Masechet Sotah - An Introduction to the Tractate

May 26, 2008

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Masechet Sotah deals mainly with the laws surrounding a Sotah (see Bamidbar, Chapter 5) - a woman whose husband suspects her of infidelity, who is brought to the Temple to be tested by drinking specially prepared "bitter waters." Although checking the woman in this manner is supposed to lead to her death if she committed adultery, the purpose of the ceremony is not to bring about destruction, rather it is to being about peace between husband and wife. According to all opinions in the Gemara, a man who comes to despise his wife because he suspects that she has committed adultery has the right to divorce her. In our case, however, we are dealing with a man who does not want to divorce his wife, but nevertheless is suffering from jealousy and a fear that his wife has been unfaithful. His desire is to clarify the situation so that he can return to a state of security in his marriage. Through the ceremony of Sotah, the Torah offers a unique method of reaching certainty in this matter.


Although the purpose of Sotah is to assure marital peace and harmony, it is important to point out that the ceremony is not performed simply because the husband demands it. As is explained in the Gemara, it is only after a man warns his wife in the presence of witnesses that due to his suspicions he does not want her to spend time privately with a specific person - and witnesses step forward testifying that she did so - that the process of Sotah can begin. Thus, the woman, who is first warned about her husband's concerns, has certainly behaved inappropriately and the suspicions about her behavior appear to be well-founded.


If the woman committed adultery, aside from the fact that she transgressed one of the most serious prohibitions of the Torah, her behavior is considered to be "animalistic" - ma'aseh behemah - the make-up and fancy clothing notwithstanding. This is why she is treated in a degrading manner when she is brought to the Bet ha-Mikdash for the ceremony - the kohen tears her upper clothing, tying them with a rope, and he removes her hair covering. Similarly, the minhah sacrifice that she brings is brought from barley flour (barley was viewed by the Sages as animal feed) and it does not include oil like other menahot. The "bitter waters" were drunk out of a simple earthen vessel.


The laws of Sotah include a unique aspect that does not exist in any other mitzvah of the Torah. Sotah is the only mitzvah that is dependent on a miraculous occurrence. The idea that drinking water should be able to test whether a woman has committed adultery is not a natural phenomenon. Only a miraculous event could create a situation where the woman will die if she was unfaithful, but will be a blessing for her if she was suspected for no reason. Furthermore, according to the Sages, if she committed adultery, not only would she suffer upon drinking the water, but her lover would, as well, even if he was nowhere near the Temple.   


Another unique element of the mitzvah of Sotah is that preparing the water involved the deliberate erasing of biblical passages - including God's name - something that is forbidden under other circumstances.


It should be noted that according to the Sages there are a number of reasons why the Sotah waters might not work - including the possibility that the husband himself was involved in sexual misbehaviors, or if the woman had some positive attributes that would protect her. Since not every generation is on a high spiritual level that would allow for a miracle like this to take place, around the time of the destruction of the second Temple, the practice of Sotah was discontinued.


We find quite of bit of aggadic material in Masechet Sotah, most of which stems from the nature of the topics discussed in it. The commandment to make the suspected woman drink the bitter waters, which involves a supernatural element in the life of the couple, leads to discussions about such elements as reward and punishment, what makes people sin and so forth - not only for a Sotah, but for personalities throughout Jewish history, as well.

This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the Hebrew version of the Steinsaltz Edition of the Talmud.  To learn more about the Steinsaltz Daf Yomi initiative, click here.

Next: Sotah 2a-b