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The Sotah (Suspected Adulteress), the Nazir (Nazirite) and the Kohein (Priest)-How Odd They Should Be Neighbors!

  • The Sotah (Suspected Adulteress), the Nazir (Nazirite) and the Kohein (Priest)-How Odd They Should Be Neighbors!

    Naso, Numbers 4:21−7:89
D'var Torah By: 

Parashat Naso receives its name from the first word of its second verse (Numbers 4:22). The Hebrew verb naso,  typically means "to lift up," but the idiom "lift the heads" has the special meaning of counting heads, or taking a census. Our Torah portion continues the census of the "the whole Israelite company [of fighters] by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head" with which the Book of Numbers opens (Numbers 1:2). Parashat Naso follows with a census of the Gershonite and Merarite clans-both of whom were "subject to service in the performance of tasks [duties] for the Tent of Meeting" (Numbers 4:23, 4:30). It ends with the listing of the tribal chieftains and the gifts they brought on the occasion of Moses consecrating the Tabernacle (Numbers 7). Between the census and the lists, coming one after the other and without apparent connection, are 1) the laws by which the sotah, the suspected adulteress, is judged (Numbers 5:11-31); 2) the rules for the nazir, one who takes a vow to be a nazirite (Numbers 6:1-21); and 3) the blessings uttered by the priests known as the Priestly Benediction (Numbers 6:22-27). Each of these three sections individually-either because of their difficulties or inherent interest-has received considerable attention over the centuries.

There is, however, one question, used by the ancient rabbis and by modern scholars as they attempt to understand the unfolding biblical narrative, a question that has particular significance here: why are these passages placed next to each other? Are there lessons we can learn from the proximity of these sections of the Book of Numbers that will deepen our appreciation of biblical religion? Perhaps we will find that there is meaning in the fact that the sotah (suspected adulteress), the nazir (nazirite), and the kohein (priest) are neighbors.

From my perspective, everything in this biblical material points to the secret and manifest strivings of the human heart. The case of the sotah (a word not found in this form in the Hebrew Bible but used throughout rabbinic literature) is a tragic representation of family dysfunction. Modern feminist biblical scholarship has appropriately called our attention to the degrading situation in which the suspected adulteress is placed; it has also pointed out how these laws were rarely applied and even abrogated by the rabbis of the Talmudic period. (See, for example, the excellent comments in The Torah: A Women's Commentary, ed. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi [New York: URJ Press, 2008], pp. 815-842). What is clear from the biblical text is how unique this situation is because its outcome is so different from laws in other biblical passages. In Leviticus 20:10 we read, "If a man commits adultery with a married woman, committing adultery with another man's wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death" (see also Deuteronomy 22:22). Either implicitly or explicitly, the verses from Leviticus and Deuteronomy make clear that the couple caught in the act is to be punished by execution. However, in the case of the sotah, no one has been caught, and there are no witnesses.

"If any wife has gone astray and broken faith with her husband in that a man has had carnal relations with her unbeknown to her husband, and she keeps secret the fact that she has defiled herself without being forced, and there is no witness against her [italics added]-but a fit of jealousy comes over him and he is wrought up about the wife who has defiled herself; or if a fit of jealousy comes over one and he is wrought up about his wife although she has not defiled herself-the husband shall bring his wife to the priest" (Numbers 5:12-15).

What, indeed, caused the "fit of jealousy"? We might add a number of questions: Is the wife innocent or guilty? In a case in which we can never know the truth, is the man's unconscious leading him to act out as problematic as the wife's possible, but not provable, deceit? Assessing the husband's actions: did he "hear" some level of nonverbal communication transmitted by his wife, or was he, by nature and nurture, a person incapable of trusting others, particularly those with whom he was most intimately connected? Evaluating the wife's perspective: if in fact she is guilty, was this a loveless marriage, a situation of spousal abuse, a woman with her own history of acting out? These are modern questions that clearly do not fit the mores , culture, or laws of the ancient world. But the answer to them is the same as the situation of the ancient case: we can never know, because any answer resides in the secrets of the heart.

With the nazirite we have information that is perhaps more open to understanding. Either a man or woman chooses to become a nazirite. This is accomplished by uttering "a nazirite's vow, to set themselves apart for the Eternal" (Numbers 6:2). The restrictions imposed on the nazirite are abstaining from wine (including grapes or other grape products) or alcoholic beverage, refraining from cutting one's hair, and remaining apart from contact with the dead, even parents or brothers and sisters. As W. Gunther Plaut points out, "The Torah treats naziriteship as an already existing institution: it does not deal with reasons for taking vows but, rather, with the way in which persons who have become nazirites are to conduct themselves" (The Torah: A Modern Commentary [New York: URJ Press, 2005], p. 938). Yet reasons can be inferred or assumed: a person is motivated to excessive piety and abstinence as a sign of gratitude for blessing or perhaps excessive guilt for an irreparable personal act or perhaps to appeal to God to attend to deep-felt prayers. The laws in Numbers focus on the individual who enters this condition for a fixed period of time, not the lifelong naziriteship we find elsewhere in the Bible. We know of people in our own society who want a deeper experience of religiosity and who are motivated to take on a fuller regimen of mitzvot-no matter which denomination of Judaism is theirs. Many might agree that "Jewish tradition has also included a wariness of asceticism" (Plaut, ibid.). We know, however, that in every generation ascetic practice was attractive to a larger or smaller minority of Jews, Judaism made room for it, and individuals or communities have engaged in it for the same reasons that impelled the ancient nazirite.

Both the sotah and the nazirite are singled out to be models in society, one for disgrace and the other perhaps for appreciation of excessive religiosity. Yet their humanity is affirmed by the message of the Priestly Benediction, a brief blessing that in its terseness holds the multiplicity of all that human beings hope for in life. A comment on "May the Eternal bless you" (Numbers 6:24) in Sifrei B'midbar , a tannaitic midrash on the Book of Numbers, says simply "with the blessing explicitly stated in the Torah," Blessed shall you be in the city and blessed shall you be in the country (Deuteronomy 28:3). By extension, we can interpret this to include Deuteronomy 28:4-6: "Blessed shall be the issue of your womb, the produce of your soil, and the offspring of your cattle. . . . Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Blessed shall you be in your comings and blessed shall you be in your goings." (See also Deuteronomy 28:7-14).

It is not so odd that the sotah (suspected adulteress), the nazir (nazirite), and the kohein (priest) are neighbors in the biblical texts. For me, the most powerful meaning of their proximity is that they are our neighbors: those with secrets no one will ever know, those with a deep need for excessive religious expression, those who simply want what most of us want-life's blessings.

Rabbi Lewis M. Barth is professor emeritus of midrash and related literature, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles, California.

Resolving Marital Discord
Davar Acher By: 
Carol Meyers

The juxtaposition of disparate issues becomes meaningful in the comments of Rabbi Barth, who also notes that present-day questions about adulterous relationships are foreign to the biblical world. Yet the sotah case presents a perennial problem. Naso solves it in a way no longer available to or appropriate for us, but at least it indicates that resolutions are possible.

In biblical days, a man who suspected his spouse of infidelity was especially concerned that his wife might be pregnant with another man's child. This situation would pose a grave threat to the inheritance patterns of our Israelite ancestors (and perhaps explains why there is no equivalent case of a husband suspected of infidelity). Thus the matter had to be adjudicated, in this instance by a priestly official. Without the witnesses required for conviction, the case was, in effect, a "he said-she said" situation that today would be resolved by juries. In the ancient world, God decided. The elaborate, magical procedure was a "trial by ordeal," often used by premodern cultures to resolve judicial impasses. On close examination, the sotah's ordeal is relatively innocuous, like a lie detector test. It is understood that if she has been unfaithful, God makes her infertile (or perhaps, if she has become pregnant, God causes her to abort). Otherwise nothing happens; she can conceive (or her pregnancy continues).

There is no death penalty for guilt; the harshness of other biblical laws is mitigated in this case. Whether the wife is guilty or innocent, her husband's concerns are relieved and the marriage is sustained. Our ancestors had mechanisms for dealing with the realities of marital discord, and using those mechanisms brought resolution. Our reasons for addressing such problems are far different today, but we can learn from Naso that seeking radical interventions may be essential and that trust can be restored.

Dr. Carol Meyers is the Mary Grace Wilson Professor of Religion at Duke University and served as Consulting Editor in Bible for the Torah: A Woman's Commentary.

Reference Materials: 

Naso, Numbers 4:21-7:89
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,043-1,075; Revised Edition, pp. 921-945;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 815-842