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The Benefits of the Sotah Waters


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Naso: The Benefits of the Sotah Waters

The Suspected Adulteress

The integrity of the family unit is of fundamental importance in Judaism. For this unit to function properly, the husband-wife relationship must be one of trust and constancy. But what happens when this trust, so vital for a healthy marriage, is broken?

The Torah discusses the situation of the Sotah, the suspected adulteress. This tragic case occurs when a woman, previously warned by her husband not to be alone with a particular man, violates his warning and is witnessed secluding herself with that man.

The Torah prescribes an unusual ceremony for the potentially explosive situation. The woman is brought to the entrance of the Temple, and she brings a special offering of barley meal. The kohen uncovers her hair, and administers to her a special oath. If the suspected adulteress insists on her innocence, the kohen lets her drink from the Sotah waters. If she was unfaithful to her husband, these waters poison her. But if the wife was in fact innocent, the waters are beneficial. "She will remain unharmed and will become pregnant" (Num. 5:28).

"She will become pregnant"

The sages disagreed on the exact nature of the positive effect of the Sotah waters. Rabbi Yishmael understood the verse literally: if she was barren, she became pregnant. Rabbi Akiva, however, disagreed. If that were the case, all childless women would purposely seclude themselves with another man and drink the Sotah waters, in order to bear children! Rather, Rabbi Akiva explained, the waters would ease the pain of child-birth, or make the babies healthier, or cause multiple births. (Berachot 31a)

Rabbi Akiva had a good point — the law of the Sotah could potentially turn the holy Temple into a fertility clinic. In fact, the Talmud tells us that one famous woman threatened to do just that. Hannah, the barren wife of Elkana, threatened to go through the Sotah process if her prayers for a child went unanswered. (Her prayers were in fact granted, and her son became the famous prophet Samuel.) How could Rabbi Yishmael say that the waters would cause barren women to bear children?

Rav Kook explained that the Temple ritual for suspected adulteresses was so degrading and terrifying, that no woman would willingly submit to it — not even a barren woman desperate for children.

Hannah's exceptional yearning for a child

Hannah, however, was a special case.

This amazing woman foresaw that her child was destined for spiritual greatness. Hannah's profound yearning for a child went far beyond the natural desire of a barren woman to have children. She was motivated by spiritual goals greater than her own personal needs and wants. Hannah felt that these spiritual ambitions alone might not be enough, so she was willing to actively demonstrate that her longing for a child surpassed the normal desire of a barren woman. Thus, Hannah was willing to undergo the ordeal of the Sotah ceremony. And by merit of her extraordinary yearning, her prayers were miraculously answered.

Only in this unusual case was the natural deterrent of the ordeal of the Sotah insufficient.

(adapted from Ein Eyah vol. I, p.135)

  Copyright © 2006 by Chanan Morrison