Classic Questions

What happens if the woman is proven innocent? (v. 5:28)

Rashi: If she used to have painful births, she will now have easy births. If she used to give birth to dull-faced children, she will now give birth to bright-faced ones.

Rashbam: She will be blessed with children.

Talmud: “‘She will be proven innocent and she will bear children’ means that if she was barren she will become pregnant”—these are the words of Rabbi Akiva.

Rabbi Yishma’el said to him: “If so, then all the barren women in the world will seclude themselves [with other men, but not commit adultery] and then become pregnant [from drinking the bitter waters], and any woman who did not seclude herself [with another man] will be the loser! [Rather, the verse teaches us that] if she used to have painful births, she will now have easy births. If she used to give birth to girls, she will now give birth to boys. If she used to give birth to short children, she will now give birth to tall ones. And if she used to give birth to dull-faced children, she will now give birth to bright-faced ones.”1

Sefer Hazikaron: Rashi rejected Rabbi Akiva’s interpretation because of Rabbi Yishma’el’s question.

Tosfos: It appears that one could turn Rabbi Yishma’el’s question back on his own solution. Surely all those with painful births will seclude themselves with other men, but not commit adultery, and then have easy births from drinking the bitter waters!

The Rebbe's Teachings

The Innocent Sotah (V. 28)

Rashi’s comments on verse 28 prompt the following questions:

  1. Why did Rashi reject the simple explanation of Rashbam, that the innocent sotah is rewarded for her ordeal by being blessed with children?

    Sefer Hazikaron argues that Rashi considered this explanation to be unacceptable at the literal level due to Rabbi Yishma’el’s question in the Talmud: “If so, then all the barren women in the world will seclude themselves [with other men, but not commit adultery] and then become pregnant [from drinking the bitter waters], and any woman who did not seclude herself [with another man] will be the loser!”

    However, at the literal level, it is difficult to accept that this was Rashi’s objection, since:

    1. In addition to being secluded, a woman must also have been warned by her husband in order to be eligible to drink the sotah waters. Since the decision whether or not to issue this warning is totally up to the husband, drinking the sotah waters is clearly not an option for many women (who have not received a warning).
    2. In any case, would it really be so terrible if a morally decent woman wanted to drink the sotah waters so she could be blessed with children? The Talmud2 relates that this was indeed the intention of Chanah!
    3. Rabbi Yishma’el’s question is just as much a refutation of his own solution as it is of Rabbi Akiva’s, as Tosfos explains.
    4. Rabbi Yishma’el refuted Rabbi Akiva’s interpretation that “if she was barren, she will become pregnant.” Our question, however, is why Rashi rejected the simple interpretation (of Rashbam) that our verse is not speaking about a blessing for barren women, but the priceless blessing of an extra child for all women.

  2. A further problem with Rashi is why he only cites two examples of Rabbi Yishma’el and omits the other two: “If she used to give birth to girls, she will now give birth to boys. If she used to give birth to short children, she will now give birth to tall ones.” Presumably, Rashi deemed these two interpretations to be unacceptable at the literal level, but why is this the case?

The Explanation

Rashi was troubled by the following question: When the priest warns the sotah about the effect of the “bitter” waters, he makes a detailed statement of the possible results, both positive and negative: “If a man has not slept with you... then [you will] be absolved through these ‘bitter,’ afflictive waters. But if you have indeed gone astray...[then you will choke!].”3 Why, then, on reaching verse 28, do we discover a new detail which was omitted by the priest, that the sotah is given a totally unexpected reward, “she will bear children”?

Due to this problem, Rashi rejected the straightforward explanation of the verse (argued by Rashbam) that “she will bear children” literally, because it is difficult to accept that the priest would omit from his lengthy discourse any mention of this reward for the innocent sotah. Rather, Rashi concluded that this is not an unprecedented reward for the innocent sotah, but a direct consequence of drinking the bitter waters; and therefore, while the priest did not mention this detail in particular (since it was not immediately relevant at the time), he did mention the general concept that the waters have an effect on the woman’s body. So it turns out that we are reading here, not a new concept (that the sotah is given a splendid reward), but the clarification of an existing concept (that the bitter waters have an effect on the woman’s body).

Being that this is the case, Rashi reasoned that the positive effect of the waters on the innocent sotah must somehow mirror and reflect the negative effects on a guilty sotah. So Rashi wrote that our verse (“she will bear children”) means that “if she used to have painful births, she will now have easy births,” for this parallels the painful death which the waters bring upon the guilty sotah.

Likewise, Rashi wrote, “If she used to give birth to dull-faced children, she will now give birth to bright-faced ones,” because this is comparable to the effect of the waters on the guilty sotah—“her belly will swell, and [eventually] her thigh will rupture”—which will obviously bring upon her a very dull and distressed face.

However, Rabbi Yishma’el’s other two examples (“If she used to give birth to girls, she will now give birth to boys. If she used to give birth to short children, she will now give birth to tall ones”) were rejected by Rashi, as they do not mirror the negative effects of the bitter waters, and thus would not represent a direct consequence of drinking them.4