Judith Guedalia, PhD and Yocheved Debow, MA
The sotah (suspected adulteress) is a topic
of much discussion in the Torah and Talmud.
The basic level of the discussion is the process
by which a jealous husband and the kohanim
(priests) deal with a wife suspected of violating
the sanctity of marriage by infidelity. Through
examining the Torah and Talmud texts, we wish
to present an additional perspective on this
difficult topic. Our suggested approach reveals
the empathy and compassion of the A-lmighty
and the Torah for a woman in desperate pursuit
to have a child.
We have always found the sotah, the suspected adulteress, a very difficult
topic. Although usually concise, the Torah devotes twenty verses to this problem.
Often, to understand the extreme concision of the Written Torah, we must look for
further explication in the Oral Torah. Although the Torah explains the law of sotah
in explicit detail, the Talmud has an entire tractate on it. Other subjects with day-to-day applicability, such as many of the details of kosher food, are afforded only a
few words or sentences in the written and oral law, leaving the rabbis to expound
on them throughout the generations. We believe that we must carefully search
the written and Oral Torah for a positive reason for the lengthy discussions on the sotah. We acknowledge that this problem inflicts social turmoil and terrible
pain on all parties involved. Yet, we must look beyond the negative aspects for a
II. The Torah Text (Numbers 5: 11-31)
The long discussion on the sotah in the Torah seems obvious. It seems to teach
a negative lesson. A woman is suspected by her jealous husband of infidelity.
The husband takes the wife to the kohen (priest). They bring a sacrificial offering
of barley meal. The kohen prepares an earthen bowl of holy water with earth
from the Temple floor in it. The priest uncovers her hair and gives her the barley
meal sacrifice to hold. The kohen tells her that if she is innocent, she will not be
harmed. The kohen tells her that if she has defiled herself, she will be cursed by
the following curses:
The L-rd makes you a curse and an oath among your people, when the
L-rd makes your thigh fall away, and your belly swell. And this water that
causes the curse shall go into your bowels, to make your belly swell, and
your thigh to fall away.
The woman says, “Amen, amen.”
The kohen writes these curses containing the name of G-d on a parchment
and erases them in the bowl of water.
The kohen sacrifices the barley meal offering. He gives her the curse water to
If she is guilty, after she drinks the curse water, her belly swells, her thigh falls,
and she dies.
If the woman is innocent,
...but be clean, then she shall be free, and shall conceive seed.
This is a summary of the plain meaning of the Torah text. Is such a complex
ritual necessary in order to teach us that adultery is punishable by degradation
and death? Taking note of the extraordinarily beneficent outcome of the ordeal
for the innocent woman described in verse 28, we turn to the Oral Torah to try to
shape a positive meaning from the sotah ordeal.
III. The Oral Torah (Mishnah, Talmud, and Maimonides’ Mishneh
Torah): The Positive Meaning Given in the Talmud
Although the Torah text does not seem to need more detail, when we study
the explication of the Oral Torah, we see that there are many questions to be
answered. Amazingly, we find positive meaning for the sotah ordeal in the
Mishnah Sotah 1:2 starts its explication of the Torah text with the case of the
jealous husband who forbids his wife to speak with a certain man. The Talmud tractate Sotah starts its explication of this mishnah more specifically. The Talmud
says that the case history of a sotah starts when before two witnesses a jealous
husband forbids his wife to seclude herself with a specific man. The wife flouts
her husband’s prohibition. She is witnessed secluding herself with the other man.
After this, she is forbidden to her husband. If the wife admits to infidelity, she is
immediately given a divorce without the fiscal rights of her ketubbah, her marriage
contract (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah 2:1), and the story ends here.
If the wife maintains that she did not have relations with the man, she is
branded a “sotah” (literally, “stray,” suggesting wantonness and immodesty).
The couple goes with the witnesses to the local rabbinical court. After the court
examines the witnesses, it sends the couple with two guards to the Sanhedrin in
Jerusalem. The seventy elders of the Sanhedrin high court try to convince the
sotah to confess, so as to avoid the next step in the Temple of going through the
degrading ordeal that leads to drinking the curse water in which the name of G-d
has been erased.
The Torah prohibits the destruction of G-d’s name. This prohibition is
understood to be a preventative measure. It is assumed that the woman would
rather admit guilt than transgress this commandment. If she comes out of the
ordeal of drinking the curse water unharmed, however, her innocence will be
According to Maimonides, the woman cannot be forced to go through the
ordeal. If she says that she is not guilty and that she will not drink the curse
water, she is given a divorce immediately without the fiscal rights of her ketubbah
(Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Sotah 2:1).
If the sotah withstands the pressure to confess, she is taken to the Temple. She
is dressed in a simple jute garment. The kohen uncovers the sotah’s hair and her
bosom (literally her “heart”). The point of this is to make her look “repulsive.”
If her hair or bosom are attractive, they remain covered (Talmud Sotah 7a and
Maimonides Sotah 3:11). She is publicly disgraced. The kohen makes her drink
the curse water. If she is guilty, her face turns green, her thighs swell and fall, her
belly becomes distended, and she dies (Mishnah Sotah 1:5-6 and Talmud Sotah
If the husband has ever committed a sexual offense, the curse water has no
effect on the suspected wife (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah Sotah 2:8). This is the
reason why when society later became “loose,” the Sanhedrin canceled the sotah
ritual (Mishnah Sotah 9:9 and Hosea 4).
The curse water also checks and kills the guilty male partner in the adultery
(Mishnah Sotah 5:1; Talmud Sotah 27a-28b; Mishneh Torah Sotah 3:17). If the
woman is innocent, she is not harmed by this ordeal. Maimonides says that she is
radiant and gains strength. She may return to her husband immediately.
Why Choose Self-Degradation?
If the woman is innocent, why would she choose to go through the terrible
ordeal of the sotah? Surely, an innocent woman who is explicitly warned in
front of witnesses not to be seen alone with a specific man would realize that
her behavior was inappropriate and will take care not to be found in the same
immodest position again. After having been thus warned, it would seem that an
innocent woman caught in the presence of the other man must have contrived
the apparent tryst in order to be caught. But why? What possible gain could
such a woman hope for that she would choose to be branded a sotah? Innocent
of adultery, what kind of person would choose to go through this humiliating
Sifre 19 and Tosefta Sota 5:2 interpret Numbers 5:28 (“And if the woman be not
defiled, but be clean, then she shall be free, and shall conceive seed”) as a promise
of possible reward to the woman exonerated by the sotah ritual. Shaar Ha’Gilgulim
says that the acquitted woman will conceive a son within a year.
Talmud Brakhot 31b attributes Rabbi Ishmael with the opinion that if the
woman had been barren, she will become fertile. Rabbi Akiva is attributed in this
Talmud passage with arguing that such a promise is not feasible. If this were the
reward, then women might purposely place themselves under suspicion in order
to undergo the sotah ordeal and reap the reward. Rabbi Ishmael suggests instead
that the reward is an incremental benefit, such as painless instead of distressful
childbirth, sons instead of daughters, lanky instead of stubby children, or fair
instead of homely children.
In its debate on what is the reward for the acquitted woman, Talmud Brakhot
31b uses Hannah’s famous prayer as the basis for concluding that an innocent
barren woman who undergoes the sotah ritual is promised children.
Hannah’s Desperate Prayer
The first two chapters of I Samuel describe the plight of Hannah, the beloved
but childless wife of Elkanah. Distraught, Hannah goes to the Tabernacle to pour
out her heart and pray for a child.
Talmud Brakhot 31b interprets the verse “Hannah spoke in her heart” (I Samuel
1:13) as a lament that G-d created her with organs that were never used. Talmud
Brakhot 31b gives a further interpretation to the verse in I Samuel 1:11, “if thou
will indeed look” as a threat by Hannah to G-d that if He does not answer her
prayer, she will force the situation by putting herself under false suspicion of
adultery in order to undergo the sotah ritual and be rewarded with a child by her
husband within a year.
Hannah’s threat should be understood in the context of the desperate need
of a barren woman to have a child. The need is so drastic that she is willing to
compromise herself in order to try the only option available. Her aim is to exact
from G-d that which she believes is the main purpose of her life.
Sarah and Tamar (Genesis 16:1-5 and 38:1-30)
We do not have to search far in the Bible to find other examples of personal
sacrifice by barren women to have children. Sarah caused herself terrible
humiliation by convincing her husband Abraham to take her maidservant
Talmud Sotah 10a and 10b retells the story of Tamar. As related in Genesis
chapter 38, Yehudah’s childless, twice-widowed daughter-in-law, Tamar,
languishes waiting for Yehudah to arrange for her the legal status necessary
for remarriage. In desperation, Tamar disguises herself as a roadside harlot to
lure Yehudah. She becomes pregnant and refuses to identify the father of the
fetus. (Talmud Brakhot 43b and Rashi on Genesis 38:25 praise Tamar for not
publicly embarrassing Yehudah.) Outraged and not knowing that he is the
father, Yehudah brings Tamar to trial. When Tamar provides evidence that makes
Yehudah understand the situation, he admits his guilt (Genesis 38:26).
What does Tamar have in common with the innocent childless sotah? Tamar
is trapped in the desperate bind of a childless widow awaiting either yibum or
halitsah. If she does not take action, she will be left barren and alone forever. Like
Hannah, she fears that the promise of her anatomy will not be fulfilled.
What action is available to Tamar? Like the childless innocent sotah, her only
choice is to violate her natural modesty. In the end, her bold decision is approved
by the Torah. From her children King David descended and the mashiah (messiah)
Motivation for Self-Degradation
What force is powerful enough to enable a woman to stand up to the terrible
humiliation of participating in her own dishonor? Rabbi Akiva (Yalkut Shimoni,
Parashat Naso, remez 709) posits that it is her desire to conceive and have children.
This reinforces our hypothesis.
Throughout the generations, the Jewish woman has been venerated by her
community for dedicating herself to the physical and emotional well-being
of her family. Both sociologically and emotionally, a woman is encouraged
to realize that her role in life is parenting. Rachel cries bitterly to her beloved
Jacob, “without children it is as if I am not alive” (Genesis 30:1). This is Rachel’s
subjective experience as she watches her sister and maidservant give birth to
Jacob’s children. This is also how Hannah felt watching Peninah produce sons
and daughters for Elkanah.
In a family-centered society, a woman feels a void if she cannot live “equally”
as a respected and active part of the community because she is childless.
Psychological Factors of Conception
Several observed phenomena suggest that psychological factors play a role in
the sensitive biological process of conception. It has been observed that couples
may try to have children for many years until they adopt. Then, relieved of the
anxiety to conceive, they conceive naturally. (Could Sarah, by orchestrating the union of Abraham with her servant Hagar that gave birth to Ishmael, have used
this tactic to give birth to her own son Isaac?)
Perhaps the powerful psychological forces unleashed by the sotah ritual
alter the psychological nexus and relational patterns between husband and
wife, allowing them to conceive. The local rabbinical court sends two guards to
accompany the husband and wife to prevent them having relations on the way to
the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem (Sotah 7a).3
We should not lose sight of the fact that the express purpose of the sotah ritual
is to bring peace between husband and wife. This is the only justification for
erasing G-d’s name as part of the sotah ritual (Deuteronomy Rabbah 5:15).
Our Alternative Approach
We would like to suggest an alternative approach to understanding
a woman’s deep-rooted desire to have a child. It seems clear that sociological
and psychological factors exist in all cultures. We suggest that the very biological
nature of woman demands that she have children. Does this biological hardwiring
drive a woman to try all means at her disposal to give birth to a child?
Hannah laments in her prayer that she was created with organs that are not being
put to use. G-d patterned her in a certain way, and now she challenges Him to
fulfill the promise of her anatomy. A woman’s body is a vessel waiting to be used
for its created purpose. Since biblical times until today women plead with G-d to
fulfill the anatomical promise.
It is interesting to note that medical research has discovered the importance
of reproduction in protecting a woman’s long-term health. According to recent
research, a childless woman may have a higher risk of developing ovarian cancer.4
Similarly, research has shown that childless women often experience menopause
at an earlier stage of life than those who have given birth. (Previous research by
the same team showed that menopause is preceded by the onset of subfertility,
infertility, and menstrual irregularity at distinct mean time intervals of twenty,
ten, and six years respectively.)5 Furthermore, women who nurse their children
have a reduced rate of breast cancer.6 Thus, the deep-seated yearnings of women
from time immemorial seem to be upheld by modern medical discoveries.
There are biological and physiological as well as psychological needs that can
propel a childless woman to desperation great enough to go through the ordeal
of the sotah ritual. This opinion seems to be strengthened once again if we return
to the story of Hannah. Hannah promises that if the A-lmighty will grant her
a son, she will give him up to the service of G-d. Why does she so passionately
need to bear a child if she is ready to give him up to serve G-d? Indeed, Hannah
bears a son, and nurses and cares for his every need. When he is three years old,
she sends him to the Tabernacle with his father (perhaps because the separation
for her is too difficult). She was biologically hardwired to totally nurture the baby
from conception until he was weaned. Once the baby reached the stage that his mother’s body could no longer provide all his physical needs—and the mother’s
primary emotional needs had been satisfied—Hannah was able to allow her son
Samuel to dedicate himself to serve G-d and his people.
The main author would like to thank Rabbi Naftali Bar Ilan for his many
comments on the manuscript and Mrs. Bar Ilan for her help in choosing the title.
Rabbi Dr. Zev Gotthold was a great resource during the initial formulation of the
paper. Above all, no mere words can express my appreciation to my husband and
mentor, Rabbi Dr. Harris Guedalia for our lifetime of learning and teaching.
Thanks to Ms Gail Propp for reading and commenting on the manuscript.
1 Interestingly, the guilty sotah’s physical response to drinking the waters includes distended belly,
shakiness in the legs, and other manifestations that may be seen and experienced during the birth
process. This description is similar to pseudocyesis or pseudopregnancy—a psychiatric disorder
that may mimic many of the effects of pregnancy, including enlargement of the uterus, cessation of
menstruation, morning sickness, and even labor pains at term. The cause may be physical, such as
the growth of a tumor in the uterus, or emotional. See:
Int J Psychoanal 80 (Feb 1999) (Pt 1) 1-14.
Int J Psychoanal 80 (Apr 1999) (Pt 2) 424
Int J Psychoanal 80 (Dec 1999) (Pt 6) 1237-40.
Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen, Remembering Anna O: A Century of Mystification (London: Routledge,
2 S.G. Lee studied in 1958 six hundred rural Zulus (who were uncontaminated by knowledge of
Freudian or Jungian theories) in Africa. Zulu society treats childless women with contempt. Lee
found that infertile women experienced more “baby dreams” than women with children did.
Pseudocyesis was common among the infertile women, and the sufferers tended to have direct
dreams of babies. S.G. Lee, “Social Influences in Zulu Dreaming,” Journal of Social Psychology 47
(1958) 265-283. See also: Fertil Contracept Sex 16, no. 6 (Jun 1988) 459-463.
3 Here, regarding the husband’s possible attempt to cohabit with his wife, we may hypothesize
another scenario. What if the husband was impotent and as such could not impregnate his wife.
What if the jealousy that precipitates the husband’s “warnings” to his wife and his inability to be
dissuaded that he is falsely accusing her are functions of his feelings that he would be “potent” if
he were with another woman. See M. Klein, Envy and Gratitude and Other Works (London: Hogarth
Press, 1975). This possibility describes in essence the psychological state of projective identification.
See Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV (Washington DC: American Psychiatric
Association, 1994) 756. This nomenclature describes a defense mechanism “where an individual
deals with emotional conflict or an internal or external stressor by falsely attributing to another his
or her own unacceptable feelings, impulses, or thoughts. Unlike simple projection, the individual
does not fully disavow what is projected. Instead, the individual remains aware of his or her
own affects or impulses but misattributes them as justifiable reactions to the other person. Not
infrequently, the individual induces the very feelings in others that were first mistakenly believed
to be there, making it difficult to clarify who did what to whom first.” (T. Ogden, “On Projective Identification,” Int J Psychoanal 60 (1979) 371-394.
Might the jealous husband, sexually separated from his wife during the process of sotah, then
“see” his wife through different eyes. Might he then be aroused and be able to function as
a “fertile” man? Could this be yet another interpretation on the sotah case when an innocent
childless woman undergoes a horrible experience but in the end gives birth?
The husband seems insanely jealous, forbidding his wife to be alone with her father and brother
as well. It is interesting to note that Hirschel E. Revel references that the husband even ‘warns’ his
wife about the shahuf—an impotent man. See Hirschel E. Revel, Otzer HaSotah (in Hebrew) (New
York: Shulzinger Brothers, 1941). Revel notes (in chapter 1:1, pp. 21-23) that the jealous husband
even fears a shahuf finding a way to manipulate his wife into becoming pregnant. We might
hypothesize that the husband is “overcompensating” because of his own inadequacies.
4 See New Scientist.com news service 25/3/02; Genetic Health, Sept 2000.
Later motherhood “reduces ovarian cancer risk.” The study involved 20,000 subjects and found
that the more children a woman has, the lower her ovarian cancer risk.
5 Kari Danziger, “Breast and Ovarian Cancer, Nongenetic Risk Factors,” MS, CGC (5 Sep 2000). For
most women, pregnancy seems to provide some protection against breast and ovarian cancer. In
the case of ovarian cancer, studies have shown that women who have given birth are 30 to 60
percent less likely to develop ovarian cancer than are women who have never been pregnant.
6 S.Y. Lee, M.T. Kim, M.S. Song, and S.J. Yoon, “Effect of Lifetime Lactation on Breast Cancer Risk:
A Korean Women’s Cohort Study,” Int J Cancer 105 (20 Jun 2003) 390-393. A study of a large Korean
cohort provides additional empirical evidence to current theoretical conjecture that lactation
decreases the risk of breast cancer among premenopausal women.
A Borrowed Tear
The young mother cried
At the brit of her firstborn.
I took a tear from her cheek
And wiped it on my own,
That had not yet known
The pain or joy of children.
Guedalia, J., Debow,Y. In Desperate Pursuit of Motherhood: Another Look at the Sotah. B’Or Ha’Torah, Jounal of Science and Judaism. March 2005.