THOUGHTS ON THE PARASHAH
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Parshat Naso – פרשת נשא
June 15, 2019 – יב סיון תשעט
This essay is dedicated in honor of Warren Graham, with prayers for his good health.
Bitter Sotah Waters
Scripture sets forth a protocol for determining whether a suspected adulteress, or Sotah, has, in fact, betrayed her husband and profaned the marital bond by fornicating with another man. She is bidden to go to the temple where she is adjured by the officiating priest and then forced to drink a potion consisting of sacred waters, temple dust, and erased ink. The beverage is identified by Scripture as מי המרים המאררים, conventionally translated by JPS as “water of bitterness that induces the spell” (Numbers 5:18). Robert Alter attempts to mirror the punning sound-play of the original Hebrew by rendering this as “bitter besetting water.”
Most interpreters of Scripture, from antiquity to the present, have understood המאררים to mean that the water has the ability to bring forth a spell upon whoever drinks it. According to LXX, המאררים means “that bring the curse.” Rashi, following Onkelos, noted that the water itself is not cursed – Scripture expressly refers to the water as “sacred” – but that the supernaturally charged water can bring forth physical manifestations of a curse upon a guilty drinker. The Samaritan Targum, by contrast, renders המאררים as מבארים, meaning that the waters have the ability to examine the drinker and determine guilt or innocence. Similarly, Pseudo-Jonathan renders המאררים as בדוקיא, meaning that the waters have investigative powers.
There is less consensus among the translators and expositors about the meaning of המרים. LXX and Philo of Alexandria (Special Laws 3:61) understood המרים to mean “water of conviction.” Onkelos and Pseudo-Jonathan suggest מרירא, meaning bitter. Yet both Targumim depart from that understanding in verses 24 and 27, suggesting as alternatives “spell-inducing” and “investigating.” The translator’s job is made difficult by the fact that Scripture refers to the waters as המרים in verses 18 and 23, yet implies in verses 24 and 27 that the waters are, at first, merely המאררים, and become מרים only after the Sotah drinks.
Godfrey Rolles Driver understood המרים to be derived from the Arabic word for doubt, contention, and dispute. The weakness of this theory, aside from a general preference not to resort to cognate languages when unnecessary, is that mareh in Hebrew connotes rebellion, not doubt. Herbert Chanan Brichto suggested that המרים is derived from the Hebrew root י-ר-ה, meaning instruction. In this view, the Sotah concoction is described as an oracular, truth-revealing potion. Norman Snaith theorized that המרים is derived from the Arabic word marra, meaning to pass by, and that Sotah water is an abortifacient causing the miscarriage of an illegitimately conceived fetus.
Why the need to depart from a plain meaning of the text that the Sotah water was bitter? Two reasons suggest themselves: 1) The waters are not referred to as מים מרים “bitter waters,” but as מי המרים, which might be translated as “water of bitterness,” but could just as readily have another meaning. 2) While a beverage containing floor dust and ink is unpalatable, none of the recorded ingredients would make such a potion taste bitter.
Nonetheless, Eve Levavi Feinstein prefers the commonly accepted translation of “water of bitterness.” She notes that Scripture often contrasts bitterness and sweetness, labeling all unpleasant tastes bitter and all enjoyable tastes sweet. For example: “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter (Isaiah 5:20).” And: “One who is full loathes honey from the comb, but to the hungry even what is bitter tastes sweet (Proverbs 27:7).” In the wilderness, the Israelites complained about the poor quality of their drinking water. Upon casting a tree branch into the water, Moses was able to make the water potable. The repulsive and palatable waters are respectively identified as bitter and sweet (Exodus 15:23-25). Moreover, Scripture often describes an unfavorable development as “bitter.” For example: I will turn your religious festivals into mourning and all your singing into weeping. I will make all of you wear sackcloth and shave your heads. I will make that time like mourning for an only son and the end of it like a bitter day (Amos 8:10).” Accordingly, the bitterness associated with the Sotah need not be literally connected to the flavor of the beverage administered to her, but instead figuratively to the bitter fate that awaits her.
The sages debated whether an embittering ingredient, unidentified by Scripture, was to be added to the Sotah’s drink. According to one opinion, adopting a literal reading of “in the priest’s hands shall be the water of bitterness (Numbers 5:18),” the water becomes bitter while still in the priest’s hands (Sifre Numbers 11), presumably because he adds some embittering agent. The Father of Samuel noted that Numbers 5:23 mandates that the ink from the imprecation text be erased into “the water of bitterness,” indicating that the beverage is supposed to be bitter even before that ink is added. The priest satisfies this requirement by adding something מר to the mixture (Sotah 20b). Maimonides favored this opinion and wrote that the priest added wormwood to the Sotah’s drink (Hilkhot Sotah 3:10).
Other sages understood the bitterness of the water to refer not to its taste but to its effect on the Sotah; her body is devastated and her life embittered by the consequences of her iniquity (Sifra). Rashi favored this view. Ramban, too, held that the Sotah water was not bitter-tasting. Rather, upon being swallowed, the mild-tasting potion would damage the Sotah’s innards and induce vomiting, effects similar to those experienced by one who ingests a toxin.
Ibn Ezra’s commentary on Numbers 5:18 is cryptic. His secondary understanding of the verse is the same as Rashi’s, namely, that the Sotah waters were bitter only in the figurative sense of what they do to the life of the Sotah. It would seem, then, that Ibn Ezra’s tersely phrased primary understanding of the verse is that the Sotah waters were, literally, bitter tasting. Concerning this interpretation, Ibn Ezra wrote סודו ידוע “its secret is known.” What secret?
In the 19th century, several Bible scholars put forth wild theories about what Ibn Ezra meant with this cryptic comment. Samuel David Luzzatto (Shadal) understood Ibn Ezra to be saying that the priest would put a lethally bitter poison into the water if, in his assessment, the woman was guilty of adultery. Shadal decried Ibn Ezra’s supposed view as complete foolishness. Shadal posited that even if Moses had wanted temple officiants to so act, he would have transmitted this knowledge secretly and not partially exposed the matter by referring to the potion, in the Written Law, as “bitter.” Moreover, as noted above, there is an openly stated rabbinic view that an embittering agent was added to the beverage. The authors of that opinion made no attempt to conceal their interpretation. Why? Because the added ingredient was not supposed to be a fatal toxin. The trial was not rigged by the priests; it was left in God’s hands. Scripture and the rabbis had nothing to hide.
Solomon Judah Rapoport (Shir) wrote a letter to his Italian colleague complaining that Shadal had incorrectly ascribed to Ibn Ezra an understanding of Scripture that is both evil and stupid. How could it be, Shir rhetorically asked, that anyone could believe that the Torah would instruct the priests willfully to kill any and all women merely accused of adultery? Not even the barbarians would adopt such a policy. Further, Shir wondered, how could the Torah instruct the priests to trick the woman and all those watching the proceedings by saying that the waters are not necessarily lethal, when they knew of her certain doom? Shir’s view was that a moderately toxic embittering agent was used. The woman would react negatively to the foul taste. She would experience stomach pains. Were she truly guilty, her conscience and her belief in the efficacy of the Scriptural imprecations could lead her to such a distressed mental state that the fear of a Heavenly imposed death sentence itself would prove fatal.
Solomon Rubin (19th century Galician Maskil), author of Gan B’Eden Mi-Kedem, also understood Ibn Ezra to mean that the priest put a lethal substance into the potion when he thought the defendant was guilty. He explained that Scripture requires some dust from the floor of the Tabernacle to be mixed into the drink. In advance of the trial, the priest surreptitiously placed both a fertility enhancer and lethal toxin in powder form on the floor of the courtyard. Depending upon his judgment of guilt or innocence, the priest casually mixed one of the two substances into the potion, while giving the appearance that he merely added dirt. Rubin mustered proof for his theory from the ruling attributed to the Father of Samuel, as well as from a Baraita that mandates the priest prepare the “dust” outside the Tabernacle and then bring it inside the sacred precincts and insert it into the ground (Sotah 15b).
Rubin’s theory is quite ingenious. Yet I believe he overemphasizes the role of the “earth that is on the floor of the Tabernacle (Numbers 5:17).” Josephus, who might have actually witnessed the ritual’s being performed, downplayed the role of the dust. “He also took some dust out of the temple, if any happened to be there, and put a little of it into the vial, and gave it to her to drink (Antiquities 3:11:6).”
Rabbi Joshua Waxman offers an even more radical understanding of Ibn Ezra. In his view, Ibn Ezra’s “secret” was something that he was too afraid to reveal to his contemporaries lest he be ostracized and branded as heterodox or blasphemous. Waxman understands Ibn Ezra to regard the Sotah waters as a trial by ordeal in the truest sense. The lethal poison was always inserted into the potion, regardless of whether the priest thought the woman was guilty or innocent. If God wanted the woman to live, Providence would intervene and spare her. Waxman suggests that Ibn Ezra was brought to this understanding of the trial by his rationalist unwillingness to accept that the punishment of a distended belly and hanging thigh could occur by anything other than natural means.
The sages generally had a dim view of the Sotah test even without implicating deception on the part of the authorities or regarding it as an actual trial by ordeal. The sages eventually decreed its abolition when they reckoned that the threat of bitter waters no longer served as a deterrent to indecent behavior. The laity’s lack of fear of the efficacy of the test, or of Scripture’s promise of disfigurement for the guilty, is the best evidence that the bitter waters contained no lethal ingredient. Maybe the water had a bitter taste. But that was all.