The Measure of Tractate Sotah

Justice beyond the Boundaries of Human Jurisdiction

Dr. Rabbi Avraham Walfish

A basic survey of tractate Sotah reveals that only the first four and the sixth chapter discuss the titular topic,1 while the remaining four chapters (5 and 7-9), and a portion of the first chapter (1:8-9) contain digressions about a host of issues:

Chapter 1:7-9: במידה שאדם מודד
The first three chapters present the Sotah ceremony in largely chronological sequence. Chapter one, however, is interrupted2 by a theological rumination in 1:7 on the “measure for measure” character of the divine punishment meted out to an adulteress upon drinking the bitter waters.3This digression is expanded to include several further illustrations of “measure for measure” taken from an array of biblical narratives (1:8-9).4

Chapter 5: בו ביום דרש 
The first mishnah of chapter 5 states that the suspected adulteress is forbidden to have relations with both the suspected adulterer as well as her husband, with R’ Akiva midrashically deriving this law from the Bible. The following mishnayot in the chapter discuss non-Sotah related exegetical innovations by R. Akiva or his disciple Joshua son of Hyrcanus.5 Tying them together are the introductory words בו ביום דרש – “on that day he derived.”6

Chapters 7: בלשון הקדש \ אלו נאמרין בכל לשון
The first mishnah in Chapter 7 commences with a list of six ritual recitations permitted in any language. The first one on the list is the “Sotah passage” – the oath which the suspected adulteress is required to affirm before drinking the bitter waters. Subsequently, the second mishna lists eight recitations which must be performed in the original Hebrew (lit. לשון הקודש – the Holy Tongue), and then goes on to discuss them.

Chapters 8 & 9
The final two chapters of the tractate present a particularly lengthy set of digressions, including a detailed discussion of the breaking of the heifer’s neck ceremony (eglah arufah) in chapter 9, which was first mentioned in chapter seven’s list of recitations.

How might we explain the mishnaic redactor’s inclusion of these apparent tangents? Are we to attribute them simply to the technical and unintentional processes of redaction, or is there perhaps an intentional, programmatic explanation for their inclusion?

As in my other work, in this essay I adopt the latter approach.7 I will focus on some of the literary links and shared themes connecting the “digressions” and regular material of m. Sotah. In particular, I will suggest that the recurrence of various types of measurements – i.e. metaphorical and literal, human and divine – in a tractate that primarily deals with high-stake doubts presents avenues for reckoning with moments of social crisis.

A Suggestive Inner-Tractate Parallel:
Eglah Arufah and the Sotah Ordeal

Many common terms and themes connect the lengthy digression of chapters 7-9 to chapters 1-6. Perhaps the most striking of these occurs in the first section of m. Sotah 9 (1-8),8 a chapter that discusses the broken-necked heifer (eglah arufah) – a biblical ritual (Deut 21:1-9) that atones for unsolved murders that took place beyond the city limits.9

  • The Reliability of a Single Witness: Both the suspected adulteress (chapters 1-6) and the Eglah Arufah conclude with the reliability of a single witness (man or woman) of the crime to cancel the ceremony, followed by a series of cases exploring different scenarios in which the testimony to the crime is contradicted by witnesses of greater or lesser halakhic standing (chapter 6 and 9:8);
  • The Involvement of Priests – starting with 1:6 the entire Sotah ceremony is performed by a priest, while the heifer ceremony concludes with the priests’ prayer for atonement (9:6);
  • A Two Tiered Court Process: Both the local court (1:3, 9:5) and the High Court (1:4, 9:1-5) are involved in both processes;
  • Suspended Ceremonies: The Mishnah discusses what to do with the materials consecrated for the ceremony (e., the bitter waters and the heifer) and with the suspect if relevant developments occur before or after a crucial stage (3:3, 9:7);
  • Divine Affirmation: The ceremony concludes with a divine affirmation – the adulteress’ punishment in 1:7 and the biblical promise of atonement for the unsolved murder which 9:6 attributes to the divine spirit.

Also notable is the direct link chapter 9 makes with Sotah. In the “appendix” to the tractate which lists practices and blessings abolished as a result of the destruction of the Second Temple and its aftermath (9:9-14),10 the Mishnah opens with an epilogue about the heifer and Sotah ceremonies:

משנה סוטה ט:ט

משרבו הרצחנין בטלה עגלה ערופה…

משרבו הנאפים פסקו המים המרים.

M. Sotah 9:9

When murderers multiplied the breaking of the heifer’s neck ceased…

When adulterers multiplied the bitter waters ceased.

This linkage suggests that the comparable features of these two ceremonies are not merely the result of unintentional redactional processes, but one of the programmatic goals of the tractate.

Understanding the Parallel
What might define the relationship between eglah arufah and Sotah which the Mishnah’s redactor has placed into one tractate and linked? The basic purpose of these ceremonies is to address a serious crime that has the potential to undermine the moral underpinnings of the society – namely, the stability of the family structure and the sanctity of individual life. Moreover, on account of a doubt concerning the facts of the crime in both cases it is not clear how to properly deal with these societal breakdowns.

Regarding the Sotah, the doubt whether the “wayward woman” is guilty of adultery is resolved by a divinely-supervised ordeal. Although the heifer ritual does not resolve the doubts per se, it still addresses the social crisis by atoning for the society which has failed in its responsibility to prevent murders or avenge them.

That said, are there deeper explanations for the inclusion and linking of this and other non-Sotah digressions in tractate Sotah? Can we discern a pattern in some of these connections?11

Connections that Bind the Tractate Together

To answer this question, let us turn to a series of admittedly more subtle connections that seem to link non-Sotah “digressions” to passages about Sotah and ultimately reveal a theme.

Links between Chapters 1 and 9
First, we have the the heifer ceremony of chapter 9 and the seemingly out-of-order aggadic, “measure for measure” appendix placed in chapter 1:12

Mishna Sotah 9:2,4

אין מודדין אלא מעיר שיש בה בית דין…. מאין היו מודדין?…

They measure only to a city which has a court… From where do they measure?…

Mishnah Sotah 1:7

במידה שאדם מודד בה מודדין לו…


The measure with which a person measures is used to measure for him. 13

Literary Connections between Chapter 5 and the Rest of m. Sotah
Additionally, chapter 5 is typically viewed as another lengthy digression in the tractate. Like the digression of chapters 7-9, chapter 5 – with its collection of novel biblical derivations – also contains several links that connect it with other parts of the tractate. Tellingly, the links in chapter five seem particularly significant as they bind together both Sotah material from the earlier chapters and digressive discussions found in the final chapter of the tractate. It is worth noting that as a nine-chaptered tractate, chapter five sits at the very center of the text.

Some associations that link chapter 5 to earlier material in the tractate include:

  • Clay Vessels: The discussion regarding impurity of clay vessels in 5:2 links up with the clay vessel in which the bitter waters are prepared (2:2) and with the motif of impurity that runs through these chapters;
  • Uncovering Dust and Eyes: R. Yehoshua’s exclamation “who will uncover the dust from your eyes”! (מי יגלה עפר מעיינך) that underlines the novelty of chapter five’s innovative biblical interpretations ( 5:2) verbally links up with:
  • The “uncovering” of the Sotah’s body (1:6-7),
  • “Dust” put into the bitter waters (2:2).
  • “Eyes” links up both with Samson’s sinning and punishment through his eyes (1:8) in the “measure for measure” unit and with the Sotah’s punishment of “bulging eyes” (3:4).14

The Three Digressions: The Theme of Measurements

Finally, a striking verbal association links the middle mishnah of the middle chapter 5 with both parts of the tractate, referring to the theme of measurement:

Metaphorical punishment “measurements”
M. Sotah 1:7
במידה שאדם מודד בה מודדין לו
The measure with which a person measures is used to measure for him.
Measuring the city limits
M. Sotah 5:3
ומדתם מחוץ לעיר…
And you shall measure [meadowland] outside the city [2000 cubits]…
The measurement of the corpse from the city
M. Sotah 9:4
אין מודדין אלא מעיר שיש בה בית דין
They measure only to a city which has a court.

Thus three digressions, located in the first, middle, and last chapters, highlight the shared notion of “measurement”, revealing a previously overlooked redactional theme of tractate Sotah.

How might we explain m. Sotah’s linked digressions that draw our attention to different forms of “measurement” in the human (measuring city limits / a corpse from the city) and divine (measuring punishments) realms?

Measuring the Limits of Civilization and its Responsibilities
It is noteworthy that the measurements described in chapters 5 and 9 are mirror images of one another:

  • Chapter 5 describes the measurement of the biblically mandated 2000 cubit space immediately outside the city (Numbers 35:5) for meadowland, which serves as a basis for restricting Sabbath travel to 2000 cubits outside the city.
  • With Eglah Arufah in chapter 9, the measurement is made towards the city from the location outside the city where the corpse was found.

Taken together, these two measurements highlight the contrast between the hub of human habitation in the city – whose outer perimeter includes the liminal area left for uninhabited meadowland – and the wilderness still beyond this civilized perimeter. The wilderness beyond city limits is characterized in these two sources as a no-man’s land, beyond the area of human habitation permitted for mobility on the Sabbath, and beyond the jurisdiction of the legal system that protects the individual from ravaging marauders.15

For this reason, when discussing the borderland and the dangerous wilderness beyond, the Mishnah explains the city elder’s disclaimer over the murdered corpse (Deuteronomy 21:7) as follows:

משנה סוטה ט:ו

שלא בא לידינו ופטרנוהו בלא מזון ולא ראינוהו והנחנוהו בלא לוייה

Mishnah Sotah 9:6

He did not come to us and we dismissed him without food nor did we see him and leave him without an escort.

The city’s leadership is held responsible for the murder – without any possibility of achieving atonement by breaking the neck of a heifer – if they had in fact allowed a wayfarer to depart from their own jurisdiction without providing him with the protection necessary in the uncivilized region beyond the extended city limits.16

Measuring the Responsible City and the Guilty Adulteress
A connection cited above links the High Court’s measurement from the body to the nearest city (9:1-4) with the figurative “measurement” characterizing divine justice (1:7-9). The apparent purpose of this literary link is to contrast human and divine agencies of justice, represented respectively by the measurement of the court and the divine, measured punishment of the Sotah.

As noted, both the Sotah and the heifer ceremonies are rooted in the limits of human agencies of justice. In both cases, the procedure requires involvement both of the local court and of the High Court. Regarding the Sotah, the local court determines, based on witnesses to קינוי (admonishment) and סתירה (seclusion), the grounds for suspicion of adultery. However, absent testimony to the crime itself they send the parties to the High Court, who authorize the divine ordeal. In the heifer rite, justice cannot be executed upon the unknown perpetrator of an undoubted crime, but the High Court must determine which local court must entreat God for atonement. We thus have two models of human agencies of justice which, unable to discharge their duty, must act to present the case – with the aid of priests – before God.

Administering Justice Beyond the Boundaries

Notably both crimes are characterized by secrecy, and a single witness to either crime, while not judicially actionable, will remove the promise of divine intervention, rendering the rite impossible. Moreover, the two “measurements” confront the furtive crimes in different ways. The measurement by the High Court assigns responsibility for a murder committed beyond the boundaries of civilization to the leadership of a particular community. The suspected adultery, on the other hand, was conducted within the borders of the city, with witnesses to the seclusion,17 and here the role of the court is to refer the case to God, Who alone can administer “measure for measure” justice, making apparent to all both the guilt and the punishment.

In light of the “measurements” of chapters 1 and 9, the measurement in 5:3 of the boundaries of the city may be perceived as delineating the boundaries of civilization and of human justice. The measurement of chapter 9 represents the return to the city’s agents of justice of a crime committed beyond the city limits, while the “measurement” of chapter 1 represents the perceptible divine justice when the human judicial system fails to resolve a crime committed within its jurisdiction.

We have thus seen that all the three “digressions” of the tractate are no digressions at all. Besides linking in multiple ways to the body of the tractate, they are interconnected by the motif of “measurement.” This surprising connection among the beginning, middle, and end of the tractate demonstrates the literary artistry with which the diverse units of the tractate have been interwoven. The sophisticated literary tapestry woven by the redactor invites the reader to explore the conceptual ramifications of the interweaving of ideas suggested by linguistic and thematic associations. As with work of literary art, different ways of interrelating the pieces may be suggested. The interpretation I have proposed for this literary tapestry presents an idea – the boundaries and interaction of human and divine justice – that resonates with central motifs of the tractate.18

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Rabbi Dr. Avraham Walfish received his B.A. in philosophy from Yeshiva University, and his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in Talmudic Literature from Hebrew University, writing his dissertation on Literary Phenomena in Mishnah and their conceptual significance. He received semicha from Rabbi Zalman Nehemiah Goldberg, and has taught in many institutions of Jewish learning, including Drisha, Pardes, Matan, and Bar Ilan University. Currently he teaches at Herzog College in Alon Shvut, at the Hesder Yeshiva in Tekoah, and heads the M.Ed. program in Talmud and Jewish Thought at Jerusalem College for Women (Michlala). Most of his publications deal with literary interpretation of Mishnah and other Talmudic works, and his literary commentary on tractate Berakhot will soon be published by Tvunot Press. 

  1.  Many tractate names are known to be quite ancient and are referred to explicitly in talmudic texts. See Jacob Nahum Epstein, Introduction to the Mishnaic Text (Hebrew; Jerusalem, 1948), pp. 989-993. The earliest recorded tractate name of Sotah appears in Bavli Sotah’s opening discussion. Admittedly, this is a late (Stammaitic) discussion, but the name of the tractate can be presumed to be considerably earlier. In any event, there is no doubt that this is the principal subject to which the tractate is devoted.
  2.  A further apparent anomaly in the tractate’s redaction is the placement of chapter 6, whose discussion of the reliability of a single witness to attest to the actual act of adultery logically would seem to belong after the law in 1:3 that witnesses to the act of adultery terminate the Sotah process (see Tosfot 31a s.v. mi she-kinei). While Albeck (commentary, p. 230) characteristically perceives this as a supplement tacked on to the end of the original redaction of the tractate (chapters 7-9 constituting a further supplement), I would argue that this chapter, which presents an extensive comparison of this testimony with those testimonies discussed at the beginning of the tractate, was intentionally reserved for the end of the main body of the tractate (chapters 1-6) as an envelope structure, framing the entire discussion of Sotah with the issue of witnesses and their reliability.
  3.  The mishnah in chapter 3 which describes the physical consequences of drinking the bitter waters if guilty (3:4) refrains from rehearsing those details presented in 1:7, perhaps relying on their previous mention. This further underscores the strange placement of 1:7 in the tractate. It is arguable that this mishnah contains a further detail not yet mentioned in the narrative sequence: היא גלתה עצמה לעברה – המקום גלה עליה (“She exposed herself for the transgression – God exposed her”). If the divine exposure alludes to the ordeal’s revealing of her guilt (compare T 3:5 היא עשתה בסתר… המקום הוציא סתרה בגלוי {She did in secret… God brought her secret into the open}), then this also refers to a detail discussed in chapter 3. However, the divine “exposure” presented in 1:7 might refer to the exposure in public (by the priest, serving as God’s agent) of the woman’s body, as described in 1:5-6, and see I. Rosen-Zvi, The Rite that Was Not (Hebrew), Jerusalem, 2008 (henceforth: Rosen-Zvi, Rite), p. 140, n. 29. Rosen-Zvi. ibid., pp. 140-144, suggests a plausible explanation for the Mishnah’s placement of this unit in chapter 1 (compare my explanation in “HaMishnah b’Aspaklaria Intertextualit – ‘Iyyun b’Shalosh Mishnayot l’Or Sugyot Aggadiyot b’Sifrut HaTannaim“, ‘Al Derekh HaAvot (A. Bazak, et. al., Alon Shvut 5761, pp. 257-259), but as we shall see, the purposes of the redactor go beyond the kind of local considerations which Rosen-Zvi discusses.
  4. Instructively, the parallel discussion of “measure for measure” in the Tosefta is found in its logical place, at the conclusion of the chronological narrative (T chapter 3), further highlighting the enigmatic placement of this unit in the Mishnah’s first chapter. 
  5. See Ishay Rosen-Zvi, “‘Who will Uncover the Dust from your Eyes?’: Mishnah Sotah 5 and R. Akiva’s Midrash” (Hebrew – henceforth: Rosen-Zvi, “Who will Uncover”), Tarbiz 75, 2005-2006, pp. 114-117, who notes (n. 103) that Joshua (sans rabbinic title, according to manuscript evidence) is designated in m. 5 as “your disciple’s disciple,” whereas R. Akiva in m. 2 was designated as “your disciple.” Albeck, loc. cit., notes that that the homily of Joshua son of Hyrcanus was brought at the close of the chapter not only because it too was offered “on that day,” but because R. Joshua praises it with the same laudatory formula which he used in m. 2 to praise R. Akiva: “Who will uncover the dust from your eyes, R. Yohanan ben Zakkai…. ”  Rosen-Zvi, arguing that the point of this chapter is to demonstrate the impact of R. Akiva’s novel method of homiletical exegesis, further suggests that R. Joshua’s praise of R. Akiva’s disciple (possibly a younger brother of R. Akiva’s greatest exegetical rival, R. Eliezer – see Rosen-Zvi, f.n. 103, citing Menahem Kahana) represents the ultimate victory of R. Akiva’s homiletical method.
  6. As understood by R. Menahem HaMeiri (Beit Habehirah commentary to the beginning of Sotah chapter 5) and contemporary scholars, “on that day” throughout our chapter designates the day that R. Akiva’s first homily was praised by R. Joshua.
  7. I hope to explore these methodological issues in a future essay.
  8. As will be noted further on, 9:9 is a “footnote” to the topic, and opens the second section of the chapter.
  9. Most of these parallels are based not only on common motifs but also on strikingly similar language.
  10. Several of the items mentioned in this appendix refer to abolishment of wedding practices, indicating that it was designed as an epilogue to the tractate whose major theme is protecting the institution of marriage from its most serious challenge – suspected adultery.
  11. Before suggesting my reading of the ideas conveyed by the interweaving of themes in the tractate, a caveat may be in order: Literary interconnections are almost always construed differently by different readers. Presumably some of my readers may suggest other ways of explaining how Sotah’s parts are integrated into a larger whole. Regardless of the specific ways in which the ideas of the tractate might be developed, I believe that this article clearly demonstrates that the “digressions“ in our tractate were skillfully woven by a resourceful redactor into a work of literary artistry, provoking deeper reflection upon the ideas embedded in tractate Sotah. 
  12. In addition, chapter 9’s discussion of a corpse found hanging in a tree offers a linguistic parallel to chapter 1’s reference to Absalom being punished for vanity over his hair by being hung in a tree by his hair:

    Mishnah Sotah 9:4

    נמצא… תלוי באילן

    If {the corpse} is found… hanging from a tree.

    Mishnah Sotah 1:7

    …לפיכך נתלה {אבשלום} בשערו

    …therefore {Absalom} was hung by his hair.

  13. This translation is based on the interpretation of this apothegm as suggested in Rosen-Zvi, Rite, pp. 145-146.
  14.  Other word associations connect chapter 5 with the last three chapters of the tractate. The most prominent of these is the phrase “Israel responded {in the Song at the Sea} after Moses… like those reciting Shema” (5:4), which connects with the “response” of Israel to the blessings and curses on Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Eyval, recited in the Holy Tongue (7:5), and the “Shema recitation” which can be said in any language (7:1). 
  15. In this connection it bears noting that Babylonian amoraim instituted a petitionary prayer for wayfarers (BT Berakhot 29b) and a thanksgiving benediction for those who have journeyed  in the wilderness. Of course the city has its own dangers, as indicated by the prayers instituted for entering and exiting a city in m. Berakhot 9:4, but the dangers outside the city are still perceived as greater (see discussion of this mishnah in BT Berakhot 60b).
  16.  We may further support this reading of the two measurements, to and from the city, by noting that the measurement of Numbers 35:5 (and m. Sotah 5:3) is juxtaposed in the Torah to the laws of the city of refuge, and that the Mishnah elsewhere extends the protection afforded the unintentional murderer to include the 2000 cubit perimeter discussed here (see m. Makkot 2:7).
  17. The presence of (multiple) witnesses to the seclusion is one indication that adultery was committed inside the city. Moreover, by Torah law a woman can be convicted of adultery only when the act was committed in the city (Deuteronomy 22:23), but “in the field” it is assumed to be rape, rather than adultery (ibid., 25-27).
  18.  This is true as well of parts of the tractate we have not addressed here. I will allude here to two such points: (1) The event most prominently featured in chapter 7, among those things that must be recited in the Holy Tongue, is the blessings and curses of Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Eival, and this event has multiple thematic and linguistic connections with the Sotah ceremony. (2) Chapter 5 ends with scriptural support for the view that Job served God out of love, it is remarkable that the central chapter of a tractate devoted, as we have seen, to divine justice and “measure for measure” concludes with such a positive depiction of the great questioner of divine justice.
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