The Sotah and the Golem:  Talmudic Origins of Deterrence


by Boris Feldman


When I told friends over the past year that I was learning Tractate Sotah, their reactions varied.  Some asked what it was about; when I told them, they looked uncomfortable and changed the topic.  A few brought up the Salem witch trials.  The less Talmudically literate asked whether Sotah was about Coke or Pepsi.


The best question came from a friend, a member of our schul, who said:  “Is there any proof that the Sotah ritual ever occurred?”  Given that this fellow is a quantum physicist, I approached his question with a degree of uncertainty.


The common wisdom is that the Sotah ritual in the Temple — the barley sacrifice, the elicitation of a confession, the drinking of the bitter waters — never actually occurred.  Even so learned a source as the Wikipedisher Rebbe says “there is no Biblical evidence for the ritual ever having been carried out.”


In the course of my studies, I came across two sources that suggest the ritual did take place.  The first is in Rashi’s commentary to Nasso, Numbers 5:13, where he talks about the deception of the twin sisters.  Rashi refers to the Midrash Tanchuma, Nasso 6, which recites the following episode:


A story of two sisters who looked like each other.  One was married in one city and the other was married in another city.  The husband of one of them sought to warn his wife and to have her drink the bitter waters in Yerushalayim.


The woman went to the city where her married sister lived.  The [host] sister asked: What did you see to come to here?  [The visiting sister] said: My husband wants to make me drink the bitter waters.  The host sister says: I will go in your place and drink.  The other said: Go.


[The innocent sister] put on her sister's clothing and went in her place and drank the bitter waters and was found to be pure.  She returned to the house of her sister, who came out joyously to meet her.  She hugged her and kissed her on her mouth.  Because they kissed each other, she smelled the bitter waters and died immediately. . . .


The second place is in the Tractate itself.  The Mishnah states at Sotah 47a:  “When the number of adulterers increased, the rite of the bitter waters of sotah were discontinued.”  That decision is attributed to Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai (who lived in the first century of the Common Era).  Similarly, the Gemara states at 47b:  “When there increased the number of women described by Scripture as walking with necks stretched forth and with winking eyes, the use of the bitter waters should have increased as well, but they were discontinued because of this very proliferation of immorality.”


So we have some textual indications that the ritual occurred prior to the destruction of the Second Temple.  For the purpose of our discussion, however, I want to accept the conventional wisdom:  that the ritual of Sotah never occurred.  If so, why does the Talmud devote so much space — witness the two Artscroll volumes I hold in my hands — to prescribing in detail how the ritual is to be conducted — down to the woman’s garments and coiffure?


To answer that, I want to invoke a mythology familiar to many of you:  the Golem.  The Golem was Frankenstein before Frankenstein was cool.  He was a gigantic creature, fashioned from clay, with holy words written across his forehead.  He came to life when the magic words were said.  He had supernatural strength.  He was invincible.  Although there is a reference to a golem-like creature as far back as the Talmud (Sanhedrin 65b), the most famous Golem was the Golem of Prague.  His role was to protect the Jews of Prague in the late 16th Century from brutal pogroms.


The Golem has spawned many works of art over the centuries, including the classic novel by Gustave Meyrink, movies from the silent-film era forward, and a superb recent novel entitled “The Jinni and the Golem.”  But seriously folks:  a powerful Man of Mud to protect the Jews?


One cannot imagine that the Jews of Prague in the 16th Century believed in the Golem.  They were among the most sophisticated Jews in Europe.  The Maharal, their Rabbi and the reputed creator of the Golem, was one of the towering rabbinic authorities of the last half-millenium.  They would never have fallen for the fairy tale of the Golem.


But perhaps the myth was not intended for consumption by the Jews.  Prague — like most of Central and Eastern Europe in the 16th Century — could be a dangerous place for Jews, especially  at times like Good Friday or Easter Sunday.  Jews were often the target of alcohol-induced rage.


So even if the Jews were too sophisticated to believe in the Man of Clay, perhaps the drunken local peasants were not.  I suspect that the Golem was created by the Jews to protect the community by frightening superstitious thugs into leaving them alone.  Indeed, one can imagine that the Rabbis would find a very tall local Jew, schmear mud all over him, and send him into the community to scare away their persecutors.  Thus, far from being a quaint, superstitious myth of less-learned Jews, the Golem may in fact have been their protector by playing on the fears of the peasantry.


Now let’s return to Sotah.  Whether or not the Sotah ritual ever occurred, in my opinion, does not matter all that much.  What mattered was the possibility of the ritual.  It was the threat of the ritual that provided a downside to marital infidelity.  A key element of the process was the warning by the husband to the wife not to seclude herself with a specified man.  Who can say how many marriages such a warning preserved?  Similarly, the Talmud makes clear that the “bitter waters” only work if the husband himself had been faithful to his wife.  How effective a constraint may that have been on husbands who otherwise might have strayed? 


At its core, the Sotah process was less about punishing wayward wives than it was about preserving marriages.  The strictures and procedures, which seem quaint or even barbaric to us from a modern perspective, may have reflected psychological insights designed to deter dangerous liaisons.   In that light, the establishment of the Sotah process may have had value in preserving shalom bayit regardless of whether the drinking of the bitter waters ever occurred.