Masechet Sotah 6a-12b

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28 May 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 6a-b

When a woman who is not the daughter of a kohen marries a man who is a kohen, she becomes part of his household and is allowed to eat terumah, which is permitted only to kohanim. Should their marriage come to an end – i.e. if they divorce or if she becomes widowed and has no children from him – she reverts to her original status and can no longer eat teruma.

The Mishnah on our daf teaches that there are five situations related to the case of Sotah in which the woman suspected of adultery will lose her right to partake of terumah:

The Talmud Yerushalmi points out that the first case brought by the Mishnah seems to be in agreement with the preliminary approach of the Mishnah in Nedarim (90b) which teaches that if a woman made a statement that indicated that she could no longer live with her husband, the bet din would obligate him to divorce her and pay her ketubah.  Later on, however, the Sages became concerned that a woman who no longer desired to be married to her husband would make one of these claims, so the ruling was changed, and she was no longer trusted with such a claim.

According to the Yerushalmi‘s conclusion, the ruling in our Mishnah is true even according to the final ruling of the Mishnah in Nedarim, and we must distinguish between a situation where a woman steps forward and says teme’ah ani lechah – where the wife of a kohen tells him that she had relations with another man – and the situation in our Mishnah where suspicion of infidelity is already a public matter.

Sotah 7a-b

The Mishnah on our daf describes how the woman who is accused of adultery and is brought to the Bet ha-Mikdash to drink the “bitter waters” of the Sotah is first interrogated and encouraged to admit her sin in order to avoid the need to actually carry out the ritual. This is done by assuring her that she should not be ashamed to admit her sin, which may have come under the influence of alcohol, levity, lack of experience or bad company. The Gemara explains that they would recount to her stories of great leaders in Jewish history who sinned and then admitted their guilt (such as Yehuda – see Bereshit 38:26).

If she admitted her guilt, she was allowed to go free without participating in the Sotah ceremony and would not be held liable for her behavior since there were no witnesses to the act of adultery. Still, she would need to accept a divorce from her husband and would not receive her ketubah.

If she insisted that she was innocent, then they proceeded with the ceremony of the Sotah. The Mishnah describes that she was brought to the eastern gate near Sha’ar Nikanor, which was the entrance where the ceremony was held. This was also the place where yoldot – women who were bringing their sacrifices after childbirth – and metzora’im – people who were suffering from leprosy – were purified.

Sha’ar Nikanor is famous because of its beautiful copper doors and because of the miracles that accompanied them on their trip from Egypt. This main entrance into the Temple served a number of purposes, specifically related to situations where a person had to come as close as possible to the azarah (inner court) without actually entering it. This was accomplished by arranging that the area of the entranceway would not have the level of holiness of the azarah itself.

Thus, the reason that yoldot and metzoraim were brought there is clear – they needed to bring sacrifices, but could not enter the precincts of the azarah. The reason that a Sotah was brought to those gates is less clear. Rabbi Pinchas Epstein, in his Mincha Charevah, suggests that the fact that the Sotah‘s clothing are torn and her hair uncovered is reason enough to have the ceremony done outside the mikdash itself.

Sotah 8a-b

The Mishnah on our daf describes what the Sages refer to as middah ke-neged middah – “measure for measure” – meaning that a person receives what he deserves. The Mishnah applies this specifically to the case of Sotah, indicating that the various degradations and punishments that the Sotah receives are all directly connected to her behavior and the activities in which she participated.

In the Gemara, Rav Yosef teaches that the concept of middah ke-neged middah remains in force even though we no longer carry out biblically mandated punishments. For example, the four methods of capital punishment that are applied by the Torah to different capital crimes can only be carried out on the basis of a decision made by the Sanhedrin, and since the destruction of the Temple, the Sanhedrin no longer sits in judgment. Nevertheless, Rav Yosef argues, people who commit criminal acts that would call for one of the four methods of capital punishment receive them in other ways:

  1. Someone liable for sekilah (stoning) would either fall off a building – which is similar to the way stoning is carried out – or be killed by a wild animal, which would tear apart his limbs.
  2. Someone liable for serefah (death by burning) would either be killed in a fire or bitten by a poisonous snake.
  3. Someone liable for hereg (death by the sword) will either be condemned by the local authorities and killed or will find his death at the hand of robbers
  4. Someone liable for chenek (death by choking) will either drown or die of seronchi (diphtheria).

Most of the examples offered by Rav Yosef can be easily understood as serving as substitutes for the punishments mandated by the Torah. In the case of sereifah, the parallel between death by burning and a snake bite can be understood by recognizing that snakes produce different types of poison. The snakes that live in Israel – which are mainly a variety of viper – produce a type of venom that creates a sense of intense heat throughout the body, which is similar to a feeling of being burnt by fire.

Sotah 9a-b

Rabbi Chinana bar Papa taught that Tehillim 33:1 can be understood as offering praise to two people who built sanctuaries for God that were never destroyed by their enemies. Those two people are King David and Moshe.

The proof text with regard to King David’s edifice is found in Megillat Eicha (2:9), which describes the gates of the Bet ha-Mikdash as being buried in the ground, but not destroyed. The sanctuary built by Moshe was the mishkan (tabernacle), about which there was a tradition that when the first Temple was built, the mishkan was taken down and hidden away. According to Rav Chisda, it was put into tunnels under the Temple.

Rashi suggests that the gates built by King David were not the gates of the Temple, but rather were the gates to David’s palace, since he did not build the first Bet ha-Mikdash. The Maharsha, however, argues that the reference is to the gates of the Temple and that King David is credited with having built them since he prepared much of the material for the erection of the Bet ha-Mikdash prior to his death. Furthermore, the Sages had a tradition that the gates opened only in King David’s merit; since they were attributed to him, they were not destroyed or taken into captivity, as was the case for the rest of the Temple.

Rav Chisda’s reference to the tunnels under the Temple relates to an array of caves, tunnels and secret rooms that exist in the Temple Mount. We are familiar with many such subterranean areas that were used during Second Temple times, like the tunnel that allowed kohanim to access the Shiloach spring where they could purify themselves before performing the priestly service in the Temple. Since there was limited access to the Temple grounds themselves, many of these places remained secret, and the particular place where the mishkan was hidden was apparently unknown.

Sotah 10a-b

Continuing with the theme of middah ke-neged middah that was introduced by the Mishnah (8b) that we studied earlier, our Gemara focuses on some of the characters who are presented by the Mishnah (9b) as prime examples of people who suffered this fate.

For example, a baraita is brought on our daf describing how there were five people who were created me-en dugma shel ma’alah – a term understood to mean that they had characteristics that were beyond those of normal people. (The term ma’alah could be interpreted to refer to God, which would mean that these five people were “modeled on the Almighty,” i.e. had Godly attributes and were uniquely created in His image. This approach is rejected by the commentaries on our Gemara who object to the idea that flesh-and-blood humans could be compared to God, even for the purpose of expressing their special attributes.) Failing to use these powers for noble purposes, these five suffered punishments specifically related to their unique abilities.

The five personalities – and their unique attributes – are:

Avshalom was King David‘s son who rebelled against his father and claimed the kingdom. When King David’s troops successfully defended the kingdom, Avshalom’s hair became caught in an overhanging branch while he was trying to escape from them. He was left hanging in the air until Yo’av – King David’s cousin and chief of staff – heard of his situation and took the initiative to kill him.

Our Gemara describes that upon finding himself in this difficult situation, Avshalom’s first reaction was to cut his hair and free himself, but that nivka she’ol mi-tahtav – a chasm opened under him. Although Rashi understands this as an attempt to offer an explanation as to why Avshalom did not cut himself loose, the midrash suggests that the term nivka she’ol mi-tahtav should be understood to mean that Avshalom recognized that he was deserving of damnation and that he chose to allow himself to be killed as atonement for his sins against his father. In fact, the Gemara continues and describes that King David prayed on his behalf to raise him from the depths of Gehinom.

Sotah 11a-b

The same Mishnah (9b) that pointed out how biblical characters like Shimshon and Avshalom were punished middah ke-neged middah­ – measure for measure – also teaches that good deeds are rewarded middah ke-neged middah. One specific example brought in the Mishnah is that of Moshe‘s sister, Miriam. Just as Miriam stayed to watch what would become of little Moshe who was left in the bulrushes by their mother (see Shmot 2:4), similarly the Jewish people waited for Miriam to recover from her illness in the desert before traveling (see Bamidbar 12:15).

The inclusion of this story in the Mishnah leads the Gemara to a lengthy aggadic discussion of the exodus story, which examines the Torah‘s descriptions of events, pasuk by pasuk (verse by verse).

One well-known midrash tells of three famous biblical characters who were brought before Pharaoh and asked to give advice on how to deal with the population explosion of the Children of Israel. Eventually, each received his just desserts, middah ke-neged middah

Many raise the question: why did Iyov’s silence make him deserving of the intense suffering that he endured, unlike Balaam and Yitro, who each received the equivalent of his own advice?

One suggestion is that his silence was viewed as acquiescence, so, in effect, it was his agreement that sealed the fate of the children who were killed, and thus he was held accountable. According to the Zohar, Iyyov did not remain entirely silent during the discussion. He recommended that the Jewish people should not be killed, but rather should be tortured and have their valuables taken from them – the very sufferings that Iyov himself eventually experienced.

Sotah 12a-b

Continuing the discussion of the exodus, with a particular emphasis on the role played by Miriam in the story, our Gemara quotes a baraita that introduces Moshe‘s  father, Amram, as the gadol ha-dor – the leader of his generation. Upon hearing of Pharaoh‘s decree to kill every male child, Amram chose to divorce his wife, an act that led many others to follow his example.

The baraita teaches that Miriam argued with her father, pointing out that his decision to refrain from having children was even worse than Pharaoh’s. By divorcing his wife, Amram had effectively destroyed the future – not only of Jewish sons, but of Jewish daughters, as well. While Pharaoh’s decrees were only effective in this world, Amram’s decision would have an effect in the next world as well. Furthermore, while the evil Pharaoh’s decree may or may not have been successful, Amram’s actions would certainly be successful. Under the force of her arguments, Amram remarried, encouraging others to do so as well.

With regard to the impact of the decrees on “this world” and on “the world to come,” Rashi explains simply that children who are killed by Pharaoh will still merit the next world, while children who are never born into the world cannot do so. The Iyun Ya’akov suggests that it is an issue that affects the parents, who will be rewarded for fulfilling the commandment of peru u’revu – having children – even if those children are killed; someone who rejects that mitzvah, on the other hand, is punished in the next world.

The Gemara questions whether the text supports this approach, arguing that the passage va-yikah et bat Levi (Shmot 2:1) sounds like a description of a first marriage. To this Rav Yehudah bar Zevina responds that in his desire to get others to remarry their wives, Amram made their wedding a public act, as though it were a first marriage. He arranged for them to be carried by two people in an apiryon – a palanquin – with Aharon and Miriam dancing before them.

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.