Marriage, in the context of Jewish law, is a practical agreement by which, at its most basic, a woman is guaranteed support and protection, and a man has the prospect of progeny to carry on his family line. The knowledge of a child’s paternity, assumed guaranteed by the sanctity of marriage, was significant for both keeping the inherited land in the family and, more widely, maintaining the tribal holdings in the era before the exile of the ten northern tribes.

The issues of tribal identity and land ownership is paternal (whereas Jewish heritage is matrilineal), thus, the practical necessity of the prohibition against adultery. But those represent only one aspect of the consequences of infidelity. The act of marrying, whether for business-like reasons or for love, fosters the creation of a sacred trust, and adultery betrays that trust. Thus, when it is discovered or admitted that a married woman had relations with a man other than her husband, it is regarded in Jewish law as a capital crime.

But what happens when a man grows jealous of his wife and believes, whether true or not, that his wife had been unfaithful? What happens if he warns her not to be seen alone with the man of whom he is jealous, but she is witnessed in seclusion with him anyway? This is the specific situation for the “ordeal of the bitter waters” described in the fifth chapter of the Book of Numbers. The ritual, which could only take place in the time of the Tabernacle or the Temple, is extremely complex, and today’s Treat will not go into its details, about which much commentary has been written. The results of a guilty woman drinking the bitter water was the enigmatic consequence that her “belly will swell and [her] thigh waste away” (5:27). However, if she was innocent, she would be unaffected.

At the heart of the concept of Sotah (the term for the suspected wife), that is related in this week’s Torah portion, Naso, is the poisoned relationship of this husband and wife. He is jealous, but she is also not guiltless. She acted in a way that promoted his jealousy (secluding herself with another man despite being warned not to). When reading the verses of the Sotah, or hearing reference to it, think not of fairness and accusations, but of how very difficult a relationship had become for the husband, because of the valid suspicions, to the point that he would be willing to call out his wife for a public ordeal with the accusation of adultery. The alternate purpose of the Sotah ritual is to try to save the marriage by proving the wife’s innocence through a Divine test.

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