Masechet Sotah 41a-47b

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03 Jul 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 41a-b

The Mishnah on our daf describes an event that it calls parashat ha-melekh. The reference is to hakhel, a biblical commandment obligating the entire Jewish people to gather on Sukkot following the Sabbatical year (see Devarim 31:10). This event included a public reading of certain parts of the Torah by the king.

The Mishnah relates that during the times of the second Temple, King Agrippas read the Torah publicly, and broke into tears when he reached the passage describing the obligations of the king, and the rule forbidding the people from accepting upon themselves a non-Jewish king to rule them. The response of the people was to cry out “Do not fear, Agrippas! You are truly our brother!”

This incident refers to King Agrippas I, King Herod’s grandson, who ruled from 10 BCE until 44 CE. In his youth he grew up in the Caesar’s court in Rome, where he became friendly with the family of the Caesar. He was particularly close with Gaus Caligula, who, upon ascending the throne in Rome, granted him rule over part of Herod’s kingdom. Later on, after Agrippas played a role in establishing Claudius as Caesar, he was rewarded with control of Judea, effectively taking over Herod’s entire kingdom. Upon his arrival in the land of Israel, King Agrippas developed close relationships with the Sages. He publicly showed his connection with the Jewish people and their traditions by his active participation in fulfilling the mitzvot, behavior that was praised by the Sages.

Agrippas was active in developing the defenses of the city of Jerusalem, including a new wall that enclosed suburban areas within the city proper. He died – it is possible that he was poisoned by Roman government agents who were concerned about his activities – after ruling in Judea for just four years.

In response to this Mishnah, the Gemara quotes a baraita that criticizes the Sages for their flattery of Agrippas.

Sotah 42a-b

The Torah contains a series of commandments that relate directly to rules of warfare. Among them is the charge made by the High Priest – called mashu’ah milhamah – who was anointed specifically for the purpose of leading the troops to war. The Torah commands that this High Priest instruct the soldiers – in Hebrew – that they cannot fear their enemies as they enter into war, and followed by listing those individuals who were free from participating as soldiers. Those exemptions included people who were in the middle of various uncompleted projects, e.g. someone who was building a house, planting a vineyard, or had gotten engaged to be married (see Devarim 20:1-9).

The Gemara concludes that the exemptions apply only to situations when the war is a milhemet reshut – a war of choice. Were it a milhemet mitzvah – an obligatory war – such exemptions would not apply. According to the Me’iri, a kohen mashu’ah milhamah was established in all times of war; during a milhemet mitzvah only the first part of the speech, which were words of encouragement, was presented, and the exemptions were omitted.

According to the Mishnah, the kohen mashuach milchama warned the people of the noises and experiences of war that may disturb them, including the cries of the horses and clashing of swords, the banging of the shields and the pounding of the kalgasim, the horns of war and shouts of people. The Sefer Be’er Sheva suggests that this is simply the interpretation of the tanna of the Mishnah; the kohen mashuach milchama simply read the verses that appear in the Torah. The Sefer HaChinuch, however, clearly understands that the kohen mashuach milchama embellished the Torah’s description with these interpretations as well as his own.

Rashi and the Aruch translate kalgasim as hordes of foot soldiers, whose marching sounds frightening. In fact, a kalgas was the Latin word for shoe or boot, which, apparently, was used to indicate the soldiers themselves, as well.

Sotah 43a-b

As we learned on yesterday’s daf, people who were involved in various activities were not obligated to serve as soldiers in a milchemet reshut – a war of choice. One example was the individual who had planted a vineyard. Our Gemara quotes a baraita that broadens the category to include not only a vineyard, but also other fruit-bearing trees, and not only someone who planted it, but also someone who purchased it,  someone who received it as a present or someone who inherited it. Furthermore, someone who was mavrich or markiv a vine would also be exempt.

To be mavrich a vine is to take a branch of the tree – particularly a vine – and place it in the ground so that it takes root there. Once it successfully takes root, it is cut off of the mother tree and develops on its own. This method is similar to planting saplings, but it has the distinct advantage that the developing branch receives sustenance from the mother tree – in addition to what it gets from the ground – until it is ready to grow on its own.

To be markiv means grafting. Grafting plants is one of the most ancient methods of treating and improving trees. The idea was that a tree that produced excellent fruits, but whose roots were not strong could have a branch placed onto a tree whose roots are better.  There are different methods of grafting that have developed over time, but the basic approach has remained the same throughout. The branch of a given tree is removed and is inserted in an opening that is made in another tree. The exact method of connecting the new branch into the established tree differs depending on the type of tree that is involved, but from the Talmud it appears that grafting grape vines was very common at that time.

During the times of the Talmud it was not unusual for a branch to be grafted onto a new tree, even while it was partially attached to its original tree. This ensured that the branch would not dry up, even if the grafting was unsuccessful.

Sotah 44a-b

When the Mishnah teaches how the kohen mashu’ah milhamah – the priest who was anointed specifically for the purpose of leading the troops to war – concludes by telling the soldiers that anyone who was frightened of war was allowed to return home, we find two opinions about what that means. Rabbi Akiva says that it means simply what it says: someone who was frightened of the battlefield should not be placed in that situation. Rabbi Yossi HaGlili argues that it refers to someone who is frightened because he knows that he has committed sins. He goes so far as to suggest that the reason the others (i.e. the people who variously planted vineyards, built houses or became engaged to women) were told to go home, was to offer an opportunity to the individual who had sinned to recuse himself without being embarrassed.

According to the Talmud Yerushalmi all of the people who are freed from army service needed to bring witnesses who would attest that they had, in fact, planted vineyards, built houses, etc. An opinion is brought in the Yerushalmi that this includes also the individual who sinned, who must bring witnesses that will testify before the shotrim or the mashuach milchama as to his transgression. Since the testimony is not done in public, however, it is not viewed as a great embarrassment. According to this approach, even Rabbi Akiva would require some level of proof that the person was afraid, as the Mishnah explains later, that the person loses control of his bodily functions – mayim shotetim al birkav (he urinates on his legs).

The expression of mayim shotetim al birkav refers to a situation where the psychological trauma of a given event causes a physiological reaction, like an uncontrollable shaking of the knees. Such a reaction, which involved involuntary tensing of muscles, also can cause a loss of control over bodily functions, leading to situations of incontinence.

Sotah 45a-b

The ninth perek of Masechet Sotah, which began on yesterday’s daf, focuses on the case of an eglah arufa – a situation where a dead body is found between two cities and there is no indication as to which of the two cities was responsible for this individual. The Torah requires that the elders of the two cities appear in order to measure which of the cities is closer to the body; the elders of that city will bring a calf, which is killed, while the elders recite – in Hebrew – the statement that appears in the Torah, affirming that they played no role in the man’s death (see Devarim 21:1-9).

The Mishnah on our daf discusses a situation where the measurements are to be taken, but the dead man’s head and body have been separated from one another. Rabbi Eliezer rules that we place the head near the body and measure from there; Rabbi Akiva rules that the body is moved next to the head. Similarly we find that with regard to the question of measuring in a normal case, Rabbi Eliezer believes that we measure from the dead man’s navel; Rabbi Akiva says that we measure from his nose.

The Gemara wants to suggest that the dispute between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva parallels another machloket (argument) that is found in Masechet Yoma (85a), where one tanna holds that an embryo develops from his head, while Abba Shaul believes that it develops from its navel. This suggestion is rejected by the Gemara, which argues that even if Abba Shaul believes that development begins at the navel, he may still agree that the life force of a living person is in his head.

On some level the dispute between the tanna kamma (first) and Abba Shaul can be understood as a disagreement about where to place the emphasis in evaluating the center of the embryo’s development. On the one hand, the embryo’s head is the first part of the body that develops into a recognizable form, and only afterwards do the other limbs begin to develop. On the other hand, since the embryo’s development is sustained by the connection of the umbilical cord to the navel, one might suggest that it is from there that all development is seen as taking place.

Sotah 46a-b

As we learned on yesterday’s daf, when a dead man is found between two cities, measurements are taken to ascertain which of the cities is closer to the man and the elders of that city are called upon to bring an eglah (calf) arufah and to state that they did not play a role in this man’s death. The Gemara explains that we do not really suspect the city elders of having killed the man, rather they are being called upon to attest to the fact that the man received an escort when he left the city. This leads the Gemara to discuss the importance of offering an escort to someone who leaves your city.

As an example, the Gemara evaluates the story of the prophet Elisha who was involved in an altercation with two young men when he left the city of Yericho, an altercation that left the young men dead (see II Melachim, or Kings, chapter 2). Rabbi Yochanan quotes Rabbi Meir as deriving from this story the importance of accompanying your guests, claiming that the entire incident would not have happened had the people of Yericho escorted Elisha out of the city. According to the Navi, having been taunted by these young men, Elisha gazes upon them and bears come out of the woods and kill the children.

Our Gemara wonders what Elisha saw that convinced him that they were deserving of such punishment. The answers range from the suggestion that he saw that there was not even a small credit of mitzvah in their future, to their hairstyle – a blorit, in the fashion of the non Jews.

Many suggestions are offered to define the term blorit, but no word in Greek or Latin is a perfect match for it. The hairstyle involved allowed the hair to grow long particularly on the sides and in the back of the head, and the hair was tied and braided into different shapes. Later on, the braided hair was shaved off in a special pagan ritual ceremony.

Sotah 47a-b

Having introduced us to the story of Elisha and the young men whose deaths he caused (see yesterday’s daf, or page), our Gemara continues discussing Elisha, and another incident in which he was involved. In II Melakhim, or Kings (chapter 5) we learn that Elisha’s student, Gechazi, was condemned to suffer from leprosy because he accepted a reward from Na’aman, a foreign general whose leprosy was cured by Elisha. The Gemara concludes from this story that a person should always encourage a relationship, even when rebuking a student – le-olam tehe semol dohah ve-yemin mekarevet – a person should push aside with his weaker hand while bringing closer with his stronger hand. Elisha is presented as having failed as a teacher and mentor, having pushed Gehazi away with both hands.

Another example of this kind of fault is the story of Yehoshua ben Perachyah, who is presented as having pushed aside Yeshu ha-Notzri – Jesus – with both hands. The story that is told is that Yehoshua ben Perachyah was returning to Jerusalem following his flight to Alexandria in Egypt, together with his student, Yeshu ha-Notzri. When they stopped in an inn and were treated well, Yehoshua ben Perachyah mentioned to Yeshu that the service was good. Yeshu responded that the innkeeper was unattractive. This response led Yehoshua ben Perahyah to ban Yeshu, and Yehoshua ben Perachyah was unable to change his mind until it was too late and Yeshu had turned away from traditional Judaism.

In standard printings of the Talmud, this story appears without the name Yeshu ha-Notzri, which was removed by censors for reasons of sensitivity to the Christian society in which they lived. It should be noted, however, that the story of Yehoshua ben Perachyah who was driven from Jerusalem by King Yannai, could not have taken place any later than 76 BCE. Thus the reference to Yeshu ha-Notzri cannot be connected with the individual who established the Christian faith. Many commentaries suggest that all of the Talmudic references to Yeshu refer to another person, or else that there is more than one person with that name who lived during the times of the Mishnah.

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.