The ordeal of the bitter water / The law of the sotah

December 2022
“And the priest shall set the woman before the LORD, and let the hair of the woman’s head go loose, and put the meal-offering of memorial in her hands, which is the meal-offering of jealousy; and the priest shall have in his hand the water of bitterness that causeth the curse.” Numbers 5 18
The ordeal of the bitter water

The description in the biblical text in Numbers 11 and onwards is as follows:

If any man’s wife goes astray and behaves unfaithfully toward him, and a man lies with her carnally, and it is hidden from the eyes of her husband, and it is concealed that she has defiled herself, and there was no witness against her, nor was she caught— if the spirit of jealousy comes upon him and he becomes jealous of his wife, who has defiled herself; or if the spirit of jealousy comes upon him and he becomes jealous of his wife, although she has not defiled herself— then the man shall bring his wife to the priest. He shall bring the offering required for her, one-tenth of an ephah of barley meal; he shall pour no oil on it and put no frankincense on it, because it is a grain offering of jealousy, an offering for remembering, for bringing iniquity to remembrance.

‘And the priest shall bring her near, and set her before the Lord. The priest shall take holy water in an earthen vessel, and take some of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle and put it into the water. 18Then the priest shall stand the woman before the Lord, uncover the woman’s head, and put the offering for remembering in her hands, which is the grain offering of jealousy. And the priest shall have in his hand the bitter water that brings a curse. And the priest shall put her under oath, and say to the woman, “If no man has lain with you, and if you have not gone astray to uncleanness while under your husband’s authority, be free from this bitter water that brings a curse. 20But if you have gone astray while under your husband’s authority, and if you have defiled yourself and some man other than your husband has lain with you”— then the priest shall put the woman under the oath of the curse, and he shall say to the woman—“the Lord make you a curse and an oath among your people, when the Lord makes your thigh rot and your belly swell; and may this water that causes the curse go into your stomach, and make your belly swell and your thigh rot.” ‘Then the woman shall say, “Amen, so be it.” ‘Then the priest shall write these curses in a book, and he shall scrape them off into the bitter water. And he shall make the woman drink the bitter water that brings a curse, and the water that brings the curse shall enter her to become bitter. Then the priest shall take the grain offering of jealousy from the woman’s hand, shall wave the offering before the Lord, and bring it to the altar; and the priest shall take a handful of the offering, as its memorial portion, burn it on the altar, and afterward make the woman drink the water. When he has made her drink the water, then it shall be, if she has defiled herself and behaved unfaithfully toward her husband, that the water that brings a curse will enter her and become bitter, and her belly will swell, her thigh will rot, and the woman will become a curse among her people. But if the woman has not defiled herself, and is clean, then she shall be free and may conceive children.

‘This is the law of jealousy, when a wife, while under her husband’s authority, goes astray and defiles herself, or when the spirit of jealousy comes upon a man, and he becomes jealous of his wife; then he shall stand the woman before the Lord, and the priest shall execute all this law upon her. Then the man shall be free from iniquity, but that woman shall bear her guilt.’”

This story describes a situation, there isn’t really such a character, but this description did not leave me indifferent and caused me to imagine this moment, stage and picture it.
A moment where a woman is brought to the priest because her husband has become jealous and suspicious of her, And the difficult ceremony, which she must go through.

Two things need to happen for a man to bring his wife before the priest to perform this ceremony:

  1. ׳jealousy׳ 
  2. ׳concealed׳ 

The Torah sages explain the plain meaning of the verse:
The “׳concealed׳” – as in hiding oneself with another man for a sufficient amount of time to allow for intercourse, after the “׳jealousy׳” – the husband’s warning to his wife not to be alone with that man.

According to the sages, there also needs to be witnesses for both the “׳concealed׳” and the “׳jealousy׳” events, and there is disagreement about this:
two kosher witnesses are needed for the “hidden”, while for the “jealous” warning, the husband’s words alone may be sufficient, or there may also be a need for two witnesses.

If both of these conditions are met, the husband brings the woman before the priest.
The ritual performed by the priest will determine the guilt or innocence of the woman suspected of adultery.  He (The Priest) will bare the woman’s head as a symbol of the woman’s perceived shame (According to Josephus it was a customary practice for anyone accused of a crime when appearing before the authorities.), it involves her drinking the “water of bitterness” which, depending on her guilt or innocence, would affect her physically. The ritual included the pronouncement of a curse that would go into effect if she was guilty of adultery. The accused woman would then agree to the terms of the curse.

The priest takes an earthenware cup filled with consecrated water and dust from the Temple floor. The husband’s “grain offering of jealousy” is given to the priest, who puts it into the hands of the accused wife. The priest then administers an oath to the woman, making her swear her innocence. After the wife takes the oath, it is written on a scroll. The priest places the scroll into the water until the ink dissolves into the water. The grain offering is then taken from the woman, burnt on the altar, and the woman is made to drink the bitter water.

In fact, the judgment in this case is determined through divine intervention, seemingly there is nothing physically harmful in the water that could harm the woman. This implies a belief according to which the judgment of the woman is examined through the power of curses contained in the cursed water, which affect her body when she drinks it.

Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Sefer Nashim: (Sotah, Chapter Three, Halacha 16-17)
”When she dies, the adulterer because of whom she was compelled to drink will also die, wherever he is located. The same phenomena, the swelling of the belly and the rupture of the thigh, will also occur to him. All the above applies provided her husband never engaged in forbidden sexual relations in his life. If, however, her husband ever engaged in forbidden relations, the waters do not check [the fidelity of] his wife.”

According to rabbinical interpretation of Numbers 5:28, when an innocent woman drinks the bitter water, even if she was previously barren, she will conceive and give birth to a male child.

The Talmud, Brochot 31b, says that Chana, the prophet Samuel’s mother, who was barren, threatened God that if He would not help her to conceive through her prayers she would make herself into a sotah and force Him into helping her anyway. 

Yohanan ben Zakkai is credited with leading the abolition of the practice during the first century CE, as per the Mishnah. “When adulterers became many, the ordeal of the bitter water stopped, for the ordeal of bitter water is performed only in a case of doubt. But now there are many who see their lovers in public.״ (Talmud, Sotah 9, 9 a)