By Alan Orchover
The second sedra in Bamidbar is Naso, the longest and, for me, the most problematic sedra in the Torah. It has several themes relating to purity (or impurity).
It starts with the census of the Levitical families for the tasks of the Mishkan and then suddenly, without warning, comes the law of the Sotah. This is the Law relating to the faithless wife or, rather, the wife of a jealous husband who believed but had no evidence that his wife had been unfaithful, or who might simply have had a grudge against her. In order to prove her innocence, she was taken to the Cohen and, in public, made to drink “the waters of bitterness” ie sacred water kept in the Mishkan/Temple in an earthen vessel.
The Cohen would take earth and dust from the floor of the Tabernacle and add this to the water. He would then pronounce a terrible curse on the woman, telling her that if she was guilty, the water would induce a spell into her body causing “the belly to distend and the thigh to sag.” The woman was compelled to say “Amen, Amen”, the curse was written down and the parchment added to the water.
In the next part of the ceremony, the Cohen would take from the woman a meal offering of “jealousy”, wave the offering before the Lord and place it on the Altar to be burnt. After this, the accused wife was compelled to drink the “contaminated water.” If the woman was guilty, according to our text, “her belly would distend and her thigh would sag”. If she was innocent, nothing bad would happen to her and she would be able to produce a child in due course as compensation for her public humiliation.
This is the only example of Trial by Ordeal in the whole Torah, and it is the object of a very long explanation in Tractate Sotah in the Talmud. Justifying it was not easy. Nachmanides (obviously having some difficulty with it) held that “this remnant of pre-Biblical times had no permanent place in an imperfect society. It was effective only as long as the majority of Israel did God’s will. It was meant to imply that fidelity is an essential element in marriage and that jealousy is a legitimate sentiment since trust is the foundation of the marital covenant.
As in all situations involving trust, the parties must not only be faithful but also appear to be worthy of confidence” (Nachmanides’ (Ramban) Commentary on the Torah as translated and annotated by Rabbi Dr. Charles B. Chavel PH.B). The idea of a trial by ordeal was an exception to the Talmudic principle that one should not rely on the occurrence of miracles. Also, this single example of trial by ordeal was taken by Christianity and used (particularly in cases of alleged witchcraft) as late as the 17th century.
Soon after the second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE Yohanan ben Zakkai, clearly unhappy with it, abolished it completely (although without the Temple how could the dirt from the floor be taken, or the sacrifices be made?).
Fortunately, the Sedra goes on to set out the wonderful threefold blessing of Aaron to Israel followed by the 12 princes of the tribes giving their offerings at length for the dedication of the Altar. The Rabbis took this as the somewhat cumbersome reading for the eight days of Chanukah (with a little help from Beha’alotecha).
Alan Orchover is a member of Edgware Masorti Synagogue. He is a regular leyner and leader of services.