A project of Bar-Ilan University's Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Sponsored by Dr. Ruth Borchard of the Shoresh Charitable Fund (SCF). Published with assistance of the President's Fund for Torah and Science. Permission granted to reprint with appropriate credit.
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Parashat Naso 5758/1998
Trial of the Sotah
Dr. Avraham Elkayam
Dept. of Philosophy
Numbers 5:11-31, the section of sotah, describes an elaborate rite comprised of several steps intended to ascertain whether a man's wife has committed adultery. The style of this passage raises many questions. The rite is principally comprised of seven actions performed by the priest: 1) putting sacral water into an earthen vessel; 2) throwing some earth from the floor of the Sanctuary into the water; 3) standing the woman on trial before the Lord, baring her head and placing her meal offering upon her hands; 4) adjuring the woman by solemn oath to which she answers, "Amen, amen"; 5) putting this oath down in writing and rubbing off the ink in the water that is in the earthenware bowl; 6) elevating the meal offering, presenting it on the altar, and turning a token part of it into smoke on the altar; 7) making the woman drink the spell-inducing water of bitterness.
What was the religio-cultural setting in which this ordeal was practiced, and what was the rational behind "all this ritual" administered by the priest to test the woman's fidelity? What is the mysterious mechanism hidden in this rite that can cause a guilty woman to be taken ill or die from drinking the water?
The section on sotah can be approached in many ways, but we shall only discuss the main trends in trying to understand the biblical ordeal itself and its later development in Jewish exegesis, both rationalist and kabbalistic.
1. Parallels in Other Cultures
Certain scholars have noted that the biblical trial of the sotah resembles rites existing in other cultures (such as ancient Mesopotamia, India, Arabia, medieval Europe, and Africa), which are said to express the god's verdict (trial by ordeal) in cases where the suspect's guilt or innocence of a specific crime is not known. In such cases, the deity is requested to show a sign in the suspect, causing harm if the suspect is guilty.
In Arab culture, for example, trial by fire was customary. The person performing the trial, not necessarily a judge or person with official standing in the religious establishment, would heat a metal object in the fire until he deemed it sufficiently hot and then would ask the suspect to touch the hot metal with the tip of his tongue. The person administering the trial had the authority to determine whether a burn had resulted, attesting the suspect's guilt. We also know of trials by ordeal in Arab culture where the suspect was tested by something which does not generally cause harm. For example, the person administering the test would put a small bead in a glass of water. The person on trial was convinced that if he was guilty he could not drink the water without being harmed. Similarly, in the rite of sotah the suspect is tested with something that is not intrinsically harmful. Although the water given to the suspected woman to drink contained a bit of dirt and ink, and may have tasted bitter and disgusting, nevertheless it was not known to be poisonous.
What these rites have in common is an appeal by the person administering the test for a wonder or miracle to occur. This is also true in the biblical rite concerning a sotah. By putting sacral water in an earthen bowl, adding dust from the Sanctuary floor, rubbing the written curses and all their references into the spell-inducing water, the priest invokes a miracle or sign from heaven. Thus, this can be viewed as a magical rite.
2. The Rationalist Approach
Rationalist schools of Jewish biblical exegesis, especially the Aristotelian school, all flatly reject interpretation of Scripture based on magical elements. Maimonides, for example, eliminates the magical element from the biblical rite. In Guide for the Perplexed (Part 3, ch. 49) he writes:
As accusations of adultery and imaginings concerned with it are very frequent with regard to women, the Law has given us ordinances concerning the woman who is suspected of adultery. These ordinances oblige every married woman to take extreme care in her behavior and to have recourse to the greatest precautions, lest the heart of her husband be incensed on her account. For she anticipates with apprehension the horror of the waters of the woman suspected of adultery. If she is pure and has safeguarded herself, most men would give everything they possess in order to be liberated from having to make her undergo this procedure; they would even prefer death to this great shame, which consists in uncovering the woman's head, undoing her hair, tearing her garments so that the heart is exposed, and making her go round throughout the whole Sanctuary in the presence of the public, both men and women, and in the presence of the Great Court of Law. Through these apprehensions, grave evils have been cut short that would have destroyed the order of a certain number of households.
As we see, Maimonides does not attribute magical properties to the trial, but offers a socio-psychological explanation: "anticipating with apprehension the horror of the waters of the woman suspected of adultery ... and preferring death to this great shame." The rite is structured in such a way as to strike fear in the heart of woman who is suspected, lest she suffer the dire consequences of drinking the spell-inducing water, and to greatly embarrass her due to the public nature of the humiliating rite--uncovering her head, undoing her hair and tearing her clothes. The object of the rite is to deter all married women, so that they closely safeguard their modesty, or alternatively to strike such fear in the adulteress at the prospects of the rite that she admits her misdeed. The power of the rite does not lie in its actual implementation but, paradoxically, in its not being administered but used as a deterrent. To sum up, the rationale underlying the Bible's method of trying a woman suspected of adultery, according to Maimonides, is not magical but socio-psychological.
3. The Theurgic Approach
In the Kabbalah, which holds that the Deity is revealed in a structure of ten spheres, obeying the Torah and its commandments is not a human need, but a Divine one. Human activity is not confined to the horizontal, but soars vertically towards the Divine, towards the Spheres, where it leaves its mark. Human beings can have an impact on the dynamics of Divine forces. In other words, the reason for sacred worship according to the kabbalistic spheres is theurgic--"devotion is a need of the Upon-High".
The sacred bond between a man and his wife is also seen in the Kabbalah as a sublime need. According to the Kabbalah a woman who betrays her husband undermines the throne of G-d and causes devastating harm to the holy union of the two sides of the Divine, breaking the harmonious union between the male (the sefira of glory) and the female (the sefira of kingship), defiling all the worlds and inundating them with evil. The author of Shoshan Sodot reveals the occult aspect of the sotah ritual:
The union of man and wife is a paradigm of the union of G-d's two sides (du-partzufin), therefore any woman who lives with her husband in purity and cleanness brings about the union of the two sides. But if, Heaven forbid, the woman be wayward regarding her husband, her knowledge harms the Supreme union; therefore Divine wisdom commanded the Priest, a man of mercy (hesed) who repels all external uncleanness, to investigate the matter by the power of G-d's name Blessed be He, all the compassing actions being moved by Him.
The role of the priest in this ritual, which represents the sefira of Divine grace, is to restore harmony to the human couple and likewise to the "Divine couple". The final objective of the sotah rite is theocentric: to separate defilement from purity in the Divine world and to restore the unity between the sefirot of Tiferet and Malkhut to its original pristine state. This objective is achieved by theurgic use of the sacred names: rinsing the Divine name into the water somehow affects Divine dynamics. In other words, the rite of the sotah in the bible is interpreted by the Kabbalah as a theurgic rite aimed at"correcting" the Shekhinah.
4. The Magical Approach
The rite of the sotah is bound up with the relationship between creating life and causing death. This relationship is stressed by Rabbah (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 17a): "Why does the Torah command that the sotah be given dust [efer or dust of the earth is mixed into the waters]? If she is exonerated, she will have a child like the patriarch Abraham, of whom it is written "and I am but dust and ashes" (Gen.18:27); if she is not exonerated, she shall return to dust." Thus, the climax of the rite is either in creating new life through birth, or in the death of the wayward woman.
Another ritual, on the face of it totally different, also revolves around the axis of creating life and taking it away: the rite of creating an artificial person, known in Jewish tradition as a golem. The magician who makes the golem instills life in an artificial person and has the power to take away this life. The resemblance of the sotah rite to the ritual of creating a golem finds expression in the magical elements shared by both rites. In the Bible itself, as we have seen, the rite of sotah is comprised of magical elements including the use of dust, sacral water and the Divine name. These same elements are used in the magic involved in creating a golem, as in the prescription by R. Eleazar of Worms, found at the end of his commentary on Sefer Yetzira:
Whoever occupies himself with Sefer Yetzira (Book of Creation), must purify himself and put on clean white clothes. He must work together with two or with three persons, since Scriptures say "and the persons [souls] that they had acquired [lit. "made"] in Haran." He must take virgin soil never dug by man from a mountainous spot and mix it with flowing water, and make one golem.
The magical prescriptions of the rite of sotah and of making a golem are identical. The magical formula that the priest used in the rite of sotah, according to M. Idel's hypothesis, would have caused the woman to bear a son if proven innocent. In other words, there is an inner connection between the Bible's technique of trying a sotah and the technique for making a golem.
Indeed, according to a Jewish text from the Middle Ages magical techniques of creating a golem were used in order to refashion the biblical rite of sotah. A pure person, filling the role of the priest, would draw holy water from a spring, gather dust from four corners of the Holy Ark in the synagogue and throw it into the spring water, write down the names of G-d and rinse the writing off in the water, and then give the water to the suspected woman to drink.
To sum up, the magical methods for trying a woman suspected of adultery evolved into methods for creating a golem. Moreover, in the Middle Ages Jewish magicians imitated the actions of the priest in the sotah rite. In other words, the magician was the one who acted as priest in the sotah ritual in the Middle Ages, and it was who he assumed the weighty task of either causing death or bringing life.