Sotah, Chapter One, Mishnah Three



There are some women who may be suspected of adultery but who do not have the opportunity or the obligation to drink the Sotah waters which would test her innocence or guilt.  Had they passed the test, these women would have been allowed to return to being permitted to have intercourse with their husbands and, if married to a priest, to eat terumah.  However, since they can’t drink the water, they cannot stay married to their husbands, nor can they eat terumah.


Mishnah Three

The following are prohibited to eat terumah:  

1)                     She who says [to her husband], “I am unclean to you”, and witnesses came [and testified] that she was unclean;  

2)                     She who says, “I refuse to drink [the water]”.

3)                     She whose husband does not want to make her drink [the water]:

4)                     And she whose husband had intercourse with her on the journey. 

a)                                           How does [the husband] deal with her?

b)                                          He brings her to the court in the place where he resides, and they assign to him two disciples of the sages lest he have intercourse with her on the journey. 

c)                                           Rabbi Judah says, her husband is trusted with her.



Section one: The Sotah ritual is meant to test a case where adultery is questionable.  If the woman admits that she committed adultery, the ritual is no longer necessary and hence forbidden.  Note that in the last mishnah in  Nedarim, the mishnah ruled that a woman who states “I am unclean to you” is not forbidden to her husband.  However, in this mishnah, after her husband had warned her, it is more likely that she really has committed adultery and therefore she is forbidden to her husband.

The Talmud notes that it is obvious that if witnesses came that she is not a Sotah.  Witnesses who testify to her having committed adultery certify her as an adulterous, and not a “suspected adulteress”.  Therefore, the Talmud understands that the mishnah refers to a situation where she has already undergone the Sotah ritual and seemingly has not been ill-effected by the bitter waters, and then witnesses came and testified that she was unclean.  The Talmud rules that the witnesses who state her guilt are greater than the waters which state her innocence.  This is another example of the remarkable power given to human beings in rabbinic law.  The divine, magical test of the bitter waters is less accurate than the normal human measure of testimony.

Section two:  The husband cannot force his wife to undergo the Sotah ritual, a ritual that as we shall see was humiliating and probably frightening for the woman.  Her husband must divorce her and he need not pay her ketubah, but he cannot force her to drink the bitter waters.

Section three:  In this case, the husband does not want to make her drink the bitter waters, but she wants to.  Perhaps he regrets having suspected his wife, or perhaps he himself will be embarrassed when everyone sees that he has made his wife into a Sotah.  The mishnah rules that although he doesn’t want her to drink the waters, he cannot return to having her as his wife.  Once he has gone through the process of warning her and her having been caught secluded with that person, it is too late to resume the marriage.  He must divorce her, and since he is the one who doesn’t want her to drink, he must pay her the ketubah.

Section four:  From the moment that she has been secluded with the man about whom she was warned, she and her husband are prohibited from having sexual relations.  Just as adulterous women may not return to their husbands, so too suspected adulteresses may not.  If he nevertheless has sexual relations with her on his way to the Temple to test her, he has committed a sin.  The Talmud teaches that the Sotah ritual only works for a husband who is free from transgression.  A husband who himself has transgressed the laws of forbidden sexual relations, may not bring his wife to test her. The mishnah is also stating that a husband cannot accuse his wife of being an adulteress and then keep living with her as usual. That would be hypocritical. This is a small measure of egalitarianism in Mishnah Sotah. We shall also see later the idea that just as the waters check her, they check him as well.

The mishnah notes a problem.  How can the husband accompany his wife on their way to Jerusalem to the Temple, without transgressing the prohibition?  The fear is that while traveling and being secluded at night, the husband will have relations with her.  The solution is that two disciples of the sages accompany them on their trip. 

Rabbi Judah holds that a husband is trusted not to have relations with his wife at times when she is prohibited to him.