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Introduction to Masechet Sotah

In memory of and l’iluy nishmat our Hadran Zoom colleague, Carol Robinson – Karina Gola bat Hudda v’Yehuda Tzvi- a”h, a paradigm of joy and peace.


In Bemidbar 5:11-31, we learn about a sota, a married woman who is suspected of having committed adultery.


וַיְדַבֵּר ה’ אֶל־מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר׃ דַּבֵּר אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם אִישׁ אִישׁ כִּי־תִשְׂטֶה אִשְׁתּוֹ וּמָעֲלָה בוֹ מָעַל׃ וְשָׁכַב אִישׁ אֹתָהּ שִׁכְבַת־זֶרַע וְנֶעְלַם מֵעֵינֵי אִישָׁהּ וְנִסְתְּרָה וְהִיא נִטְמָאָה וְעֵד אֵין בָּהּ וְהִוא לֹא נִתְפָּשָׂה׃ וְעָבַר עָלָיו רוּחַ־קִנְאָה וְקִנֵּא אֶת־אִשְׁתּוֹ וְהִוא נִטְמָאָה אוֹ־עָבַר עָלָיו רוּחַ־קִנְאָה וְקִנֵּא אֶת־אִשְׁתּוֹ וְהִיא לֹא נִטְמָאָה׃ וְהֵבִיא הָאִישׁ אֶת־אִשְׁתּוֹ אֶל־הַכֹּהֵן וְהֵבִיא אֶת־קׇרְבָּנָהּ עָלֶיהָ עֲשִׂירִת הָאֵיפָה קֶמַח שְׂעֹרִים לֹא־יִצֹק עָלָיו שֶׁמֶן וְלֹא־יִתֵּן עָלָיו לְבֹנָה כִּי־מִנְחַת קְנָאֹת הוּא מִנְחַת זִכָּרוֹן מַזְכֶּרֶת עָוֺן׃ וְהִקְרִיב אֹתָהּ הַכֹּהֵן וְהֶעֱמִדָהּ לִפְנֵי ה’׃ וְלָקַח הַכֹּהֵן מַיִם קְדֹשִׁים בִּכְלִי־חָרֶשׂ וּמִן־הֶעָפָר אֲשֶׁר יִהְיֶה בְּקַרְקַע הַמִּשְׁכָּן יִקַּח הַכֹּהֵן וְנָתַן אֶל־הַמָּיִם׃ וְהֶעֱמִיד הַכֹּהֵן אֶת־הָאִשָּׁה לִפְנֵי ה’ וּפָרַע אֶת־רֹאשׁ הָאִשָּׁה וְנָתַן עַל־כַּפֶּיהָ אֵת מִנְחַת הַזִּכָּרוֹן מִנְחַת קְנָאֹת הִוא וּבְיַד הַכֹּהֵן יִהְיוּ מֵי הַמָּרִים הַמְאָרְרִים׃ וְהִשְׁבִּיעַ אֹתָהּ הַכֹּהֵן וְאָמַר אֶל־הָאִשָּׁה אִם־לֹא שָׁכַב אִישׁ אֹתָךְ וְאִם־לֹא שָׂטִית טֻמְאָה תַּחַת אִישֵׁךְ הִנָּקִי מִמֵּי הַמָּרִים הַמְאָרְרִים הָאֵלֶּה׃ וְאַתְּ כִּי שָׂטִית תַּחַת אִישֵׁךְ וְכִי נִטְמֵאת וַיִּתֵּן אִישׁ בָּךְ אֶת־שְׁכׇבְתּוֹ מִבַּלְעֲדֵי אִישֵׁךְ׃ וְהִשְׁבִּיעַ הַכֹּהֵן אֶת־הָאִשָּׁה בִּשְׁבֻעַת הָאָלָה וְאָמַר הַכֹּהֵן לָאִשָּׁה יִתֵּן ה’ אוֹתָךְ לְאָלָה וְלִשְׁבֻעָה בְּתוֹךְ עַמֵּךְ בְּתֵת ה’ אֶת־יְרֵכֵךְ נֹפֶלֶת וְאֶת־בִּטְנֵךְ צָבָה׃ וּבָאוּ הַמַּיִם הַמְאָרְרִים הָאֵלֶּה בְּמֵעַיִךְ לַצְבּוֹת בֶּטֶן וְלַנְפִּל יָרֵךְ וְאָמְרָה הָאִשָּׁה אָמֵן  אָמֵן׃ וְכָתַב אֶת־הָאָלֹת הָאֵלֶּה הַכֹּהֵן בַּסֵּפֶר וּמָחָה אֶל־מֵי הַמָּרִים׃ וְהִשְׁקָה אֶת־הָאִשָּׁה אֶת־מֵי הַמָּרִים הַמְאָרְרִים וּבָאוּ בָהּ הַמַּיִם הַמְאָרְרִים לְמָרִים׃ וְלָקַח הַכֹּהֵן מִיַּד הָאִשָּׁה אֵת מִנְחַת הַקְּנָאֹת וְהֵנִיף אֶת־הַמִּנְחָה לִפְנֵי ה’ וְהִקְרִיב אֹתָהּ אֶל־הַמִּזְבֵּחַ׃ וְקָמַץ הַכֹּהֵן מִן־הַמִּנְחָה אֶת־אַזְכָּרָתָהּ וְהִקְטִיר הַמִּזְבֵּחָה וְאַחַר יַשְׁקֶה אֶת־הָאִשָּׁה אֶת־הַמָּיִם׃ וְהִשְׁקָהּ אֶת־הַמַּיִם וְהָיְתָה אִם־נִטְמְאָה וַתִּמְעֹל מַעַל בְּאִישָׁהּ וּבָאוּ בָהּ הַמַּיִם הַמְאָרְרִים לְמָרִים וְצָבְתָה בִטְנָהּ וְנָפְלָה יְרֵכָהּ וְהָיְתָה הָאִשָּׁה לְאָלָה בְּקֶרֶב עַמָּהּ׃ וְאִם־לֹא נִטְמְאָה הָאִשָּׁה וּטְהֹרָה הִוא וְנִקְּתָה וְנִזְרְעָה זָרַע׃ זֹאת תּוֹרַת הַקְּנָאֹת אֲשֶׁר תִּשְׂטֶה אִשָּׁה תַּחַת אִישָׁהּ וְנִטְמָאָה׃ אוֹ אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר תַּעֲבֹר עָלָיו רוּחַ קִנְאָה וְקִנֵּא אֶת־אִשְׁתּוֹ וְהֶעֱמִיד אֶת־הָאִשָּׁה לִפְנֵי ה’ וְעָשָׂה לָהּ הַכֹּהֵן אֵת כׇּל־הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת׃ וְנִקָּה הָאִישׁ מֵעָוֺן וְהָאִשָּׁה הַהִוא תִּשָּׂא אֶת־עֲוֺנָהּ׃ {פ}

God spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: Any party whose wife has gone astray and broken faith with him, in that another man has had carnal relations with her unbeknown to her husband, and she keeps secret the fact that she has defiled herself without being forced, and there is no witness against her, but a fit of jealousy comes over him and he is wrought up about the wife who has defiled herself—or if a fit of jealousy comes over him and he is wrought up about his wife although she has not defiled herself— that party shall bring his wife to the priest. And he shall bring as an offering for her one-tenth of an ephah of barley flour. No oil shall be poured upon it and no frankincense shall be laid on it, for it is a meal offering of jealousy, a meal offering of remembrance which recalls wrongdoing. The priest shall bring her forward and have her stand before God. The priest shall take sacral water in an earthen vessel and, taking some of the earth that is on the floor of the Tabernacle, the priest shall put it into the water. After he has made the woman stand before God, the priest shall bare the woman’s head and place upon her hands the meal offering of remembrance, which is a meal offering of jealousy. And in the priest’s hands shall be the water of bitterness that induces the spell. The priest shall adjure the woman, saying to her, “If no other party has lain with you, if you have not gone astray in defilement while living in your husband’s household, be immune to harm from this water of bitterness that induces the spell. But if you have gone astray while living in your husband’s household and have defiled yourself, if any party other than your husband has had carnal relations with you”— here the priest shall administer the curse of adjuration to the woman, as the priest goes on to say to the woman—“may God make you a curse and an imprecation among your people, as God causes your thigh to sag and your belly to distend; may this water that induces the spell enter your body, causing the belly to distend and the thigh to sag.” And the woman shall say, “Amen, amen!” The priest shall put these curses down in writing and rub it off into the water of bitterness. He is to make the woman drink the water of bitterness that induces the spell, so that the spell-inducing water may enter into her to bring on bitterness. Then the priest shall take from the woman’s hand the meal offering of jealousy, elevate the meal offering before God, and present it on the altar. The priest shall scoop out of the meal offering a token part of it and turn it into smoke on the altar. Last, he shall make the woman drink the water. Once he has made her drink the water—if she has defiled herself by breaking faith with her husband, the spell-inducing water shall enter into her to bring on bitterness, so that her belly shall distend and her thigh shall sag; and the wife shall become a curse among her people. But if the woman has not defiled herself and is pure, she shall be unharmed and able to retain seed. This is the ritual in cases of jealousy, when a woman goes astray while living in her husband’s household, and defiles herself, or when a fit of jealousy comes over a husband and he is wrought up over his wife: the woman shall be made to stand before God and the priest shall carry out all this ritual with her. The man shall be clear of guilt; but that woman shall suffer for her guilt.

The term sota is used to refer to a woman who committed adultery, or is suspected of having done so. If the suspicion is found to be proven in bet din (based on the testimony of two witnesses), the woman is known as a sota vadai (confirmed sota). If there is no confirming testimony, but her actions meet specific criteria (specified in our masechta), she is considered a sota safek (suspected sota) and is subject to the procedures outlined above.


If a woman commits adultery, she may no longer live with her husband and he is required to divorce her. Note that she is also forbidden to her adulterous partner; in the words of the Rabbis, she is asura la’baal ve’laboel (forbidden to the husband and to the partner). She also forfeits her ketuba payment. If there are two witnesses to her adultery, she and her partner are subject to the death penalty, provided that they had been properly warned by witnesses that the act is forbidden and that it carries the death penalty. A woman who commits adultery may not eat Teruma or marry a kohen (if she is widowed; had she been divorced, she would be forbidden to him in any case).


If a woman’s husband questions her fidelity based on her behavior, and she meets the following two criteria, she is considered a sota safek. She must have undergone:
Kinui (warning): her husband warns her not to seclude herself with a specific man
Setira (seclusion): she disregards the warning and goes into seclusion with that man for a time period long enough for intimate relations to have occurred

Both kinui and setira must take place in front of two witnesses. If she has been warned and chooses to ignore the warning (in front of witnesses), she is considered a sota until her innocence can be proven. This means she cannot live with her husband, cannot eat Teruma if she is married to a kohen, or marry a kohen in the event of her husband’s death before the matter is clarified. She may not marry her suspected partner if she is divorced or widowed before the matter is clarified. The testing ordeal involves the erasure of Hashem’s name. In Shabbat 116a, we learned:

וּמָה לַעֲשׂוֹת שָׁלוֹם בֵּין אִישׁ לְאִשְׁתּוֹ אָמְרָה תּוֹרָה: שְׁמִי שֶׁנִּכְתַּב בִּקְדוּשָּׁה יִמָּחֶה עַל הַמַּיִם

Just to make peace between a husband and his wife, the Torah says: My name that was written in sanctity shall be erased in the water



  • The husband and wife go to the bet din of their city to determine if she is eligible for the sota test. Rav Steinsaltz notes that the husband’s desire to have her undergo the ordeal is not punitive; rather, it shows that he wants to remove doubts about her faithfulness and rebuild the relationship. Her willingness to undergo the ordeal is a sign of her remorse for her suspicious behavior and her desire to end the mistrust in their relationship. If she is eligible…
  • The husband brings his wife to the Sanhedrin Gedola in Jerusalem, where the judges try to get her to confess, rather than to undergo the ordeal. If she does not confess…
  • She is walked to the eastern entrance of the Courtyard of the Bet HaMikdash (the gate of Nikanor) through a long and circuitous route. This is done so that, if she is guilty, she will lose her nerve and confess, rather than undergoing the ordeal. If she persists in her innocence…
  • She stands in the Nikanor Gate and the process begins.
  • The Kohen has her swear that she is innocent and informs her of the horrible curse that will occur if she is indeed guilty and drinks the mayim hamarim, the bitter waters.
  • She responds Amen, Amen.
  • The Kohen prepares the waters:
  • He writes the passage in the Torah containing the oath and curse (Bamidbar 5:19-22) on a scroll.
  • He places water from the kiyor (laver) in an earthenware vessel and adds soil from the floor of the Bet HaMikdash and a bitter herb to the water.
  • He erases the words of the scroll in the water.Throughout the following steps, the water is kept in the woman’s sight.
  • A Kohen approaches the woman, tears her clothes from the neck to her chest, dishevels her hair and ties her garment closed with a coarse rope.
  • The Kohen brings barley flour (provided by the husband for a mincha offering) and has her hold it for an extended time, again attempting to elicit a confession.
  • The flour is transferred to a kli sharet (sanctified vessel), sanctifying it as a mincha.
  • The Kohen gives her the water to drink.
  • The Kohen and the woman wave the mincha together (tenufa) and he offers it on the mizbeach.If the woman is guilty, her physical appearance immediately begins to change, and she is rushed out of the Bet HaMikdash. Her stomach becomes distended and her thigh collapses, and she dies. Her partner – even if he is not present with her – dies in the same way. The Gemara (20b) notes that, if she has certain merits, her death may be delayed. If she is innocent, she lives, her health improves, and she is blessed with beautiful children who are born without difficulty.AVOIDING THE ORDEALThe woman can avoid the ordeal by confessing her guilt. In that case, she is not liable to the death penalty, but is divorced and forfeits her ketuba. Before Hashem’s name is erased (step 7c above), she can choose to accept a divorce and forfeit her ketuba without an admission of guilt. The ordeal only occurs if she persists in insisting on her innocence.
    The husband must be the one to initiate the request for the ordeal. If he does not, she does not drink, but he is required to divorce her. Since she is willing to undergo the ordeal, she does not forfeit her ketuba. If her husband dies before she is divorced, she cannot collect the ketuba from his heirs. Additionally, if the husband is not “free of sin,” the wife does not undergo the ordeal, i.e., if he has engaged in an illicit relationship.
    It is important to note that the ordeal is only performed when there is doubt as to the woman’s guilt. If there were witnesses to her adultery, she is divorced (or executed). If even one witness testifies to her having ignored kinui and secluded herself with the man in question, she is not tested and must be divorced. However, she is not executed on the basis on one witness’ testimony.
    The sota ordeal is unique in that it relies on a miraculous process. Just giving someone a drink of water mixed with soil, bitter herbs and ink should not result in their death or – conversely – in a blessing. The partner, who is not involved in the ordeal at all, should not be expected to die. In describing the ordeal, the Ramban writes:

    והנה אין בכל משפטי התורה דבר תלוי בנס זולתי הענין הזה שהוא פלא ונס קבוע שיעשה בישראל בהיותם רובם עושים רצונו של מקום כי חפץ למען צדקו ליסר הנשים שלא תעשינה כזמת יתר העמים ולנקות ישראל מן הממזרות שיהיו ראויים להשרות שכינה בתוכם ולפיכך פסק הענין הזה משעה שנתקלקלו בעבירות כמו שאמרו (סוטה מז) משרבו הנואפים פסקו מי סוטה שנאמר (הושע ד יד) לא אפקוד על בנותיכם כי תזנינה ועל כלותיכם כי תנאפנה כי הם עם הזונות יפרדו ועם הקדשות יזבחו ועם לא יבין ילבט ואין הכתוב אומר שתהיינה הנשים הנואפות פטורות מן העון בעבור שבעליהן נואפים רק שלא יעשה בהן הנס הגדול הזה שהוא נעשה להם לכבודם ולהיותם עם קדוש והם לא יבינו בטובה הזאת ולא יחפצו בה וזהו שאמר ועם לא יבין ילבט כלומר ילכד בסכלותו וכן ואויל שפתים ילבט (משלי י ח) תרגם המתרגם הירושלמי וסכלא בספותיה מתאחד וזה טעם מה שאמרו (סוטה מז) ונקה האיש מעון בזמן שהאיש מנוקה מעון מים בודקין את אשתו אין האיש מנוקה מעון אין המים בודקין את אשתו והנקיון הוא שלא בא עליה משקנא לה ונסתרה ויש מפרשים שאם בעל הבעל שום בעילה אסורה כל ימיו אין המים בודקין אותה והעולה מן ההלכה (שם) שאפילו היו בניו ובנותיו נואפים ולא כהה בם לא היו בודקין והכלל שהוא נס וכבוד לישראל:

    Now there is nothing amongst all the ordinances of the Torah which depends upon a miracle, except for this matter, which is a permanent wonder and miracle that will happen in Israel, when the majority of the people live in accordance with the Will of G-d; for He was pleased for His righteousness’ sake to teach the women that they do not do after the lewdness of the other nations, and to purify Israel from adulterous offspring, so that they are worthy that the Divine Presence dwell among them. Therefore this matter [i.e., the effect of the water on the sotah] stopped from the time that the people became debauched with [sexual] sins, as the Rabbis have said: “When adulterers became frequent, the water of sotah ceased, for it is said, I will not punish your daughters when they commit harlotry, nor your daughters-in-law when they commit adultery; for they themselves consort with lewd women, and they sacrifice with harlots, and the people that is without understanding is distraught. Now this verse does not mean to say that adulterous women will be free from [punishment for their] sin, because their husbands [likewise] commit adultery; it [is only saying] that this great miracle will not be done for them, for it occurs as a sign of honor for them because of their being a holy people, but they do not understand this goodness, nor do they desire it. Therefore the verse states, and the people that is without understanding is ‘yilaveit’ (distraught), that is to say, trapped by its foolishness. Similarly, but a prating fool ‘yilaveit, ’ which the Jerusalem Targum translated: “but the fool is caught by his lips.” This is the reason for what the Sages have said: “And the man shall be clear from iniquity. When the man is clear of iniquity, the water [of the sotah] tests his wife; but if the man is himself not free from iniquity, the water does not put his wife to the proof.” Now the “freedom from iniquity” of the husband means [in this context] that he had no sexual relations with her after he had warned her and she [nevertheless] had secret contact [with the suspected adulterer]. And there are scholars who explain that if the husband had ever in his lifetime had a forbidden sexual intercourse, the water [of the sotah] no longer tests his wife. And according to the final decision of the law, even if his sons or daughters committed adultery and he did not rebuke them the water did not put his wife to the test [even though he himself is clear from iniquity]. In short, this procedure was miraculous, as [a sign of] honor for Israel.

    The masechta also includes discussions of several matters that are not directly related to other masechtot. It also contains a great deal of agada, as well as a discussion of sin in general and the transgressions of famous Biblical figures. The concept of Divine punishment – in particular, mida keneged mida (measure for measure) is also discussed at length.

    Structure of the Masechta

    Chapter 1 2a-14a המקנא The husband’s warning
    Definition of seclusion
    Initial process of bringing her to the Bet HaMikdash
    Mida keneged mida

    Chapter 2 14a-19a היה מביא Bringing the mincha offering
    Writing the scroll
    The oath
    Preparing the water

    Chapter 3 19a-23b היה נוטל The mincha offering and when it is not brought
    The punishment of the sota
    Merits that can delay Divine punishment

    Chapter 4 23b-27b ארוסה Women who may and may not participate in the sota ordeal

    Chapter 5 27b-31a כשם שהמים Statements that were taught in the bet midrash on the day that Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya was appointed to lead the Sanhedrin

    Chapter 6 31a-32a מי שקינא The types of testimony that can be used to determine if she has committed adultery

    Chapter 7 32a-42a אלו נאמרין Mitzvot that can be recited in any language
    Mitzvot that can only be recited in Hebrew

    Chapter 8 42a-44b משוח מלחמה The laws of going out to battle

    Chapter 9 44b-49b עגלה ערופה The laws of egla arufa
    Matters that were discontinued due to diminished spiritual status

Gitta Jaroslawicz-Neufeld

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