Parshat Naso: Is the Sotah Presumed Guilty?

“And the man shall bring his wife to the Kohen. And he shall bring her sacrifice on her behalf – one tenth of an efah of coarse barley flour. He should not pour upon it oil. And he should not put frankincense upon it – for it is a meal offering of jealousy. It is a meal offering of remembrance – recalling iniquity. (BeMidbar 5:15)

Our parasha discusses the test performed upon the Sotah. The Sotah is a woman suspected of adultery. She is brought to the Mishcan or Bait HaMikdash. There, she is administered the test described in the Torah. This test culminates in the woman drinking a special mixture. This test relies on a miracle. If the woman is guilty of the suspected crime, then she dies. If she is innocent, the mixture does not harm her.

Our pasuk describes the meal offering of the Sotah. This sacrifice is brought by the woman’s husband on her behalf. This meal offering is very unusual. First, most meal offerings are made of wheat flour. The Sotah’s is composed of barley flour. Second, normally the flour of the meal offering is finely milled. The Sotah’s barley is coarse. Third, meal offerings are generally accompanied by oil and frankincense. The Sotah’s offering does not include these components.

Rashi explains that all of these special characteristics of the Sotah’s offering express a single message. These aspects of the offering reflect on the promiscuity of the Sotah. The Sotah, in her adulterous affair adopted the behavior of a beast. Therefore, her offering is composed of a coarsely milled grain reserved for animal feed. The addition of frankincense and oil enhance the offering. The offering of a sexually immoral individual does not deserve these enhancements.[1]

In the process of testing the Sotah other steps are taken that reflect upon her behavior. For example, her hair is uncovered in public. Rashi explains that this is an intentional attempt to disgrace her.[2]

Perhaps, the most interesting element of the process is the actual administration of the test. The Chumash explains that the ingredients are placed in an earthenware vessel. The mixture is then administered from this vessel. Why does the Torah specify the use of an earthenware vessel? Rashi explains that this vessel is chosen to contrast the woman’s unglamorous predicament with her amorous behavior. She and the adulterer drank fine wines from expensive goblets. She now drinks the bitter mixture from a simple earthenware vessel.[3]

It is seems that this entire process reflects an assumption of guilt. Yet, in fact we do not know whether adultery has been committed! This is the reason the test is performed. The most disturbing aspect of this question is that the very administration of the test reflects an assumption of guilt. The earthenware vessel, used in the test, represents an assumption of guilt. At least the test itself should be free on any prejudgment!

In order to answer this question, we must recognize that the Torah expects us to conduct ourselves with extreme modesty and discretion. The Torah does not regard flirtatious behavior by a married woman as harmless. This does not mean that a married woman must live a sheltered life. However, we must all conduct ourselves with dignity and restraint.

We do not know whether the Sotah has committed adultery. The test is administered to resolve this issue. However, in order for the Sotah to be subjected to the test, she must be clearly guilty of promiscuous, flirtatious behavior. Without a pattern of such behavior, she cannot be subjected to the ordeal of the test.

We can now begin to answer our question. The assumption of guilt is based upon the actual behavior of the Sotah. We know that she is guilty of immorality. The test only determines the degree of her deviation from Torah expectations. This explains the elements of the procedure designed to disgrace the woman. She is being punished for her promiscuity.

However, this does not explain the assumption of guilt implied within the test itself. In other words, it makes sense that the woman should be reprimanded for her behavior. But the test utilizes an earthenware vessel. This vessel implies the commitment of adultery. The test should be free of any prejudgment.

It seems that ordeal of the Sotah cannot be defined as the administration of a test. A test would be free of prejudgment. The ordeal of the Sotah can more properly be defined as a punishment. It assumes the guilt of the woman and punishes her appropriately. Even the administration of the mixture is part of the punishment. The mixture is a potential poison. It is administered as an appropriate punishment for an adulterer. Various elements, throughout the process, imply or express guilt. This is now understandable. The process is designed as a punishment for adultery.

However, the process is also a test. The effectiveness of the punishment is uncertain. The potentially toxic mixture may not effect the woman. If the woman is survives unscathed, she is vindicated from the crime of adultery. In other words, her vindication is not the result of an unbiased test. It is indicated by surviving the punishment.

“Speak to Ahron and his sons saying: This is how you should bless Bnai Yisrael. Say to them…” (BeMidbar 6:23)

This passage introduces the Torah’s discussion of Birkat Kohanim – the Priestly blessing. The blessing is actually composed of three separate blessings. These blessings are recited by the Kohanim. Through their recital of the Birkat Kohanim, they express their desire that the Almighty bestow His blessings upon Bnai Yisrael.

The Birkat Kohanim has been incorporated into the chazan’s repetition of the Amidah. There are various practices regarding which days the Birkat Kohanim is recited. The dominant practice in the land of Israel is to recite the blessings every day. Outside of the land of Israel customs differ.

The format for the recitation of the blessings is very simple. The Kohanim begin by reciting a benediction prior to the performance of the mitzvah. This benediction acknowledges that the Kohanim have been commanded to lovingly bless Bnai Yisrael. Then, the chazan leads the Kohanim in the recitation of the Birkat Kohanim.

There is an interesting dispute in halacha concerning Birkat Kohanim. In order to understand this dispute a brief introduction is needed. There is a general principle in halacha of shomea ke’oneh – one who listens is treated as the one pronouncing. The principle dictates that a person can fulfill an obligation to recite a given formula or text though listening to the recitation of another individual. An example will illustrate the application of this principle. We are obligated to recite Kiddush on the night of Shabbat and festivals. However, in most families the head of the household recites the Kiddush on behalf of all those present. How does the recitation of this one individual discharge the obligation of the others present to recite Kiddush? The answer is that the principle of shomea ke’oneh is applied. The head of the household recites the Kiddush and others present fulfill their obligation through attentively listening.

Can the principle of shomea ke’oneh be applied to Birkat Kohanim? In other words, can one Kohen recite these blessings on behalf of all the Kohanim present? Can the other Kohanim present fulfill their obligation through listening attentively to the one Kohen reciting the blessings?

This issue is disputed by the authorities. Some argue that Birkat Kohanim is not different from Kiddush. Shomea ke’oneh is effective. Others offer various reasons for differentiating between the two recitations. Rav Meshulam David Soloveitchik offers a very interesting reason for differentiating. He explains that the benediction recited by the Kohanim states that they are commanded to bless the nation with love. He explains that shomea ke’oneh is effective in relating the recital of the blessings to the listening Kohen. However, shomea ke’oneh cannot transmit this element of love to the listener. The love must come from the Kohen himself. He cannot express his love through the feelings of the Kohen reciting the blessing. In short, through listening, the Kohen has not blessed the nation in love![4]

These comments can be understood in two ways. In order to understand these two approaches we must analyze the idea that the Kohanim must bless the nation with love. Midrash Rabbah explains that the Kohanim cannot recite the blessings in a rote manner. The blessings must be expressed wholeheartedly.[5] The blessings are an expression of the Kohanim’s love for the nation. This means that a Kohen does not fulfill his obligation through merely reciting the blessings. The blessings must be an expression of the inner feelings of the Kohen. Shomea ke’oneh can relate the recital of one Kohen to another who is listening attentively. However, shomea ke’oneh cannot render these blessings into a personal expression of the inner feeling of the listening Kohen. Therefore, shomea ke’oneh is ineffective in this case.

There is a second way to understand the Midrash Rabbah and Rav Soloveitchik’s comments. Perhaps, Birkat Kohanim is more than the recital of a formula. Instead, it can be understood as a relationship between the Kohanim and the people. With the recital of their blessing, the Kohanim are entering into a relationship with the people. The Kohanim are the petitioners and the people are the beneficiaries of their petition. This is the reason for requiring the wholehearted expression of the Kohanim. The relationship between the Kohanim and the people only exists when the blessings are recited with sincerity. As we explained above, shomea ke’oneh can only relate the recital of one Kohen to another who is listening attentively. Shomea ke’oneh cannot create a relationship between the listening Kohen and the people. Therefore, in this case shomea ke’oneh is ineffective.

——————————————————————————–

[1] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 5:15.

[2] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 5:18.

[3] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 5:17.

[4] Rav Shimon Yosef Miller, Shai LaTorah (Jerusalem 5751), volume 1, pp. 183-184.

[5] Midrash Rabba, Sefer BeMidbar 11:4.