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Does the Talmud Condone Bestiality?

Literal interpretations of misogynistic and gossipy fidelity laws leads to a surprising logical conclusion

Adam Kirsch
December 01, 2015
Dollyclaire via Flickr
Dollyclaire via Flickr

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

Back at the beginning of the Daf Yomi cycle, more than three years ago, we read in Tractate Berakhot about the power struggle between Rabban Gamliel and Elazar ben Azaryah. In that episode, the members of the Sanhedrin rose up against the Nasi or prince, the high-handed Gamliel, and appointed the 18-year-old prodigy Elazar in his place. Gamliel soon regained his position, but during Elazar’s brief reign he opened up Torah study to new students, and a host of hitherto unknown laws were taught. According to Rashi, whenever the Talmud introduces a law with the words “on that same day,” we are meant to understand that this is one of the laws taught when Elazar was in charge.

Some of those laws came up in this week’s Daf Yomi reading, in chapter 5 of Tractate Sota. In fact, only the first of the laws discussed in this chapter actually relates to the subject matter of the Tractate—the sota, the wife suspected of adultery. The rest are recorded here because they were all taught by Rabbi Akiva “on that same day.” This kind of organization, in which laws are grouped together not by subject matter but by the rabbi who taught them, is not unusual in the Talmud. It is one of the features that make the text challenging to read and next to impossible to systematize: The titles of the various tractates give only a rough sense of what they actually contain.

In this case, the mishna on Sota 27b begins with a law taught by Akiva about the sota. The sota process begins when a husband issues a warning to his wife, telling her not to seclude herself with another man, her suspected paramour. (As we learned earlier, this has to be a named individual, not just men in general.) The test that follows—drinking the “waters of bitterness” in the Temple, which is supposed to cause death if the woman is guilty—applies only to the unfaithful wife. Yet if she is found guilty by this magical rite, surely the paramour’s guilt is also established. Shouldn’t he also be punished?

The answer is yes: “Just as the water evaluates her fidelity, so too the water evaluates his,” Akiva teaches. The paramour is subject to the same punishments as the woman, and if her stomach bursts, his should too. Akiva derives this conclusion using a kind of biblical hermeneutics standard in the Talmud, though it may appear arbitrary to the uninitiated reader. The passage in Numbers dealing with the sota uses the phrase “shall enter into her” twice, both times referring to the waters of bitterness. For the rabbis, this kind of repetition is never accidental; rather, it is a sign that two separate laws are being taught. In this case, the first mention of “shall enter” refers to the suspected wife, and the second comes to include the paramour as well. Of course, you would never figure this out from a plain reading of the text, and I’ve often wondered whether this kind of interpretation ought to be considered a post facto way of providing biblical authority for practices that were already established.

Akiva also teaches a second law applying to the suspected paramour of the sota. Once a husband accuses his wife of adultery, he is forbidden from having sex with her, until and unless she is proven innocent by the “waters of bitterness.” Now we learn that this prohibition also applies to the paramour: “Just as she is forbidden to her husband, so too is she forbidden to her paramour.” Here again, Akiva gives a biblical justification based on the repetition of a key term. However, this part of the law seems problematic. Why do the rabbis need to specify that the woman cannot have sex with her paramour, when that prohibition is already obvious—indeed, it’s the basis of the whole sota concept? Surely as long as she is married to her husband, she cannot have sex with her paramour.

The notes to the Koren Talmud explain that this prohibition is meant to apply to remarriage. If the woman’s husband divorces her, she is forbidden to then marry the man previously named as her suspected lover. But this rule doesn’t seem necessary, given that the sota ritual itself is designed to prove the wife’s guilt or innocence. If she is guilty, the waters of bitterness are supposed to make her belly and thigh swell up and burst—in which case there is naturally no concern that she might marry her paramour.

But if she is innocent, her husband presumably would have no cause to divorce her; so why does the issue of her remarriage come up at all? The solution to this enigma is found in the next chapter, in Sota 31a. Here the mishna teaches that as soon as a man suspects his wife of secluding herself with a forbidden man, he must divorce her instantly. Thus even if she is subsequently found innocent during the trial by potion, she will already be divorced, and theoretically free to remarry her paramour—which is why the law has to prohibit this.

The insistence on automatic divorce is one of several ways in which the Talmud treats the sota as guilty as soon as she is suspected. It is almost as though the rabbis themselves do not trust in the efficacy of the biblically prescribed bitter waters. Instead of being a public trial, the sota process becomes in the Talmud a form of public humiliation for a disobedient woman. The laws of evidence are another example of this harshness. In most Jewish legal matters, two independent witnesses are required for a charge to be proved. But when it comes to a wife’s seclusion, Rabbi Eliezer says, a husband must divorce her “even if he heard about it from a flying bird”—that is, from unattributed rumor, just as we say in the expression “a little bird told me.” This trial by rumor is confirmed by Rabbi Yehoshua: A man must consider his wife unfaithful as soon as “women who spin by the light of the moon begin to discuss her.” It is easy to imagine how quickly a woman’s life could be ruined, once village gossip begins to link her with another man.

Indeed, a suspicious husband might well come to regret exposing his wife to the rigors of the sota ritual. That possibility is addressed in chapter 4, where the rabbis ask whether a husband can retract his warning after he has issued it. Here the law is lenient: “A husband who retracted his warning, his warning is retracted.” The same is true of a rebellious child, who under certain circumstances can be put to death if his parents complain about him. However, the husband can retract his warning only if his wife has not yet violated it. Once she is spotted in seclusion with her paramour, or indeed once the rumor of her seclusion starts to spread, the husband can no longer cancel his warning.

In the course of this discussion, one bizarre contingency arises. In Sota 26b, the Gemara addresses the question of what sorts of men can become suspected paramours. What about a man who is sick, and so cannot ejaculate—can a husband warn his wife against keeping company with such a man, even though he cannot technically complete the sex act? Such a man is known as a shachuf, and Shmuel says that “one can issue a warning with regard to a shachuf.” What about a gentile, who as we learned earlier has no legal status in Jewish law? Here too a warning can be issued.

Then comes the surprise: What about an animal? Can a husband warn his wife not to seclude herself with a certain animal, like a dog or a horse, if he suspects that she might be having sex with it? In this case, the answer is no: The Bible is clear that the warning replies only to a “man,” not a beast. Indeed, surprisingly, “licentiousness does not apply with regard to an animal”: A woman who fornicates with an animal is not technically considered a zona, a sexually licentious woman. This is not to say that such conduct is permitted—on the contrary, it is punishable by stoning. But the specific laws of the sota cannot be invoked in such a case. I can’t help feeling it would take Isaac Bashevis Singer to do justice to the possibilities opened up by this utterly matter-of-fact Talmudic discussion.


To read Tablet’s complete archive of Daf Yomi Talmud study, click here.

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