THOUGHTS ON THE PARASHAH
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Parshat Naso – פרשת נשא
May 26, 2018 – יב סיון תשעח
The only example in the Pentateuch of trial by ordeal is that of the suspected adulteress who is made to drink the bitter Sotah waters. The Sotah law is not an operative part of modern Judaism. It was indefinitely suspended in the first century CE by Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai because of rampant marital infidelity (Mishnah Sotah 9:9). Nonetheless, contemporary Jewry can learn an invaluable moral lesson from a lamentable Sotah episode that occurred in the early rabbinic period.
Halakhah recognizes several categories of women for whom the Sotah waters are an ineffective test of marital faithfulness. Akabia ben Mahalalel listed converts and emancipated bondwomen (the equivalent of converts) among those to whom the elixir is not administered. The sages disagreed and adamantly insisted that converts can drink the bitter potion (Mishnah Eduyot 5:7).
The commentators differ about the parameters of this legal dispute. According to Rashi, Akabia excluded the wives of male converts or emancipated Canaanite slaves, but not female converts married to native Israelites (Rashi Berakhot 19a). This theory is based upon a close reading of the verse, “Speak unto the children of Israel and say unto them, ‘If any man’s wife goes aside and acts unfaithfully to him (Numbers 5:12)’” Akabia focused on the words “children of Israel” בני ישראל as establishing a genealogically based exclusion for the husbands. The sages looked to the words “say unto them” as expanding the class of people subject to the Sotah test, including those of foreign ancestry (Yerushalmi Sotah 18b).
Rabbi Obadia Bartenura suggests that it is the female convert who is excluded (Commentary, Eduyot 5:6). He cites the verse, “The Lord make thee a curse and an oath among thy people (Numbers 5:21).” In his view, this comes to exclude someone who is not fully “of the people.” Raavad provides a rationale for this opinion that is rooted in the essential nature of the Sotah law. The husband is granted the opportunity to warn his wife not to seclude herself with another man, and then to have the Temple administer the dirty water test if she violates the warning, if and only if he had reason to assume from the outset of their marriage that she was a virtuous woman. But a woman who reached adulthood outside of the Jewish fold is assumed to have developed unchaste habits of which her husband was aware at the time of the nuptials. He cannot subsequently claim to have issued a warning brought on by a sudden fit of jealousy.
Raavad ultimately rejects this theory, and posits, on the basis of the Yerushalmi, that Akabia only intended to exclude female converts who are married to male converts. In stark contrast, Meiri understood Akabia as excluding any couple in which either spouse was a proselyte.
Akabia was a maverick scholar who refused to yield to the opinion of the majority. On matters of the Sotah, the purity of a leper’s hair, the impure status of yellow uterine blood, and the permissibility of the deposited hair of a firstling, Akabia maintained the correctness of his viewpoint even after the sages voted otherwise. [Centuries later the Amoraim wondered why Akabia was not executed under the law of a rebellious elder (Deuteronomy 17:12). The Talmud claims that he was spared the death penalty only because he did not instruct others to act on the basis of his rejected teachings (Sanhedrin 88a).]
Akabia’s colleagues attempted to persuade him to change his views, promising him the position of אב בית דין, Chief of the Court, if he would recant his unaccepted legal rulings. Akabia, in a show of great moral courage, refused the offer. He preferred to be called a fool than to appear wicked in the eyes of God or seen in the eyes of man as having compromised his integrity for the sake of coveted appointment.
The sages then challenged Akabia on the basis of precedent. Shemaiah and Abtalion, the fourth-generation Pharisaic duumvirate, once administered the Sotah waters to an emancipated bondwoman named Karkhemit. This should have ended all debate as the rulings of Shemaiah and Abtalion were considered unchallengeable in Pharisaic circles (Pesahim 66a). Akabia responded with two slightly ambiguous words, דוגמא השקוה. According to Rashi, the gist of Akabia’s retort was that Shemaiah and Abtalion, who were themselves converts, administered the Sotah waters to Karkhemit as an illegitimate way of elevating the status of proselytes in Jewish law. According to the Arukh, Akabia claimed that the waters administered to Karkhemit were merely a faux version of the true Sotah potion (Tosafot Berakhot 19a). The sages were aghast at such an unseemly comment made at the expense of Torah scholars. Akabia was excommunicated. The ban was not lifted even upon his death. His coffin was stoned.
The claim that Shemaiah and Abtalion were either converts or the progeny of converts was widely accepted. It is said that they descended from Sennacherib, the Assyrian king and mortal foe of ancient Israel (Gittin 57b). This was not the only episode in which their undistinguished lineage was used against them by an acerbic opponent. One year, at the close of Temple services on the Day of Atonement, an impious High Priest mocked them as “the sons of other nations” (Yoma 71b). Reminding a proselyte of his former pagan status causes immeasurable emotional pain (Mishnah Baba Metzia 4:10). Such ethnic slurs surely violated the prohibition on oppressing the stranger (Exodus 22:20).
Regarding the accusation that Shemaiah and Abtalion knowingly falsified halakhah in order to advance a pro-proselyte agenda, a broader historical point must be noted. Two distinct schools of thought existed among the Pharisees about the desirability of converts and their place in Jewish society. The party’s right-wing was highly provincial and zealously nationalistic. It looked upon converts with a jaundiced eye and was eager to keep strangers at a distance from the indigenous Jewish population. In contrast, the left-wing Pharisees were cosmopolitan and held proselytes in high esteem. The legendary stories of how Shammai and Hillel respectively dealt with three peculiar conversion candidates are instructive of these differences, even if those stories are fairy tales (Shabbat 31a).
Ultimately the progressive school would be victorious. For example, the early halakhah required converts to bring first fruits without reciting the Scriptural passage which tells the story of our forefathers. The Patriarchs were not considered the forefathers of ethnic strangers who joined the Jewish religion (Mishnah Bikkurim 1:4). The later halakhah reversed this decision and allowed converts to recite the same liturgy as born-Jews, including references to “our ancestors” (Yerushalmi Bikkurim 64a). Akabia was a staunch advocate of the right-wing position, which he could honestly claim had been the majority ruling in a bygone era (Mishnah Eduyot 5:7).
The excommunication of Akabia is remembered by the Amoraim as one of twenty-four instances in Tannaitic literature in which a sage was placed under the ban for breaking Pharisaic protocol (Berakhot 19a). Yet as early as the fourth Tannaitic generation there were those who denied that the story took place in the way described above. Rabbi Judah exclaimed, “Heaven forbid that anyone should say that Akabia was excommunicated, for the doors of the Temple courtyard did not close on anyone from Israel who was as great in wisdom and fear of sin as Akabia. Rather, they excommunicated Eliezer ben Hanokh for taking lightly the requirement to wash one’s hands.” Rabbi Judah ben Bathyra said that anyone who claims that Akabia was placed under the ban will suffer the consequences of such blasphemy in the heavenly tribunal (Sifre Numbers 105).
It seems that the passage of several generations was enough time to cloud the collective memory of the sages and make plausible a reworking of the historical record so as to conceal an embarrassing episode from the rabbinic past. Modern hagiographies of the gedolim use this same artifice. [There is no scholarly consensus regarding the chronology of this incident. Some authors place Akabia in the Yavneh period; others consider him a contemporary of Gamliel the Elder. However, from my reading of the sources it seems certain that Akabia was a contemporary of Hillel: (a) He was already highly esteemed while the Temple still stood. (b) He is never accorded the title of Rabbi. (c) There are very few halakhot related in his name. (d) He had direct knowledge of the activities of Shemaiah and Abtalion. (e) He was offered the position of אב בית דין, an indication that the era of paired Pharisaic leadership was ongoing.]
The Jewish community is currently in the throes of another bitter dispute over educational reform. Since the days of the Western European Haskalah, and the publication of Naftali Hertz Wessely’s Divrei Shalom v’Emet, many ugly epithets have been hurled by advocates of either more or less general studies. The life of Akabia teaches us that fundamentalism, even when for the sake of Heaven, can cause one to use language unbecoming a Torah scholar or Jewish leader. The sincerity of one’s firmly held convictions should not lead one to assume the insincerity of one’s ideological adversaries. Even in the heat of intellectual or religious battle, it is well to remember the words of Zechariah: “Love ye peace and truth (8:19).”
If you would like to sponsor an upcoming essay, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.