The Sotah Spectacle

The apparent goal of tractate Sotah is to delineate the biblical ritual of the suspected adulteress. While the text indeed largely follows the order laid out in the book of Numbers, a careful examination reveals that the rabbinic ritual has been dramatically changed from an individual, priestly process undertaken before God, to a public, largely rabbinic spectacle performed before a live audience.

Illustration of the Sanhedrin in People's Cyclopedia of Universal Knowledge 1883

Numbers 5 describes a ritual performed to test suspicions raised by a husband about his wife’s sexual fidelity. The jealous husband is required to bring his wife to the priest in the tabernacle where she is subjected to an ordeal whose character is unparalleled in biblical law. The priest prepares a potion, consisting of “holy water,” dust from the tabernacle floor, and ink from an oath written on parchment. As the woman drinks the potion, the outcome of the trial manifests itself on her body, confirming or refuting her husband’s suspicions.

Rabbinic literature deals extensively with this unusual ritual, devoting an entire tractate in the Mishnah and the talmudim to it. The first three chapters of m. Sotah describe the ritual in a more or less continuous narrative, comparable to the biblical account. The mishnaic ritual, however, differs significantly from the biblical account, both in its details and in its overall program. In the Mishnah:

  • The private priestly ritual becomes a grand public event directed by the rabbis themselves.
  • The evidence required to compel the woman to undergo this test has been completely altered to comply with the strictures of talmudic legal evidence, requiring sufficient warning and the presence of witnesses (see m. Sotah 1:1-2).
  • A number of procedures have been added to the ritual; most significantly the ritual’s conclusion is altered so that the woman is subjected to a divine death and deformation of her body in a public, theatrical manner.
  • More broadly, the biblical ordeal has been refashioned as a punitive procedure from beginning to end – treating the sotah as a definite sinner, whose sin is only to be revealed, not determined.[1]

The Admonishing Great Court: A Rabbinic Take on Sotah

Let us begin from the very first actions performed in the Temple area, namely, the admonishment (איום) of the sotah. Having established the facts of the husband’s suspicions – that he warned his wife – we would now expect the suspected wife to be brought directly to the Temple for the ordeal procedure itself, as the Bible commands: “and the man shall bring his wife to the priest” (Num 5:15). The Mishnah, however, adds a preliminary procedure, conducted at the “great court in Jerusalem”, where the woman is admonished “just as they admonishes witness in capital cases,” chided via a brief “sermon,” and cautioned against causing God’s name to be blotted out.

This brief mishnah raises several questions:

  • What is the purpose of the highfalutin speech delivered to the woman?
  • Why hold it specifically at “the great court in Jerusalem”?
  • What is the Mishnah’s source for this description, which has no hint or trace in the biblical narrative?

The Comparison and Contrast to Admonishing Witnesses in Capital Cases

To begin unpacking this mishnah, let us begin by examining its comparison to the admonishment of witnesses in capital cases:

משנה סוטה א:ד – The Sotah

היו מעלין אותה לבית דין הגדול שבירושלים, ומאיימים עליה כדרך שהן מאיימים על עידי נפשות, ואומרים לה: ביתי, הרבה יין עושה, הרבה שחוק עושה, הרבה ילדות עושה, הרבה שכנים הרעים עושים. אל תעשי לשמו הגדול שניכתב בקדושה שימחה על המים. ואומרין לפניה דברין שאינה כדיי לשומען, היא וכל משפחת בית אביה.
They would bring her up to the great court in Jerusalem and admonish her as they admonish witnesses in capital cases, and say to her: My daughter, much is wrought by wine, much by light conduct, much by childishness, and much by evil neighbors. Do not cause His great Name, written in holiness, to be blotted out by the water [of bitterness]. And they speak before her words that she does not deserve hearing, she and the entire family of her father’s house.

משנה סנהדרין ד:ה  Witnesses in Capital Cases

כיצד מאיימים על עידי נפשות? היו מכניסין אותן ומאיימין עליהן: שמא תאמרו מעומד ומשמועה, עד מפי עד, אדם נאמן שמענו. או שמא שאין אתם יודעין שסופינו לבדוק אתכם בדרישה ובחקירה […] שמא תאמרו: מה לנו ולצרה הזאת? והלא כבר נאמר: “והוא עד הוא ראה או ידע וגו” (ויקרא ה א). או שמא תאמרו: מה לנו לחייב בדמו שלזה? והלא נאמר: “ובאבד רשעים רינה” (משלי יא י).
How to admonish witnesses in capital cases? They would bring them in and admonish them: Lest you say what is but supposition or hearsay or second-hand testimony, or [you may say yourselves:] We heard it from a trustworthy man. Or perchance you do not know that we shall test you by examination and inquiry? […] And lest you say: What ties us to this nuisance? It has already been said, “He is a witness, whether he has seen or come to know the matter [if he does not speak he shall be his iniquity]” (Lev 5:1). And if perchance you would say: Why should we be guilty of the blood of this man? It has been said, “When the wicked perish there is gladness” (Prov 11:10).

These two procedures, even though they use different rhetoric, share the common objective of trying to deter their addressee from entering into a juridical procedure.

However, the admonishment of witnesses in capital cases in m. Sanhedrin and the speech in our mishnah are quite different. In capital cases, the admonition is two-pronged: The witnesses are first warned against perjury and deterred from offering less than adequate testimony. Subsequently, they are encouraged not to withhold testimony if it is legitimate and sound. The speech addressed to the sotah in our mishnah, on the other hand, is completely unilateral in failing to exhort the wife to drink from the water if she is pure.[2] The aim of the sotah admonition is solely to halt the process.

The lack of such an option in our mishnah implies a fundamental difference between the rationales of the two admonition procedures. In capital cases, the admonition was designated to prevent illegitimate testimony or perjury; whereas legitimate and sound testimony is necessary for commencing the legal procedure, and cannot be avoided. The admonishment of the sotah, on the other hand, does not include any qualifications, and therefore we are forced to conclude that it is designated to cause the suspected woman to “admit” (and thus terminate the ordeal) under all circumstances. But if so, then this procedure cannot be considered as a legal trial (whether human or divine) in any sense of the term. So what is it? Let us continue reading.

A High Court in a Priestly Ritual

Another difference between the admonishment of capital witnesses and the sotah is that the Mishnah assigns the latter case to “the great court in Jerusalem,” whereas according to Tractate Sanhedrin, all proceedings in capital cases, including the admonishment, are held before a court of twenty-three judges. It is also surprising to find the court playing a role in the midst of an otherwise priestly ordeal at a stage that is apparently not juridical.[3]

Like m. Sotah 1:4’s mention of “the great court in Jerusalem,” the previous Mishnah also refers to “the court that is in that place”:

כיצד עושה לה: מוליכה לבית דין שבאותו מקום. ומוסרין לו שני תלמידי חכמים, שמא יבוא עליה בדרך…(משנה סוטה א:ג)
How should he (i.e. the husband) proceed with her? He should take her to the local court and they assign to him two disciples of the sages lest he have intercourse with her while on the way…(m. Sotah 1:3)

Indeed, the mishnayot at the beginning of the tractate (1:1-5) mention several legal institutions – witnesses, disciples of Sages and courts – while describing the stages preceding the commencement of the Temple ritual, but upon closer examination, none of these actually demonstrate a juridical function. As we saw, the local court is only responsible for assigning to the husband two disciples to escort the couple on their way to the Temple (1:3), while the great court merely admonishes the wife (1:4). It seems that the Mishnah is interested in emphasizing the courts’ involvement in the ordeal proceedings, even if it cannot assign them a genuine juridical function.

A similar attempt to insert non-juridical courts into the Mishnah can be found in m. Sanhedrin 11:4, which describes the execution of a “rebellious elder” (a rabbinic category for someone who rejects a high court ruling, based on Deuteronomy 17:12).[4] Just like our mishnah, this source assigns the great court an explicitly non-juridical function: to make the procedure public.

In fact, the appearance of the court in our mishnah is part of the public, even “theatrical” nature of the entire sotah ordeal in the Mishnah (as will be shown below in relation to the humiliation gestures in m. Sotah 1:5-6, and the description of her death in chapter 3).

Turning the Face: From Private Ordeal to Public Spectacle

The next stage in the staging of the sotah ordeal transpires at the Nikanor gate:

אם אמרה: טמאה אני – שוברת כתובתה ויוצָא. ואם אמרה: טהורה אני – מעלין אותה לשערי מזרח לשערי ניקנור, ששם משקים את הסוטות ומטהרין את היולדות ומטהרין את המצורעים. (משנה סוטה א:ה)
If she said: I am unclean, she would write a [false] receipt for her ketubbah and leave [the marriage without money]. But if she said: I am clean, they would take her up to the Eastern Gates, to the Nikanor Gates, where they make the sottot drink, purify women after childbirth, and purify lepers. (m. Sotah 1:5)

Another Comparison: Adultery, Leprosy, Birth

After opening by referring to this gate as the site of the procedure, the mishnah adds an explicit comparison with other procedures that are supposed to take place at the same place. This is the very same comparative structure that appeared in the previous Mishnah:

Women after childbirth, and purify lepers

…מעלין אותה לשערי מזרח לשערי ניקנור, ששם משקים את הסוטות ומטהרין את היולדות ומטהרין את המצורעים. (משנה סוטה א:ה)
…they would take her up to the Eastern Gates, to the Nikanor Gates, where they make the sottot drink, purify women after childbirth, and purify lepers.

Witnesses in capital cases

היו מעלין אותה לבית דין הגדול שבירושלים, ומאיימים עליה כדרך שהן מאיימים על עידי נפשות… (משנה סוטה א:ד)
They would bring her up to the great court in Jerusalem and admonish her as they admonish witnesses in capital cases…

In the previous mishnaic unit the comparison with capital punishment revealed a sophisticated attempt to give a legal flavor to an otherwise non-legal, unprecedented procedure of admonition. I suspect that this is the case here as well.

The two other cases mentioned in our mishnah – lepers and women after birth – refer to purity rituals. The sotah ritual, in contrast, cannot be possibly considered a purifying ritual. While the suspected adulteress is indeed named “unclean” in the biblical narrative, she is not considered ritually unclean, or else she could not have entered the Temple court, the azzara. What is more, unlike the two other rituals mentioned, here there is no purification act. The explicit comparison thus seems once again to be an attempt to make recognizable this unprecedented ritual by comparing it to other, more common legal procedures.

Nikanor Gate: לפני ה or לפני הכל

The key to the choice of the  Nikanor Gate lies in the Biblical verse ordering the priest to place the suspected wife “before the Lord” (לפני ה’; Num 5:18). This idiom was read in various tannaitic homilies as referring specifically to the Nikanor Gate, which was located at the very entrance to the Israelites’ Chamber (עזרת ישראל; m. Middot 2:6), exactly opposite to the Holy of Holies, and thus “before the Lord.” This is the closest a lay-person could enter into the Temple, other than while performing a sacrifice himself. In the same vein, the biblical phrase אל פתח אוהל מועד (at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting), was translated into the realm of the Temple as also referring to the Nikanor Gate. All three rituals mentioned in this mishnah indeed share the idioms לפני ה’, or אל פתח אוהל מועד, or both in the biblical sources.[5]

The Tosefta offers an  unexpected change in this part of the sotah ritual:

היא עמדה לפיכך כהן מעמידה לפני הכל להתראות קלונה שנאמר (במדבר ה) והעמיד הכהן את האשה לפני ה’ (תוספתא סוטה ג:ב)
“She stood before him (i.e., the adulterer) – therefore a priest make her stand in front of everybody (לפני הכל) to show her shame, as it says: ‘and the priest shall bring her near and set her before the Lord’ (Num 5:16).” (Tosefta Sotah 3:2)

The biblical “phrase” לפני ה’ (before the LORD), is replaced by לפני הכל (before everybody) in the tannaitic ritual. The transformation from facing the divine to facing the people, dramatic as it may sound, in fact involves a very minor movement: simply turning her face in the other direction. For while the Nikanor Gate is indeed located at the entrance to the Israelites’ Chamber, opposite the Sanctuary (hekhal), it is also located at the top of a stairway facing the Women’s Court, where all the people coming to the Temple gather. לפני ה’ is also לפני הכל; it all depends on the direction the person is facing.

With this minor physical adjustment, the Tosefta radically alters the meaning of the ritual – from a closed priestly procedure, as narrated in Numbers 5, into a public spectacle. While the Mishnah itself does not specify that the sotah must face the people, it assumes that the procedure of debasement (m. Sotah 1:5-6) is conducted in front of an audience:

וכל הרוצה לראות בא וראה.
Whoever wishes to watch may come and watch.

The next mishnah further explicates the logic of this procedure, saying: “She exposed herself – God exposed her.” The Tosefta’s statement that the sotah is placed “in front of all” is thus a concise summery of the mishnaic narrative.

The inversion did not pass without opposition. Rabbi Yohanan ben Beroqah c early second centuries CE) objects to this ostensibly cosmetic change, which as we saw amounts to a profound shift in the ritual:

ר’ יוחנן בן ברוקה אומר אין מנוולין בנות ישראל יתר ממה שכתוב בתורה. לפני יי ופרע את ראש האשה וג’,סדין שלבוץ היה פורס בינו לבין העם כהן פונה לאחוריה ופורעה כדי לקיים בה מצות פריעה. (ספרי במדבר יא)
“Rabbi Yohanan ben Beroqah says: The daughters of Israel are not to be defaced more than what the Torah says; [Rather:] “and the priest shall bring the wife before the Lord, and unbind the woman’s head” (Num 5:18) [The priest] would stretch out a linen sheet between himself and the people. The priest would [then] go behind the woman and unbind her [to the minimal measure required] to perform in her the mitzvah of unbinding. (Sifre Numbers 11)

The sages, however, reject this move, stating:

כשם שלא חסה על כבוד המקום כך אין חסין על כבודה, אלא כל הניוול הזה מנוולה
Just as she did not spare the Almighty’s dignity, her own dignity is not spared, but rather He defaces her with all of this defacement. (ibid.)

The Mishnah does not record Rabbi Yohanan ben Beroqah’s opposition at all.

The Barley Sacrifice, Dangerous Temptation, and the Adulteress’ Grisly End

The ritual concludes with the sotah’s momentary entrance into the inner chamber and a quick and harsh exit from the Temple.

The Barley Sacrifice in Philo and the Mishnah

M. Sotah 2:1 discusses the unique “offering of remembrance” brought by the sotah. Following this, Rabban Gamli’el’s explanation for this uniqueness is cited:

כשם שמעשיה מעשה בהמה כך קרבנה מאכל בהמה:
Since her deeds were the deeds of cattle, her offering is the food of cattle (from barley rather than wheat and with no supplements).

Scholars have noted the similar interpretation of the first century CE Alexandrian Jewish writer, Philo, but have failed to discern the crucial difference between them. Philo (Spec. Leg. 3: 57) presents his symbolic interpretation as binary – guilt vs. innocence:

“The meal used is of barely, perhaps because as a foodstuff it is of somewhat doubtful merit, suited for irrational animals and men in unhappy circumstances, and thus is a symbol that the adulteress is quite on a par with wild beasts […] while the wife who is innocent of the charges brought against her has emulated the life which is fitted to human beings.”

Rabban Gamli’el’s parable, in contrast, is based on the assumption that the wife’s guilt is a given, without even considering her possible innocence. This is a fundamental change between the biblical and rabbinic depiction of the ritual.

Containing the Erotic Charge of the Staged Sotah

וכהן אוחז בבגדיה. אם ניקרעו, ניקרעו, ואם ניפרמו, ניפרמו, עד שהוא מגלה את ליבה וסותר את סערה. ר’ יהודה אומר: אם היה ליבה נאה לא היה מגליהו, ואם היה סערה נאה לא היה סותרו. (משנה סוטה א:ה)
And a priest would grip her garments – if they would be ripped then [let them be] ripped, if torn at the seam then [let them be] torn at the seam – until he would uncover her bosom and loosen her hair. Rabbi Yehudah says: If her bosom was attractive he would not uncover it; if her hair was attractive he would not loosen it. (Mishnah Sotah 1:5)

The potential of sexual temptation in this situation troubled the later rabbis. Thus, regarding the Mishnah’s assertion that the priest “put his hand under hers and elevates [the offering]” the Yerushalmi (ySot 3:1, 18:3) asks: “and isn’t this ugly (i.e. promiscuous)?” (לית הדבר כעור). When transforming the biblical priestly ritual into a public spectacle, the rabbis created an impressive event, but not without risk. The stage is given to the suspected wife.

No formal procedure can assure that the participants and the audience will receive only the “right” message. The ritual, which is meant to be an antidote to the seductive power of this dangerous woman, can actually become a manifestation of this danger; only now it is performed in the presence of all to see (or hear). Such fear is indeed manifested in Rabbi Yehudah’s reservation to the mishnaic gesture of stripping the sotah, saying: “If her bosom was attractive he would not uncover it; if her hair was attractive he would not loosen it” (1:5).

The Spectacle Achieves its Goal: The Audience comes to Life

The mishnaic narrative ends with a rather grotesque picture:

אינה מספקת לשתות עד שפניה מוריקות ועיניה בולטות והיא מתמלאת גידין, והם אומרים: הוציאוה הוציאוה, שלא תטמא את העזרה. (משנה סוטה ג:ד)
“Hardly has she finished drinking, her face turns yellow and her eyes bulge and her veins swell, and they say: Take her away! Take her away! Lest she defile the Temple court” (m. Sotah 3:4)

The gap noted above between the moral-religious status of the sotah and her ritual status is closed here, when the sotah dies and thus “at last” becomes ritually impure.[6]

The audience, appearing in chapter one as an unvoiced group of spectators, silently learning the lesson of the show, is suddenly revealed here as a participating mob, in a manner well-known from contemporaneous gladiatorial games in the Roman arena. Is it simply an accident that it is this cry of the audience that ends the ritual narrative as a whole? I believe that the evidence above shows that this is in fact an apt closing of a theatrical spectacle, which begun at the “Great Court” and ends at “Nikonor Gate,” before all to see.  The Mishnah thus rewrote the Biblical ritual, making it into a public lesson about men’s fears and women “dangers.”



Prof. Ishay Rosen-Zvi is Professor of Rabbinic Literature in the department of Jewish Philosophy and Talmud at Tel-Aviv University, and a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Kogod Center. He holds a Ph.D. in rabbinic literature from Tel-Aviv University and was elected to the Israel Young Academy of Sciences in 2013. Among his many publications are Demonic Desires: Yetzer Hara and the Problem of Evil in Late Antiquity (2011); Body and Soul in Ancient Judaism (2012); and Goy: Israel’s Others and the Birth of the Gentile (2018, with Adi Ophir).