COMPLETION OF SOTAH
By Sam Tramiel
Thank you to everyone for being here. I want to share with you how it came about that I started studying Talmud. It is all thanks to my friend Boris Feldman. Whenever we would meet, be it at Shabbat services at Kol Emeth, Yom Kippur at Beth Am, or a birthday party for Boris’ partner Jeff Saper, Boris would ask me, “How about joining me in studying some Jewish Text?” Finally, about two ½ years ago, I felt it was time to give it a go and joined Boris and we began our study of the Talmud tractate Sotah, under the guidance of our brilliant teacher, Rabbi Feldman, by the way, no relation to Boris Feldman. Our class expanded, with David Porush and Josef Joffe as welcome additions.
I am going to present some of my favourite portions of Sotah. I found some big surprises, new and important to me and I wondered why I had not learnt them before!
First off, a definition of Sotah and an overview of how the legal process worked regarding a Sotah. A Sotah is an adulteress, or is a woman who is under legal suspicion of being an adulteress. If the adultery was attested to by two witnesses, not including her husband, she is a confirmed Sotah and she is divorced and forfeits her ketubah rights and payment. She and her lover cannot marry and both are subject to the death penalty if certain criteria are met. I was happy to learn that the Rabbis of the Talmud really tried to avoid the death penalty and went to extremes to get confessions so the death penalty would not be imposed.
To become a Suspected Sotah two events must occur. First, her husband must warn her not to go into seclusion with the suspected man (many Rabbis would suggest to the man that he not take the first step of warning, knowing that some men are very jealous and may give the warning out of jealousy but nothing else, my brother-in-law, Jack Brandes, called this the Othello syndrome, the paranoia of a man imagining his wife is having an illicit affair), and secondly, she disregards the warning and goes into seclusion with that man for a time period long enough to do the dirty act. So, how long is long enough to perform a sexual act as defined in the Talmud? The definition is vaginal penetration and President Clinton was correct, he did not have sex with that woman! Rabbi Eliezer of Talmud fame, suggested the following: the length of time it takes to circle a palm tree, I assume at a leisurely pace. Others suggested the time it takes to roast an egg, or drink a glass of wine, or the time it takes to swallow three eggs successfully, etc. Both acts, the warning and the seclusion must be witnessed by two people and at this time there is enough evidence for her to be brought to the local Beit Din (court). If the local Beit Din determines she is subject to the Sotah test she is then taken to the Sanhedrin (the big court) in Jerusalem. The judges will do everything they can to get her to confess to adultery because the final test is the “Bitter Waters” and if she drinks the “Bitter Waters”, and is guilty of adultery, she suffers a horrible death. The “Bitter Waters” are prepared exclusively for each Sotah and are a mix of water from the “Kiyor”, the Kohen’s wash basin, soil from the floor of the Sanctuary, and a piece of paper with a Torah passage written on it. If the Sotah, after all attempts to get her to confess, still professes innocence, she drinks the waters. If she is innocent nothing happens and she goes back to her husband and has beautiful kids, though I am sure they will have to see a therapist to work on their relationship. If she is indeed guilty her thigh will collapse and her stomach will extend leading to a horrible death. The male adulterer, wherever he is, also dies this horrible death. The Torah version of equal rights for females and males!!
Since there is no longer a Temple the ingredients for the “Bitter Waters” are no longer available and this test cannot be applied. It is thought that the “Bitter Waters” test was never used, even in the days of the Temple. Talmudic scholars think that the Judges of the Sanhedrin did not want to carry out any death sentences.
Now for some of my favourite Mishnah’s and Gemara’s and other interesting things in Sotah. I quickly figured out that studying Talmud is like no other intellectual pursuit I had experienced. Every issue is argued by the Rabbis and they go off on all kinds of tangents to make their point. You can learn so much from studying Talmud.
In 9b2, (the way pages are numbered) of Sotah the Mishnah talks about measure for measure, the concept that there is punishment for bad deeds and rewards for good actions. One that struck me was the story of the bones of Joseph. Before he died, Jacob asked his son Joseph to bury him in Israel, in the Cave of Machpelah (in the town of Hebron) where Abraham and Isaac were buried. Joseph, as viceroy of Egypt, went with chariots and horsemen and buried his father, Jacob in the Cave. Joseph fulfils the wish of his father. Now let’s fast forward, Moses is ready to leave Egypt with the Jewish people but he has one last job to do before he leaves. He rushes to the Nile and yells out loud, “Joseph arise from the water now, so I can take you to Israel!” Moments later a metal casket rises to the surface and Joseph’s bones join the exodus from Egypt. When you next watch the Ten Commandments pay attention to the scene when the Exodus begins and you will see men carrying a litter. I am sure the litter is carrying Joseph’s bones as the makers of The Ten Commandments really tried hard to follow the story accurately. Moses, the greatest of all men, gave Joseph great honour because Moses himself took him to Israel to be buried, and because of this Moses merited that Hashem Himself would bury Moses.
The Mishnah on 9b2 also talks of how “Samson followed his eyes” and this means he looked at and had affairs with Philistine women. His punishment, measure for measure, was the Philistines gouged out his eyes. From here the Gemara goes on to the story of Judah and Tamara, the connection being that both Samson and Judah went to the city of Timnah. Like I mentioned before, tangents.
Sotah 10a4, Tamar sits by the crossroads near Timnah and here she gets the attention of Judah on his way to Timnah. Now some of the background story. Tamar is the daughter-in-law of Judah and she was married to his son, Er, who was slain by Hashem for being evil. Judah, as was the practice, told his second son Onan to take Tamar as his levirate wife, which happens when a man dies childless and has a brother. The brother takes the widow as his wife, has children with her, but the children are officially the deceased brother’s and they inherit his assets. Onan, the second son, takes Tamar, repeatedly has sex with her but spills his seed outside of her and therefore doesn’t get pregnant. Hashem is very annoyed by this and kills Onan because he does not fulfil his levirate obligations. Judah feels that Tamar is cursed and does not give her to his third son. Tamar is now desperate to have a child from the house of Judah and covers her face so Judah will not recognize her, or maybe she also covered her face when she was married to Er and Onan, a sign of modesty. Judah was taken by her presence and asked her the following questions before going for her. “Perhaps you are a gentile?” she says “I am a convert.” “Perhaps you are married?”, “I am not married.” Perhaps your father accepted a marriage for you?”, “No, I am an orphan.” More questions, answered well. Finally, Judah decides to take her and she becomes pregnant. Tamar was legally allowed to have relations with Jacob because she was not given in marriage by her father and in those days before the Torah, levirate marriage allowed the widow to marry the brothers or the father of the deceased husband. After a few months she starts showing and the community declares her a zona, or prostitute. When Judah had sex with Tamar he left with her his tunic, a seal and a staff and with this evidence she could have easily called Judah out in public and declare that he was the father, which might have embarrassed him. So, instead, she asked for the three items to be given to Judah and to tell him, “By the man to whom these belong I am pregnant.” The Gemara states that Tamar did a very good thing by not embarrassing Judah in public and Judah in a public declaration stated, “She is right; it is from me.” Hashem rewards Tamar’s modesty, she covered her face, and the fact that she did not humiliate Judah in public, she has twin boys. Judah is also rewarded for his pubic confession that he is the father. From their union comes the royal line of King David. I want to emphasize that we learn that it is very important not to shame a person in public. Tamar could have saved herself from being burnt to death by publically saying that Judah was the father, but instead she sent him the private message that only he would understand and he came out publicly that he was the father. A great measure for measure story.
One question I’ve had for years was, where did we cross into Israel after the forty years in the desert? I got a very clear answer beginning in 33b3. The Rabbis taught that the Levites carried the ark while they slowly travelled during the 40 years. However, the day came when they were near the Jordan River, on the east side, probably a little north of Jericho, and the Kohanim became the bearers of the ark. When they stepped into the water the flow from upstream stopped and the water piled up high in one column and the riverbed became dry!! The water went up so high that the Amorite kings on the west side of the Jordan and all the Canaanite kings by the sea heard that Hashem had dried up the Jordan’s waters for the sake of the children of Israel until they crossed the river. Seeing this miracle greatly demoralized these kings, much more so than just hearing about it. While the 12 tribes were still in the riverbed, Joshua spoke to them, “Hashem is parting the waters to allow you to cross the Jordan on the condition that you will drive out the inhabitants of the land before you.” He goes further and says, “If you do this, good, but if not, then the water will come and wash me and you away.” The crossing into the Promised Land from the east side of the Jordan and the water piling up high as the river is stopped, was all new information to me. Why wasn’t this taught to me in Hebrew school or somewhere else in my life? This is big stuff, similar to the splitting of Reed Sea and the destruction of the Egyptian army. The oath to drive out the inhabitants of the land seems very harsh by today’s standards, but back then it was probably the only way to establish a new country. This seems to be very similar to how the U.S. was established, take over the land at the expense of the local Indian tribes.
The last Gemara I will tell you about is in 36b5, where the Gemara asks “What is the episode in which the Tribe of Judah sanctified Hashem’s Name?” With the Egyptians in pursuit, the Jews are facing the Red or Reed Sea. No one, from any of the tribes, wanted to jump into the water, until a prince of the Tribe of Judah took the leap. His name was Nachshon Ben Aminadav. Nachshon prays to Hashem, “Save me Hashem, for the waters have reached the soul, I am sunk in the mire of the shadowy depths and there is no foothold.” Many Jews follow Nachshon into the water. While this is going on Moses has been praying to Hashem for some time. Hashem says to Moses, “My dear ones are drowning in the sea while you linger in prayer before me?!” Moses replies, “Master of the Universe; but what is in my power to do?” Hashem responds, “Speak to the Children of Israel and let them go forth and you, lift up your staff and stretch out your arm over the sea and split it.” Nachshon was the hero of the splitting of the sea, he acted and jumped in and because of this the tribe of Judah becomes dominant in the new land. We learn from this that we have to stay focused and act to accomplish our goals in life. It is important to not be passive and to engage in things you think are important in life. A great lesson for us all to follow.
Again, thank you for being here and a special thanks to Rabbi Feldman for helping us understand Sotah and for being such a patient and wonderful teacher.
Palo Alto, CA –May 25, 2014