Introduction to Sotah
The laws of the Sotah, the suspected adulteress, are dealt with in Numbers 5:11-31. As they are related in these verses, the procedure is that a man suspects that his wife has been unfaithful to him. The Torah describes him as having a fit of jealousy. To find out if his wife has truly been with another man, he brings her to a priest in the Temple, who makes her undergo a test, sometimes called an ordeal. The test involves her drinking water which has had mixed into it some earth from the Temple floor and the ink from curses that were written onto a scroll and then rubbed off. The test also involves her taking an oath that she has not committed adultery. She is told that if she lies she will become a cursed woman. There is also an offering of grain that accompanies the test. The test will resolve if she was faithful or not. If she was faithful, she shall become pregnant. But if she was unfaithful, she will be disfigured.
There are many scholarly commentaries on this passage. A good suggestion would be Jacob Milgroms commentary on Numbers, published by JPS. A somewhat abbreviated version can be found in Etz Chaim, the Torah commentary used in most Conservative synagogues. The commentaries delve much more deeply into the ritual itself, explaining the symbolism of its elements. They also compare it to other ordeals known in the ancient world, most famously that a suspected adulterous was thrown into a river. If she truly committed adultery, she would die. These kinds of ordeals and distrust of womens sexuality are difficult for modern readers who are sensitive to mens domination of women. After all, there is no parallel test for mens faithfulness. This is not the place for a feminist reading of or commentary on the Sotah passage, but I would suggest that people interested read one of the available feminist Torah commentaries.
There are two main ways in which the rabbis have reinterpreted these verses, both of which demonstrate two key rabbinic values. First of all, the simple sense of the Torah is that the husband is only jealous, and based on his jealous rage alone, he can force his wife to go through this trying ordeal. It does not seem that he needs to bring any proof. The rabbis, on the other hand, force the husband to go through a procedure before he can bring his wife to be tested through the Sotah waters. He must first warn her not to seclude herself with a certain man, and then she must go and seclude herself with that same man. There must be witnesses to both of these procedures. These steps make it more likely that the woman has truly committed adultery, and that she is not just a victim of a jealous rage.
However, the rabbis also make the Sotah ceremony more disgraceful for the woman. Since, according to the procedure prescribed by the rabbis, it is very likely that the sotah is actually guilty of adultery, the rabbis call for her to be publicly shamed. Adultery is one of the worst crimes in Judaism and in many religions. The rabbis see the sotah ceremony as a means of warning women not to be unfaithful to their husbands.
Finally, the rabbis also give the woman the right to refuse to drink the Sotah waters. While this refusal will cause her to lose her ketubah, a husband can never force his wife to go through this ordeal.
By the time of the late Second Temple period, this ordeal was no longer in practice.
Only the first part of tractate Sotah deals with the Sotah ritual. Through an associative process, the Mishnah talks about a wide array of other rituals. We shall explain their connection when we get to them.
Good luck learning Sotah!