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A Magical Potion Reveals and Humiliates Sexually Unfaithful Women—and Shows Talmudic Rabbis Declaring One of Their Own Rituals Obsolete

Also in discussion during this week’s ‘Daf Yomi’: How long does the sex act take? As long as it takes to eat an egg, or to reach for a loaf of bread?

Adam Kirsch
November 03, 2015
Niklaus Stoecklin, E GÚETE!, 1961ARTNET

Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.

The law of the nazirite, which was the topic of the tractate Daf Yomi readers have just finished, is laid down in the Bible in Numbers chapter 6. Just before that, in Numbers 5, comes the law of the sota—a wife who is suspected of sexual infidelity by her husband. Because of this, the rabbis explain, Tractate Sota follows Tractate Nazir in the order of the mishna. But there is also, we read in Sota 2a, a homiletic reason why these two issues are juxtaposed, both in the Bible and in the Talmud. “Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi says: Why is the portion of a nazirite placed adjacent to the portion of a sota? This was done to tell you that anyone who sees a sota in her disgrace should renounce wine.” Sexual misconduct—in biblical times as in our own—is frequently accompanied or provoked by drunkenness. Seeing the dire punishment that lies in store for an adulterous woman should scare anyone into going on the wagon.

The exact nature of that punishment is laid out in one of the strangest passages of the Bible. The Bible is full of magical events—think of Moses’ rod that turns into a serpent, or the fall of manna from heaven—but only in the case of the sota is magic used for a judicial process. To determine whether a suspected wife is in fact guilty of adultery, the Bible prescribes a ritual whereby she drinks a magic potion, “the water of bitterness,” made of holy water mixed with dust from the floor of the Tabernacle. If she is not guilty, the water will not hurt her; but if she has sinned, “the water that causeth the curse shall enter into her and become bitter, and her belly shall swell, and her thigh shall fall away.” This dramatic punishment is public proof of her guilt, and the adulteress “shall be a curse among her people.”

This is the kind of biblical passage that tends to make modern readers uncomfortable—not just for its supernaturalism, but for its sexism (no similar ordeal is prescribed for adulterous men) and for its harshness. However, if there is one thing I’ve learned over the last three-plus years of reading Daf Yomi, it is that if something in the Bible troubles us, it usually troubled the rabbis as well. The rabbis were very pious men, but they were also practical-minded, and they could not have been happy with a legal procedure that rested on something as illogical and unreliable as magic. Nor did they like the idea of men forcing their wives to undergo a public and humiliating ordeal that might end in their bursting like an overfilled balloon. From the very beginning of Tractate Sota, then, we see the rabbis doing what they often do when confronted with a difficult biblical law: They hedge it around with restrictions and conditions, so as to make it virtually impossible to enforce.

Indeed, one key thing about the sota ritual is that, by the rabbis’ time, it was completely defunct. Like all rituals that had to take place in the Temple, it could not be performed after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. But the ritual of the sota, we learn at the very end of the Tractate, in chapter 9, was actually abolished even before the Temple fell. According to the mishna in Sota 47a, “From the time when adulterers proliferated, the ritual of the bitter waters was nullified. And it was Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai who nullified it.” In other words, sexual transgressions by men had become so common that the rabbis refused to punish women, who were simply following their husbands’ lead. This ruling compounds the sense that the institution of sota belongs to a prehistoric past, a time when people were more virtuous, and therefore more open to divine judgment, than they are in the fallen present.

Returning to the opening chapter of Sota, we see that the rabbis are not content with declaring the ritual obsolete. They go even further, saying that even if a man could force his wife to undergo the ordeal of the bitter waters, he should not do so. “Rav Chanina of Sura says: In the present a man should not say to his wife: Do not seclude yourself with so-and-so.” Reish Lakish agrees, making his point through a linguistic analogy. The Hebrew word for “warning” is kinnui, which Reish Lakish relates to the word kina, “anger”: Such a warning is an act of anger, and since anger is a sin, “it is prohibited to issue a warning.” Rabbi Yishmael made the same point a different way: “A man issues a warning to his wife only if a spirit entered him. What spirit? The rabbis say: a spirit of impurity.” The rabbis have managed to turn the moral implications of the sota ritual upside down. Far from the wife being impure, it is the husband who shows himself impure simply by making an accusation.

If something in the Bible troubles modern readers, it usually troubled the rabbis as well.

The Talmud is nothing if not thorough, however, and the rabbis must still lay down the exact rules for a procedure they don’t approve of and have in fact abolished. In this week’s reading, in the first pages of Tractate Sota, the rabbis focused on the first stage of the process—the husband’s warning. A woman does not become a sota simply because her husband suspects her of adultery. Rather, in keeping with standard Jewish legal practice, she must be explicitly warned in advance against the sin she might be about to commit. “How does he issue a warning to her? If he says to her in the presence of two witnesses, do not speak with the man called so-and-so.” This adds another level of specificity: A wife can’t simply be warned against infidelity in general; the husband must name a specific man whom she must stay away from.

The formula for this warning says “do not speak with the man.” But the mishna explains that, in fact, merely conversing with the suspected man is not grounds for declaring the woman a sota. Rather, she must have “entered a secluded place and remained with that man long enough to become defiled”—that is, long enough to engage in sexual intercourse. This in turn raises two technical questions. How many witnesses are needed to testify that the woman “entered a secluded place” with the objectionable man? The rabbis discuss this question at length, using a variety of biblical interpretations to justify their rule, which is that only one witness is required, rather than the two witnesses standard in criminal cases.

Then there is the question of how long is “long enough to become defiled.” How much time does the sex act take? Actually, the rabbis clarify in Sota 4a, the couple don’t need to be secluded long enough to complete intercourse, only long enough for “the initial stage of intercourse”—that is, penetration. And this is not very much time at all, to judge by the numerous equivalents offered by different rabbis: as long as it takes to swallow an egg, or to walk around a palm tree, or to drink a cup of wine.

One of these examples gives the rabbis an occasion for some classic hair-splitting. Peleimu compares the time needed to initiate sex with the time needed for a woman to “extend her hand into a basket to take a loaf of bread.” But Rav Ashi isn’t satisfied with this. Are we talking about a loaf that sticks to the basket or a loaf that doesn’t stick? Are we talking about a new basket or an old one? Is the loaf hot or cold? Each of these factors affect how long it would take to remove a loaf. But the Gemara concludes, teiku—these questions “shall stand” unresolved. Maybe even the rabbis felt that Rav Ashi was going too far with these petty distinctions.


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Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.