Parashat Naso

by Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky

This week’s parashah contains one of the most detailed descriptions of a Biblical ritual in the entire Torah. Numbers 5:11-31 contains a description of the Sotah ritual. When a husband suspected his wife of being unfaithful she was subjected to an ordeal that would prove either her innocence or guilt. In addition to the description of the Sotah ritual found in the Torah, there is a very detailed tractate in the Mishnah (early 3rd century) that goes into even further detail.

The Sotah ritual has been subject to much scholarly research, some compared this ritual to other Ancient Near Eastern ordeals while other focused on unavoidable questions regarding gender and patriarchy. I would like to discuss the approach to the Sotah taken by Ishai Rosen-Zvi in his book The Mishnaic Sotah Ritual: Temple, Gender and Midrash.

Rosen-Zvi begins by asking the following questions:

Why does the Mishnah reformulate a ritual that has already been described in the Torah in great detail? What is the meaning of the numerous differences between the course of the ritual in the Torah and the Mishnah? What is the origin of the “new” elements of the Mishnaic ritual? What is their relation to the real Second Temple, and what was their function in the world of the Tannaim after the destruction? (The Mishnaic Sotah Ritual, 1)

Rosen-Zvi’s questions focus on three different problems: What is the nature of the relationship between the Biblical text and the Mishnah? What are the origins of material found in the Mishnah that is not found in the Bible? How are we to understand an early third-century rabbinic text that describes in great detail a ritual that no longer exists?

In addition, Rosen-Zvi is very troubled by the language used in Tractate Sotah.

Among various tractates and chapters in the Mishnah that address questions of gender and sexuality, Sotah stands out in its description of particularly extreme and violent gestures: intentional defacement of the female body; its exposure before an audience; and finally its mutilation to the point of death. These gestures have no trace in the biblical ritual or in sources from the Second Temple period, and they appear to be an innovation of Tannaitic discourse…Thus, in any scholarly analysis of rabbinic attitudes towards questions of modesty, punishment and gender, Tractate Sotah is an anomaly that doesn’t quite fit into the overall picture. (ibid., 1-2)

Regarding this aspect of Tractate Sotah Rosen-Zvi wrote that:

Mishnah Sotah does not represent customary Tannaitic rhetoric about women, not even a radical instance of it…This reading demonstrates that the ritual constructed in the Mishnah is not at all an inquisitive ordeal, as all exegetes–old and new–have assumed. Rather, it is a punitive ritual, meticulously shaped in the mould of prophetic descriptions of punishment against adulterous women. This conclusion explains various phenomena evident in the construction of the gestures in the Mishnah, including one that has been thus far completely overlooked: the Mishnaic ritual’s systematic exclusion of the possibility that the sotah is in fact innocent. (ibid., 3)

According to this reading, while the Biblical ritual could possibly be describing as a fact-finding investigation, albeit one that is one-sided and from the outset biased against the woman, the Mishnah tractate never entertains the possibility that the woman is innocent. She is assumed guilty, and the goal of the entire ritual is not to prove either her innocence or guilt, but to punish her for her already assumed guilt.

As to the question of why an early third-century rabbinic text describes in great detail a ritual that no longer exists, Rosen-Zvi offers a new answer. Unlike earlier scholars who understood Mishnaic descriptions of Temple rituals to be old and “reliable descriptions of the Temple,” Rosen-Zvi offers a different understanding.

The more closely Temple laws are studied, the more it becomes apparent that they do not offer a straightforward record of Temple life, and that actual traditions from the Temple period can be found side by side with descriptions created by the Tannaim that promote their own concerns and are situated within their discourse…[This book] argues the dating of Tractate Sotah as a text from the Temple period is unfounded, as is the claim that it is construed of a collection of traditions from the Temple period. (ibid., 5-6)

Rosen-Zvi describes these Mishnaic traditions as “textual rituals” and not as descriptions of rituals. The very act of study becomes the ritual and not the actualization of the ritual described in the text. Rosen-Zvi’s reading of the traditions surrounding the Sotah ritual allows us to gain a new understanding of a ritual and text that challenges us. While ignoring it was always an option, a different option is to confront its meaning within a more nuanced context of Jewish tradition and literature.


Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky is the AJR Rabbinics Curriculum Coordinator.