Larchmont Temple Chevra Torah

Questioning faith in the parsha


June 4, 2011/2 Sivan 5771
Numbers 5:11-30
Modern author: Naomi Ragen, Sotah

KOSHI:WHAT does Sotah teach  about the responsibility for marriage relationships? WHERE is the man in Sotah?

 V.12          Any man—if his wife goes astray and breaks faith with him, in that another man has had carnal relations with her unbeknown to her husband, and she keeps the secret that she defiled herself without being forced, and there is no witness against her

RASHI… “ish–ish…”  This teaches that she sins against two: against “the Man of War” above and against her husband below.   “ki tisteh ishtoif his wife will go astray…”  Our Rabbis taught: Adulterers do not commit adultery unless the spirit of foolishness—s’tut—enters them. [BT, Sotah, 3a]  And about him it is likewise written “He who commits adultery with a woman lacks heart,” [that is, sense.] [Prov 6:32]    

 MIZRACHI Our verse indicates that it is only the woman who commits adultery who is possessed by foolishness, so teach the Sages.  But RASHI brings forth a verse which proves that it is also true of the man who has relations with someone else’s wife.

 MILGROM “Ma’alah vo ma’al—broken faith with him” This is the only time the term is used outside the sphere of sacred sancta, where the object is always the Deity.  Just as the term “b’rit” is, at times, used by the Prophets for marriage where no oath of marital fidelity is involved, so here ma’al has a figurative meaning—the unfaithful wife a recurring prophetic image for Israel’s infidelity to God.  Since  “Ma’al” often denotes straying after other gods, its extension to straying after other men is obvious.

 MUNK…This phrase suggests the link between a wife’s disloyalty to her husband in this passage and a man’s disloyalty to God as described [with the same term] in the previous one…The Jewish wife who commits this sin betrays not only her husband but also the laws of the Lord.

 V.14    But a fit of jealousy overcomes him…about his wife who defiled herself; or if a fit of jealousy comes over him, though she’s not defiled herself

Dr T. COHN-ESKANAZI… The text does not assume that the woman is guilty The stated possibility that the woman is innocent supports the interpretation that the ritual works to protect her from her husband’s unfounded jealousy and restore some semblance of emotional stability in the house.

HERTZ…This ritual was intended to remove the very suspicion of marital unfaithfulness in the midst of Israel…If a husband suspects his wife of unfaithfulness, he may bring her to the Sanctuary for an oath of purgation…If she is innocent, no injuries result; if guilty, the combined oath and ordeal produce effects that proclaim her guilt to the world…In Israel, the Ordeal of Jealousy [Sotah] was abolished by Yochanan ben Zakkai soon after the destruction of the Temple.  From that time on, divorce alone was customary in cases of well-proved infidelity.

V.18    After he’s made the woman stand before the Lord, the kohen shall uncover the woman’s head, and place into her hands…

RASHI “And make the woman stand…” This was already stated, yet it is repeated to teach that they would parade the woman around from spot to spot, trying to tire her out and get her to confess. “bare her head”  This means he would undo the braiding of her hair in order to degrade her.

RAMBAM… The mere thought of this ritual procedure was so unpleasant to women that they were extremely careful to conduct themselves in such a manner as always to be above suspicion.  By the same token, most husbands would have given up all their possessions, and even preferred death to having to participate in the great shame of this ordeal.  Thus, they would not be tempted unless there was great cause for concern.  By creating such fear, Torah prevented domestic tragedies.  [Guide, 3:49]

V.29-31 This is the ritual when the wife goes astray…or when a fit of jealosy overcomes a husband…The husband shall be clear of his guilt, but the wife shall suffer her sin.

MUNK… “Zot Torat HaK’na’otThis is the law of resentments…”   According to RAMBAM, at the same time the unfaithful wife dies, the man with whom she sinned dies as well, wherever he may be—and with the same symptoms.  But all of this happens if the husband was always faithful to her.  If not, the bitter water has no effect at all.

GRUSHCOW…It seems our ancestors did not abolish the ritual of Sotah because they found it morally objectionable.  The explanation given in the rabbinic texts is that “things were getting worse.” Either more people were openly committing adultery, or more husbands were sinning in such a way that the sotah ritual no longer worked on their wives…


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