Masechet Sotah 27a – 33b

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19 Jun 2008

The Coming Week’s Daf Yomi by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim (original ideas) of Talmudic scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, as published in the Hebrew version of the Steinsaltz Edition of the Talmud.

This month’s Steinsaltz Daf Yomi is sponsored by Dr. and Mrs. Alan Harris, The Lewy Family Foundation, and Marilyn and Edward Kaplan

Sotah 27a-b

Our Gemara discusses the question of whether it is appropriate to marry a dumah or the daughter of a dumah. A dumah is an Aramaic word that – in our context – refers to a woman about whom there are rumors that she is unfaithful to her husband. Shmuel permits marrying such a woman, but not her daughter, who may be the product of a forbidden relationship. Rabbi Yohanan permits marrying the daughter, about whom there are no rumors, and forbids marrying the mother, who has developed an unenviable reputation.

Rashi and others make the point that neither Shmuel nor Rabbi Yohanan actually forbid marriage to these women, but rather offer strong recommendations against marrying one or the other. It appears that the point of argument is whether the greater concern is with the daughter, given her uncertain status that will never be resolved, or with the mother, who gives every reason to be concerned lest she commit adultery when she is married.

Our Gemara comes to a clear conclusion that marrying the daughter is permitted, since – as Rav Tachlifa bar Ma’arva taught Rabbi Abahu – even if we are certain that a woman committed adultery, we do not cast aspersions on her children, since we rule rov be’ilot ahar ha-ba’al – that the majority of her sexual encounters were with her husband, so the children are most likely his.

The Rambam (Hilkhot Isurei Bi’ah 15:20) accepts the Gemara’s ruling and concludes that a person can marry the daughter with no compunctions (unless she is perutzah be-yoter – unusually promiscuous). The Me’iri, however, deems it appropriate for a person who wants to avoid unpleasant situations to avoid both the mother and the daughter since we have reason to suspect that the daughter will follow in her mother’s footsteps.

Sotah 28a-b

The fifth perek of Masechet Sotah, which began with the Mishnah on daf 27b, is a collection of homiletic interpretations of a number of biblical passages. The thread that holds these interpretations together is the fact that they were all said bo ba-yom – “on that day” – which is to say, on the day that Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah was appointed to the position of nasi of the Sanhedrin (see Masechet Brachot 28a).

The first of these teachings relates to the laws of Sotah, where we find that Rabbi Akiva learns from passages in the parashah of Sotah (see Bamidbar 5:12-31) that the “bitter waters” examine not only her behaviors, but his, as well. Although the pronoun is unclear, our Gemara concludes that when Rabbi Akiva says that the “bitter waters” examine “his” behaviors, he must be referring to her lover and not her husband. That is to say, if the woman had, in fact, committed adultery, not only would she die the horrible death described in the Torah, but the man with whom she committed adultery would suffer that death as well. It cannot be understood as referring to her husband – i.e. that her husband would be punished if he had been unfaithful or committed some sexual crime – because the Sages had a tradition, based on the last pasuk in the parsha (Bamidbar 5:31), that if the husband had committed such a crime, the “bitter waters” would simply be ineffective.

According to the Rambam (Hilkhot Sotah 2:8), this rule applies to any sexual misdeed. If at any point in his life the husband engaged in a sinful sexual act, the Sotah ceremony will not work on his wife. Many of the commentaries disagree with this position, ruling that it is only if the forbidden act related to his wife that the “bitter waters” would have no effect. In his commentary on the Torah, the Ramban argues that this rule applies to the entire family, so that if anyone in the family had transgressed a sexual prohibition, the waters would not work.

Sotah 29a-b

Today’s Daf Yomi is dedicated in honor of the yahrzeit of Morris Lewy (19 Sivan).

As we learned on yesterday’s daf, the fifth perek of Masechet Sotah is a collection of homiletic interpretations of a number of biblical passages. The thread that holds these interpretations together is the fact that they were all said bo ba-yom – “on that day” – which is to say, on the day that Rabban Gamli’el was removed from his post as head of the Sanhedrin and replaced by Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah. On that day a large number of open questions were examined and clarified – many of which appear in Masechet Eduyot.

It appears that the shift from Rabban Gamliel to Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah included a change in the method of learning in the bet midrash.  This allowed for greater freedom among the scholars to present their own learning and interpretations, which brought up teachings that had never been shared before. While the first teaching of Rabbi Akiva that appears in our perek – which was, according to Rashi, taught bo ba-yom – relates directly to Sotah, the ones that follow deal with a wide variety of subjects.

The second bo ba-yom teaching brought in the name of Rabbi Akiva focuses on the question of tumah – ritual defilement – and specifically how far removed an object might be from the source of tumah, and still retain an element of ritual defilement. Generally speaking, the levels of tumah work as follows:

Rabbi Akiva’s teaching in the Mishnah is an attempt to find a source text for a shelishi le-tumah in all food and drink, a position that is not accepted as the halacha.

Sotah 30a-b

As we have learned (see daf, or page, 28), the fifth perek of Masechet Sotah is a collection of homiletic interpretations of a number of biblical passages. The thread that holds these interpretations together is the fact that they were all said bo ba-yom – “on that day” – which is to say, on the day that Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah was appointed to the position of nasi of the Sanhedrin (see Masechet Brachot 28a).

We find that bo ba-yom Rabbi Akiva taught that az yashir – the song sung by the Children of Israel as they crossed the Red Sea in their escape from their Egyptian pursuers – was sung responsively (i.e. Moshe recited a line and the people repeated it), while Rabbi Nehemiah understood that Moshe would begin a passage and the people would complete it. This discussion leads to a statement brought in the name of Rabbi Yossi ha-Galili:

When the Children of Israel climbed out of the sea onto dry land, natnu enehem lomar shira – they wanted to sing a song of praise. What did they do? With the appearance of the Shechina (God’s presence), a child resting on his mother’s lap sat up and a baby nursing at his mother’s breast dropped it from his mouth to say zeh eli ve-anvehu – “this is my God and I will praise Him” (Shemot 15:2). The source for this is the passage in Tehillim (8:3).

Based on the passage in Tehillim (68:27) Rabbi Me’ir taught that at that time, even unborn children broke out in a song of praise.

Some explain that the emphasis on the children’s song can be understood from the opening words of Rabbi Yossi ha-Galili’s statement – natnu enehem lomar shira – which implies that they were not entirely certain that a song of praise was appropriate, given that their redemption came at the cost of the deaths of the entire Egyptian army. When they saw the spontaneous response of the children, however, it became clear to them that the adults were obligated in a similar response.

Sotah 31a-b

As we learned on yesterday’s daf, based on his interpretation of the passage in Tehillim (68:27) Rabbi Meir taught that at the time the Jewish people crossed the Red Sea, even unborn children in their mothers’ wombs broke out in a song of praise.

The Gemara on our daf questions how this could have happened; after all, how could they have seen the miracle that was taking place from their position inside the womb? Rabbi Tanchum responds to this question by saying that despite being hidden from the world, they were able to see because their mothers’ stomachs became like aspaklaria ha-me’ira – transparent glass – which allowed them to look out.

The term aspaklaria has its source in Latin as specularis or speculare, meaning “something transparent” or “a seeing glass” – from the same root as the word “spectacles.” On occasion the Talmud uses it to mean “a mirror.”

In truth, this entire discussion in the Gemara is a difficult one, and in some manuscripts it does not appear at all. The problem stems from the fact that the Gemara is describing a miracle that contains elements that are much more difficult to accept than the problem of unborn children seeing the miracle of the parting of the sea. Simply put, how can unborn children break into song? Given this difficulty, why would the Gemara choose to focus on just one aspect of the miracle – their inability to see – and ignore the other issues?

In his Torah ha-kena’ot, Rabbi Moshe Betzalel Feibush suggests that when the Gemara raised this point, it did not mean to question the occurrence of the miracle, but rather its point was to clarify one further aspect of the miracle, beyond the obvious miracle of the children singing. The point was to explain how the unborn children were aware that the miracle took place.

Sotah 32a-b

The seventh perek of Masechet Sotah, which begins on our daf, teaches the halacha that the warning given to a woman who is suspected of adultery can be given be-chol lashon – in any language; it does not need to be said in the language that it is written in the Torah. This teaching leads the Mishnah to list a number of formal statements that can be made in any language (e.g., the recitation of Shema, Grace after meals, various vows made in court) and some that can only be said in the original Hebrew text (e.g. the Priestly blessing, chalitza, the speech made by the kohen before leading the army into battle).

The notion that some statements can be made be-khol lashon – in any language – follows Rashi‘s reading of the Mishnah. According to Tosafot (this is also the reading that appears in the Talmud Yerushalmi and other places) the correct reading is bi-leshonam – in their language. Tosafot explain the difference between the variant readings as follows: According to Rashi’s text, it makes absolutely no difference what language is used, while according to Tosafot, if the reading is not done in the original Hebrew, it must be said in a language that will be understood by the listener.

In fact, the cases listed in the Mishnah do not encompass all of the situations where a foreign language can be substituted for the original Hebrew. Tosafot explain that the only cases mentioned are those where the principals involved must understand what is being said, so the halacha allows for the statement to be made in a way that is comprehensible to them.  This is opposed to acts that are done primarily for ritual purposes, and we are less concerned with being sure that everyone understands what is being said.

Sotah 33a-b

One of the examples presented by the Mishnah (32a) of things that can be said in any language is tefillah – prayer. The Gemara explains simply that since prayer is a heartfelt request from God, a person must be able to express it in any way that he desires.

The Gemara raises an objection to this by pointing to a statement made by Rav Yehudah that a person should not pray in Aramaic, since the heavenly angels cannot understand that language; Rabbi Yochanan teaches that if a person prays in Aramaic, his prayers are ignored by the angels since they do not understand Aramaic. The Gemara responds to this question by distinguishing between individual prayer that cannot be in Aramaic, and communal prayer, which can be presented in that language. Rashi explains that since God’s presence resides with the community, there is no need for the intervention of angels, and the prayers can be said even in Aramaic.

Many explanations are offered for the Gemara’s assertion that angels do not understand Aramaic. Tosafot question whether this is true, arguing that angels have the ability to know people’s thoughts, so they certainly can understand people’s spoken words, no matter the language in which they are said. This question leads Tosafot to offer a different interpretation of Rabbi Yochanan’s comment. Rather than stating that the angels do not “understand” Aramaic, they suggest that he is saying that they do not have a high opinion of that language. Thus Rabbi Yochanan is understood to be saying that the angels will reject prayers offered in Aramaic because they see them as being of little value.

Many commentaries disagree with Tosafot’s line of reasoning. The Sefat Emet, for example, argues with Tosafot’s basic premise, and teaches that the Zohar clearly does not believe that angels know the thoughts of men unless they are specifically granted access to that information.

In addition to his monumental translation and commentary on the Talmud, Rabbi Steinsaltz has authored dozens of books and hundreds of articles on a variety of topics, both Jewish and secular. For more information about Rabbi Steinsaltz’s groundbreaking work in Jewish education, visit or contact the Aleph Society at 212-840-1166.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.