Sotah, Chapter Three, Mishnah Five



In our mishnah, Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi [Judah Hanasi] argue whether or not merit suspends the effect of the bitter waters.


Mishnah Five

1)      Rabbi Shimon says: merit does not suspend the effect of the bitter waters, and if you say that merit does suspend the effect of the bitter waters, you discredit the water in the case of all the women who drink it and defame the pure woman who drank it, since people will say, “They were defiled”, but their merit caused suspended the effect.

2)      Rabbi says: merit suspends the effect of the bitter waters, but she never bears a child or thrives, rather she gradually becomes disfigured and finally dies through that death. 



Section one:  Rabbi Shimon disagrees with the previous mishnah and holds that merit does not suspend the effect of the bitter waters (the sotah waters).  What is most interesting about Rabbi Shimon’s position is that his argument is practical.  If the effects were suspended, the test would be rendered far less effective.  First of all, women will not fear drinking the water, for they will reason that their accumulated merit will aid them in avoiding their punishment.  This is similar to Rabbi Eliezer’s argument not to teach daughter’s Torah, which we saw in the previous mishnah.  Secondly, not only will the waters not have their desired effect in deterring potential adulteresses, they will not clear the good name of women who are truly innocent.  People who see that the woman who drank the water has not been affected will assume that it was because of her merits, and not because of her overall innocence. 

Section two:  Rabbi seems to reach a compromise position, between that of Rabbi Shimon and that of the previous mishnah.  Merit does suspend the effects of the water, but not absolutely.  It only slows down the slow process of disfigurement, the curse mentioned in the Torah.  If the woman were innocent, she would become pregnant and give birth, as is promised in Numbers 5:28.  However, if she is guilty but has some merit, she will not give birth, her condition will not improve, but rather she will slowly deteriorate until she dies from the type of death promised to her by the Torah.  In this way, even though merit does suspend the effect, this does not discredit the effect of the bitter waters, nor does it cause people to be suspicious of pure women.