter her body to poison her, causing her belly to blow up and her sexual organs to rupture. The woman will be a curse among her people. However, if the woman is pure and has not been defiled to her husband, she will remain unharmed and will become pregnant.

This is the [entire] law regarding jealousy for the case when a woman commits adultery and becomes unclean or WHEN A MAN SIMPLY HAS A FEELING OF JEALOUSY AGAINST HIS WIFE. He shall stand the woman before G-d, and the kohen shall follow this entire procedure” (Numbers 5:15-30).

I find the conclusion to this description particularly troubling! Think about what it means for a woman to appear before a priest of G-d just to drink some “cursed” water! How embarrassing? And what if the woman is innocent, falsely accused by a man who had a passing “feeling of jealousy against his wife?” Yeah, she may survive the “test of the bitter waters,” but could she ever forgive her husband for subjecting her to such shame?! And if you think the Torah’s description of the “shame of the sotah” is biting, you might want to try the Rambam’s description on for size! Below is his description of how it all played out in the First Temple period:

“The [accused] woman is…brought outside the Eastern Gate [of the Temple Courtyard]…where a large assembly of women is gathered…. She stands among them without a shawl and without a kerchief, rather all she is [allowed to wear] is her [simple] clothing and a head covering….

Then the kohen would swear in a language known to the woman that the only reason she must [endure the embarrassment of the Sotah ordeal] is because of jealousy and secrecy for her husband became jealous and she [confined herself] in secret [against his wishes]. The kohen would then continue [to recite the full oath as recorded in Numbers 5:19-22].

Afterwards, he would bring a pure parchment, like that of a Torah scroll, and he would write the [Torah verses that he had just recited] with [erasable] ink, including the woman’s name as one would when writing up a divorce contract…, and including G-d’s name as it appears in the Torah [G-d’s Name appears twice in the aforementioned verses].

The Kohen would then bring an earthenware vessel that had never been used…and he would pour a half a Lug of water into it from the Temple laver…and he would take dust from [the floor of] the Sanctuary and place it in the water…and he would add a bitter substance [to embitter the taste of the water]. Then he would take the parchment [that he had just written] and erase it by placing it in the [‘bitter waters’] and he would erase it very well so that no trace of writing would be apparent.

Then another Kohen…would reveal her hair…IN ORDER TO SHAME HER…and [after the flour offering is performed], the woman is given to drink [the Sotah waters]. If she is pure—she leaves [the Temple] and returns to her husband. If she is impure…her belly swells, at first…and then she dies. (Rambam Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Sotah 3:4-12).

Shameful indeed! Even if innocent of committing the crime of adultery, what woman in her right mind would ever return to a husband who would subject her to such public humiliation?! I’ve heard of jealous, over-protective husbands before, but the “Sotah” ramifications of such emotions seem downright unfair to the poor women-folk!

And, with this very troubling introduction in mind, we may now begin to address the first of the popular sotah misconceptions:

SOTAH MISCONCEPTION #1: A woman is forced to endure the sotah ordeal in ALL cases where her husband suspects her of infidelity, EVEN IF HE DOES NOT PROVIDE EVIDENCE TO SUPPORT HIS SUSPICIONS.

Before we take pity on the “poor” woman who is forced to drink “bitter waters” by her paranoid husband, we must first realize that the Torah would never allow for this to occur without providing the suspected woman with a fair trial! Note that the Torah states:

“…the man [had previously] expressed FEELINGS OF JEALOUSY against his wife…” (Numbers 5:14).

And Cha”ZaL explain:

“How does a man express his jealousy against his wife? If he says to her IN THE PRESENCE OF TWO [WITNESSES]: ‘Do not [associate] with a certain man,’ and she [ALSO IN THE PRESENCE OF WITNESSES] …ENTERED A PRIVATE PLACE WITH [THAT PARTICULAR] MAN [NONETHELESS,] AND STAYED WITH HIM A SUFFICIENT AMOUNT OF TIME FOR MISCONDUCT TO OCCUR…” (Talmud Tractate Sotah, 2a).

Ahah! So our fair maiden, perhaps accused of a crime she did not commit, is not so innocent after all! Indeed, not just any “jealous” man is allowed to challenge his wife to the Sotah ordeal. Only a man with evidence is granted audience in a court when discussing matters of his wife’s infidelity! A trial begins only if a man brings WITNESSES who verify his warnings to his wife against associating with a certain man and only if his witnesses also verify his claim that his wife secluded herself with another man against his wishes.

“What is the procedure for giving the Sotah to drink [from the bitter waters]?

A husband reports to his local court of law and states: ‘I have become jealous of my wife on account of [her acquaintance with] So-and-So such that I have forbidden her to enter confines with him in secret and HERE ARE MY WITNESSES. [My wife] says that she is pure, but I want her to drink [from the Sotah waters] in order to investigate the matter. The [local] court [then defers the case to the High Court in Jerusalem] for the Sotah may only be given to drink [from the bitter waters at the behest] of the Supreme Court of 71 elders….” (Rambam Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Sotah 3:1).

OK, so now things are starting to make sense. Why does the Torah subject a woman suspected of adultery to the Sotah ordeal? Because she got caught with her “hand in the cookie jar,” so to speak. Nobody actually saw her having intercourse with another man, but she was warned to stay away from him and she was also caught going into seclusion with him, so she’s definitely not as “loyal” to her husband as one would like. But now, get this—let’s fast forward to the end of the Sotah ordeal. A woman went into seclusion with another man against her husband’s wishes—only G-d knows if she actually committed adultery. The “bitter Sotah waters” reveal G-d’s “testimony,” so to speak, by either killing the woman, if she is guilty of adultery; or, if she is innocent…by GIVING HER A CHILD AS RIGHTEOUS AS AVRAHAM AVINU?!

“If she [survives the Sotah waters], she will have a child like Avraham Avinu…and if she fails, she will return to dust” (Talmud Tractate Sotah, 17a).

Kudos to the lady for surviving the test of the Sotah, but still, pray tell, what does a woman who improperly consorted with another man have to do with the righteous Avraham Avinu?

This question brings me to the next common sotah misconception:

SOTAH MISCONCEPTION #2: Once a woman has been caught in seclusion with another man against her husband’s warnings and the court has accepted her husband’s claim—then SHE MUST DRINK FROM THE SOTAH WATERS.

In fact, the primary reason why the local court refers a Sotah case directly to the High Court, is to persuade the accused woman to confess to her sin or, at the very least, to convince her NOT TO DRINK FROM THE SOTAH WATERS EVEN IF SHE BELIEVES THAT SHE IS INNOCENT!

“The judges of the Supreme Court would try to convince the woman that she should confess her guilt so that a sotah test not be performed unnecessarily. They would take her aside and use all kinds of arguments and persuasions to make her admit the truth OR CAUSE HER TO REFUSE TO DRINK…. If the woman, at that point, confessed that she was defiled, she was told to leave her husband and the case was dismissed. If she insisted that she was pure, she was brought outside the Eastern Gate [of the Temple Courtyard]…where a large assembly of women gathered…. Before proceeding with the ritual, however, she was led back and forth all over the Temple Mount, so that the procedure was artificially lengthened. The hope was that she would become worn out to the point of confessing” (Rambam Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Sotah 3:2-4).

Hmmm, interesting. So the “average” sotah woman does NOT have to endure the humiliating sotah ordeal after all, does she? Well then why would any woman (even one who genuinely believes that she did not commit adultery!) actually VOLUNTEER to humiliate herself in public and put her life on the line to drink from the Sotah waters at all? “Why?” you ask. Because a woman who drinks from the bitter waters WANTS TO SAVE HER MARRIAGE AT ALL COSTS!

You see, in this world, there is no such thing as a person who never makes mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes and, granted, some mistakes are bigger than others. For the record, a sotah woman is no exception to this rule—she definitely made a mistake—quite the big one, in fact. She betrayed her husband’s trust by secluding herself in private, against all warnings, with another man. Trust, my friends, is one of the major cornerstones of any relationship—especially the marriage variety. How can a woman return to live with her husband after betraying his trust? Would her husband want her back? Does she even want to go back to him in the first place? It would seem that after such a devastating break-up, replete with harmful accusations and court-rulings, that once a woman betrays her husband’s trust in the manner of a sotah—there is no going back—all is lost.

However, by means of the Sotah ordeal and the humiliation and self-deprecation that it entails, the Torah tells us that there is still hope for repairing the broken relationship of a married couple. “I understand that a woman can be enticed by her evil inclination to pursue a relationship with another man,” says G-d. “Many are the faults of man and lust for adultery is no exception. But, and this is a big ‘but,’ there is a difference between longing for an illicit act and actually performing that illicit act. If a woman is TRULY loyal to her husband she would never actually sleep with another man—she might be tempted, but she could never go through with it.”

“Let us design a test to see just how loyal our fair sotah woman really is to her husband,” says G-d. “She betrayed his trust, once, by secluding herself in private with another man against her husband’s wishes—but what happened then? Did she give in to her evil inclination and betray her husband’s trust again by committing adultery or did she change her mind in the nick of time and feel remorse for jeopardizing a marriage she so desperately wanted to maintain? Her decision to drink or not to drink from My ‘bitter waters’ will answer this question. If she refuses to drink—she will either do so because she is guilty of adultery OR because she acknowledges that she does not have the will-power to maintain her relationship with her husband; but if she insists upon drinking and she survives—she will prove to all, and especially her husband, that no mountain is too high to climb nor river too wide to swim when it comes to saving her marriage. If she is willing to VOLUNTARILY risk her life and also suffer the extreme shame and humiliation of the sotah ordeal—she is truly worthy of praise for maintaining her loyalty to her husband.”

Hmmm, I think I know somebody else in history who also volunteered to risk his life and suffer much shame and humiliation all for the sake of loyalty. His name was AVRAHAM AVINU and the loyalty that he demonstrated was LOYALTY TO G-D. Avraham Avinu’s religious culture was not always popular among the people of his time, often leading him to suffer public derision and even persecution in order to uphold his principles, but Avraham never wavered in his fealty to the Master of the Universe. So too is the sotah woman who survives the “bitter waters.” By refraining from following through on the adulterous act, she proves that she is not only loyal to her husband but also to G-d, the One who established adultery as a sin in His “code of law” otherwise known as the Torah. Is it any wonder now why the woman who survives the sotah ordeal is rewarded with a child as righteous as Avraham Avinu? She may not be perfect—but if she can survive the “bitter waters” she sure is special!

Healthy relationships are, without question, a priority in life that the Torah guides us to attain. However, no priority of value is easy to come by. In the Sotah ordeal, the Torah teaches us what it takes to maintain a healthy relationship. Fiery romances are not necessarily made to last, but relationships predicated upon the “bitter waters” of unwavering fidelity are iron-clad. Today we don’t have the actual sotah ordeal of yester-year, but in every relationship we do still have “bumps in the road.” Those who flippantly dispose of relationships at the first sign of disagreement or conflict are no different from a sotah who refuses to drink from the “bitter waters.” Like nomads, they wander from relationship to relationship. On the other hand, those who take great pains to resolve every conflict—no matter how big—in order to save relationships have already tasted the “bitter waters” of the sotah. Like Avraham Avinu, their “bitter waters” produce fruits that endure for all eternity. Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Tov!

About Dr. Gene-Pair

Dr. Gene-Pair (alias) was born and raised in New York City. He received his bachelor degrees from the University of Pennsylvania in Asian & Middle Eastern Studies and Biology. Shortly after, he married and emigrated to Israel where he pursued his graduate studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Dr. Gene-Pair recently completed his doctoral training in Human Genetics. Currently, he resides in Jerusalem, Israel, with his wife and four children.
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