REV. A. COHEN, M.A., Ph.D.



B.A., Ph.D., D. Lit.


IntroductionPAGE v
Chapter I2
Chapter II14
Chapter III19
Chapter IV23
Chapter V27
Chapter VI31
Chapter VII32
Chapter VIII42
Chapter IX44
Index of Scriptural References
General Index
Transliteration of Hebrew Letters

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[page v] The Gemara offers a homiletic explanation why this Tractate follows immediately on Nazir, in the same way that the Biblical chapters on the two themes adjoin, viz., it teaches that whoever witnesses a suspected woman in her disgrace should withhold himself from wine (2a). The moral was thereby drawn that intemperance tends to weaken the power of resistance to temptation and leads to lewdness.

The name of the Tractate, Sotah, is derived from the verb satah in Numbers V, 12, If any man's wife go aside (sisteh). The Sotah is a woman who, suspected by her husband of infidelity, has to submit to the ordeal of drinking the bitter water to establish her innocence. The main subject treated in the Tractate is accordingly the Scriptural section Numbers V, 12-31, which is examined in the closest detail.

The Tractate Sotah is important for the reason that it is the only source of information at our disposal relating to the ordeal of the bitter water as practised by the Hebrews. Josephus (Ant. III, xi, 6) merely summarises the law as it is found in the Bible. The Scriptures give no instance of the ordeal being carried out, although some commentators detect a reference to it in Psalm CIX, 18, He clothed himself also with cursing as with a garment, and it came into his inward parts like water.

It would be hazardous to argue from the silence of the earlier Hebrew literature that the ritual described in Numbers V was not put into operation. As with the other Semitic peoples, the legislation had to provide for the contingency of a husband suspecting his wife's chastity without there being definite evidence that she had been unfaithful to him. The Code of Hammurabi prescribes: 'If the wife of a man her husband has accused her, and she had not been caught in lying with another male, she shall swear by God and shall return to her house. If a wife of a man on account of another male has had the finger pointed at her, and has not been caught in lying with another male, for her husband she shall plunge into the [page vi] holy river' (§§ 131, 132). According to this law, mere suspicion on the husband's part could be overcome by the woman taking an oath, and she is given the right to separate from him and go back to her father's house. But if her conduct had caused a scandal, she is forced to go through the ordeal of being cast into the river and if she sank it was regarded as proof of guilt.

An indication that the Hebrews resorted to the ordeal of the bitter water for the purpose may perhaps be found in what is narrated in Exodus XXXII, 20 where we are informed that Moses made the people drink water in which had been sprinkled the powdered metal of the golden calf. As stated in the Talmud the object may have been to distinguish the innocent from the guilty, the latter being harmfully affected by this otherwise quite innocuous potion.

The principal points of law in connection with a Sotah which are treated in the Tractate are as follows: The husband is obliged to give his wife due warning that she must not associate with the man who has aroused his jealousy (2a). One witness is accepted that she had disregarded the warning, provided he does not testify that she committed adultery in which case the ordeal would not be applied (3b). There is a difference of opinion whether it is obligatory on the husband to make his wife undergo the test if she has excited his jealousy (3a).

The next questions considered are the minimum length of time in which she secludes herself with the man to justify the suspicion that intimacy may have occurred (4a); what form the husband's warning must take (5b); and her position with regard to halizah and the levirate-marriage if the husband died before the ordeal took place (5b-6a).

It is claimed that though she be guilty, the water would not affect her if the witnesses who could prove misconduct were abroad and unable to testify against her, or if she possessed personal merit, or if her husband cohabited with her prior to the test (6a, 7a).

The accused woman had to bring a meal-offering to the Temple; and the disposal of the offering is discussed if it became defiled, or the husband died, or witnesses arrived to give evidence of misconduct, before she drank the water (6b). [page vii]

There follows a detailed account of the procedure adopted for the carrying out of the text. She appears before the local Court, and then before the Great Sanhedrin in Jerusalem who solemnly charge her to make confession if she is guilty so as to avoid the unnecessary obliteration of the Divine Name which is part of the ceremony. If she pleads guilty she is divorced forthwith; but if she protested her innocence she is taken to the East Gate of the Temple, her garments are rent, her hair is loosened, her ornaments are removed and a common rope tied around her breasts (7a, b). Two women are not permitted to undergo the ordeal simultaneously (8a).

The meal-offering was then presented to the priest (14a, b), and the water prepared by mingling it with dust from the floor of the Temple (15b). If there was no dust there, what may be used as a substitute is considered (16a), also how much dust suffices, and it is insisted that the dust must be poured upon the water and not vice versa (16b).

After that comes the description of the scroll, what is written upon it, the writing materials used (17a), the oath of innocence which she swore (18a), and the waving and disposal of the meal-offering (19a). It is debated whether she drinks the water before or after the sacrifice of the meal-offering.

The Talmud then proceeds to point out that she is forced to drink the water if she refuses to do so after the writing on the scroll had been obliterated (19b), and what is to be done with the scroll and meal-offering if she refuses before the obliteration takes place (20a, b).

The effect of drinking the water is described (20b, 21a), and how her merit may suspend the consequences (23a). What is to be done with the meal-offering if it became defiled is discussed (22b, 23a).

Circumstances are enumerated in which the ordeal is not administered but the woman is to be divorced forthwith (23b, 24a, 25a), and also circumstances in which a Court of Law can give her the necessary warning in place of the husband (24a, b, 27a).

The question is raised whether a husband can retract his warning (25a), and it is maintained that the warning against seclusion holds [page viii] good even when the man is organically defective or a gentile (26b). The ordeal is not applied if the husband or wife is blind, lame, armless or dumb (27a, b). The paramour is affected by the water as well as the woman (28a). Finally there is a section dealing with the evidence of misconduct which bars the application of the ordeal (31a-32a).

The foregoing is a summary of the points of law on the Sotah as they are treated in the first six chapters of the Tractate. In this portion other Halachic matters of an extraneous character are dealt with, chief among them being some legal differences between a man and woman (23a, b) and the various degrees of defilement with holy and non-holy foods (29a-30b).

With Chapter VII the Tractate enters upon a fresh field of discussion. Beginning with the statement that the Scriptural passages which form part of the ceremony of the ordeal may be recited in any language (32b), the Mishnah enumerates other rites and prayers which may be similarly rendered in any language as well as those which can only be spoken in Hebrew. The Gemara thereupon deals at length with the manner in which the priestly benediction was to be pronounced in the Temple and the Synagogue (38a-40b), how the High Priest rendered his Scriptural recital and benediction on the Day of Atonement (40b-41a), how the king read his portion on the Feast of Tabernacles (41a, b), and how the priest designated to accompany the army made his declaration on the field of battle (42a). The last mentioned point inaugurates a discussion on the right of exemption from military service (43a-44b). Lastly there is a full treatment of the law of the heifer whose neck was to be broken when a dead body was found (44b-47b).

It will thus be seen that the Tractate is rich in Halachic material; but it also abounds in valuable Aggadic references. Biblical narratives relating to important personages and incidents are expounded and embellished. Noteworthy among them are: the history of Samson (9b, 10a), Judah (10a, b), Absalom (10b, 11a), Miriam (11a et seq.), the slavery in Egypt and the release (11a-12b), the childhood of Moses (12a, b), the burial of Jacob (13a), the conveyance of Joseph's bones from Egypt (13a, b), the burial of Moses [page ix] (13b, 14a), the song at the Red Sea (30b, 31a), the crossing of the Jordan and the blessings and curses on Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal (33b-34a, 35b, 36a, b, 37a, b), the sending of the twelve spies (34b, 35a), the smiting of Uzzah (35a), Joseph and Potiphar's wife (36b), Goliath (42b), Phineas (43a), and Elisha and the bears (46b, 47a). They supply excellent examples of the manner in which the Scriptural stories were elaborated for popular edification.

In addition there are many passages which elucidate the views of the Rabbis on religious and ethical questions. We find striking utterances on the futility of secret sin (3a), the destructive effect of marital infidelity (3b), the harmfulness of pride (4b-5b), on the Shechinah abiding with a happily married couple (17a), the evil of flattery (41b, 42a), and the duty of forming an escort (46b). Certain important doctrines of Jewish theology are stressed, viz. divine retribution (8b), the Imitation of God as the rule of living (14a), and the superioritiy of the service of God from love over the service from fear (31a). Other subjects of interest dealt with are the seven types of Pharisees (22b), a probable reference to Jesus of Nazareth (47a), reforms instituted by John Hyrcanus (47a-48a), the Bath Kol (48b), the Shamir (48b) and the civil war between Aristobulus and Hyrcanus (49b).

The concluding section of the Tractate describes with impressive vividness the state of deterioration into which the Jewish people sank in the period immediately before and after the fall of the Temple. Owing to the prevalence of murder the ceremony of breaking the heifer's neck was discontinued, and Rabban Johanan b. Zakkai suspended the ordeal because of the spread of immorality (47a, b). Justice became perverted with dire effects upon the life of the people (47b). With the destruction of the Sanctuary the great Rabbis passed away, demagogues rose to power, and scholarship was despised. The sad plight of the populace leads to a description of the terrible conditions which will obtain before the advent of the Messiah; and the plaintive refrain is repeated, 'Upon whom is it for us to rely? Upon our Father Who is in heaven'.

The deep note of pessimism on which the Mishnah closes was unjustified. The haunting fear that Israel was doomed to a continuous [page x] decline was disproved by events. Eminent scholars arose to fill the place of those who had gone. Chastened by suffering the people renewed their delight in, and loyalty to, the Torah. The fall of the Temple and State did not write the word finis to the story of the Jewish people; and nothing contributed so largely to their survival as the devotion to the study of the Torah as it is embodied in the Talmud.


The Indices of this Tractate have been compiled by Judah J . Slotki, M. A.


The Editor desires to state that the translation of the several Tractates, and the notes thereon, are the work of the individual contributors and that he has not attempted to secure general uniformity in style or mode of rendering. He has, nevertheless, revised and supplemented, at his own discretion, their interpretation and elucidation of the original text, and has himself added the notes in square brackets containing alternative explanations and matter of historical and geographical interest.


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