By Rabbi Avraham
Fischer. A publication of the Orthodox Union in cooperation with the Seymour
J. Abrams Orthodox Union Jerusalem World Center
9 Sivan 5764 - May 28, 2004
One of the most unusual passages in the Torah (Bamidbar
5:11-31) concerns the Sotah (wayward wife):
And Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying, “ Speak to the Children of Israel and say
to them: Any man whose wife strays, and commits a trespass against him…”
If a woman has been behaving indecently, her husband warns her, in the
presence of two witnesses, against any secret meetings with a particular man.
Disregarding this, she was observed entering a place with a man where adultery
could have occurred. However, there were no witnesses, she was not raped, and
she maintains her innocence.
If both she and her husband consent, she is tested with the “bitter waters”.
The local court listens to the accusations, and sends two judges as chaperones
to accompany her to the Sanhedrin. Throughout, the wife is told that if she
will admit her sin, she will be divorced rather than endure the test. In the
Sanhedrin she is publicly cautioned, worn down and shamed, so she might
At the eastern gate to the Azara, facing the Holy of Holies, the Kohen
administers an oath and curse:
Hashem will make your thigh to fall away and your belly to swell (verse 21),
to which she responds, “Amen, amen.” The whole passage, including Hashem’s
Name, is written on parchment. Sanctified water is drawn from the kiyor into
an earthenware vessel. Some dirt from the floor of the Sanctuary is strewn on
the surface of the water. (In the Temple a marble floor-tile at the northern
corner of the altar would be raised to remove the dust.) The passage is
dissolved into the water. The Kohen tears the woman’s clothing and loosens her
hair. She holds the grain offering in her hands. Then she is made to drink the
mixture. The offering is waved, and a portion of it is brought on the altar.
If she is guilty,
“her face turns green, her eyes protrude and her veins swell” (Sotah 20a).
She dies immediately, unless she has merits that delay her death. Her paramour
meets a similar death.
But if the woman was not defiled, and she is pure, then she will be
unaffected, and she will conceive (verse 28).
The “bitter waters” are effective only if her husband is free of iniquity.
Therefore, when adultery became commonplace, R. Yochanan ben-Zakkai
discontinued the Sotah ordeal (Sotah 47a-b). Divorce became the only solution.
Although this procedure is unique among the mitzvot – as Ramban says, no other
mitzvah depends on a miracle – in a sense, it has precedents. After the sin of
the Golden Calf, Moshe
took the calf which they had made and burned it in fire and ground it until it
was fine powder. And he scattered it on the surface of the water and made the
Children of Israel drink (Shemot 32:20).
He treated them like the Sotah, because idolatry is comparable to adultery:
• …a woman beloved by a paramour, and an adulteress, like the love of Hashem
for the Children of Israel, though they turn toward other gods (Hoshea 3:1).
• …for with their idols they have committed adultery (Yechezkel 23:37).
Ibn Ezra says the water revealed who had worshipped the calf. But Rashi
(quoting Avoda Zara 44a and Yoma 66b) says the waters actually punished the
“Three forms of death were administered there: If there were witnesses and
warning, by the sword, as is the judgment of the wayward city (Devarim
13:13-18), which were many. If there were witnesses without warning, by
plague, as it says, “and Hashem struck the people” (Shemot 32:35). If no
witnesses or warning, with dropsy, for the water tested them and their bellies
swelled” (Shemot 32:20).
But the origins of the Sotah ordeal go back even earlier. During his plea for
Hashem’s justice before destroying Sedom and Amorah,
Avraham spoke up and said, “Behold now I have undertaken to speak to my Lord,
but I am dust and ashes” (Bereishit 18:27).
As reward for this expression of humility, Avraham’s descendants
merited two mitzvot: the ashes of the [red] heifer and the dust of the Sotah (Sotah
17a; Chullin 88b; Yalkut Shimoni Vayeira; Bereishit Rabba 49:23).
Maharsha (R. Shmuel Eliezer ben Judah HaLevi Edels, 1555-1631) clarifies that,
regardless, the Divine Will would have provided the means for ending impurity
caused by contact with death and for determining the suspected wife’s guilt or
innocence. However, the processes would have been more difficult. Instead,
these transformations can be effected using easily obtainable items dust and
The Sotah ordeal is a boon in a sense. As Rashi explains, it establishes
justice and prevents mamzerim. If it confirms the wife’s innocence, she will
be blessed with conception, malicious talk about her children will cease and
family stability (shalom bayit) will be restored.
Etz Yosef (R. Chanoch Zundel ben Yosef, d. 1867) notes further that without
the Sotah procedure there might be no alternative but divorce, as is the
situation nowadays. As reward for Avraham’s self-abnegation, Sotah holds out
the hope for another chance.
Bet Halevi (R. Yosef Dovber ben Yitzchak Zeev Halevi Soloveitchik, 1820-1892)
and Maharal (R. Yehudah Loew ben Betzalel, c. 1525-1609) see in Avraham’s
“dust and ashes” symbols of the future and the past. Bet Halevi writes:
“Dust never had a significant form, but it can receive a significant form
because people can plant in it and grow all flora, or make a useful utensil
from it. Ashes had form before, but now one cannot make anything from it,
because it was not combinable, nor can it produce vegetation. This is what
Avraham said of himself, that he was never important, nor is anything
important about to come from him. … The ashes of the [red] heifer purify the
defiled one from now into the future, while the dust of the Sotah makes clear
that all along she was undefiled. Both of them are measure for measure.”
At times we are surprised to discover, concealed within our individual pain,
Hashem’s nearness, encouragement and love.
Torah K'Torat Eretz Yisrael!"- Torah from Aloh Na'aleh*
Parshat Naso contains a mitzvah that demonstrates and symbolizes a
qualitative difference between life for a Jew in Eretz Yisrael and life
outside of Israel. And, surprisingly, the mitzvah is NOT one that depends
upon the Land.
Kohanim are commanded to bless the people with the three-fold Birkat
Kohanim. The requirement is to bless the people daily. More than once a
day is optional for a kohein, but considered a mitzvah nonetheless. In
fact, kohanim in Jerusalem and many other parts of Israel bless the people
almost 450 times a year. And the people receive that blessing the same
number of times.
In contrast, most Jewish communities in Chutz LaAretz fulfill this mitzvah
13 times - less than 3% of the number of times the mitzvah can be
fulfilled in Israel.
Perhaps more significant than the numbers is the reason Birkat Kohanim was
limited to Holidays in Chutz LaAretz. Different sources use different
terms, but the idea is the same: Birkat Kohanim requires that the kohanim
bless with a positive, comfortable mood towards their fellow Jews for the
bracha to flow smoothly. Feelings of joy and love for all Jews are
considered almost like prerequisites for Birkat Kohanim. Because of the
difficulties and tentativeness of Jewish life in exile, the proper mood
was felt to be attainable only with the help of the Yom Tov spirit.
To oversimplify - but to capture the essence - there is a quality of
Jewish Life attainable in Eretz Yisrael - even with its present-day
imperfections and problems - that can be felt nowhere else in the world.
*D’var Torah from Aloh Na'aleh:
an initiative of former North American Rabbis and laymen who successfully
made Aliyah, aimed at highlighting the centrality of Israel and promoting
Aliyah. They send emissaries – Rabbis, academicians, and others – on
speaking-tours throughout the U.S. and Canada.
Rabbi Yerachmiel Roness , Exec. Dir., Aloh Naaleh,
At the OU Center, 22 Keren HaYesod
Tel.(02) 566-7787 ex. 254