|Halakhic texts relating to this article:|
|Mishneh Torah:||Sefer Nashim, Sotah|
|* Not meant as a definitive ruling. Some observances may be rabbinical, custom or Torah-based.|
A Sotah (Hebrew: סוטה) is a woman suspected of adultery who undergoes the ordeal of bitter water or ordeal of jealousy as described and prescribed in the Book of Numbers in the Hebrew Bible. The process was a trial by ordeal administered to the wife whose husband suspected her of adultery but who had no witnesses to make a formal case (Numbers 5:11-31). The ordeal is further explained in the Talmud, in the eponymous seventh tractate of Nashim.
Jewish tradition 
The account of the ordeal of bitter water given in the Book of Numbers is as follows:
19 And the priest shall cause her to swear, and shall say unto the woman: 'If no man have lain with thee, and if thou hast not gone aside to uncleanness, being under thy husband, be thou free from this water of bitterness that causeth the curse; 20 but if thou hast gone aside, being under thy husband, and if thou be defiled, and some man have lain with thee besides thy husband-- 21 then the priest shall cause the woman to swear with the oath of cursing, and the priest shall say unto the woman--the LORD make thee a curse and an oath among thy people, when the LORD doth make thy thigh to fall away, and thy belly to swell; 22 and this water that causeth the curse shall go into thy bowels, and make thy belly to swell, and thy thigh to fall away'; and the woman shall say: 'Amen, Amen.' 23 And the priest shall write these curses in a scroll, and he shall blot them out into the water of bitterness. 24 And he shall make the woman drink the water of bitterness that causeth the curse; and the water that causeth the curse shall enter into her and become bitter.
— Numbers 5, JPS 1917.
The ritual is fairly unusual in the Hebrew Bible, and although some scholars think that it might be mentioned in Psalms 109:18, there is no other Biblical evidence for the ritual ever having been carried out, nor is its existence acknowledged elsewhere in the Bible.
According to the Talmud, it was the practice for the woman to first be brought to the Sanhedrin, before being subjected to the ordeal. Repeated attempts would be made to persuade the women to confess, including multiple suggestions to her of possible mitigating factors; if she confessed, the ordeal was not required.
The regulations require that the ordeal take place when the woman is brought to an Israelite priest, or when she is brought before God. The Talmud reports that, in the time of the Second Temple, she was taken to the East Gate of the Temple, in front of the Nikanor gate.
The woman is required by the Biblical passage to have loosened hair during the ritual; this is often taken to be a symbol of the woman's supposed shame, but according to Josephus, it was merely the standard behaviour for anyone accused of any crime, when they appeared before the Sanhedrin. The Mishnah, however, argues that the clothing on the woman's upper body was also stripped away, leaving her bare-breasted.
Regardless of whatever its original significance was, at the time the Talmud was compiled the ordeal was simply regarded as a method of pressuring the woman into a confession. Eventually, under the leadership of Johanan ben Zakai (first century CE), the Sanhedrin abolished the ordeal completely, on the basis that the men of that era were not above the suspicion of wickedness themselves. But even if it had not been abolished, the rite would have sunk into abeyance with the fall of the Temple (in approximately the year 70 CE), because, according to the Law, the ceremony could not be performed elsewhere.
The ordeal 
This trial consisted of the wife having to drink a specific potion administered by the priest. The text does not specify the amount of time needed for the potion to take effect; 19th century scholars[who?] suspect it was probably intended to have a fairly immediate effect. but the Mishnah argues for a suspension of one, two or three years, if she has an aquittal. Maimonides records the traditional Rabbinical view: "Her belly swells first and then her thigh ruptures and she dies". Others maintain that since the word "thigh" is often used in the Bible as a euphemism for various reproductive organs, in this case it may mean the uterus, the placenta or the embryo, and the woman would survive.
The text specifies that the potion should be made from water and dust; in the masoretic text, the water used for the potion must be holy water, and the Targum interprets it as water from the Molten Sea, but the Septuagint instead requires running water. The passage argues that the curse was washed into the water; it is thought that this idea derives from a belief that the words of a curse exist in their own right. Others argue that the curse is a euphemism for the intended miscarriage, or infertility.
The potion also had to be mixed in an earthenware vessel; this may have been because the potion was regarded as a taboo which could be spread by contact, and therefore also made the vessel taboo, necessitating its subsequent destruction (as do the biblical rules concerning taboo animals, for any earthenware vessels into which such animals fall). However, the Talmud and Rashi explain that this vessel is chosen to contrast the woman's predicament with her behavior. She gave the adulterer to drink choice wine in valuable goblets; therefore, let her drink bitter water in a worthless clay vessel.
Maimonides further writes: "When she dies, the adulterer because of whom she was compelled to drink will also die, wherever he is located. The same phenomena, the swelling of the belly and the rupture of the thigh, will also occur to him. All the above applies provided her husband never engaged in forbidden sexual relations in his life. If, however, her husband ever engaged in forbidden relations, the [bitter] waters do not check [the fidelity of] his wife."
The offering 
The husband was required to make a sacrifice to God, as part of the ritual, probably due to a general principle that no one should seek answers from God without giving something in return. This offering is required to be placed in the wife's hands, and is literally described as her offering for her; scholars think that it is the man's offering, in relation to the ordeal of his wife, and that her holding of it is merely symbolic of this.
The offering specified is one tenth of an ephah of barley meal, unaccompanied by oil or frankincense; this is the cheaper type of flour, unlike the flour specified for all other biblical sacrifices. The specification is now thought to a rare survival of an earlier period, in which there was no restriction on the types of flour which could be used for sacrifices, although the Mishnah argues that it was a reference to the bestial nature of adultery, coarse flour being the food of beasts.
False accusations 
If the woman was unharmed by the sotah drink, the rules regard her as innocent of the accusation. The Priestly Code states that the man shall be free from blame. This is not to be confused with the Deuteronomic Code, which pertains to when a man accuses his wife of pre-marital sex; when accusation is disproven, the husband is to be fined, and is no longer to have the right of divorcing the wife. There is more reason to fine and whip the man who accuses his wife of pre-marital sex than the husband of the sotah woman. The man who accuses his wife of pre-marital sex has no proof about his wife when he accuses her, whereas by a Sotah woman, the husband initially warned her not to seclude herself with a particular man, which she thereafter did. Therefore, whether she is innocent of the accusation of adultery or not, she still has caused reasonable suspicion in the eyes of her husband.
Rabbinical sources understand from Numbers 5:28 that when a sotah who was innocent drinks the bitter water, even if she was previously unable to conceive, she will now conceive and give birth to a male.
Christian tradition 
While nothing in the text implies the woman might be pregnant, Christian commentaries on the Bible maintain that the ordeal is to be applied in the case of a woman who has become pregnant, allegedly by her lover. One reading is that the ordeal results in a prolapsed uterus if she is guilty. Some interpretations of the ordeal describe it as a purposeful abortion or miscarriage of the woman's love child if it exists within her, or a confirmation of her innocence if no miscarriage is observed.
Some scholars interpret the bitter potion as an abortifacient inducing a miscarriage if the woman is pregnant with another man's child. Arnold Ehrlich interprets the ordeal such that it ends either harmlessly if the woman is faithful, or with an induced abortion: "the embryo falls".
Secular analysis 
Due of the awkwardness of the idea that the wife has to drink the potion twice, secular textual scholars argue that either the first drinking must be a later addition to the text, or that the whole account of the ordeal must be spliced together from two earlier descriptions.
Noting that there are two descriptions of the location for the ritual (in the presence of a priest, and before Yahweh,) and two occasions on which the punishment for the woman is mentioned, the division into two earlier documents, first suggested by Bernhard Stade is typically as follows:
- one account is the ordeal and sacrifice before God, in which the possible miscarriage/abortion results from drinking the potion
- the other is merely a condemnation by a priest, in which the women stands with hair loosened, her guilt is assumed, and divine intervention (due to the priest's involvement) will cause a miscarriage/abortion as punishment.
Other secular Biblical scholars think that the ordeal is itself a fusion of two earlier rituals (pre-dating the original priestly text), one using water, and the other dust. The use of dust might be connected to necromancy. In other historic semitic cultures there are many instances in which holy water was regarded as taboo, and therefore that contact with it, or its consumption, was dangerous.
According to Helena Zlotnick, after the ordeal of bitter water was no longer practiced it remained a reference point in the search for replacements for the test of adultery.
Similar rituals 
Historic Muslim Arabic culture similarly had an adultery ordeal, although in scientific terms, compared to the Israelite ritual it relied more on nausea, than on directly poisoning the woman. In this Arabic ritual, the woman simply took oaths at Mecca attesting to her innocence, and asking the divinity to cause her to have a miscarriage/abortion, should she be lying; but, on the way to Mecca, she would be forced to travel on a camel, between two bags of dung.
Ordeals involving the risk of harm, including potential injury resulting from the drinking of certain potions, were common in antiquity; in parts of Europe, their judicial use even lasted until the late Middle Ages. Such ordeals were once believed to result in a direct decision by a deity, about the guilt or innocence of the party/parties undertaking the ordeal; typically divine intervention was believed to prevent the innocent being harmed, or to ensure that the guilty were, although in the case of some - witch ducking, for example - the innocent were more likely to come to harm.
See also 
|Wikisource has several texts available for Numbers 5:|
- This article incorporates text from the 1903 Encyclopaedia Biblica article "Jealousy, Ordeal of", a publication now in the public domain.
- Mishnah, Sotah, 1:5
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: "adultery". Jewish Encyclopedia. 1901–1906.
- Numbers 5:15
- Numbers 5:30
- Numbers 5:18
- Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 14:49
- "JOHANAN BEN ZAKKAI". Jewish Virtual Library. 2008. Retrieved May/5/13.
- Mishnah, Sotah, 9:9
- This article incorporates text from the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia article "Adultery", a publication now in the public domain. 
- "Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai". Retrieved May/5/13.
- Mishnah, Sotah, 3:4
- "משנה תורה, ספר נשים: הלכות סוטה פרק ג הלכה טז-יז" [Mishneh Torah, Sefer Nashim: Sotah, Chapter Three, Halacha 16-17]. Retrieved May/21/13.
- Bergant, Dianne (1992). The Collegeville Bible Commentary: Based on the New American Bible: Old Testament. Liturgical Press. p. 156. ISBN 0814622100.
- Brewer, Julius A. (October 1913). "The Ordeal in Numbers Chapter 5". The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures 30 (1): 46.
- Biale, Rachel (1995). Women and Jewish Law: The Essential Texts, Their History, and Their Relevance for Today. Random House Digital. p. 186. ISBN 0805210490.
- "GOD'S COOPERATION". Retrieved May/2/13.
- Numbers 5:17
- Numbers 5:23
- Leviticus 11:33
- Sotah 9a
- Fox, Bernie. "Parshat Naso: Is the Sotah Presumed Guilty?". Retrieved May/2/13.
- "Numbers 5:17". Retrieved May/2/13.
- Mishnah, Sotah, 2:1
- Numbers 5:26
- Deuteronomy 22:13-19
- Talmud, Sotah 26a; Maimonides. "משנה תורה, ספר נשים: הלכות סוטה פרק ג הלכה כב" [Mishneh Torah, Sefer Nashim: Sotah, Chapter Three, Halacha 22]. Retrieved May/5/13.
- Peake's commentary on the Bible (1962 edition), Numbers 5.
- Tikva Frymer-Kensky, in "Women in the Hebrew Bible", ed. Bach (1999, Routledge, New York and London, pages 463-474)
- Berquist, Jon L. (2002). Controlling Corporeality: The Body and the Household in Ancient Israel. Rutgers University Press. pp. 175–177. ISBN 0813530164.
- Levine, Baruch A. (1993). Numbers 1-20: a new translation with introduction and commentary 4 (part 1). Doubleday. pp. 201–204. ISBN 0385156510.
- Snaith, Norman Henry (1967). Leviticus and Numbers. Nelson. p. 202.
- Olson, Dennis T. (1996). Numbers: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Westminster John Knox Press. p. 36. ISBN 0664237363.
- Numbers 5:24-25
- Numbers 5:21 and Numbers 5:27,
- Bernhard Stade, Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft (commonly known, among theologians, as ZATW), (1895), 15:166-178
- Joseph Estlin Carpenter, and George Harford-battersby (and the Society of Historical Theology, Oxford), The Hexateuch (1900, republished 2003), volume 2, pages 191-192
- William Robertson Smith, Lectures on the Religion of the Semites (2nd edition - 1894), 181
- Helena Zlotnick Dinah's Daughters: Gender and Judaism from the Hebrew Bible to ... 2002- Page 111 0812217977 "The question that has never been asked by modern interpreters of the history of the ordeal of the bitter water is what replaced the ordeal after its abolition 41 In other words, what legal procedures were available to investigate and prosecute ...One underlying quest of this chapter is a search for the alternative that replaced the pre-70 procedures of detecting adulteresses, assuming that husbands did continue to suspect their wives of adultery and that sexual loyalty .."
- The New Oxford Annotated Bible Michael David Coogan, Marc Zvi Brettler, Carol Ann Newsom - 2007 Page 193 "A man who questions his wife's fidelity brings her to the sanctuary for an ordeal in which she drinks a mixture of water, dust, and ink to determine if she is culpable (cf. ... Ordeals to determine culpability are found in other societies of the ancient Near East (e.g., Hammurabi's Laws §132). ... aside to uncleanness while under your husband's authority, be immune to this water of bitterness that brings the curse ..."
- Kitab al-Aghani, 1:156:3+
Further reading 
- Daniel Friedmann: From the Trial of Adam and Eve to the Judgments of Solomon and Daniel
- Luzia Sutter Rehmann: "The Doorway into Freedom - The Case of the 'Suspected Wife' in Romans 7.1-6" in Journal for the Study of the New Testament (JSNT) no 79, 91-104.