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Parshat Nasso – What’s the connection between a sotah woman and Torah study?

Iyar 5783 | May 2023


Sometimes the context of a statement is essential to understanding its meaning. Many people are unaware of the context of the statement: “Anyone who teaches their daughter Torah is as if he has taught her tiflut.”[1] Surprisingly, its context is the laws of a sotah woman, a woman accused of infidelity.

The laws of sotah as explained by the Oral Torah appear vastly different than those related in the Written Torah.[2] According to the Written Torah a man could wake up one morning in a jealous fit, accuse his wife of infidelity, and drag her to the Tabernacle to determine what happened. This may be because she actually sinned, or it could be because he’s in a bad mood or is a jealous or controlling person. According to the plain meaning of the text there does not have to be any connection between her actions and his accusations. The text indicates that this strange ritual performed by the Kohen (Priest) in the Sanctuary can be a curse and deterrent for the woman, but also a blessing. The name of God is erased within waters that the woman must ingest to test her from within. If she sinned the water in her belly is a curse, but if she did not sin the water containing the name of God blesses her.

Why does the Torah facilitate such a ritual? Chazal teach that the ritual’s goal is to return peace to the home. It seems that any hint of suspicion can turn a home into a toxic environment. A ritual to definitively settle the suspicion and air out the grievances can return peace to the household. Nevertheless, the husband must decide if there is enough reason to warrant a trip to the House of God to determine if his suspicions are spurious or spot on.

Test or punishment?

The Oral Torah adds some critical details to its description of the law which vastly change its meaning. Chazal (the Talmudic sages) teach us that a man is not allowed to suspect his wife and force her up to the Temple to undergo this inquisition without good reason. First he must warn her, in the presence of witnesses, not to seclude herself with this man, then at least one witness must see her doing just that with the specific man her husband forbade (one opinion says this also needs two witnesses). These details give the woman some control over her fate; she knows what she needs to do to avoid this ceremony and it’s within her power.

Furthermore, if her husband could accuse her without any warning it’s possible that a completely innocent woman would be forced through this trial, but if a woman secludes herself with a man after her husband explicitly warned her about that particular man – she’s no longer a completely innocent victim whose husband has no reason to suspect her.  He has some proof that she is acting inappropriately, even if he can’t be sure of what she did behind closed doors. The Temple ritual is based on evidence that the woman was unchaste, and she could have avoided it. Since this ceremony is only performed if she acts in an unseemly manner, it’s no longer simply a fact-finding mission, it’s also a form of punishment for her behavior. Chazal understood that the details of this ceremony (even before the test that determines if she indeed committed adultery) is purposely demeaning because it is a form of redress, measure for measure; her exposure and humiliation is the result of her lewd and shameless behavior.

Within the context of this ritual that does not only determine guilt or innocence, but is also punitive, some of the Sages teach us that there may be “mitigating circumstances.” This woman also has merits that may cause a stay of punishment so that her guilt will not immediately come to light; her merits can delay the water’s “curse” which promised to cause extreme bodily changes (“causes your thigh to fall and your stomach to distend”) and, according to Chazal, death. And if the punishment is suspended, so is the truth. Consequently, the punitive aspect of this ceremony which is enhanced by the commentary and traditions in Chazal actually interferes with the investigative side that the Written Torah promises.

The context of the caution against teaching daughters Torah

The tension between these two aspects of the ritual comes to a head in a rabbinic dispute. Ben Azzai claims that a man must teach his daughter Torah, “So if she drinks she should know that her merits suspend [her punishment].” Ben Azzai thinks that there’s a chance one’s daughter could commit adultery and undergo this ritual. There’s also a chance his daughter will have merits and the truth will not immediately come to light because her merits will delay the punishment. If his daughter assumes that the ritual will immediately and conclusively reveal her sins and it does not happen she may lose faith – faith in God, in the sotah ritual, in the Torah’s promises, or in the existence of Divine Providence or God in general. Such a loss in faith could spread further if she tells her friends she was unfaithful and nothing happened. But if one’s daughter knows that the system isn’t “black and white” but is more complex – that her guilt will be revealed but that God may have other considerations that affect reward and punishment, she is less likely to lose faith in the system just because things don’t work out as she was promised.

Rabbi Eliezer answers him: “Anyone who teaches his daughter Torah is as if he taught her tiflut.” The continuation of the mishna makes it clear that tiflut is another word for sexual behavior (which can be understood as intimate relations, wantonness, or lewdness).

What does Rabbi Eliezer mean? The plain meaning of the mishna is that Rabbi Eliezer tells Ben Azzai that if Ben Azzai’s daughter believed that her sin would come to light if she was unfaithful to her husband, she would not stray; but if she was taught that the system is more complicated and she may not be “caught,” Ben Azzai would essentially be teaching her that she can commit adultery.[3] At the very least this could be deduced from learning that the world is complicated. This is why people still smoke even though it may very well kill them, but they don’t generally eat poison that will certainly kill them.

Understandably, this is a much broader question than the context of a sotah woman; it’s an all encompassing educational question. Should the Torah be presented in a clear cut manner, which might turn out to be “untrue” in real life or is it better to reflect the complexity of the world, which may blur the message? The kindergarten teacher’s statement that “tzedaka (charity) saves lives” is more likely to encourage her students to give charity than the message “tzedaka may save lives.” But if there’s a child in that class whose mother is sick, heaven forbid, and the child gives charity but the mother still dies – what happens to the child’s faith?

Rabbi Eliezer and Ben Azzai both want to protect the daughters, but they have different educational philosophies to achieve that end. But teaching complexities can also endanger sons. What’s the difference between sons and daughters? Some might claim that girls are less capable of learning, that they don’t have the time or the ability to cover all the complexities and so it’s better to remain with basic, clear messages.[4] It’s also possible that all learning is risky, but since boys are commanded to learn Torah they have to take the risk, while girls are not obligated so we have the “privilege” of questioning the best way to educate them.[5]

Today it’s clear to many people that there’s no option but to embrace Ben Azza’s educational philosophy. It’s impossible to see the world as one dimensional, the complexities and temptations are all around us. And so we must return to Ben Azzai’s opinion, and possibly assume that Rabbi Eliezer would agree with him.[6] Some halakhic authorities explain that Rabbi Eliezer only cautioned fathers against teaching their daughters Torah, but that others may teach girls.[7] Others will say the opposite, that since this is the best way to prepare her to serve God, even fathers should teach their daughters.[8]

[1] Mishnah Sotah 3:4. The meaning of tiflut is debated. It’s clearly negative and based on the continuation of the mishnah seemingly refers to sexual behavior, as will be mentioned later, although some commentaries understand it differently.

[2] Bamidbar 5:11-31 compared to Mishnah Sotah Chapters 1-6

[3] So it seems from Rema on Shulchan Aruch Yoreh De’ah 246:6

[4] See Rambam Hilkhot Talmud Torah 1:13; Rav Shlomo Aviner, Aturei Kohanim 110 Nissan 5754

[5] Men’s obligation to learn Torah is found in TB Kiddushin 29a-b

[6] See also: Chafetz Chaim Likutei Halakhot Sota 21

[7] According to the first opinion see for example: Responsa Aseh Lecha Rav 2:52

[8] For example: Rav Aharon Lichteinstein “Fundamental Problems Regarding the Education of the Woman” [Hebrew], in Ha-isha ve-Hinnukhah, ed. Ben-Zion Rosenfeld (Amana, 1980), 158–159

Rabbanit Dr. Adina Sternberg

was in the first cohort of the Matan Kitvuni Fellowship program and her book is in the publication process. She has a B.A. in Bible from Hebrew University and a M.A. and Ph.D. in Talmud from Bar Ilan University. Adina studied in Midreshet Lindenbaum, Migdal Oz, Havruta and the Advanced Talmud Institute in Matan. She currently teaches Bible and Talmud at Matan, and at Efrata and Orot colleges. Adina lives in Adam (Geva Binyamin) with her family.