The Measure of Tractate Sotah

Justice beyond the boundaries of human jurisdiction.


Tractate Sotah.

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 interrupted [2] 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.[3] This 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 הנאפים פסקו המים המרים. משרבו הרצחנין בטלה עגלה ערופה… 
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]

Mishnah Sotah 1:7

במידה שאדם מודד בה מודדין לו…
The measure with which a person measures is used to measure for him.[13]

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?…

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]



Dr. Rabbi 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.