Monday, 30 November 2015

Sota 36: What Happened When We Entered HaAretz; Joseph, Potiphar's Wife, Joseph's Descendants

Telling of the Israelites entering ha'aretz, we learn that no one was permitted to be too close to Mount Gerezim or Mount Ebal, which were sixty mil from the river Jordan.  In Exodus 23;27 we learn that G-d said, "I will send my terror before you, and will confound all of the people you encounter".  One of the interpretations of this verse is, surprisingly, that people were over taken with diarrhea.  First, diarrhea would be the natural result of a confused bowel.  Second, terror is known to cause diarrhea.  And so we see the very ancient connection between Jews and nervous stomach.

The Gemara walks us through all of the miracles that happen on that day, or at that time.  We entered the land, stood at the mountains, brought the stones and built the altar on Mount Ebal, wrote out the Torah in seventy languages and plastered the stones, sacrificed burnt and peace offerings, celebrated, uttered the blessings and the curses, took the stones to Mount Gilgal.  The hornets did not accompany us, some rabbis say, but instead poisoned our foes from above, in their eyes, and from below, in their genitals.

The Gemara then questions the ordering of the tribes.  Did six tribes wait at one mountain and six at another?  In which order?  Is this the same order that the names of the tribes were inscribed into the two ephods worn by the High Priest?  The rabbis consider the number of letters split into two groups of 25; which name had a letter added to it and why.  The significance of Joseph is discussed at length.  Which sons were placed where on the ephod?    The descendants of Joseph are said to be protected from the harmful effects of the evil eye.  

In a discussion of the time that Joseph sanctified G-d's name in private, we are told a bizarre version of the story of Joseph and Potiphar's wife.  Joseph was, in fact, about to have relations with her.  That was her plan, and that was why he entered her suite.  Just before acting on his desire, Joseph saw the face of his father in the window, reminding him that if he has intercourse with this woman, he will forfeit the right to have his name carved onto the stone ephod of the High Priest.  He will be knows as one who fornicates with prostitutes.  Instead of completing the sexual act, his "bow" is controlled; and the arms of his hands were made supple (Genesis 49:24).  The rabbis interpret this - and here is the bizarre part - as Joseph digging his hands into the earth where the semen was released through his fingernails.

All of Benjamin's sons, we are told, were named after traits of Joseph.  Each of their names is understood to represent a trait of Joseph.  

At the end of today's daf we are told that Pharaoh was not as nice as he might have seemed.  He did not allow Joseph to bury his father's bones as Joseph had made an oath to do.  Pharaoh told Joseph to break his oath.  Joseph suggested that Pharaoh to break his own oath - Pharoah was embarrased that he knew all seventy languages but he did not know Hebrew.  Joseph now threatened to break his oath of secrecy.  Only then did Pharaoh say, "Go up and bury your father according to what he made you swear" (Genesis 50:6).

Sota is offering incredible agadaic material in addition to fascinating perspective on the gendered halachot regarding behaviour motivated by jealousy.  I am glad that there is more to come.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Sota 35: Lying Spies; Returning the Ark; Stones and Plaster; Everyone Living in Ha'Aretz

In their discussion about whether or not the spies lied about their view of ha'aretz  a rabbi teaches that any slander that does not begin with a truthful statement does not stand.  An interesting idea: if we begin with a truth that people will believe, they will continue to believe us as we create lies.  

In addition to determining which of the spies' statements, one by one, were lies, the rabbis note that Moses was to be believed as he demonstrated G-d's miracles to the people one after another.  The remainder of amud (a) tells us the consequences of the spies' actions.  Each faced death.

The Gemara returns to questions regarding the return of the Ark from the Philistines (during the period of Samuel).  The rabbis attempt to understand how many people and who in particular were killed at this time.  They also question why the killing took place.    Did people look at G-d?  Did they speak inappropriately?  Were seventy men or fifty thousand men killed?  Did some people who were killed represent others?  

When David brought the Ark to Jerusalem, he was said to have sacrificed an animal at every six paces.  The rabbis wonder exactly which animals were slaughtered.  

At the end of our daf, the rabbis question how the stones mentioned in Deuteronomy 27:8 were used. Were the words of Torah written on the stones themselves? Or on the plaster used to secure the stones?   The rabbis discuss the tenacity of stone over other substances, including plaster.  

We end with a comment regarding the acceptance of any strangers living within Eretz Yisrael, whether they are Gentiles or Canaanites who have repented for their actions.  There is no obligation for Israelites to bar others from living in the land.

An important political note for us to remember at all times.  Certainly Gentiles and others were wanting rights for themselves two thousand years ago, as well.  If we were able to figure it out then, why can't we figure it out now?

Saturday, 28 November 2015

Sota 34: Crossing the Jordan; Lying Spies

The rabbis tell us their thoughts about what happened when the Israelites crossed the Jordan to finally reach Ha'aretz.  It is clear that the rabbis are trying to make sense of source texts.  How did the water flow backward?  How did it rise to such heights?  How did the water suddenly retract again?  How did the different groups of Israelites manage?  And what about the Ark?

The rabbis look at the speed of the water; the rate at which it would rise or fall.  Based on descriptions in the books of Numbers and Joshua, they describe precisely who carried the Ark on poles; how the people were placed as they crossed the Jordan.  They disagree with each other about the formation of the people.  The rabbis also speak about the spies: if their accounts were accurate, what were they describing?  And if their accounts were false, what was the context within which trusted spies would lie? 

It is again fascinating to witness these arguments recorded in seemingly disparate places in the Talmud.  

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Sota 32: What Must Be Said In Hebrew

The Gemara ends, reminding us that two women's testimony would be equal to that of one man.  A woman's testimony is useful in determining whether or not the woman is entitled to her ketubah.  Today's daf introduces Perek VII, which is devoted to practices that are somewhat similar to those in Masechet Sota.  In our introductory notes, we learn that these next Mishnaot had to be placed somewhere, and they were placed here.  interesting.

There are a number of things that that can be said in one's most comfortable language, and other things that must be said in Hebrew, the holy tongue.  Those that must be said in one's own language include:

  • the sota's warning
  • the declaration of tithes at the thritd and sixth year of the Sabbatical cycle
  • the Shema
  • the Amida
  • birkat hamazon, grace after meals
  • an oath of testimony
  • an oath on a deposit
Things taht must be siad in Hebrew include:
  • recitation of verses with bikkurim, first fruits
  • recitation of chalitza, where a yavam allows his widowed, childless sister-in-law to remarry another man
  • the blessings and curses spoken on Mounts Gerizim and Ebal
  • the birkat kohanim, priestly benediction
  • the Torah portion read by the King at Sukkot ending a Sabbatical year
  • the portion spoken when a heifer's neck is broken
  • the speech of a king already annointed for war and ready to go off ot battle
The Mishna continues, describing some of the verses that serve as proof texts for these claims.  One of the more interesting conversations for me was about what happened at the mountains.  We learn that when the blessings and curses were recited, six tribes were on each mountain with the Levites, Priests and the ark below them between the mountains.  They would face Mount Gerizim and state a blessing and then they wold turn to Mount Ebal and state a curse.  At the end, the Levites built an Alter there and plastered a wall. They then wrote these words of Torah in seventy languages for all to see.

The Gemara finds proof texts for each line, it seems.  The rabbis note that a woman who did not consent to seclusion - a woman who was secluded unwillingly - they do not say that she was raped but this is implied - will not be affected by the bitter waters.  What an interesting caveat to throw in at this point in our learning.  It seems that the rabbis have many ways of explaining why the bitter waters may have no effect.

The rabbis note that we should say the Amida in a soft voice audible only to ourselves rather than to speak our prayers loudly.  Why is this?  Because we would not wish to embarrass someone who is truly sharing his/her vulnerability - his/her transgressions.  A similar consideration is given to those who bring sin offerings.  They are permitted to bring fat tailed goats. These goats cannot be identified as male or female because their tails cover their genitals.  Thus no-one needs to know whether they are bringing sin offerings or burnt offerings; the latter carry no stigma.  

Many of the proof texts in today's daf focus on the idea of speaking, saying, hearing.  Each signifies different behaviours.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Sota 31: See-Through Wombs; Serving for Fear or Love?; Witnesses

Structurally today's daf is different from any other I've learned.  It begins with the end of yesterday's conversation about whether or not a fetus can see the Divine Presence - and the rabbis suggest that a woman's stomach will become clear, like a spectacle, so that the fetus can see through it and then sing along with all other Jews about G-d's supremacy.  From there, it moves into a fascinating but short discussion of righteous acts and mitzvot.  Is it better if they are performed for fear of G-d's retribution, or for love of G-d?  The rabbis disagree about this, but a note teaches that doing mitzvot for the sake of love is the more lofty action.  However, both are necessary at different times.

At this point in the daf we end Perek V and begin Perek VI.  Perek VI is almost exclusively composed of one long Mishna followed by its Gemara.  A new daf begins, and Perek V ends.  

So what is the bulk of Perek VI actually saying?  In most cases, including those of adultery, two valid witnesses are required to cause the woman to drink the bitter waters.  However, our Mishna teaches that there is a difference in halacha when a woman has been warned about seclusion.  The rabbis argue whether or not witnesses are required at all.  And they note that "valid" witnesses need not be men of a certain age and status.  In these cases, a single witness who is a woman; a maidservant or a slave, many different witnesses are considered to be valid witnesses.  However, they permit the woman to avoid drinking the bitter water.  They allow the husband to marry his wife - in certain circumstances, though, the wife is still entitled to her ketubah.  The rabbis discuss the timing of witness testimony, as well - were witnesses speaking simultaneously?

Why do the rabbis make these exceptions?  What is the larger picture here?  Of course, some would argue that this is simply what the Torah implies and thus teaches.  But it seems to me that the prooftexts used by the rabbis could be interpreted differently.  My reading suggests that the rabbis wished to allow men to divorce their wives at will, as we learn in the Torah.  Rabbinical law cannot supercede Torah law.  However, the rabbis wish to ensure that women avoid the humiliation of the sota ritual if at all possible.  Such a ritual would serve as a deterrent to adulterous behaviour, but it would also test the 'magic' of G-d's power, which is dangerous test.  Further, creating the sota also creates a broken, hurt family.  Better if husbands simply divorce their wives if they are jealous or otherwise unhappy.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Sota 30: On the Transfer of Tumah, Taking Challah, the Eruv, and The Song of the Sea

We continue with the very challenging discussion we have learned over the past two days.  The rabbis debate about different levels of tumah, ritual impurity, and the transfer of impurity particularly regarding sanctified objects.  Again, this conversation continues to confound me as I struggle to understand each level of ritual impurity, the possible transfer of ritual impurity across levels, and the different rabbinical opinions about which transfers suggest which possible changes in ritual purity.

The rabbis move on to a discussion about taking challah.  If less than an egg-bulk of challah is taken from a ritually pure loaf of challah and then placed between that pure loaf and a ritually impure loaf, is there a transfer of ritual impurity?  Can we take twice from one challah to represent both challot?

Next, the rabbis consider the eruv.  They discuss how far rabbis are permitted to travel from their homes on Shabbat.  This seemingly bizarre juxtapositioning has to do with Rabbi Akiva's rulings over the course of one day rather than the actual subject matter.

Finally, the rabbis discuss The Song of the Sea.  Who sang?  When did they decide to sing?  What did they sing?  How was their song sung - like a leader of Hallel where the first line is sung alone then the entire song is sung? Like a minor child leading Hallel where everyone repeated each line to make it legally correct?  Did everyone sing, from the oldest to the youngest nursing babies?  And our rabbis end today's daf by asking about whether or not fetuses were singing in their mothers' wombs.  When they saw the light of the Divine Presence, they turned toward it and said, "This is my G-d and I will glorify Him" (Exodus 15:2)*

*Based on Psalms 8:3, "Out of the mouths of babies and sucklings You have founded strength".

Monday, 23 November 2015

Sota 29: Comparing Halachot of Sota to Halachot of Teruma; Levels of Ritual Impurity

Today's daf was extremely challenging for a beginner like me.  As I have been learning over the past three years, certain concepts have begun to gel in my mind.  Other concepts are understood only ephemerally, and today's daf required that I read a number of different sources just to begin to hold its ideas.
The rabbis continue to discuss halachot that were shared on the same day.  That day seems to be when Rabban Gamliel left the Sanhedrin and Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya replaced him as leader.  Rabbi Akiva's teaching was the first shared 'on that day', but following halachot regarded topics far beyond that of the sota.
We move into the concept of tumah, ritual impurity or defilement, which continues to confound me.  The rabbis walk through a number of examples that allow them to question whether the halachot of the sota are similar to the halachot of teruma.  In particular, they wish to understand when the sota is permitted to her husband, a priest, compared to when uncertainly impure teruma is permitted to a priest.
The rabbis' considerations are based on some basic concepts.  Many thanks to those who simplified these concepts on the OU Torah website:
  • Dead body: highest level of tumah
  • Contact with a dead body creates an av hatumah, a source of tumah, ritual impurity
  • Contact with a source of tumah creates a rishon letumah, a first level of tumah
  • Contact with a rishon letumah creates a sheni letuma, a secondary level of tumah
  • Contact with a sheni letumah creates a shelishi letuma, a third level of tumah, but only if it touches teruma
  • Contact with a shelishi letumah creates a revii letumah, a fourth level of tumah, but only if it touches something sanctified, like an animal prepared for sacrifice

The rabbis argue about whether or not different items will create different levels of tumah and the effects that that state will have on access to teruma/one's husband, especially if he is a priest.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Sota 28: The Bitter Waters Evaluate Men, Too; Sotas Implications on Uncertain Ritual Impurity

Texts tell us that the woman who is accused of adultery after having been warned about seclusion is defiled in two different verses.  Why?  The rabbis consider the possibility that these defilements are in fact directed at the woman's husband and paramour as well as herself.  They go the distance with this interpretation, stating that the paramour's belly will swell and his thigh will fall away, just like the sota.  

The rabbis speak about whether or not it makes a difference if the husband is also guilty of adultery.  Or perhaps the husband is guilty of having intercourse with his wife on their way to the Temple, when she is forbidden to him.   They speak about why a woman should be required to drink if she is certainly defiled. 

After discussing when a woman is forbidden from marrying into the priesthood, the rabbis discuss sources of ritual impurity, like a creeping animal.  We learn that Masechet Sota is the source of all halachot on uncertain ritual impurity.  The entire sota ritual is enacted to clarify uncertain sexual contact between a woman and man which would result in ritual impurity.  The rabbis consider similarities and differences between a sota and ritual impurity imparted by a creeping animal.  Uncertain impurity in the public domain is determined to be pure.  

Interesting that the rabbis choose to focus on the behaviour of men in today's daf.  It would seem that such halachot would encourage men to avoid accusing their wives unless they themselves were completely without transgression.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Sota 27: Exemptions, Implications, Rulings Made on the Same Day

Amud (a) ends Perek IV with a conversation about promiscuity, among other things.  The rabbis debate about whether it is permitted to marry a woman who is rumoured to be promiscuous or a woman whose mother was rumoured to be promiscuous.  Both have their problems, the rabbis believe, for the child of a promiscuous woman could be a mamzeret, while a promiscuous woman could create mamzerim.  Even if a mother were promiscuous, the rabbis tell us, she would likely procreate with her husband, who generally has greatest access to her; the mother's children are not considered to be mamzerim.  But what if the mother were extremely promiscuous?  What if one of these women becomes pregnant - and what if the pregnancy begins close to the time of her menstruation?  How can we know the identity of the baby's father?

Our previous Mishna also spoke of women who are exempt from drinking the bitter waters.  The rabbis remind us about these women and note that this is a law of jealousy.  The description of this law in Numbers 5:29 mentions that it applies to a wife, who is under her husband, going astray.  Why the superfluous mention of a wife, who is always under her husband, being under her husband?  The rabbis interpret this as something that affects both the wife and the husband.  This interpretation exempts wives from drinking the bitter waters if they or if their husbands suffer from a disability.  

Perek V begins with a Mishna that takes us right through amud (b).  While the bitter waters judge the wife accused, they also judge her lover.  We are told that the paramour dies if/when the wife dies because of drinking the bitter waters, regardless of where he is.  

The Mishna continues with discussions about rulings made by Rabbi Akiva on the same day.  The rabbis discuss different degrees of ritual impurity and the transfer of that impurity; the area allowed to Levite cities and why these might be different from other Shabbat eruvin; and repeating the words said my Moses in song rather than in spoken words.

Apparently Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hyrcanus ruled on the same day about other interpretations, including that of Job acting out of love.  

The end of this Mishna was somewhat confusing to me, as we moved into a completely different conversation.  When the rabbis discuss concepts or verses that are only marginally related to the topic at hand, it is sometimes challenging to maintain focus on where we are and where we are going.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Sota 25: The Warning - Is It Required? Can It Be Retracted?

A woman drinks the bitter waters of the sota if she secludes herself with a man after her husband has warned her not to do so.  Today's daf focuses on the warning.  Is it required for a husband to warn his wife about the forbidden seclusion for her to lose her rights to her ketubah?  To lose her rights to ever be with her husband or with this other man again?  What if the husband is unable to warn her - the court warns her, but this assumes that the husband would want his wife to go through the sota ritual.  Must the court warn her, or has she broken a Torah law that she should have known about anyway?  Is she accountable on her own?  Does a betrothed or widowed woman face the same punishments as other women, for they are not truly married when they seclude themselves?  

Our daf also considers whether or not a husband can retract his warning.  The rabbis go back and forth numerous times regarding this question - whenever I thought that we had come to an end to the discussion and the final halacha, another argument would ensue.  Some of the rabbis considerations include a husband who decides that he wants to be permitted to have sexual intercourse with his wife again, and a husband who changes his mind about putting his wife through the ordeal of the sota.  Does it matter when he wants to retract his warning - before or after the seclusion?  

Ze'eira is quoted as permitting a retraction based on other halachot.  A husband who retracts his warning, an elder who rebels, and a stubborn and rebellious son whose parents wish to forgive him are all forgiven.  But a rebellious elder is not forgiven, we are reminded.  He is to set an example to the community, and so he cannot continue to lead after demonstrating rebellious behaviour.  The son, however, is liable for the death penalty if he does not repent.  Our notes remind us that this was never enacted - and in fact was limited to those boys between thirteen and thirteen and three months of age who stole their parents money to drink wine with unsavoury people. If brought to court by their parents, those boys would then have to commit the same act within that three month period to deserve the death penalty (justified as ending their lives while they are innocent rather than allowing them to become evil).  Thankfully, this was never done!

Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai argue about what to do if a husband dies before his wife drinks the bitter waters - does she drink?  Should she be permitted to keep her ketubah?   They use proofs taken from what is done with promissory notes.  Beit Shammai regard a promissory note as if the lender has already received his payment.  Beit Hillel do not recognize the future action of payment in the promissory note.  This means that the ketuba is not yet paid out to the wife, and should not be paid out until she proves that she did not commit adultery via the sota ritual.

What should be done if a woman is pregnant with the child of another man, a woman is barren, or an aylonit, or elderly?  The end of the sota ritual involves an innocent woman returning to her husband where "she shall conceive seed".  None of these women can become pregnant - does that mean that they cannot engage in the sota ritual at all?

The rabbis are concerned with the appearance of propriety as much as they are concerned about following halacha.  And so they are torn between helping couples rebuild their broken relationships and ensuring that adultery is not socially sanctioned.  

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Sota 24: Who Drinks? Who Loses Rights to Her Ketuba? Who Meets the Exact Requirements of a Sota?

Continuing from the Mishna that we began yesterday, the rabbis outline who must drink the bitter waters of the sota and who is excluded from that humiliation.  Among those who do not drink are:

  • those who are intermarried (the sota ritual applies only to halachically sanctioned marriages)
  • a woman who confesses
  • a woman who is witnessed in seclusion with a forbidden man by at least two others
  • a woman who refuses to drink
Hillel states that these women either drink the bitter waters or forfeit their ketubot.

The rabbis disagree about women who are pregnant with or nursing the children of another man.  According to halacha, these women should not have been remarried until twenty-four months has passed since their time with another man.  Thus these marriages are not sanctioned, and the sota ritual requires that a woman is legally married to her husband.  The rabbis are also concerned that the current husband will not adequately care for these children, who are not biologically his.

  • an elderly woman
  • an aylonit, a woman who has not sexually matured
  • a woman who cannot give birth for any other reason
These women are expected to drink the bitter waters and lose the right to their ketubot as part of the sota ritual.  Their marriages are problematic; however, husbands are considered to be able to remarry and have children with other women.  Thus these women must drink the bitter waters and lost access to their ketubot.

The wife of a priest and the wife of a saris, eunuch, drink.  The priest's wife is permitted to her husband following the sota ritual if she does not become ill in the manner described.

A husband can warn his wife to avoid seclusion with a man forbidden to her by Torah law, excepting a minor and an animal.  The reasons for these exclusions are unclear.  Perhaps the rabbis understood that a minor and an animal cannot consent to seclusion and thus the sin of seclusion requires no warning.

The court can order a warning to a woman whose husband has become incapable of communication (called a 'deaf-mute') or who is in prison.  They do this to ensure that her ketuba is not paid.  Upon release from prison, the husband can take her to the Temple to drink.

The Gemara argues about the differences and similarities between a yevama and a betrothed woman.  What is their status, married or unmarried?  Do the men in their lives have the right to warn them about seclusion?  What difference does it make if they have had intercourse with that husband-to-be? What difference does it make if they have had intercourse with anyone in the past?  And does it matter when the intercourse occurred in relation to intercourse with this current man?  Are these women truly full-fledged wives, or not?

The rabbis note that a woman who undergoes the ritual of the sota with no immediate illness is permitted to her husband, even if she becomes ill later on.  As long as her thigh and stomach are not affected; her colour does not become green and her eyes do not bulge out, she is permitted to him.  

I cannot imagine that many women undergoing this ritual became ill in this manner.  Jewish women must have seemed to be incredibly righteous, and Jewish men must have seemed to be overly jealous.  The rabbi do their best to avoid the need for the ritual altogether.  However, women continue to undergo onerous, humiliating and shameful rites because of men's jealousies.  Why didn't the rabbis do away with this ritual and instead work toward mediating between the husband and wife?  Many Torah rituals were avoided to some degree or another - why so much examination of the sota ritual?  

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Sota 24: The Differences Between Men and Women/ Kohanim and Bnot Kohanim

We continue with the Mishna that we began in daf 23.  It teaches that meal-offerings are burned after they have been sanctified in a service vessel in the following cases:
  • a sota who finally says she is defiled and thus prohibited to her husband
  • a sota whose witnesses now appear and claim that she was defiled
  • a sota who refuses to drink the bitter waters;
  • a sota whose husband changes his mind and does not want her to drink
  • a sota who admits that her husband had intercourse with her on their way to the Temple
  • any woman who is married to a priest
  • including an Israelite woman married to a priest
But a priest's daughter who marries an Israelite?  That meal offering is eaten.

The Mishna then poses the question: what are the differences between a priest and the daughter of a priest?
  • The meal offering of a daughter of a priest is eaten
    • The meal offering of a priest is burned
  • The daughter of a priest can become disqualified to priests if she has intercourse with someone forbidden to her
    • A priest will not become desacralized if he has intercourse with someone forbidden to him
  • The daughter of a priest will become impure through contact with a corpse
    • A priest will only become impure through contact with the corpse of seven close relatives
  • The daughter of a priest cannot eat from the offerings of the most sacred order
    • A priest may eat from those offerings
Finally, the Mishna differentiates between a man and a woman:
  • A man who is a leper lets his hair grow and rends his clothing
    • A woman who is a leper does not let her hair grow or rend her garments
  • A man can vow that his minor son will become a nazirite
    • A woman cannot vow that her minor son will become a nazirite
  • A man can shave at the conclusion of his nazirut using his deceased father's designated offerings
    • A woman cannot do this
  • A man can betroth or sell his daughter as a maidservant while she is a minor
    • A woman cannot betroth or sell her daughter as a maidservant while she is a minor
  • A man is stoned while he is naked and then sometimes hanged
    • A woman is stoned while wearing a robe and she is not hanged
  • A man is sold to pay for his act of theft
    • A woman is not sold to pay for her act of theft
The Gemara walks through these claims, explaining why each is valid.  For example, we would think that a woman should be permitted to vow that her son will be a nazirite, as Channah famously vowed.  The rabbis offer these possibilities: she made this vow intending her husband to enact it.  Alternatively, her vow was void because she made the vow before her child was conceived and a vow must refer to an existing entity to be valid.

Most of the commentary justifies these statements based on proofs that specify gender.  The Torah often uses the pronoun "he" which is taken to mean "men to the exclusion of women".   For example, "... and you shall hang him on a tree" (Deuteronomy 21:22) is interpreted as "'him' and not 'her'", thus excluding women from that positive mitzvah.

Perek IV begins with a new Mishna: If a yevama awaiting her yavam or a betrothed woman are secluded with someone about whom they have warned, they do not have to drink the bitter waters nor do they collect their ketubot.  This is because only married women are specified in the sota ritual, and neither of these women are married.  However, if they have been giving ketubot, those ketubot have been broken through their acts of seclusion, and thus their ketubot are voided.

Fascinating to see how our rabbis understand the legal differences between women and men.  A set of halachic arguments help the rabbis understand what is expected of women and what is expected of men.  Of course, these halachot will also apply to those who do not fit the categories of 'women' and 'men'.  It is telling that the words "he" or "him" can be used to include women or exclude women depending on the interpreter.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Sota 22: Those Who Erode the World

We learn about two groups of people in today's daf.  The first are ignoramuses (am ha'aretz), boors, and sorcerers.  Who is whom?  The rabbis debate about people who do not learn Torah and/or Mishna.  They discuss those who do not say the shema in the morning and the evening; those who say prayers or learn without understanding the meaning of their words.  They consider people who do not wear ritual fringes and people who do not encourage their sons to learn Torah.  My favourite: those who do not serve Torah scholars.  our notes teach that we serve Torah scholars to spend time with them and emulate their ways.  More palatable than simply being told to serve them.

Sorcerers seem to signify something more specific.  Sorcerers are said to be Zoroastrian priests who recited words that they did not understand.  

The second group of people whom we learn about today are the three types of people who erode the world.  These are:

  • a maiden who prays all day
  • a widow who visits her neighbours frequently
  • a child who is born without completing the last three months of gestation
The rabbis question the first two people: aren't these people in fact righteous? Well, not if they are trying to seem more righteous than they are; not if they are trying to impress people with their piety; not if they are causing problems for others rather than performing mitzvot.  

The third person is interpreted as a metaphor for a Torah scholar who teaches or judges without having learned for long enough.  Does a Torah scholar have to have forty years of learning before he rules on halacha?  Or must he be forty years old?  Or must he be the equal of another scholar who is considered to be the most learned Torah scholar in his town?

Finally, we learn about the third group of people: the pseudo-righteous who erode the world.  These are those who are:
  • the self-castrating righteous of Shechem who do mitzvot to benefit themselves
  • the self-flagellating righteous who harm their feet by walking slowly to appear pious
  • the bloodletting righteous who bang their heads into walls by walking with their eyes closed to appear righteous
  • the pestle-like righteous who walk in the shape of a mortar's pestle to appear pious
  • asking for their obligations rather than asking for additional mitzvot to perform
  • performing mitzvot out of love for the reward offered
  • performing mitzvot out of fear rather than for its own sake - for eventually mitzvot will be performed for their own sake
All of these are similar in that people 'wear the cloak of righteousness'.  The Gemara notes that the last two mitzvot might describe our forefather Abraham, who performed mitzvot out of love, and Job, who performed mitzvot out of fear.  

Our daf ends with the beginning of a new Mishna.  It teaches that Rabbi Meir and Rabbi HaNasi argue about the effects of merit on the punishment of a sota.  What does the delayed punishment of a sota look like? She becomes increasingly ill until she dies the death described as that of a sota.  She would not be able to give birth nor would she flourish in any way if her punishment were delayed by merit.  The Mishna also notes that a sota's meal-offering is treated similarly to other meal-offerings if it is found to be impure at different points in the process; early on, it is redeemed; later, it is burned.

Both women and men are chastised for claiming to be more righteous than they are.  However, women are used in the first examples of those who 'erode the world'.  Younger women are critiqued for looking as though they are praying too much.  Older women are critiqued for visiting others too much.  What are women to do in such a hypervigilant culture?

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Sota 21: Women Studying Torah?; Who is Wicked and Conniving?

A punishment can be delayed by up to three twelve-month periods.  But not in all cases: what if a woman has studied Torah?  Does that earn her such merit?  Or is she forbidden to study Torah?  A number of rabbis suggest that women would learn promiscuity through Torah.  They also state that women might understand only the most basic Torah learning and then brag about her knowledge.

The rabbis also consider the fact that Torah study might be meaningful for women.  They discuss the merit of doing a mitzvah even when it is not an obligation - its reward might not be significant enough to delay one's punishment.  Women also might be rewarded because they encourage their husbands and sons to learn Torah.

We return to a recent conversation about women preferring sexual intercourse to food.  The rabbis agree that women prefer their husbands to make less money as long as they spend more time at home.  in fact, women prefer men to limit their Torah study so that they spend more time at home.  

The light of Torah is said to be like the light of the sun, whereas mitzvot bring the light of a lamp.  The rabbis suggest a number of different reasons for this analogy.  One of those is that the light of the sun is with us forever, while the light of mitzvot is with us only while we do that mitzvah.  And so one might be protected from harm while doing a mitzvah, but not longer.  Does learning Torah protect us only while we are learning Torah?  Are women protected as are men?

We are introduced to Doeg and Achitophel, who believed that King David's transgressions extinguished the merits of his mitzvot.   What they did not realize was that transgressions do not extinguish the merit of the Torah.  We are also introduced to brothers Hillel and Shevna (or possibly Shechna), where Hillel learned Torah and Shevna was successful in business.  Shevna suggested that he share his wealth with his brother and that Hillel share the merit of his Torah study with Shevna.  This is not permitted.   One is permitted to share in the merit of Torah study only if that study is paid for in advance.  

The rabbis move on to a new topic: the distinguishing features of manipulative people.  Proverbs (8:12) teaches that, "I, wisdom, dwell with cunning".  Wherever there is wisdom, we allow cunning to enter.  This phrase can be used to explain why women are told not to learn Torah, as it might be used toward cunningly accessing promiscuity.  Women's desires are considered to be of a sexual nature, which is another reason that we prefer sexual intercourse to 9 kav of food.  

The rabbis discuss who is a foolish man of piety, who is one who exaggerates their piety.  Examples are one who does not even look at an undressed woman when she is drowning due to halachot about modesty, and one who needlessly fasts every day.

Who is conniving and wicked?  One who presents to the judge before the other litigant arrives; one who gives one dinar to a person to put him at 200 dinars, thus disallowing him from partaking of p'ea and other benefits for the poor; one who advises male orphans to sell their property, thus leaving their sisters with no inheritance; one who advises a person to sell property rather than leave it for the second generation of legal beneficiaries; one who convinces others to practice like him while hiding his own transgressions; one who is lenient in his own halacha but strict toward others.

Sota 20: Women Turning Green, Menstruating; Women's Sexual Desire

It is not enough that the waters of mar, bitterness, are representing the misery in a relationship.  The waters must be literally bitter.  Wormwood or something similar is added to the water before the sota drinks.  

And what happens if she is guilty?  A new Mishna teaches that immediately (before she is even finished drinking?) her face will turn green, her eyes will bulge and her veins will protrude.  But if this does not happen, sickness could come upon her later - up to a few years later.  While Ben Azzai tells us that a person is obligate to teach his daughter Torah so that she has merited a rely punishment.  However Rabbi Eliezer says that "Anyone who teaches his daughter Torah is teaching her tiflut, promiscuity.  Rabbi Yehoshua says that a woman would prefer one kav of food and a sexual relationship to nine kav of food and abstinence.  Eh said that a foolish man of piety and a conniving wicked person and an abstinent woman perish and those who injure themselves because of false abstinence are those who erode the world.  

Commentary teaches that women are not commanded to learn Torah and so women might read the words of Torah as nonsense.  The rabbis debate about what women are suppose to be learning:  these last suggestions apply only to the Oral Torah, what we are now learning, and not to Torah or another Jewish topics.   As well, we learn that there is a connection between the word that is used for promiscuity and that used for foolishness or worthlessness.  Other connections through word roots are used to explain some of the other concepts further.  

The rabbis engage in a relatively lengthy conversation about what can be added to the ink used for a sota compared to what can be added to other inks.  Copper sulfate and other substances are used relatively frequently, it seems, to ensure that the words in a Torah scroll cannot be erased.

In discussing the fact that it is forbidden to use one sota's (or wife's) document for another woman, the rabbis surprisingly use the example of Leah and Rachel, our foremothers.  Would they use Avraham or Isaac as examples of people who would need to undergo a humiliating ceremony?  Again we are reminded that women, even righteous women, are regarded less respectfully than men.  

At the end of our daf, the rabbis decide that a sota is removed immediately from the Temple when she is ill.  And the rabbis do not believe that she is leaving because of the prohibition against having a primary source of ritual impurity at the Temple.  Instead it is because a woman might unintentionally menstruate either because of the long term stress that causes muscles to relax and menstruate or because of extreme trauma that does the same.  

Today's daf allows us to see a number of examples of women's disadvantaged status in the ancient Jewish world.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Sota 18: Prosicuting a Woman for Her Suspected Sexual Behaviours; The Law of Jealousy

Amud (a) documents our rabbis asking questions about the script dissolving in the bitter waters.  Rather than going with "It must be one unbroken scroll placed in water for each sota", the rabbis ask about scrolls that have been torn or separated into more than one part.  They discuss water that has spilled and water that is shared with writing for two different accused women.  It ends with an explanation, again, about the difference between the sota's spoken oath, the words written on the scroll, and which words are placed in the water.  The rabbis then argue about whether the oath contains a curse (for example, "I administer an oath to you that you were not defiled, and if you were defiled, you will be cursed...").

A new Mishna teaches us why the sota responds with, "Amen, amen".  

  • Amen on the curse and Amen on the oath?
  • Amen that I committed adultery with this man and Amen that I committed adultery with another man?
  • Amen that I did not stray when I was betrothed/married/a widow/a yavam, and Amen that I was not defiled but if I was, these curses will fall on me?
  • Rabbi Meir: Amen that I did not become defiled in the past and Amen that I will not become defiled in the future?
The rabbis note in this Mishna that a sota cannot swear an oath to other behaviour in the past nor in the future.  This includes a woman that was divorced, was defiled, and then remarried her former husband.  Oaths cannot stipulate that a woman behaved 'promiscuously' when she was not married to her husband, the accuser.  There is a principle: only behaviours that would cause the sota to be forbidden to her husband can be stipulated in the oath.  How unusual to limit the consequences on a woman's unwanted sexual behaviour!  Clearly the sota ritual was such a strange and delicate process that the rabbis were careful to limit its control over the larger community.

The Gemara pores over different behaviours, timing and situations to ensure that they understand how to apply these halachot.  We are reminded that the Sages quote Numbers 5:29: zeh torat hakna'ot, this is the law of jealousy.  They confirm that a man is not permitted to accuse his wife twice with the same man if she drank the bitter water and was found to be innocent.  However, he is permitted to call his wife a sota for a second time if she was warned and then secluded with a different man.  If she remarries, her new husband is permitted to have her drink the bitter waters again.

What I have not touched upon yet is a very obvious point:  drinking consecrated water that contains dust from the Temple floor and a piece of parchment with soot-based ink will not cause a woman's stomach and thigh to fall away.  I can only imagine that 99.9% of women who underwent the humiliation of the sota's ritual were deemed to be innocent.  This allowed Jewish women to be lauded as disciplined and pure and Jewish men to be thought of as jealous and mistrusting.  Perhaps that was one of the reasons the rabbis did not encourage men to begin this process: they knew that it would bring humiliation upon a woman who would ultimately be found innocent.  Or they knew that a man's jealousy would only be appeased until he warned his wife against secluding herself with another potential lover.  This ritual is known as zeh torat hakna'ot, after all.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Sota 17: The Scroll; The Divine Presence Between Ish and Isha

A new Mishna teaches us about the specific words written on the sota's scroll.   Taken from Numbers 5:19-22, the Mishna notes that some words and phrases are omitted.  Rabbi Yehuda suggests a shorter version of the text.  The Gemara discuss why they might use some words and not others, and we learn that the rabbis agree with the more inclusive version of what is written on the scroll.

A fascinating idea is shared about the Divine Presence that lives between a married couple.  Ish, man, and isha, woman, are almost the same word. If we look at the middle letter of ish, we have the letter yud.  Looking at the last letter of isha, we have the letter hey.  'Yud-heh' is the name of G-d. The remaining letters, aleph and shin, spell ish.  Rabbi Akiva teaches us that when a couple is close, G-d resides in that couple.  When we are distant, we are consumed with fire.  Rava goes further, teaching that a woman is consumed more quickly and forcefully than a man, for the letters are right beside each other.  A note elaborates: Eve's curse of pain through menstruation and childbirth expiates women's suffering.

The Gemara then discusses further differences between dust and ashes.  

We are introduced to a new Mishna that describes the paper and writing implements used for the sota's scroll.  Grass paper and wood cannot be used; only parchment.  The ink cannot be made from gum, copper sulfate, or anything else that cannot be erased.  The priest must use ink made of soot, which dissolves in water.

Our daf ends with further directives:

  • the scroll must be written in sequence
  • the sota must swear her oath before the oath was written
  • the scroll must be scored on parchment before being inked and cannot be written the form a letter.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Sota 16: Dust Detail, Shaved Like a Gourd, Enough is Enough

We learn about dust in much greater detail today.   As was described in our last Mishna, dust from the floor of the Temple is placed on top of the water that the sota drinks.  It must be visible.  But what if there is no dust on the floor?  Can dust be brought in from outside of the Temple?  If not, can ashes substitute as dust?  What about decomposed vegetables that were left on the Temple floor?  The rabbis decide that the dust must be found within the Temple, and that any substance that is used as dust must behave as dust would behave when placed in water.

As part of a discussion of halachot that supercede their verses, we learn more about shaving.  People are expected to shave as a demonstration of purity in a number of circumstances.  These include ending one's isolation as a metzora, a leper, when one is shaved twice.  But what is included when the body is shaved?  When the metzora is shaved like a gourd, is s/he shaving all parts of the body, including nose hair? Or only visible hair - including pubic and armpit hair?  

The rabbis use this opportunity to teach about a generalization followed by a detail and then followed by another generalization (shave all of one's hair, shave one's head and beard and eyebrows, even shave all of one's hair) (Leviticus 14:9).  In such a case, the detail informs us that all visible hair is shaved from the entire body.  Rabbi Akiva argues that in fact this is an amplification followed by a restriction followed by an amplification.  In such a case, he argues, all hair is shaved (except for nose hair, which is not visible).  Does this mean that a person with nose hair does not shave that hair?  Or is s/he obliged to shave that hair as well, because it shows?

Just like dust of the Temple must be visible in the sota's water, the saliva of a yevama must be visible  in the ritual of chalitza.  As well, the blood of a slaughtered sparrow must be visible in water as part of the metzora's purifying ritual.  I found one particular argument very entertaining.  Rabbi Yirmeya wonders if a large sparrow or a small sparrow might spoil this ritual due to the amount of blood that is placed in the water.  To that suggestion, Rabbi Zeira says, "Haven't I told you not to take yourself out of the halacha?"  One of our rabbis actually chastises another rabbi for splitting hairs unnecessarily.  Obviously, he believe, a sparrow can only be so big/small, and we should not waste time on such a detail!  But our rabbis spend inordinate amounts of time on similar questions.

Monday, 9 November 2015

Sota 15: Sota Offerings Vs. Other Sin Offerings

Amud (a) walks through sin offerings and which items are acceptable to bring to the Temple as offerings.  In the context of Masechet Sota, it seems that the rabbis are reminding us that the offering of a sota is different from other offerings because the sota has not necessarily done anything untoward.  To this end, we learn that one with leperosy is thought to come on account of seven matters: evil speech, murder, forbidden sexual relations, arrogance, making an oath in vain, robbery, or envy.*  The Gemara shares details about the sin offerings of those with leprosy and of nazirites.

The remainder of our daf focuses on a new Mishna.  It teaches that the High Priest takes half a log of water from the Temple and pours it into an earthenware vessel.  Like his belief that the words written on the sota's piece of paper should be minimized, Rabbi Yehuda argues that only one quarter log of water is used.  When he enters the Sanctuary he turns to his right and places the vessel upon a table sitting there.  The table has a ring attached that helps the High Priest to lift it; dust is collected from beneath the table and place in the vessel so that it can be seen on the top of the water.

The earthenware vessel from which the sota drinks should be new and never used before. The rabbis discuss different vessels and other sources of water for other offerings and from where that water should come.  Again, the rabbis compare the rituals of the sota to the rituals of others like lepers and nazirites.  They consider vessels and whether or not they are blackened on the outside due to use, why the High Priest turns to the right, and why the dust is collected from the floor of the Tabernacle and not from outside of the Sanctuary.

* Of all of these actions, it might make sense that leperosy could be caused by forbidden sexual relations if what was known as 'leperosy' was in fact a communicable skin disease.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Sota 14: Tests for the Sota, Differences in Offerings

After concluding their discussion about the burial spot of Moses, which could not be found, the rabbis look to other ways that G-d punishes transgressions and rewards righteousness.  A particularly interesting section of this conversation regards different ways that G-d blesses us - for example, by consoling mourners with G-d's presence.  G-d also clothes the naked with animal skins (Genesis 3:21, where G-d in fact makes clothes for Adam and Eve of animal skins).  The rabbis want to know whether or not the skins of dead animals or the wool of animals is used to form clothing.

A new Mishna teaches us about when the sota actually drinks the bitter water.  We learn that the sota's husband brings the meal-offering an Egyptian wicker basket of palm leaves which is placed in the sota's hands.  Carrying this basket is intended to tire her.  If she is fatigued, she might end the sota process early by 'admitting' her transgression and not destroying G-d's name in the water without reason.  Meal-offerings usually are offered in service vessels; in this case, they are only transferred to a service vessel at the end of the process.  Meal-offerings require wheat, oil, and frankincense.  This offering uses barley, the food of animals and not people.

The Gemara begins with an examination of why the sota is fatigued.  Is this meant to hurt her or benefit her?  Does G-d punish those who transgress or protect those who are righteous?  How can G-d do both?  

The Gemara quotes one baraita after another regarding service vessels.  Which baskets can be used?  Which vessels can be used?  Are only silver or gold permissible, or are wood/ceramic materials ever appropriate?  Where are the offerings placed?  Is all of the offering burnt, or is some of it consumed by the priests?  Is only a handful of meal-offering actually offered?   Do we sanctify items twice - once upon entering the Temple and again at the actual offering?

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Sota 13: Miriam, Jacob, Joseph, Moses

Stories are created to describe the exceptional natures of our forefathers and foremothers.  These agadaic tales are sometimes so far-fetched that it is hard to believe that they were ever taken seriously.  Or perhaps I'm missing the point - perhaps these stories are taught as metaphors to help us understand that G-d is capable of bestowing almost magical powers upon specific people.

We begin by continuing to learn about our rabbis understandings of Miriam.  Why was she watching over her brother, baby Moses?  Because her father had kissed her head when she prophesized about her brother, and had hit her in the head when the baby was sent off to drown.  She waited and watched to learn whether or not he would meet his fate as prophesized.  Not the kind of parenting that exemplifies those qualities we would hope our rabbis would teach.

The rabbis move on to Joseph; in particular, the death of Joseph.  One after another, stories are told of Joseph's righteousness in his own right and also in comparison with others.  His burial is discussed at length, and we note that great people are celebrated with monumental funeral rites.  Even the animals, we are told, were crying at Joseph's funeral.  Our notes tell us that the rabbis debated about why the animals cried: was their food withheld that day?  Were they simply dressed in black?  The rabbis even describe different proofs that Joseph and Moses were connected in time - often in the context of teacher/student, like the primary relationships of the rabbis themselves.

There are a number of relatively disturbing references to the joy that one feels when vindicated.  Jacob is said to possibly wake from death to smile when Naftali hits Esau on the head with such force that his eyes pop out of his head and land in Jacob's lap.  Joseph is vindicated when Potiphar is castrated and then assaulted in the place of his genitals.  A proof based on the meaning of Potiphar/Potiphara's name is used as a source.  I see such joyful behaviour as very base, at best.  But the rabbis seem to be comfortable with using verses from Bereshit and from Psalms to back their interpretations and stories.  Is this what we hope to emulate?  Or are we meant to enjoy little pleasures where we can, even if those are at the expense of the suffering of others?

Our daf ends with a discussion regarding the place of Moses' burial site.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Sota 11: What We Learn About Proofs in Exodus; Pharaoh, Midwives, Jewish Women

Today's daf allows the rabbis space to stretch their creativity.  Continuing with the theme of reciprocity, where one's behaviour or words or thoughts leads to a complimentary consequence later in life, the rabbis examine some of the book of Exodus.  In particular, they focus on the lives of Israelites while in Egypt, the Pharaoh, and the women mentioned in the story of the Exodus.  Too many proof texts are used to note them in this short blog. 

Some of the proofs quoted about Pharaoh and the plagues are familiar to me because of the Haggadah. Interestingly, a good portion of today's daf is devoted to the midwives who rescued Jewish baby boys from death in Egypt.  In addition to that conversation is a discussion of Miriam and Yocheved and their possible roles.  For all of these women, the rabbis use prooftexts to demonstrate that these women were rewarded for their actions.  They also use prooftexts to portray these women as exemplary in every way.  

When speaking about Jewish women in general, the rabbis describe in detail how they continued to care for their husbands (feeding them, bathing them) and then ensuring that they could find seclusion both for intercourse and for birthing.  Jewish women are understood as heroes in our text.  They risk everything to continue the line of Jewish people.

Such positive images of Jewish women cannot go without acknowledgement.  Almost all commentary is about men.  It is heartening to know that our rabbis understood that our female ancestors were also righteous, and that they should go to some effort to prove that reality.  However, I must also state my discouragement regarding the nature of the rabbis' compliments.  Almost all of the praiseworthy acts performed by Jewish women had to do with their sexuality or their childbearing; the characteristics that separate women from men.  It is incredibly rare for a story about a righteous Jewish woman to be void of some sort of sexual or pregnancy-related focus.*

Women are not only weaker, less able men who are able to tempt men and have children.  

*Miriam is an obvious exception.  Her connection to water (with baby Moses and the Pharaoh's daughter; with wells in the desert) and her ability to wait (for the Pharaoh's daughter; followed by the Israelites waiting seven days after Miriam's death before continuing on) are not overtly sexually charged.  However, they are both qualities that might be named 'feminine': water, for the woman's task of washing and frequent immersion; patience, for women are often stereotyped as quieter, softer, more ready to compromise than men.  Just a thought.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Sota 10: Samson, Tamar, Judah, Absalom

We are treated to the rabbis fantastic, imaginative interpretations.  They begin with Samson.  The rabbis understand his prowess as supernatural.  He was blessed with a man's penis even as a baby; his shoulders must have been as broad as the gates.  Of course the rabbis provide proof texts for each of their statements.  

A bizarre comment about 'grinding' against someone else's wife or husband describes one type of adultery.  The rabbis posit that in many cases, a woman is adulterous in response to her husband's adulterous behaviour.  He is in the pumpkin patch while she is with the zucchini, they quote.  Our notes do not comment on what seems to be a sexual reference.

We learn about a baraita: there are five Sages who were created with a G-d-like characteristic; that same characteristic was also their downfall.  
Samson - strength - Delilah had him sleep on her legs and then had his hair and his strength removed
Saul - neck - after another soldier refused to kill him for Saul was afraid of being mocked by those uncircumsized, he fell upon his sword with his neck
Absalom - hair - was the most perfectly beautiful person who was proud of his hair: he weighed and then cut his hair annually, got caught by his hair but refused to cut it believing that Gehenna was below him , or so the rabbis say.  He was killed by enemies.
Zedikiah - eyes - after being forced to watch his son die, his own eyes were put out
Asa - feet - likely had gout, and the rabbis discussed the pain of this condition in detail

The rabbis explore the story of Tamar in great detail.  She is described as righteous and numerous proofs are shared.  Of course, as she is a woman, many of those proofs include Judah and his judgement of Tamar as righteous. 

One exceptional point: it is noted that Judah did not recognize Tamar.  Usually this is taken to mean that she covered her face when she acted as a prostitute.  However, we learn that in Timna* women may have left their faces uncovered.  If this was the case, and Tamar's face was visible to Judah, then he didn't recognize her because he had never seen her face: Tamar covered her face in her father-in-law's home.  Notes on this passage suggest that woman of extreme modesty cover their faces even in their own homes.

With the viscious defamation of Muslim women who cover their faces in Canada and France (among other places) in recent years, this point is important.  Jews cannot distance ourselves from our Muslim sisters regarding 'modest' dress when our ancestor Tamar was lauded for the same behaviour that some observant Muslim women choose today.

* The rabbis even question whether more than one Timna might have existed at the same time.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Sota 9: Measure for Measure; Samson and Delilah

Much of today's daf is a continuation of comparisons.  The sota is thought to go through each step of her rituals because it directly correlates with an aspect of her alleged transgression.  The rabbis share multiple comparisons in other circumstances.  A new Mishna teaches us about many who were rewarded or punished for their acts in kind:

  • Samson lusted after what he saw; later, his eyes were gouged out
  • Absalom:
    • was proud of his hair; later was hanged by his hair
    • had intercourse with ten of his father's concubines; later ten of Joab's soldiers smote him
    • stole the hearts of his father, the court, the Jewish people; later, Joab stabbed his heart with three spears
  • Miriam waited for Moses at the water for one hour; later, the people waited seven days to mourn her death
  • Joseph alone merited burying his father; Moses himself helped to transport Joseph's coffin
The Gemara quibbles with small points.  For example, where did Samson commit his transgression; where did he 'see' and then sin?  Was it in Gaza? or Timna?  In which of those places were his eyes destroyed?  This leads to a discussion of Delila, who was said to weaken Samson's strength.  How did she do that?  The Gemara wonders whether Samson shared his secret: that his hair, his nazirut, was the source of his strength.  Alternately, when we learn that she "pressed him daily with her words and urged him (until his soul was vexed to death)", Rabbi Ami has a creative explanation of what "urging" means: she slipped away from him immediately following intercourse.

Other parts of Samson's life are touched upon as well.  The rabbis sometimes explore fantastic interpretations.  For example, Rabbi Asi states that Samson uprooted Zorah and Eshtaol, two mountains, and ground them against each other.  

Again it is apparent that the rabbis use their power to interpret to further their own narratives.  In some circumstances, this continues to be beneficial.  We continue to conceptualize Samson as a strong but complex leader of our ancestors.  Simultaneously, some of interpretations of our rabbis cast Delilah in the role of seductress and sexually charged manipulator.  Isn't it possible that her power over Samson was not based on her sexuality alone?  She also deserves the multifaceted understanding that is accorded to Samson.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Sota 8: Humiliation and Protection

A sota is taken to the Nicanor Gate to be humiliated before drinking the bitter waters.  There will be others waiting for ritual purification there: women who have recently given birth, zavim, zavot, and those with leprosy.  The rabbis note that mitzvot cannot be bundled: this means that each holy act must be enacted on its own.  They argue whether or not a sota can be present while another sota is humiliated.  Even if the woman watching is trembling, she might be emboldened by the other sota's denial of transgression and thus say that she was innocent, too.  Thus the sota is questioned alone.  

The rabbis note the particular words that are interpreted to mean that a sota's head is uncovered and her hair is unbraided.  They are concerned about her state of undress.  No one should look at her and become aroused, particularly if she is found to be innocent of the sin of adultery.  The rabbis speak about other cases where men are uncovered except for their genitals.  It is noted that women must be covered front and back as their genitals can be seen from the back.

Women are made to be seen as unattractive throughout the sota ritual.  Other people, both men and women, are made to witness the sota's humiliation.  This is meant to serve as a deterrent.  

We learn that since the Temple was destroyed and the Sanhedrin ended, there are four types of capital punishment that continue to exist, though in different forms.  These are stoning, burning, decapitation, and strangulation (in order of severity).

  • Stoning is meted out by being hit by a falling rock or being attacked by a wild animal
  • Burning happens when a person falls into a fire or is bitten by venomous snake
  • One is decapitated/killed by a sword when turned over to the authorities or killed by robbers
  • Strangulation occurs when one drowns or when one dies of diphtheria where the throat closes
This kind of magical thinking is fascinating.  We understand that the synagogue stands in for the Temple, for example, but we recognize that we build that synagogue; we imbue it with holiness. In this scenario, the rabbis imagine that a continued Divine consequence is imposed upon someone who transgresses.

The rabbis go on to note that the sota is humiliated in ways that are complementary to her transgression.  She uncovers her hair for her lover; her hair is uncovered in public.  She exposes herself to her lover; her chest is exposed in public... and so on.

Again if feels as though the rabbis are struggling with this ritual.  They are aware of the damage that such humiliation might do if the sota is in fact innocent of the charges.  They are balancing the imperative to enact Torah law, to create disincentives in the  community toward adultery, to punish the adulteress, and to protect the innocent woman.  Quite a tall order.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Sota 7: What Happens to the Sota; the Simultaneous Protection and Denigration of Women

A new Mishna: If a man learns that two witnesses attest to his wife secluding herself with a man he had forbidden to her, what is he to do?  He takes her to the local court and two Torah scholars accompany them to the Temple to ensure that they do not have intercourse along the way. That behaviour is prohibited, and it would also negate the results of the bitter waters.  Rabbi Yehuda says that the couple is allowed to travel without accompaniment.

The Gemara questions the need for witnesses.  They understand that two witnesses might be required to guard against the temptation of the couple to have intercourse.  Interestingly, the rabbis note that the accompaniment must be done by Torah scholars, who are knows to be of high morals.  Others might take advantage of the situation and have intercourse with the wife themselves.  In our notes, we are reminded of an incident where ten men carried a woman as if she were dead to a pier where they had intercourse with her.  Men should not be secluded (or in a field, etc.) with a woman who is not their wives unless their wives are present.

It would seem that there is an attempt to protect women from the lust of 'amoral' men.  That is a pleasant shift from most of our learning, which focuses on the ways that women encourage or allow such behaviours.

The GEmara also notes similarities and differences between men who are forbidden from their wives because of menstruation and men who are forbidden from the wives because of these circumstances.

A new Mishna describes what happens when the couple reaches the Temple.  The witnesses are questioned by the Sanhedrin, and if they agree with her guilt, they question her.  First she is threatened extensively on her own.  Then they tell her that wine, levity, immaturity and bad neighbours account for much of our bad behaviour - they encourage her to consider the mitigating circumstances.  Then they impress upon her that G-d's name will be dissolved if she lies; that her family will not support her.  If she admits to defilement, she is divorced without receiving her ketubah on the spot.  If not, she is brought to the Nicanor/East gate, where lepers and women who have given birth become pure.  One priest is chosen to rip her top open to reveal her heart and to uncover/unbraid her hair; to have her dress in black and take off all adornments (earrings, nose rings, chokers, finger rings).  That is, unless removing these things makes her more attractive.  A priest that uses palm/Eyptian rope to bind her above her breasts and all but her servants/slaves are invited to watch.  The rope will hold up her clothing; the servants/slaves cannot watch in case she is reminded of her power by these people and thus decides to deny her transgression.

The Gemara tells us that the Sanhedrin encourages the wife to drink the bitter waters if she is innocent, but not to drink if she is guilty.  For if she is guilty, she will both poison herself and her paramour and she will cause the name of G-d to be erased without need.  The bitter waters are compared to a mild poison that is placed on the flesh.  If there is already a wound there, it will become infected.  If not, it will not hurt the skin.

The rabbis interpret the Mishna's description of 'telling the wife stories that are not worthy of her or her family to hear' as stories of our ancestors.  They name a number of our forefathers, like Judah, who admitted their sins and were rewarded.  The rabbis wonder whether this example is used because of its sexual content.  They also wonder whether or not the rabbis were sharing these stories with the wife without their rabbinical interpretations/explanations.  

Our daf ends with an explanation of how a receipt is equivalent to a torn ketubah.

Today's daf was fascinating - it presents a very clear picture of how this ancient society actually functioned - at least ideally.  Concurrently we see an attempt to preserve the dignity of women and an attempt to fully subjugate women.