Sotah, Chapter Three, Mishnah Four



This mishnah begins by describing what happens immediately after the sotah drinks the water.

The second half of the mishnah broaches the idea that if the woman has some type of “merit” the effect that the waters have on her is delayed, even if she did commit adultery.

Part of this mishnah deals with women studying Torah, an issue which is of great importance in our society. We should remember that in the past century great advances were made in providing women with proper education in Torah.  Some of the statements in this mishnah are, to put it mildly, not flattering to women and do not reflect the society in which we live or women’s place in that society.  In my commentary on this mishnah I shall not delve deeply into this issue and the different ways in which this mishnah has been understood.  Rather I refer the reader to Judith Hauptman’s excellent book “Rereading the Rabbis”.  Professor Hauptman teaches at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and her book contains some sensible statements on this mishnah in particular and on the rabbi’s attitudes’ towards women in general.   Another interesting book, although very different than Hauptman’s, is Daniel Boyarin’s classic “Carnal Israel”, which also contains a chapter on women studying Torah.  


Mishnah Four

1)      She had barely finished drinking when her face turns yellow, her eyes protrude and her veins swell. 

a)      And [those who see her] exclaim, “Remove her! Remove her, so that the temple-court should not be defiled”. 

2)      If she had merit, it [causes the water] to suspend its effect upon her.

a)      Some merit suspends the effect for one year, some merit suspends the effects for two years, and some merit suspends the effect for three years.

3)      Hence Ben Azzai said: a person must teach his daughter Torah, so that if she has to drink [the water of bitterness], she should know that the merit suspends its effect.

4)      Rabbi Eliezer says: whoever teaches his daughter Torah teaches her lasciviousness.

5)      Rabbi Joshua says: a woman prefers one kav (of food) and sexual indulgence to nine kav and sexual separation.

6)      He used to say, a foolish pietist, a cunning wicked person, a female separatist, and the blows of separatists bring destruction upon the world.



Section one:  The mishnah begins by describing the potentially immediate effects of the water.  The people who see her scream that she must immediately be removed, lest she defile the Temple.  I should note that this defilement is probably not of the typical ritual defilement, but rather a type of moral defilement.  The Torah often describes three sins which defile but not in the same way that things such as a dead body, menstruation or leprosy defile ritually:  murder, sexual sins (adultery and incest) and idol worship.  These sins defile in such a way that their defilement cannot be easily removed through a standard purificatory process (i.e. a mikveh).  As an adulteress, this woman’s mere presence in the Temple is perceived as dangerous.

Section two:  The mishnah now introduces the idea that if she had some sort of merit, the water will not take immediate effect but its effect will be delayed.  It is hard to tell whether the mishnah expects that such effect can be delayed indefinitely.  The Talmud lists some ways in which a woman can gain merit and thereby defer the effects of the water.  Besides Torah study which the sages debate below, the ways that the Talmud anticipates a woman’s merit involve her children or her husband.  For instance, she can bring her children to school, or wait for her husband outside when she anticipates that he will be returning from a journey. 

Section three:  All the rabbis who debate agree that the most effective way for a person to gain merit is to study Torah.  This is after all, perhaps the highest value in the rabbinic value system.  However, the rabbis debate whether or not she should learn Torah.  According to Ben Azzai, a father should teach his daughter Torah.  His reasoning is somewhat strange.  He holds that she should learn Torah so that if she drinks the waters and they do not take effect, she will not believe that the waters are ineffective but rather she will chalk it up to her Torah study.  Doubt about the waters may cause her to believe that in the future she could get away with adultery again.  In other words, teaching a daughter Torah is actually a means of preventing her from committing further adultery.

Section four:  Rabbi Eliezer says the opposite.  If the girl learns Torah she will think that as long as she learns Torah, she is “free” to commit adultery, for she will be protected against the effects of the bitter waters. 

Section five: The connection between Rabbi Joshua’s statement and those which precede it is unclear.  Rabbi Joshua says that a woman prefers the sexual company of her husband (or another man) even more than she does extra money to buy more things.  Practically speaking, she does not want him to travel on business but would rather him stay home to be with her.   “Sexual company” in this statement has a negative connotation.  Perhaps, Rabbi Joshua is saying that she does not realize the sacrifice of sexuality that Torah study requires, and hence it is not an appropriate endeavor for her. 

Section six:  This statement is an addendum to the mishnah, brought here because it was said by Rabbi Joshua and it also makes reference to a woman who separates herself.    There are four types of people that destroy the world:

1)      A foolish pietist.  This is illustrated as a man who for matters of modesty does not rescue a drowning woman.

2)      A cunning wicked person.  One way that this is illustrated is that he is lenient when he makes rulings for himself and stringent when it comes to rulings for other people.

3)      The word which I have translated as “separatist” can also be translated as “Pharisee”, but I believe that in this mishnah it does not refer to a woman who was a member of this Second Temple political party.  Rather, it refers to a woman who separates herself too much from sexual relations.  Abstinence is not the ideal proposed by Rabbi Joshua, nor almost any rabbi. Rather his ideal is one of moderation.

4)      In this clause the “separatists” probably does refer to the Pharisees.   Rabbi Joshua is referring to hypocritical Pharisees, who strike and flagellate themselves in order to make themselves look pious, when in reality they are not so. 

We can see that Rabbi Joshua portrays an ideal of religious honesty and moderation and is deeply skeptical of outward acts of zealousness.  This attitude of inner, rational, non-zealous piety is, in my mind, the ideal portrayal of the righteous Jew.