The Sota (5:11-31)

  • Rav Elchanan Samet

Parshat HaShavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


The Sota (5:11-31)

By Rav Elchanan Samet


A. Unique examination with miraculous results

"(27) And [the kohen] shall make her drink the water, and it shall be that if she became defiled and betrayed her husband, then the water that brings a curse shall enter her and become bitter, and her stomach will swell and her thigh will fall away, and the woman shall become a curse among her people.

(28) And if the woman was not defiled and she is pure, then she shall be free, and she shall conceive seed."

The Ramban notes the uniqueness of the examination of the woman with water - a procedure unlike any other in the Torah:

"And behold, nowhere in the laws of the Torah is there something that depends on a miracle exce pt for this matter, which is a fixed wonder and miracle that is performed for Israel."

This law is unique in several respects. Firstly, the miracles in the Torah are generally performed for a great and public need: to verify the authenticity of a prophet, to bring salvation or punishment to a group - or to an individual of importance to a group. Nowhere in the Torah are miracles performed for individuals in a family situation, as in our parasha. But here we have a "FIXED wonder and miracle that is performed for Israel."

Secondly, the sphere in which the miracle takes place is altogether a legal one. The question of whether a woman has betrayed her husband is one with halakhic ramifications in several spheres. If the woman indeed committed adultery, and did so before witnesses and in the necessary circumstances, then she and the man involved must receive the death penalty (Vayikra 20:10). Furthermore, a woman who has betrayed her husband, even in the absence of witnesses, is forbidden to him thereafter and he must divorce her, but she is also then forbidden to the man with whom she committed adultery. Additionally, a woman who has committed adultery loses her right to her ketuba.

The problem arises in the case of a woman who is suspected of committing adultery - in circumstances that lend substance to this suspicion. What is to be done with the woman in each of the spheres described above? Is this not a question that should be clarified and ruled by a court?

The Sages (Bava Metzia 59b) declare that "the Torah is not in heaven." As Rabbi Yirmiya explains, "Since the Torah was given at Mt. Sinai, we pay no attention to heavenly voices [in legal matters], for God already wrote in the Torah, given at Mt. Sinai, 'You shall follow the majority' [of sages]."

Admittedly, the doubt that arises in our parasha surrounds not the proper halakhic ruling, but rather the facts of the case themselves - was the woman defiled or not? However, ultimately the question is one that boils down to a legal ruling, and here, instead of the court passing a ruling, as it would in any other legal matter, the question is decided by means of a miracle, with the involvement of a kohen.

Thirdly, in verse 23 the kohen is commanded to "write these curses in a book and shall erase them with the bitter water" and the Mishna (Sota 2:3) determines that the words to be erased include God's Name. Yet in Devarim (12:2-4), as interpreted by the Sifri, we learn that there is a prohibition against erasing God's Name. Thus, the command to the kohen to erase the curses that he has written - including God's Name - contradicts a prohibition in the Torah.

We may therefore summarize the problems that arise from this law of examining the sota with water as follows: THE VERY NEED FOR A FIXED MIRACLE in a private family matter, THE SPHERE IN WHICH THE MIRACLE TAKES PLACE - the clarification of an halakhic matter, and THE WAY IN WHICH THE MIRACLE IS PERFORMED - through an act that is prohibited. Each of these elements defines the uniqueness of this law.

b. THE Ordeal

Although "nowhere in THE LAWS OF THE TORAH is there something that depends on a miracle except for this matter," among the laws of the nations it was quite common for various legal matters to be clarified through non-rational and supernatural means. The special term used by anthropologists for such clarifications is "ordeal." Prof. Yaakov Licht z"l, in his article "Examination of the Sota by Ordeal" (Mechkarim ba-Mikra, 5747 [Hebrew]), reviews the customs of ordeal among the various cultures from antiquity until our times as background to his discussion of the examination of the sota.

The purpose of the ordeal is to clarify whether a person suspected of a crime is guilty or not. This is accomplished by means of a supernatural sign that involves the body of the subject. The most common form of ordeal was an examination using hot iron: the suspect would hold an iron pole upon his hands, or would tread on it barefoot. In the instructions for performing the ordeal it was set down how the burn should be dressed and how it should be examined after a few days: if the burn had begun to heal nicely, the suspect was declared innocent. Licht writes:

"In one respect, the test of the sota differs from most of the ordeals that I found in historical testimonies…: the suspect is not tested with something that would usually cause harm, but rather by drinking water containing a little dust and ink… without poison in it. This is a type of ordeal in which something that is not harmful by nature comes to cause harm, to prove the subject's guilt… No harm will come to a woman suspected of adultery who is not guilty… because according to nature there is no danger present here from the start."

This difference is of great significance; it differentiates between the test of the sota with water and most of the ordeals practiced by other nations - in terms of the reliability of the examination, as well as in human and religious terms.

  1. An ordeal by something that causes harm, such as a red-hot iron, creates real (and justified) fear in the heart of the subject, perhaps causing him to confess to a deed even if he is not guilty of it - just to save himself from having to undergo the cruel examination.
  2. The ordeal by something harmful generally harms everyone who is subjected to it, and the determination of guilt depends on the degree of harm or the subject's success in recovering from the damage quickly. Thus there is no clear and unequivocal distinction between a subject who is guilty and one who is innocent.
  3. The ordeal physically harms even a suspect who is innocent, even if the examiner declares the subject's innocence.
  4. The "miraculous" element of the ordeal has a partially rational explanation.

In contrast to the above, the test of the sota by water is not located in the blurred midway between miracle and nature. The water by means of which the woman is tested, containing a tiny amount of dust and some blotted ink, does not by nature have the power to determine her guilt. When this test reveals the guilt of the woman, there is a dramatic and clearly miraculous demonstration of Divine involvement that has no rational explanation, and it is completely independent of any interpretation by the kohen.

Despite these fundamental differences, Licht rightly asserts that "the test of the sota is the only explicit 'ordeal' in the Torah," and he lists the characteristics of the test that indicate its definition as an ordeal:

"Firstly, we have here the main marker [of an ordeal]: the request for an impressive sign from God. Secondly, there are several characteristic signs: the absence of witnesses and proof is emphasized in the text (verse 13); the test determines only the question of fact…; the test is complex, requiring symbols that are part of the Temple service, actions that are calculated to influence the emotions of the subject, and impressive statements by the kohen. All of these are common among the regular ordeals of various cultures. Even the oath that the woman must take falls into this category… for the ordeal is fundamentally connected to the oath, and an oath is always present in an ordeal."

Licht's work allows to reformulate the secquestion posed in the previous section. It is possible that the Sages' opposition to halakhic rulings being based upon heavenly signs was their reaction to the custom of ordeals that was prevalent in the legal systems of many other nations. In other words, a miracle does not constitute proof in a legal debate. The law of testing the sota is unique in its very similarity to the "ordeal" practiced by other nations (despite all the fundamental differences), and this is an additional wonder on top of all the others mentioned previously.

c. Ramban's explanation for the uniqueness of this law

A mitzva so exceptional and surprising requires some explanation. The Ramban addresses principally the first question presented in section a. above, concerning the very need for a miracle to decide a private, family question. According to his explanation, the point of the miracle is not to put at rest the mind of the husband who suspects his wife, nor any other limited family purpose, but rather a broad, national one: "To cleanse Israel from [the suspicion of] 'mamzerut' (the status of children born of prohibited unions), IN ORDER THAT THEY BE WORTHY OF THE SHEKHINA DWELLING AMONG THEM." He brings proof of a hint at the broader national context of this miracle from the Mishna: "When the number of those who engaged in adultery increased, the [practice involving the] bitter waters ceased." When adultery became widespread, the merit of the nation of Israel was diminished, and they were no longer worthy of having such a great miracle performed for them.

The Ramban's explanation, however, fails to solve the other difficulties concerning the uniqueness of this test: the need for a miracle in deciding a matter of Torah law, and the procedure involving the erasing of God's Name. These two elements create the impression that making the sota drink the water is something that the kohen is forced to do, for lack of alternative. Indeed, in the Mishna and Talmud there is a noticeable trend towards avoiding this test wherever possible, either by means of having the woman confessing to her sin, or by her refusal to be tested - even without confessing (we shall discuss this option below). This trend is incompatible with the explanation of the Ramban that this miracle was performed "for Israel's glory, to make them a holy nation." To his view, it would seem that the more suspect women were tested, the greater the miracle and the greater the glory to the nation.

The uniqueness of the test of the sota can be explained in a positive way - as a great and unique merit attached to the nation of Israel, as the Ramban understood it. It can also be understood in a negative way - as a concession by the Torah for unusual actions and procedures to be undertaken because of various special circumstances. The questions presented above would seem to point in the latter direction.

D. Helplessness of human law in dealing with adultery

The need to decide by means of a miracle the question of whether a woman suspected of adultery was actually defiled or not, has a simple explanation: the sin of adultery, by nature, is not usually able to be proven by witnesses. It is committed in secret, and therefore it is extremely rare that such a case would come before a court. As a result, the sphere of adultery is almost completely removed from legal debate. This has the effect of poisoning the relations of a couple where the husband suspects his wife, and has some basis for this suspicion, but he is unable - and will remain unable - to clarify the matter in the regular legal manner.

The test initiated by the husband is meant to take the place of this legal discussion, which is almost always non-applicable. In this area where human law is helpless, and a dangerous rift may be caused in family relations, Divine law steps in as a replacement, thus healing the rift.

e. Laws of the sota according to Chazal

The parasha of the sota is one of the parashot of the Torah where a noticeable discrepancy exists between the impression created by a "simple reading" and the perception of Chazal - the halakhic perception, as molded in the Mishna, the Talmud and ultimately the final and binding halakhic ruling.

The "simple reading" would suggest that the parasha presents a woman who has met privately with a man, and her husband suspects that she was defiled through that encounter, but he has no proof, nor are there any witnesses who can testify. The husband is seized by a "spirit of jealousy," and in order to clarify his suspicion and to ease his jealousy he brings his wife to the kohen in the Mishkan. His suspicion is tested there in a ceremony that causes the woman great humiliation and unpleasantness - even if she is innocent. According to a literal reading, it appears that this ceremony is forced upon the woman, and no one asks her opinion. It seems that from the outset she maintains that she bears no guilt, and she obviously has no wish to undergo such an unpleasant procedure simply because of the "jealous spirit" that has seized her husband.

The impression created by this reading is of a clearly one-sided position adopted by the Torah in favor of the husband, at the expense of the wife. The "jealous spirit" that overcomes the husband is the driving force behind the process described in the parasha, while the factual basis for his suspicion is quite flimsy. It is the husband himself who claims that his wife met privately with a man, and even if this is true, this does not mean that she was defiled. The entire process is based on the husband's claims, and it looks to us as though the parasha takes into consideration only his subjective view, while sacrificing the woman on the altar of his jealousy in order to ease it (or, alternatively, to justify it).

Before presenting the halakhic perception of our parasha, it should be remembered that the Torah permits a man to marry several wives, while allowing a woman to be married only to one man. Therefore, a man does not "betray" his wife, since he is permitted to marry other wives in addition to her, and for this reason the parasha addresses only a husband's suspicion of his wife. But while there is no symmetry between a man and a woman in this sphere, the husband's claim of infidelity on the part of his wife does not free him from similar claims. The closing verse of our parasha served Chazal as the basis to make the husband's right to demand a test for his wife conditional upon his own moral record. We find in a beraita (Sota 28a):

"'And the man shall be clean of sin, and that woman shall bear her iniquity' (verse 31) - when the man is clean of sin, then the waters test his wife. If the man is not clean of sin, the waters do not test his wife."

The Rambam explains (Hilkhot Sota 2:8):

"If a man HAS EVER HAD ANY ILLICIT RELATIONS as an adult, then the waters that bring a curse will not test his wife… As it is written, 'And the man shall be clean of sin, and that woman shall bear her iniquity': when the man is clean of sin, then the woman bears her iniquity."

The Rambam returns to this point later (3:17-19):

"And all of these things apply only if the husband has never sinned himself (in this regard). But if he engaged in any illicit relations, then the waters do not test his wife, as we have explained. And if he did transgress and he makes his wife drink the water, this adds to his [previous] sin, for he causes God's Name to be blotted out in the water for no purpose, and he causes the waters of the sota to be cheapened, for his wife will tell others that she did engage in adultery and the water did not test her, and she will not know that it was her husband's deeds that caused this. FOR THIS REASON, WHEN THE NUMBER OF THOSE WHO ENGAGED OPENLY IN ADULTERY DURING THE SECOND TEMPLE PERIOD INCREASED, THE SANHEDRIN CANCELLED THE PRACTICE OF THE BITTER WATER…."

Another claim that requires addressing is that the woman who is cursed by the water and is revealed as having been defiled, did not sin alone: she had a partner in crime. As we know, a man and a woman are equal when it comes to punishment for forbidden sexual rel, as is stated explicitly in our case (Vayikra 20:10), "man who commits adultery with a married woman… the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely die." Why, then, does the parasha of sota deal only with the woman, while her partner in crime seems to suffer no consequences at all?

The Halakha nullifies this lack of symmetry. Mishna Sota (5:1) teaches: "Just as the water tests her, so does it test him." The Gemara (28a) brings various derivations for this law, explaining that the bitter waters will affect him, too, no matter where he may be.

Having presented the above introduction, we may now look at the Halakha's approach to the topic of sota in general terms. Firstly, it must be pointed out that according to Halakha, the man's demand that his wife be tested is approved only against a clearly defined legal background; under no circumstances is such a claim addressed when his jealousy has no evidentiary support. The main exegetical innovation of the Halakha in our parasha concerns verse 14:

"And he is overcome with a spirit of jealousy, and he is jealous for his wife…."

This "spirit of jealousy" is not a description of a feeling that suddenly attacks the husband AFTER his wife has secluded herself with another man, but rather a description of an act with legal significance, which is performed PRIOR to her secluding herself with him. Rashi interprets the verse as follows:

"'And he is overcome' - prior to the seclusion,

'with a spirit of jealousy, and he is jealous…' - our Sages explained: this is an expression of warning, [with the husband] telling the wife: Do not seclude yourself with so-and-so."

What causes the husband to warn his wife in this way? It may be his suspicion of the man involved, or of the relationship between his wife and that man, or rumors and murmurings among his neighbors. In any event, this warning must be given in front of two witnesses, as the Rambam rules at the beginning of Hilkhot Sota, on the basis of the first Mishna in Sota:

"The jealousy about which the Torah speaks – 'and he is jealous for his wife' - means that he tells her, before witnesses: Do not seclude yourself with so-and-so."

Rashi explains the continuation of verse 14 as follows:

"'And she was defiled, or he was overcome… and she was not defiled' - in other words, he warned her and she subsequently acted against his warning, and it is not known whether she was defiled or not."

In other words, the "seclusion" that was discussed in verse 13 occurs only AFTER his official warning to her before witnesses, and only if she secludes herself with the specific man her husband mentioned.

What halakhic situation is created by this jealousy and this seclusion? We are no longer dealing with an incidental encounter between the woman and a man other than her husband, which gives rise to the latter's jealousy. Rather, this is a seclusion with a man who is already suspected by the husband with regard to his wife. The suspicion was strong enough that the husband already warned his wife, in front of two witnesses, not to seclude herself with that man. The woman acted against this stern warning and did indeed seclude herself with the man concerned, for a period of time that would make it possible for her to have been defiled.

It is no wonder that under these circumstances, the husband's suspicion of his wife is formulated almost as a certainty (verses 12-13):

"A man, if his wife acts foolishly and betrays him… and a man lies with her and gives seed, and the matter is hidden from her husband for she was secluded, and she was defiled but there is no witness…."

But this is the question that the rest of the parasha goes on to examine: whether the situation described in these verses actually took place. Why, then, is the suspicion described here as a certainty? The answer is that the circumstances of this seclusion are so serious that it is not unreasonable to assume that the event did take place.

The halakhic result of all this is, as the Rambam rules:

"If she was secluded with him for long enough to become defiled… THEN SHE IS FORBIDDEN TO HER HUSBAND UNTIL SUCH TIME AS SHE DRINKS THE BITTER WATER AND THE MATTER IS CLARIFIED. And at a time when the water of the sota is no longer in use - she is forbidden to him forever, and she leaves [the marriage] without her ketuba."

Let us now return to the "simple reading" and ask: what happens if a woman secluded herself with a man and remained there for long enough to become defiled, without her husband's jealousy first being aroused? Thus rules the Rambam (1:4-5):

"If there was no prior jealousy, and two witnesses come and testify that she secluded herself with a man and remained there long enough to become defiled, SHE IS NOT FORBIDDEN TO HER HUSBAND, NOR DOES SHE DRINK [the water]."


"If the husband said to her, before two witnesses, 'Do not speak to so-and-so' (but did not say 'Do not seclude yourself') - this is not defined as jealousy [for the purposes of this law]. And then, even if she secludes herself with that man, and there were witnesses, and she remained long enough to become defiled - she is not forbidden to her husband, and she does not drink for this type of jealousy."

It should be clarified here that the words, "She does not drink," mean that the husband cannot bring her to the kohen, and the kohen may not make her drink. This instance is not what the parasha of sota is discussing!

Let us now examine the event to which the halakha refers in the parasha of sota. A couple has arrived at such a crisis in their relationship that they are unable to continue living together. What are the possibilities that are open to them, from the point of view of Halakha? The husband may, of course, decide that he no longer wishes to be married, and may divorce her (with payment of the wife's ketuba, if he is not prepared to clarify his suspicions through the test of the water). The wife, likewise, may decide that she is not prepared to be tested, and thus brings the marriage to an end, as Rambam rules (2:1):

"A woman whose husband was jealous for her and she secluded herself - she is not forced to drink. If she confesses and declares, 'Yes, I was defiled,' she goes out without her ketuba, and is forbidden to her husband forever, and does not drink. [But she and the adulterer are not put to death because there are no witnesses to the actual sin.]

Likewise IF SHE SAYS, 'I AM NOT DEFILED, AND I SHALL NOT DRINK,' SHE IS NOT FORCED TO DRINK, and she goes out without her ketuba [since her husband is ready to remain with her if she agrees to the test].

And likewise if the husband says, 'I do not wish for her to drink'… then she does not drink; she receives her ketuba and leaves, and she is forbidden to him forever."

But what if both of them - the husband and the wife - wish to continue living together, and to repair their relationship? The Torah allows for such a possibility: a test through the waters of the sota. Only on the basis of this test can the woman once again be permitted to her husband, if she is found to be innocent, and the family has a chance of being rehabilitated.

This test, then, is performed only upon the joint wish of both the husband and wife; each of them may prevent the performance of the test if he or she does not want it. This reality is far from the impression created by the literal reading, according to which the husband forces the test on his wife against her wishes. According to Halakha, however, only if she is prepared to undergo this procedure of her own free will is it carried out. The woman will be willing to do so out of her desire to continue living with her husband, and out of the knowledge that she was not defiled.

Can the woman change her mind once the process has already begun? Not only is she able to change her mind, but she is even encouraged to do so. The encouragement is, admittedly, mostly towards her confessing to having been defiled, but even if she simply declares, "I shall not drink," without confessing, she is allowed to stop the process (Rambam 3:2).

Once she has declared, "I shall not drink," is she entitled to change her mind and to request the continof the process? Rambam rules (4:3):

"A sota who says, 'I shall not drink' out of fand intimidation, may change her mind and say, 'I shall drink.'"

However, there is a limit, after which the woman can no longer turn back, unless she admits that she was defiled:

"If she says, 'I shall not drink,' before the scroll [with the curses] is blotted out, then the scroll is put away… and her mincha offering is sprinkled over the ashes of the altar. But if she says, 'I shall not drink,' after the scroll has already been blotted out, she is forced to drink the water, and is threatened that she must drink, and she is told: 'My daughter, if it is clear to you that you are pure, then stand still and drink and do not fear'… If she says, 'I am impure,' then although the scroll is already blotted out, the water is poured out, since it contains no sanctity, and her mincha offering is sprinkled over the ashes." (Rambam 4:4-6)

What, then, is the meaning of the expression, "She is forced to drink the water"? Is it because the scroll has already been blotted out and we do not wish for this blotting of God's Name to be for no purpose? From Rashi's interpretation of the beraita that serves as the source for this law of the Rambam (Sota 7b), we learn a different reason:

"After [the scroll] is blotted out, they tell her words of comfort, to drink if she is innocent, IN ORDER TO MAKE HER PERMISSIBLE TO HER HUSBAND, in order that she will not fear the water and say, 'I am defiled' if she is actually pure, thereby disgracing herself and her children."

In other words, we assume that the woman has changed her mind at this stage out of fear of the water in which the words of the curses have been blotted out, and not because she is truly defiled. For this reason she is made to drink against her will - for her own good, in order to make her permissible to her husband, and to prevent rumors from spreading about her. And now, after the woman has drunk:

"If she is pure, she leaves and goes, AND SHE IS PERMITTED TO HER HUSBAND… A sota who drank and is [found to be] innocent, is strengthened, and her face shines, and if she had any illness - it leaves her, and she is able to become pregnant and bears a son..." (Rambam 3:16, 22)

F. "Great is the value of peace between husband and wife"

Chazal's perception of the parasha of sota, as described above in general terms, resolved - to their view - one of the great questions surrounding this parasha, which was particularly difficult for them: the blotting out of God's Name in the scroll. We read in the Gemara (Chullin 141a):

"Mar said: GREAT IS THE VALUE OF PEACE BETWEEN HUSBAND AND WIFE, for the Torah says: the Name of the Holy One, written in holiness, is blotted out in the water!"

We may perhaps broaden this statement and thereby answer our other questions. "Great is the value of peace between husband and wife" - this explains why a miracle is required here, and why we use this miracle in a halakhic context. In order to understand this great need, we must return to the background of the test of the sota: a man and his wife encounter a tragic crisis that threatens the continuation of their marriage. They wish to continue living together peacefully, but this is impossible, both because of the husband's grave suspicion that his wife has betrayed him, and because this very suspicion makes the woman forbidden to him until the matter is clarified.

How, then, is this marriage to be saved? In the very difficult situation in which the couple finds itself - after the woman has secluded herself with a man concerning whom her husband has previously warned her, before witnesses, not to seclude herself - the woman's declaration of her innocence is not sufficient. Neither her husband nor the court can accept this claim against the heavy suspicion that rests on the woman, and even a regular oath will not suffice. In order to make her permissible to her husband and to allow her to return to him, a factual test is required that no human legal system can provide. This test is what will make the woman's oath as to her innocence altogether reliable.

Against this background, we can understand why the Torah goes out of its way in offering the woman and her husband a test that is based on a miracle. Only this procedure can, in these circumstances, allow for faith to be entrusted once again, for the woman to return to her husband, and for their "shalom bayit" to be restored.

(Translated by Kaeren Fish.

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