Massekhet Sota deals primarily with the halakhot associated with the sota (see Bamidbar, Chapter 5) – a woman whose husband suspects that she is unfaithful, and warns her not to seclude herself with a specific man. In the event that she secludes herself with that man, she is considered a sota, and it is prohibited for her to remain married to her husband unless she is taken to the Temple and undergoes an evaluation rite in order to determine whether she was in fact unfaithful. This rite includes the offering of a special meal-offering, the taking of an oath, and the drinking of the bitter water of a sota.
Although the evaluation rite might bring about the death of a guilty woman, nevertheless the purpose of such a procedure is to return peace and harmony to the marriage. The rite is not practiced in every instance when the husband suspects his wife of infidelity. Rather, it is performed when the level of suspicion is sufficient to suggest that the woman was unfaithful. The sota process involves a warning, and if the woman is subsequently seen by two witnesses engaging in certain promiscuous behavior, then she must undergo the evaluation rite. 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. If he opts to evaluate whether she is permitted to him by means of the sota rite, as in our case, it is indicative of the fact that he is interested in removing his doubts about her fidelity and rebuilding the relationship. The wife has the prerogative to refuse to undergo the rite, and to be divorced without any payment of her marriage contract. If she opts to undergo the demeaning rite to prove her innocence, it is indicative of her remorse for her suspicious behavior and of her desire to put an end to their marital distrust and strife. In such a situation, where logic would call for dissolution of the marriage, the Torah provides a miraculous means of evaluating the woman’s fidelity, which is ordinarily not verifiable by means of witnesses.
If the woman committed adultery, aside from the fact that she transgressed one of the most serious prohibitions of the Torah, her actions are described like the actions of an animal – ma’aseh behema. Since she has degraded herself by engaging in such behavior, the evaluation rite in the Temple calls for certain acts that serve to degrade the woman and remind her of her behavior: The kohen tears her upper clothing, tying them with a rope, and he removes her hair covering. Similarly, the minha 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 water was drunk out of a simple earthen vessel.
The laws of Sota include a unique aspect that does not exist in any other mitzva of the Torah. Sota is the only mitzva whose entire essence is rooted in a miraculous process. The idea that drinking water should be able to test whether a woman has committed adultery is not a natural phenomenon. Rather, it is a supernatural test which results in guilty women meeting a unique death, while women who were not adulterous receive an extra blessing concerning their childbearing abilities. Additionally, the woman’s drinking of the water evaluates not only her fidelity; if she is guilty, her paramour, wherever he may be, will die the same terrible death.
Another unique aspect of this mitzva is that the preparation of the bitter water involves the erasing of God’s name, an act that is prohibited under all other circumstances due to a negative mitzva.
It should be noted that according to the Sages there are a number of reasons why the sota water might be effective – 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 an open miracle like this to take place, the Sages no longer allowed the rite to be performed from the time of the generation prior to the destruction of the second Temple.
We find quite of bit of aggadic material in Massekhet Sota, 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 sota, but for personalities throughout Jewish history, as well.