Sotah, Chapter One, Mishnah Five



This mishnah begins to describe the Sotah ritual.  I should make at this point a general note about the process.  We are going to encounter now a ceremony that was intended to disgrace the woman.  I believe that the rabbis thought that by disgracing women who actually went through with the ceremony, they would discourage the ceremony from ever taking place.  Furthermore, the public humiliation would serve to deter others from committing the same crimes. Finally, as I pointed out in the introduction to Sotah, it is likely that this woman has indeed committed adultery, for she secluded herself with the same man about whom her husband warned her.  Nevertheless, we should appreciate how harsh the process is for the woman and that especially for the innocent woman who would have been dragged through the process, it would have been a trauma. 


Mishnah Five

1)                     If she said, “I am defiled to you”, she gives him a receipt for her ketubah and goes out [with a get].  

2)                     But if she says, “I am pure”, they bring her up to the east gate, Nicanor’s gate, where they give women suspected of adultery the water to drink, purify women after childbirth and purify lepers.  

3)                     A priest seizes her clothing—if they are torn, then they are torn, and if they become unstitched, then they are unstitched, until he uncovers her bosom, and he undoes [the braids of] her hair.

a)                                           Rabbi Judah says: if her bosom was beautiful he does not uncover it, and if her hair was beautiful he does not undo it.



Section one:  If, after the warnings are stated to her, she admits that she did commit adultery, she does not drink the Sotah waters.  Rather, she loses her ketubah, gives her husband a receipt for the ketubah (even though she didn’t receive it), and is divorced.  Note that she is not tried as an adulterer since, even if there were witnesses, she was not warned about the consequences of her act when she committed adultery.  In general, as we learned in Sanhedrin, it is exceedingly difficult in Jewish law to convict a person of a capital crime.

Section two:  If she continues to insist that she is innocent, she is brought to the east gate of the Temple.  The mishnah notes that two other ceremonies were also performed at this gate.  There women who had given birth waited while the priests offered their sacrifices which are mandatory for a woman to purify herself after birth (Leviticus 12:6-7) and there lepers waited while priests offered their purificatory sacrifices (Leviticus 14:11).  Neither lepers nor women who had given birth could go further into the Temple courtyards since they were impure until their sacrifices were offered. 

Section three:  The mishnah prescribes that the priest publicly shame her.  Part of the function of this process was to deter others from committing the same sin.  By publicly at least partially stripping her and undoing her hair, the nature of her crime would be literally and figuratively laid bare to all. 

Rabbi Judah seems to note that this process may have had an opposite effect.  While it is intended to deter others it may have served as a source of titillation. Therefore, if the effect of baring her bosom, or undoing her hair would serve to arouse others for she is a beautiful woman, it is not to be done.