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Class Notes - Class #4

Mitzvot #365 – 367 outline the institution of “sotah.”  When a husband suspects his wife of having sex with another man but has no proof, the husband can force the wife to participate in a Temple ritual which will determine whether or not she is an adulteress.

            The source verses, Num. 5:12-31, outline the process.  The verses are repetitive and somewhat confusing.  A husband suspects his wife is having sex with another man but has no proof.  He is jealous.  She may or may not be guilty.  The husband brings his wife to the Temple, along with a minchah sacrifice of the most basic kind consisting of nothing but barley meal.  The cohen mixes sacred water and dust from the Temple floor in an earthenware bowl.  The cohen loosens the woman’s hair and puts the minchah in her hands.  The cohen then leads the woman to pronounce a curse on herself if she is guilty.  The cohen writes the curse and washes the ink into the bowl.  The cohen then brings the minchah sacrifice and then the woman drinks the water.  If she is guilty, the curse causes her death.  If she is innocent, she goes home with her husband and is rewarded with a child.  Mitzvah #365 requires men to facilitate this ritual in appropriate circumstances.  Mitzvot #366 and 367 prohibit putting oil and frankincense in the minchah.

            Our author cites Ramban for the notion that this is the only mitzvah that depends on a miracle.  It is possible to understand the mechanism for this mitzvah as psychological.  In any event this is a horrifying ritual.  It comes as a surprise that our author sees this ritual as a great blessing from God given to the Jews and no other nation.  This is a miraculous solution to a bad situation.  It provides a way for a suspicious husband to be reconciled with his wife, giving him Divine assurance that he is not a cuckold.  If the wife was an adulteress she gets a Divine death penalty.

            The author considers the advantage of this ritual to be self-evident.  Consider the alternatives.  In some cultures, a wife suspected of adultery can be murdered in an “honor killing” at the discretion of family members.  In a society where most women relied on husbands for financial support, this wife is subject to divorce even if she is not guilty, and she may not even get the money provided in the ketubah, marriage contract.  Perhaps in that setting this ritual provides an innocent wife with a difficult but tolerable alternative.

            Apparently this ritual was only operable if it was very rare.  The author says this ritual ended when sexual sins became common even though the Sanhedrin was still functioning.  The later halachic literature seems based on the demise of the ritual.  It explores the repetition and ambiguity of the source verses.  And is explores the obvious fairness issues.  Does the husband have to have a reason for jealousy?  Does the wife have to get some warning? What happens if the wife refuses to participate? What if the husband is also guilty of wrongdoing?  What if an adulteress wife has other admirable qualities?  How long does it take for the curse to take effect?  One aspect of this examination is the rabbis reading the source verses carefully to find ways to limit the circumstances for this ritual. 

            The rabbis restrict sotah to a case where the husband warns his wife not to be alone with a specific man. The husband must precisely forbid her from being alone with the man and the warning must be witnessed. It doesn’t matter whether that man is an unlikely or even a forbidden sexual partner for the wife.  Then witnesses confirm that she was alone with that man long enough to have sex with him, defined as the time it takes to roast an egg and eat it.  Once that happens the husband is forbidden to have sex with his wife until the sotah issue is resolved.  If the husband delivers the warning before witnesses and then sees that his wife is alone with the designated man, but no objective witnesses can testify that she was alone with him, the husband divorces his wife and pays the amount designated in the ketubah.  (The marriage contract, ketubah, articulates promises a husband makes to his wife at the time of the marriage.  One promise is a fixed sum to be paid by the husband to the wife if the husband divorces his wife.  If the wife is guilty of certain bad behavior, the husband can divorce his wife without paying that amount.)  Similarly, if the husband warned her not to be alone with a specific man and then hears rumors about her adultery, he divorces his wife and pays the ketubah amount.  Now that the ritual no longer takes place, if the husband warns his wife in front of witnesses and witnesses then attest that she has been alone with the designated man, the husband divorces his wife and need not pay the amount specified in the ketubah. 

            A husband might not be able to defend his own honor if he travels for an extended period of time, if he is in prison, or becomes legally incompetent.  In that case the beit din can step in.  If there are rumors about the wife having extramarital sex, the beit din can warn her not to be alone with her rumored partner.  Even if she does later spend time alone with him, that does not trigger the sotah ritual.  Rather, if the husband ever returns, they are not allowed to have sex with each other and he divorces her without paying the ketubah.

            A wife can be subject to the sotah ritual several times, but only once for being alone with a particular man.  If the wife survived the sotah ritual once and then her husband warned her about the same man again and she was nevertheless alone with him, the husband and wife are forbidden to have sex and the husband divorces the wife without paying her ketubah.

            If the sotah ritual is triggered, the wife has several choices for how to respond.  She can admit her adultery or refuse to participate in the sotah ritual without admitting adultery.  Then the husband and wife are forever forbidden to have sex with each other and the husband divorces her without paying the ketubah.  However she would not be subject to criminal punishment without a separate trial with all the procedural safeguards in place.  The husband can also refuse to proceed with the sotah ritual.  He then divorces his wife and pays the ketubah, but he is violating mitzvah #365.

            The rabbis read the source verses carefully and find fifteen cases of women would otherwise be subject to the sotah ritual but are not.

1.        A woman who has undergone eirusin but not nisuin.  Num. 5:29 says the wife must be under her husband’s authority.

2.      A woman awaiting yibum or halitzah. Although the woman has a quasi-marriage relationship with her late husband’s brother, he is not her husband.

3.      An underage girl married to an adult man.  Num. 5:29 says the women must be an “ishah,” an adult woman.

4.      An adult woman married to an underage husband. Num. 5:29 speaks of a woman under a man’s authority, and the underage husband is not yet a man.

5.  A woman married to a hermaphrodite, who is also not fully a man.

6.  A woman whose husband in blind.  Num. 5:13 refers to the husband’s eyes.

7.  A woman who is lame.  Num. 5:18 says the cohen stands the woman before God.

8.  A woman who has no hand.  Num. 5:18 says the cohen puts the minchah in her hands.

9.  Similarly, a woman who has a deformed hand.

10. A woman who is mute.  Num. 5:22 requires the woman to speak.

11.  A woman who is deaf.  Num. 5:19 requires the cohen to speak to the woman.

12.  A woman whose husband is lame, 13. One handed, 14. Mute or deaf, 15. Or Blind.  Num. 5:29 speaks of a woman under her husband’s authority, which the rabbis understand to imply that they have to be equally able bodied.

This careful reading of the source verses is similar to what we saw when we discussed the rebellious son, mitzvah #248.  There we considered the possibility that the rabbis were trying to interpret the institution out of existence.


Mitzvot #380 – 383 define pessah sheni.  Groups of people would voluntarily band together to bring the pessah sacrifice; each group needed enough people so they could finish eating the meat of the sacrifice before the next morning.  Someone who did not participate in the pessah sacrifice at its designated time is required to participate in a replacement one month later.  Many of the rules that apply to a timely pessah sacrifice also apply to the sacrifice on pessah sheni, but some do not.  The date of pessah sheni, the 14th of Iyar, is the date for bringing the pessah sheni sacrifice, but that day does not have all the requirements of pessah.

            It is unusual for the Torah to provide a second chance to someone who misses the opportunity to perform a mitzvah at its designated time.  Our author explains that the pessah sheni is an exception because the concept of pessah is so important.  The events of the exodus from Egypt were so dramatic that it was obvious to all that the natural world was not functioning by its ordinary rules.  It was obvious to all that God was intervening in history.  If God can suspend the law of nature, God must be in control of nature.  This indicates that God is the creator of all.  Recognizing God as the creator of everything is a crucial principle. That is why the exodus from Egypt is so important.  God wants us to recognize that crucial principle, so the Torah required someone who missed the pessah sacrifice to bring a replacement a month later.

            Anyone who missed the pessah sacrifice for any reason participates in the sacrifice on pessah sheni.  Someone who was tamei, or too far from Jerusalem, or inadvertently missed the pessah sacrifice, and even someone who deliberately missed the pessah sacrifice, participates in the sacrifice on pessah sheni.  Even someone who was not eligible to participate on pessah but becomes eligible in the interim brings the sacrifice on pessah sheni, for example someone who converted or became an adult after pessah.

            Not everyone who was tamei on erev pessah was unable to bring a pessah sacrifice.  For some types of tumah, the process of becoming tahor takes substantial time, for example a m’tzorah, a zav or zavah, a yoledet, and some people who were tamei through contact with a corpse.  Those people would be unable to bring a timely pessah sacrifice and would bring a sacrifice on pessah sheni instead.  Other people who were tamei on erev pessah could participate in a group to bring the pessah sacrifice.  Another group member who was tahor would go to the Temple to have the animal slaughtered and processed by the cohanim.  The tamei person could immerse in a mikvah and eat the sacrifice that evening.  This includes someone who touched a dead sheretz and some people who became tamei through contact with a corpse.  The difference between the two sets of people who become tamei through contact with a corpse parallels those cases when a nazir who comes in contact with a corpse has his or her n’zirut voided and when the nazir does not have his or her n’zirut voided. Similarly, someone is considered too far from Jerusalem to be obligated to participate in the pessah sacrifice is that person was fifteen mil or more away from Jerusalem, too far to make it to Jerusalem on time.          In the dinei hamitzvah section of mitzvah #380 the author lists the ways in which the pessah sacrifice is the same as the sacrifice on pessah sheni and the ways the two sacrifices are different.  In both cases hallel is recited while the sacrifice is being offered in the Temple, both are eaten roasted, eaten with matzoh and maror, no bone of the sacrificial animal may be broken and no meat of the sacrifice may be left over, both are brought even if the designated day is Shabbat, both require the same type of animal.  But the two are different in that someone bringing a sacrifice on pessah sheni may own and keep hametz, the day of pessah sheni is an ordinary day that does not have the special prohibitions of holidays, hallel is recited when people are eating the regular pessah sacrifice but is not recited while eating the pessah sheni sacrifice.

            The source verses for pessah sheni, Num. 9:12, says the pessah sheni sacrifice should be brought according to all the requirements of a pessah sacrifice, so it seems surprising that there are any differences at all between the two.  The rabbis distinguish between rules that apply to the actual sacrifice itself and rules that are part of the pessah holiday ritual.  Since the source verses specify some ways the two sacrifices are parallel, the implication is there must be some ways the two are not parallel.  The author’s question here is asking why the midrash halachah does not use that expansive language to require the two to be identical.  Midrash halachah has trends and modes but is not a science; it is what it is.

            The author takes the opportunity to add some details about matzoh and marror to what we learned very early in our study.  We are required to watch carefully to make sure no water comes in contact with the wheat used to make matzoh.  If possible, that wheat should be watched for water contamination from the time the wheat is harvested.  Any bitter green leafy vegetable qualifies as marror, although the rabbis specified certain vegetables as preferable. 

            The mitzvah to bring a sacrifice on pessah sheni is different for men and women.  A man who missed the first pessah sacrifice is required to bring a sacrifice on pessah sheni.  But a woman who missed the first pessah may bring a sacrifice on pessah sheni but is not require to bring that sacrifice.  Since it is optional for her, a sacrifice for women alone is not brought if pessah sheni falls on Shabbat.  Shabbat is overridden by the requirement for a sacrifice on that particular day, but Shabbat is not overridden by a sacrifice that is optional.  Since no meat may be left over from a pessah sheni sacrifice, that sacrifice would be brought on behalf of a group of people, and a woman may join such a group if the group includes men.

            The punishment for failure to bring a required pessah sheni sacrifice is karet.  But there are two conflicting opinions on when this punishment applies.  According to the Mishnah, a man who missed the regular pessah sacrifice for whatever reason and then deliberately failed to bring the sacrifice on pessah sheni is subject to punishment.  But according to other rabbis only someone who deliberately missed the regular pessah sacrifice and then deliberately missed the pessah sheni sacrifice is subject to punishment.  This is one of two positive mitzvot where someone who deliberately fails to fulfill them is karet.  The other such mitzvah is circumcision.