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Sotah - Chapter Three

Sotah - Chapter Three

Halacha 1

What is the process through which a sotah is compelled to drink the bitter water? First the husband comes to the court in his city and tells them: "I warned my wife [not to enter into privacy] with so and so, and she entered into privacy with him. These are the witnesses who will confirm my statements. She claims not to have committed adultery. I desire to have her drink the bitter water to verify this matter."

The court then listens to the testimony of the witnesses. [If it is substantial,] they provide [the husband] with two sages1 to watch over him, lest he engage in relations with her before she drinks the bitter water, for she is prohibited to him until that time,2 and he is sent to Jerusalem. For a sotah is compelled to drink [the bitter water] only by the Supreme Court of 70 elders,3 who [hold session] in the Temple.4

Halacha 2

When they arrive in Jerusalem, the High Court has her sit in its presence while her husband is not present,5 and they alarm her, frighten her and bring upon her great dread so that she will not [desire to] drink [the bitter water.6

They tell her: "My daughter, [we know] that wine has a powerful influence, frivolity has a powerful influence, immaturity has a powerful influence, bad neighbors have a powerful influence.7 Do not cause [God's] great name, which is written in holiness, to be blotted out in the water."

And they tell her: "There are many who preceded you and were swept away [from the world].8 Men of greater and more honorable stature have been overcome by their natural inclination and have faltered." [To emphasize this,] they tell her the story of Judah and Tamar, his daughter-in-law,9 the simple meaning of the episode concerning Reuben and [Bilhah], his father's concubine,10 and the story of Amnon and his sister,11 to make it easier for her to admit [her guilt].12

If she says: "I committed adultery," or "I will not drink [the water],"13 she is to be divorced without receiving [the money due her by virtue of] her ketubah, and the matter is dismissed.

Halacha 3

If she persists in he claim of innocence, she is brought to the eastern gate of the Temple Courtyard, which faces the Holy of Holies.14 She should be taken from place to place [in the Temple Courtyard] and made to walk around it so that she will become tired and her spirits will sap [with the intent that perhaps] she will admit [her guilt].

Halacha 4

If she persists in her claim, she is brought outside the eastern gate and made to stand there. If she usually dresses in white, she should dress in black. If black garments make her look attractive, she should dress in clothes that do not make her attractive. All silver and gold jewelry should be removed from her.

Halacha 5

Many women are gathered [to see] her, for all the women present [on the Temple Mount] are obligated to observe her, [as implied by Ezekiel 23:48]: "So that all women will be taught not to follow their lewdness." Any man who wants to observe her may do so.15

She stands among [the women] without a cloak or a veil, wearing only her clothes and a cap, as a woman dresses within her home.16

Halacha 6

Neither her servants nor her maidservants are allowed to be there, because [when] she recognizes them, her spirits will be fortified.17

Halacha 7

Afterwards, the priest administers an oath to her in a language that she understands.18 He tells her in her language that [she is being subjected to this test] because of the warning that her husband gave her, [which she violated by] entering into privacy [with the man in question].

He repeats for her in a language that she understands [the Biblical passage, Numbers 5:19-23]: "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 and you have become defiled, because a man other than your husband has lain with you... God will make you into a curse and into an oath among your people, causing your thigh to rupture and your belly to swell. This curse-bearing water will enter your body, causing your belly to swell and your thigh to rupture." [This serves as an oath]. She responds: "Amen, Amen,"19 in a language she understands.

He tells her that her belly will be affected first and afterwards, her thigh so as not to tarnish the reputation of the water.20

Halacha 8

Afterwards, a scroll of parchment from a kosher animal, like the parchment used for a Torah scroll,21 is brought. On it is written, word for word, letter for letter,22 the entire passage that [the priest] administered to the woman as an oath.

[The passage must be] written in Biblical Hebrew, with ink that does not contain kankantum,23 for the sake of the woman, as a get must be written with that intent.24 God's name should be written in the proper manner.25 The words "Amen, Amen" should not be written.

Halacha 9

Afterwards, an earthenware vessel26 that was never used for any task previously27 and that does not look aged is brought. If one takes an aged vessel and returns it to a kiln so that it looks new, it is acceptable.

A half a log28 of water from the basin [from which the priests wash]29 is placed in it. There was a measuring vessel of that size in the Temple. Afterwards, the water is taken into the Sanctuary.

Halacha 10

[In the Sanctuary,] there was a place, one cubit by one cubit, at the right as one entered, [covered by] a marble tile with a ring affixed to it.30 [The priest] would lift the tile and take "from the dust... on the earth of the Tabernacle" [Numbers 5:17] and place it in the water, so that it could be seen [floating] on the water.

Into this mixture is also placed a bitter substance, wormwood or the like, as implied by [ibid.:18], which refers to "the bitter water."

He [then] dissolves [the writing of] the scroll in [the water], doing this for the sake of [the woman being tested]. He must dissolve [the writing] carefully, so that no trace of it remains on the scroll.

Halacha 11

Afterwards,31 one of the priests [serving] in the Temple courtyard would approach her.32 He would take hold of her clothes from the front and rip them until he revealed her heart. Similarly, he would reveal her hair,33 undoing the plaits of her hair, to make her look unattractive.

He would then bring an Egyptian rope34 to allude to the conduct of the Egyptians35 - which she emulated - and tie it above her breasts so that her clothes would not fall, for they were torn, and she be left standing naked. If an Egyptian [rope] is not available, he should bring any rope.

Halacha 12

Afterwards, he would bring an isaron36 of barley37 meal purchased by the husband and place it in an Egyptian basket.38

The rope and the basket should be purchased from the funds remaining in the Temple treasury.39 [The basket with the meal] should be placed in her hand to weary her.40

Halacha 13

Afterwards, the meal offering is taken from the basket and placed in a sacred vessel.41 Neither oil nor frankincense should be placed upon it.42 If [these substances] are placed upon it, [the priest] should be lashed for [placing] both the oil and the frankincense individually,43 as [implied by Numbers 5:15]: "He shall not pour oil on it, nor place frankincense on it."

Halacha 14

Throughout the time the priest uncovers the woman's hair and places the isaron [of meal] on her hand, the priest should hold the vessel containing the water in his hand and show it to the woman,44 as [implied by Numbers 5:18]: "The bitter, curse-bearing waters shall be in the hand of the priest."

Halacha 15

Afterwards, he gives her [the water] to drink. After she drinks, he takes the sacred vessel containing the meal offering and places it on her hand. The priest then places his hand below her [hand] and waves the offering45 in [the portion of the Temple courtyard to] the east [of the altar], as is done with all other meal offerings.46

He should bring it to [each of the four compass directions] and up and down.47 Afterwards, he brings the meal offering to the horn at the southwestern corner of the altar, as is done with other meal offerings brought by private individuals.48

He should take a fistful of the meal and offer it on the fire. The remainder [of the meal] should be eaten by the priests.49

Halacha 16

If the woman is guiltless, she may depart; she is permitted to her husband. If she committed adultery, her face will immediately turn pale yellow, her eyes will bulge forth, and her veins will surface.

Everyone immediately shouts, "Take her out [of the Women's Courtyard]! Take her out!" so that she does not have a menstrual emission [there],50 for women who are in a menstrual state make the Women's Courtyard impure.51

They take her out of the Women's Courtyard, where she was standing. Her belly swells first and then her thigh ruptures and she dies.

Halacha 17

When she dies, the adulterer because of whom she was compelled to drink will also die, wherever he is located. The same phenomena, the swelling of the belly and the rupture of the thigh, will also occur to him.

All the above applies provided her husband never engaged in forbidden sexual relations in his life. If, however, her husband ever engaged in forbidden relations, the [bitter] waters do not check [the fidelity of] his wife.

Halacha 18

If [a husband] transgressed and compelled his wife to drink [the bitter water], although he previously entered into a forbidden relationship, he adds further transgression to his sin. For he causes God's name [which is not] pronounced to be blotted out on the waters for no reason and defames the reputation of the waters [used to test] a sotah. For his wife will tell others that she committed adultery and that the [bitter] waters did not harm her, without knowing that it was her husband's deeds that prevented the waters from checking her [fidelity].

Halacha 19

Therefore, when the number of people who openly committed adultery increased in the Second Temple era, the Sanhedrin52 nullified the use of the bitter water, relying on the verse in the [prophetic] tradition, [Hoshea 4:14]: "I will not punish your daughters when they commit harlotry."

Halacha 20

When a sotah has merit because of Torah study53 - although she herself is not obligated to study the Torah54 - her merit prolongs [her life] and she does not die immediately. Instead, she continues to be weakened,55 and suffers severe illness until she dies after a year, two years or three years, according to her merit. [When she dies,] she dies with a swollen belly and ruptured limbs.

Halacha 21

When a sotah drinks the bitter water and does not die immediately, she is permitted to her husband, even if he is a priest.56 Even if illness begins to set in and her limbs become afflicted, as long as her belly does not swell or her thigh rupture, she is permitted.57

When, however, her belly begins to expand and her thigh begins to rupture, she is forbidden.58

Halacha 22

When a sotah who was innocent drinks [the bitter water], she becomes stronger and her face glows. If she was afflicted by sickness [that prevented her from conceiving],59 it will disappear; she will conceive and give birth to a male. If she previously had difficulty giving birth, she will give birth speedily. If she would give birth to girls, she will give birth to males.

Halacha 23

If witnesses who say that she committed adultery come after she drinks the bitter water, she should be divorced without receiving [the money due her by virtue of] her ketubah, and she is forbidden to her husband.

This applies even when none [of the negative consequences] mentioned above occur to her. For the [bitter] waters will check only [the fidelity of a woman] concerning whom there are no witnesses who will testify to her sexual misconduct.60 Moreover, it is possible that her husband is not guiltless, and it is because of him that the waters did not check his wife.61

If, however, one witness comes and testifies that a woman committed adultery, she is not forbidden [to] her husband and can remain married to him. For she drank [the bitter water].62

Halacha 24

When a woman was compelled to engage in adulterous relationships or did so unintentionally,63 or lay naked in the embrace of the man regarding whom she was warned, but did not engage in vaginal relations,64 [her fidelity] will not be checked by the [bitter] waters, as [implied by the following verses]. [Numbers 5:13 states:] "And she was not taken against her will," thus excluding a woman who was raped. [Ibid.:27 states:] "And she was unfaithful to her husband," excluding a woman who acted unintentionally." And [ibid.:13 states]: "And a man laid with her, [imparting] his seed," excluding an embrace without intercourse.


For they know that she is forbidden to him and will warn him against engaging in relations with her (Rambam's Commentary on the Mishnah, Sotah 1:3).


And if he engages in relations with her, the bitter water will not test her fidelity, as reflected by Chapter 2, Halachah 5.


This refers to the Sanhedrin, the highest Jewish court. The obligation for a case involving a sotah to be tried before this body is derived from an association between this case and a rebellious elder (Sotah 7b).


More precisely, the Sanhedrin would hold session in the Chamber of Hewn Stone, which was located half within the Temple Courtyard and half outside the Temple Courtyard.

Note the responsum of the Chida, Chayim Sha'al, (Volume II, section 4), which states that the High Court can try a sotah even when it does not hold session in the Temple Courtyard. Rather, according to his interpretation, the words "in the Temple" refer to the process of testing a sotah. Every aspect of the test is carried out in the Temple.


Some commentaries explain that if her husband is present, she will be motivated to uphold her previous statements and will not admit her guilt. Others explain that if her husband is present, she might be embarrassed to admit that she committed adultery.


And thus cause God's name to be blotted out.


I.e., a candid admission of guilt is nothing to be ashamed of, because we understand the extenuating circumstances.


I.e., you are not the first woman to have committed adultery. Many women have done so and they have been swept away from the world in punishment via the medium of the bitter water. Why follow in the same pattern? Admit your guilt.


Genesis, Chapter 38. The Bible relates how Tamar dressed up like a prostitute and seduced Judah. The story is significant not only because it shows how a person can be lured into sexual misconduct, but it also relates how Judah was not embarrassed to admit his guilt publicly.


Genesis 35:22 states that Reuben had relations with Bilhah, his father's concubine. According to Shabbat 55b, the verse is not meant to be interpreted literally, for actually he did not commit a sin of this nature. Nevertheless, to encourage the woman to admit her guilt, she is told the simple meaning of the narrative.


II Samuel, Chapter 13, describes how Amnon, King David's firstborn, raped his half-sister Tamar.


I.e., hearing the example of these distinguished individuals' conduct will motivate her to admit her own shortcomings.


Although she does not admit her guilt explicitly, this statement is equivalent to an admission of guilt.


This gate is referred to as the Gate of Nicanor.


The presence of the onlookers serves two purposes: It embarrasses the woman being tested, and it spurs the onlookers themselves to higher moral practice.


See Hilchot Ishut 13:11 and 24:12, which describe these garments.


Seeing familiar faces will encourage her to persist in her position, rather than admit her guilt.


Although the process that follows is a ritual, it is necessary that the woman understand the oath and her response to it, for the oath to be binding upon her. Therefore, there is no necessity for it to be administered in Biblical Hebrew; any language that the woman understands is sufficient.


As the above passage concludes. Repeating Amen after an oath is equivalent to taking that oath oneself (Hilchot Sh'vuot 2:1).


Since the passage mentions both orders, the priest mentions that the order of retribution will be from the belly to the thigh, lest people say that the waters did not bring about the curse in the manner in which the Torah said they would (Sotah 9b).


See Hilchot Tefillin 1:10. See Chapter 4, Halachah 8, which mentions several factors in which an equivalence is made between the scroll used for a sotah and a Torah scroll. As stated in that halachah, the equivalence is based on Numbers 5:23, which refers to the scroll used for a sotah as a sefer, the same term used for a Torah scroll.

The Jerusalem Talmud (Sotah 2:4) states that the parchment must be made from the hide of a kosher animal, lest the woman refuse to drink and the passage be required to be entombed. It would not be fitting for God's name to remain on parchment from a non-kosher animal.


Originally, the passage would be copied from a Torah scroll. In the Second Temple era, Queen Heleni had fashioned a golden tablet with the words of this passage written on it (Yoma 37a).


In his Commentary on the Mishnah, Gittin 2:3, the Rambam defines this term with an Arabic word explained by Rav Kapach as referring to a green powder that when mixed with gallnut juice produces a black substance. Ink made with this substance cannot be rubbed out. See Chapter 4, Halachah 9.


See Hilchot Gerushin, Chapter 3.


The Zohar, Volume III, page 124b, interprets this as meaning that chronologically the first letter of God's name must be written first; the second, second; etc. Perhaps this is the Rambam's intent as well.

Alternatively, it is possible to explain that God's name is written with the letters י-ה-ו-ה, and not in another form.


Sotah 9a states: She prepared wine for the adulterer in attractive goblets. As a consequence, the priest shall make her drink bitter water from a clay cup.


Sotah 15b establishes an equivalence between the vessel that contains the water used for a sotah and the vessel that contains the water used to purify a person afflicted with tzara'at, a Biblical ailment somewhat like leprosy. And that vessel cannot have been used for any task previously (Hilchot Tum'at Tzara'at 11:1).


172.8 cubic centimeters according to Shiurei Torah, 298.5 cubic centimeters according to Chazon Ish.


Numbers 5:17 states that "holy water must be taken." The Sifre interprets this as referring to "water that has been consecrated in a utensil, the water of the basin."


The ring enables the tile to be lifted easily.


Note the Kessef Mishneh, who questions the Rambam's source for the fact that the writing of the scroll would be dissolved before the woman's clothes were torn open.


The Tosefta (Sotah 1:5) states that the priest would be chosen by a lottery. Chasdei David explains that a priest would be selected in this manner so that no one would think that one desired the task in order to view the woman's nakedness.


This is cited by the Rabbis as proof that a Jewish woman's hair must always be covered. Otherwise, she is considered immodest. See Hilchot Ishut 24:11-12.


I.e., a rope made of palm bast.


As implied by Leviticus 18:3, the Egyptians were known for their immodest behavior. Thus, the imagery evoked by the rope also served to chastise the woman for her conduct (Jerusalem Talmud, Sotah 1:6).


An isaron is considered the size of 43.2 eggs. According to modern measure, the size of an egg is considered to be 57.6 cubic centimeters according to Shiurei Torah and 99.5 cubic centimeters according to the Chazon Ish.


Sotah 15b notes that, in contrast to wheat, which is used as food for humans, barley is employed primarily as animal fodder. Since the woman acted like an animal, betraying her fidelity to her husband, the sacrifice she brings consists of grains used for beasts.


I.e., a wicker basket made of palm leaves. The allusion to Egypt is intended to convey the same symbolism as above.


See Hilchot Shekalim 2:4, which explains that this term refers to money collected from the half-shekalim donated by the entire Jewish people, which remains after the purchase of communal sacrifices. As stated in Hilchot Shekalim 4:8, these funds were used for various communal purposes.


This is intended to motivate her to admit her guilt. Until the meal offering is sacrificed, she may admit her guilt and thus free herself of the obligation to drink the bitter water and suffer the severe penalty involved (Sotah 14a).


As befits a sacrificial offering.


Note the commentary of Rashi on Numbers 5:15, which explains the rationale for these prohibitions. Adding frankincense and oil adorns the sacrifices, making them more attractive. More specifically, there are allegorical connotations to the above. Oil is a metaphor for light, and this woman acted in darkness. Frankincense is used as an allusion to the Matriarchs, who were the epitome of modesty, and this woman departed from their ways.


I.e., each one is considered as a separate negative commandment. See Sefer HaMitzvot (negative commandment 104-105) and Sefer HaChinuch (mitzvot 366-367).


To frighten her and to encourage her to confess (Bemidbar Rabbah 9:33).


The meal offering had to be waved by both the woman bringing it and the priest. The Jerusalem Talmud (Sotah 3:1) states that "the evil inclination does not operate at that time," and hence there is no danger that the physical contact will stir the priest to sexual desire.


See Hilchot Ma'aseh HaKorbanot 9:6-7.


Sukkah 37b interprets this as acknowledgement of God's dominion over the entire universe. Menachot 62a explains that this is a measure to check undesirable winds.


See Hilchot Ma'aseh HaKorbanot 13:12, which describes the offering of meal offerings brought by private individuals.


See Hilchot Ma'aseh HaKorbanot 12:9, which describes the consumption of the meal offerings.


Sotah 20b states that the terror of death might provoke menstruation.


The Rambam's wording, based on that of the Mishnah (Sotah 3:3), requires some clarification. The intent appears to be, not that the Women's Courtyard becomes impure, but that the woman becomes impure, and in that state she is forbidden to be in the Women's Courtyard. See Hilchot Bi'at HaMikdash 3:3.


Sotah 47a states that this took place in the time of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, shortly before the destruction of the Second Temple.


Sotah 21a says that this refers to the woman's efforts in assisting her husband and her sons in their studies.


See Hilchot Talmud Torah 1:1,13.


Our translation is based on the Rambam's Commentary on the Mishnah (Sotah 3:3). Others render the term as "she deteriorates."


Who is forbidden to engage in relations with a woman who took part in forbidden sexual relations.


The Mishneh LaMelech (in the gloss on Halachah 24) explains that in this halachah, the Rambam's intent is that one might think that the fact that she becomes afflicted by sickness indicates that she was raped - i.e., the bitter water had an effect, but because she did not willfully engage in the transgression, she did not die. To negate this hypothesis, the Rambam states that even a priest is allowed to continue married life with such a woman.


For this is a sign of adulterous relationships.


The bracketed additions are based on the commentary of the Meiri.


When there are witnesses, there is no need for the miraculous activity of the water. For ultimately the witnesses will testify in court and cause the woman to be forbidden to her husband (Rambam's Commentary on the Mishnah, Sotah 1:1).


See Halachah 17.


I.e., had the witness testified before she drank the bitter water, she would not have been allowed to drink them, as stated in Chapter 1, Halachah 14. Nevertheless, once she drank the waters, the testimony of one witness is not sufficient to cause her to be considered guilty.


See Hilchot Ishut 24:20.


See the Rambam's Commentary on the Mishnah (Yevamot 6:1) for a more specific definition of the Hebrew term derech evarim.

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