Who What Texts
A couple in which the "jealous" husband tells the wife not to seclude herself with someone, but she does not listen She drinks "bitter" waters into which key verses of Torah have been scraped. Numbers 5:11-31;
Talmud Tractate Sotah;
Maimonides, Laws of Sotah

The sotah ritual of the Bible concerns a woman who secluded herself with a suspected adulterer although her husband warned her not to do so. If she wished to remain married to her husband, she would be brought to the Temple and given “bitter waters” to drink. This would lead to her demise (and the demise of her consort) if she was indeed guilty of adultery, but would bring great blessings for her if she was innocent.

The laws of the sotah ritual are recorded in the Talmudic tractate Sotah and codified by Maimonides in the Laws of Sotah.

The Sotah in the Bible

The sotah is discussed at length in the Book of Numbers:

If a man’s wife went astray [from the path of modesty], and [her husband suspected her of] being unfaithful to him . . . She was secluded [with the suspected adulterer] and there was no witness [that observed intimate behavior] . . . A spirit of jealousy had come upon him [beforehand] and he had warned his wife [not to seclude herself with that individual].

The man should bring his wife to the priest. He should bring her offering on her behalf, one tenth of an ephah1 of barley flour. He should neither pour oil over it nor put frankincense on it . . .

The priest should bring her near and have her stand before the L‑rd. He should place holy water in an earthenware vessel, and he should take some earth from the floor of the Tabernacle and put it into the water.

The priest should have the woman stand before the L‑rd. He should expose [the hair on] her head, and he should place the offering into her hands . . . while the bitter, afflictive waters should be in the priest’s hand.

The priest should then place her under oath, and say to the woman:

“If no man has lain with you and you have not gone astray to become defiled [to another] in place of your husband, then [you will] be absolved of these bitter, afflictive waters.

“But if you have gone astray [and have lain with another] instead of your husband and have become defiled . . . these afflictive waters shall enter your innards, causing your belly to swell and your thigh to rupture.”

The woman should say, “Amen, amen.”

The priest should write these curses on a scroll and erase it in the bitter water . . .

The priest should take the offering from the woman’s hand, wave it before the L‑rd, and bring it to the altar. He should remove a handful of the offering and burn it upon the altar, and he should then give the water to the woman to drink.

He should make her drink the water. If she had been defiled and was unfaithful to her husband, the afflictive waters will enter her to become bitter, and her belly will swell, and her thigh will rupture. The woman will become a curse among her people.

But if the woman had not become defiled and she is pure, she will be exempted and will bear seed.2

Read the entire chapter in Hebrew and English with Rashi’s commentary.

What Does “Sotah” Mean?

The word sotah means “astray,” for the woman is suspected of having strayed from the path of modesty by being intimate with another man.3 Sotah is also etymologically related to the Hebrew word shtut, folly, because the urge to sin clouds a person’s rational vision. Indeed, our sages taught that “one does not sin unless he is overcome with a spirit of folly.”4

Read more: Do Jews Believe in Sin?

The Bitter Waters

A husband could only subject his wife to the sotah test if he first gave her a specific warning in the presence of two witnesses not to seclude herself with an individual, which the wife subsequently disregarded.5 Furthermore, two witnesses must testify that they saw her enter a room in private with the suspected adulterer and remain there for enough time for coitus to have possibly taken place (although they did not observe the act itself).6

A woman had the right to refuse to take the test, even if she claimed innocence. However, she would then be required to receive a bill of divorce (a get) and forgo the monetary compensation usually provided to a divorcee (the ketubah).7

The couple was forbidden to engage in marital relations from the time the wife secluded herself until she drank the bitters waters.8

If both the husband and wife agreed to proceed with the test, they would approach their local Court of Law, which would then send them to the Supreme Court of 71 judges, adjacent to the Temple in Jerusalem.9

The members of the court would first try to convince the woman to change her mind. “My daughter,” she would be told, “we understand how easy it is to be tempted, and the powerful influence of wine, frivolity, immaturity and bad neighbors. If you have sinned, there is nothing to be ashamed of!” They would also point to women who had refused to acknowledge their misdeeds and had met a bitter end, and conversely, to great people throughout history who had stumbled but had found the courage to admit it.10

If she still desired to drink, the priest would administer an oath to her (as described in the verse), sacrifice her offering, and then have her drink the bitter waters.11

The “holy water” mentioned in the verse would be taken from the kiyor, the wash-basin located in the Temple courtyard. (Listen: Sacred Mirrors.) Earth from the Temple floor would be mixed into the water, as well as a bitter substance such as wormwood.12 Additionally, the verses of the oath would be written on parchment, and the ink would be dissolved into the water.13

If she had indeed sinned, her belly would miraculously swell and her thigh would rupture, and she would die. At that same moment, the adulterer, wherever he would be, would suffer an identical fate.14 Conversely, if she had not sinned, she was allowed to resume relations with her husband, and would be blessed with health, fertility, and easy childbirth.15

Read more: Tasting Life's Bitter Waters

The bitter waters would only take effect if the husband on his part had never engaged in forbidden relations.16 For this reason, the sages at the end of the Second Temple era discontinued the use of the bitter waters, because the prevalent increase in immorality caused them to be ineffective.17

Read more: The Ordeal of the Bitter Waters

Measure for Measure

Many details of the sotah proceedings are consistent with the principle that a person is punished in a manner that reflects his deeds.

The Talmud elaborates:

She stood at the opening of her home to display herself to [the adulterer], therefore the priest has her stand at the Gate of Nikanor18 and displays her disgrace to all . . .

She extended her thigh for him, therefore her thigh ruptures.

She received him upon her stomach, therefore her stomach swells.

She fed him delicacies, therefore her offering is comprised of animal food [barley].

She gave him fine wine to drink in fine cups, therefore the priest gives her bitter water to drink in an earthenware vessel.19

The Talmud continues that this principle similarly applies with regard to heavenly reward: G‑d bestows a reward that mirrors the action that initiated it. However, in one aspect the reward does not parallel the deed: the blessings received for heeding the Torah are not commensurate with our efforts, but far surpass them.20

Hair Covering

When the sotah would be brought to the Temple, the priest would “expose [the hair on] her head.”21 This was also measure for measure: “She braided her hair for [the adulterer], therefore the priest exposes her hair.”22

Interestingly, the verse takes for granted that until then her hair was covered. Thus, it is from this episode that the Talmudic sages derive that uncovered hair is deemed immodest.23

Read more: The Meaning of Hair Covering

Marital Harmony

The method used to determine the sotah’s innocence demonstrates the importance of marital harmony. The verses dissolved into the water included G‑d’s ineffable Name, and although it is forbidden to erase any of G‑d’s Names,24 we are instructed to erase these verses for one purpose only—to prove the woman’s virtue and enable the couple to reunite.25

Read more: What to Do with a Stale Mate

The Mystical Meaning of Sotah

The prophets speak of the bond between G‑d and Israel as a marriage, and of Israel’s sins as a wife’s betrayal of her husband. Following this model, the particulars of the laws of sotah shed insight into the deeper significance of transgression.

Israel can never truly betray her G‑d; at worst she can be like a sotah, a wife whose behavior gives the appearance of unfaithfulness and causes a temporary rift between herself and her husband. The process began at Mount Sinai, when G‑d warned us: “Do not have any other gods before Me.” But no matter how far the Jewish soul strays, she never truly gives herself to these “other gods;” she is only “hiding” from G‑d, indulging the illusion that there exists a dimension of reality that is outside of G‑d’s all-pervading presence and providence.

When the Jewish people act as a sotah, they are tested with the bitter waters of exile. Indeed, two thousand years of exile have proven that, despite all appearances, the Jewish soul is inseparable from her G‑d. The Jew may be persecuted for centuries, may assimilate for generations, but ultimately there comes a moment of truth when our innate faithfulness to G‑d comes to light.

And like the bitter waters of the sotah, exile is more than just a test. It is a crisis in the marriage which ultimately deepens and enhances it by unearthing deep wells of loyalty and commitment that remain untapped in an unchallenged relationship. The trials of exile call forth the quintessential powers of the Jewish soul, intensifying the bond between G‑d and His people.

Read more: The Hiding Wife

Similarly, on a personal level, the sotah episode is a metaphor for any time we stray in our personal relationships or with G‑d. Ultimately, a relationship that endures challenges and still thrives is stronger than one never exposed to difficulties. Similarly, one who repents and changes his ways realizes even more deeply—because of his mistake—just how much his relationship means.

Read more: Why Mistakes Can Be Good for You