TALMUD. The 18th Massekhet – Sota

Massekhet Sota deals primarily with the halakhot associated with the sota (see Bamidbar, Chapter 5) – a woman whose husband suspects that she is unfaithful, and warns her not to seclude herself with a specific man. In the event that she secludes herself with that man, she is considered a sota, and it is prohibited for her to remain married to her husband unless she is taken to the Temple and undergoes an evaluation rite in order to determine whether she was in fact unfaithful. This rite includes the offering of a special meal-offering, the taking of an oath, and the drinking of the bitter water of a sota:

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49 Responses to TALMUD. The 18th Massekhet – Sota

  1. Although the evaluation rite might bring about the death of a guilty woman, nevertheless the purpose of such a procedure is to return peace and harmony to the marriage. The rite is not practiced in every instance when the husband suspects his wife of infidelity. Rather, it is performed when the level of suspicion is sufficient to suggest that the woman was unfaithful. The sota process involves a warning, and if the woman is subsequently seen by two witnesses engaging in certain promiscuous behavior, then she must undergo the evaluation rite. According to all opinions in the Gemara, a man who comes to despise his wife because he suspects that she has committed adultery has the right to divorce her. If he opts to evaluate whether she is permitted to him by means of the sota rite, as in our case, it is indicative of the fact that he is interested in removing his doubts about her fidelity and rebuilding the relationship. The wife has the prerogative to refuse to undergo the rite, and to be divorced without any payment of her marriage contract. If she opts to undergo the demeaning rite to prove her innocence, it is indicative of her remorse for her suspicious behavior and of her desire to put an end to their marital distrust and strife. In such a situation, where logic would call for dissolution of the marriage, the Torah provides a miraculous means of evaluating the woman’s fidelity, which is ordinarily not verifiable by means of witnesses.

    If the woman committed adultery, aside from the fact that she transgressed one of the most serious prohibitions of the Torah, her actions are described like the actions of an animal – ma’aseh behema. Since she has degraded herself by engaging in such behavior, the evaluation rite in the Temple calls for certain acts that serve to degrade the woman and remind her of her behavior: The kohen tears her upper clothing, tying them with a rope, and he removes her hair covering. Similarly, the minha sacrifice that she brings is brought from barley flour (barley was viewed by the Sages as animal feed) and it does not include oil like other menahot. The bitter water was drunk out of a simple earthen vessel.

    The laws of Sota include a unique aspect that does not exist in any other mitzva of the Torah. Sota is the only mitzva whose entire essence is rooted in a miraculous process. The idea that drinking water should be able to test whether a woman has committed adultery is not a natural phenomenon. Rather, it is a supernatural test which results in guilty women meeting a unique death, while women who were not adulterous receive an extra blessing concerning their childbearing abilities. Additionally, the woman’s drinking of the water evaluates not only her fidelity; if she is guilty, her paramour, wherever he may be, will die the same terrible death.

    Another unique aspect of this mitzva is that the preparation of the bitter water involves the erasing of God’s name, an act that is prohibited under all other circumstances due to a negative mitzva.

    It should be noted that according to the Sages there are a number of reasons why the sota water might be effective – including the possibility that the husband himself was involved in sexual misbehaviors, or if the woman had some positive attributes that would protect her. Since not every generation is on a high spiritual level that would allow for an open miracle like this to take place, the Sages no longer allowed the rite to be performed from the time of the generation prior to the destruction of the second Temple.

    We find quite of bit of aggadic material in Massekhet Sota, most of which stems from the nature of the topics discussed in it. The commandment to make the suspected woman drink the bitter waters, which involves a supernatural element in the life of the couple, leads to discussions about such elements as reward and punishment, what makes people sin and so forth – not only for a sota, but for personalities throughout Jewish history, as well.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  2. Sota 2a-b: One who issues a warning

    The first Mishna in Massekhet Sota opens with the words hamekanneh le-ishto – one who issues a warning to his wife – describing the process of a husband warning his wife, in front of witnesses, not to be secluded with a specific man, a process that will lead to her drinking the bitter water of sota if she does so.

    As Rashi explains, the term hamekanneh is based on the pasuk, or verse (Bamidbar 5:14) that describes the husband’s concern using the words vekinneh et ishto. Nevertheless, the definition of the word kinneh is not simple, since we find it used with two different meanings. Generally speaking, the usage kinneh be-…is understood to mean jealousy – a desire for something that is owned by another that a person wants to have (see Mishlei 24:1, 19). The usage kinneh le-… however, is understood to indicate a protective love, anger at someone who injures or tries to attack something that is important to the mekanneh (see, for example, Eliyahu’s argument kano kinneti la-Shem in I Melakhim 19:10, 14).

    The common ground between these two meanings may be the heartfelt emotion that is caused by another. The kinn’ah that is discussed in Massekhet Sota is of the latter type, although, as our Gemara points out, the root word may also be used here meaning a warning, as in the passage ke-ish milhamot ya’ir kinn’ah, yari’a af yatzri’ah (Yeshayahu 42:13) describing God as shouting during warfare. This is the approach of the Rambam in his Commentary to the Mishna; the Tosefot Yom Tov suggests that in our context the term may refer to anger. In truth, the interpretation of the term is dependent on the dispute on the next page as to whether it is proper for a suspicious husband to issue a warning to his wife.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  3. Sota 3a-b: Like a worm in the sesame

    Our Gemara brings a number of statements in the name of Rav Hisda, whose origins are found in the halakha of a sota:

    •Licentious behavior in the home is like a worm in the sesame – i.e. just as the worm damages the sesame, adultery damages the fabric of the family
    •Anger in the home is like a worm in the sesame
    •Before the Jewish People sinned, the heavenly presence was manifest in every person, as the Torah teaches (Devarim 23:15) that God walks in the midst of the camp; once the Jewish People sinned, God’s presence was removed, as that pasuk (verse) concludes, that no promiscuity should be shown, or He will leave you.

    According to most of the commentaries, the third statement quoted in the name of Rav Hisda is a continuation of his first two observations. As long as a married couple behaves appropriately, God’s presence resides among them. Should they begin to behave inappropriately, His presence will leave them. The Maharsha suggests that this idea is similar to one that appears later on in Massekhet Sota (17a), that a husband and wife – ish ve-ishah – who are worthy will find God’s holy presence among them (the words ish ve-ishah include the letters of God’s name – yod and heh). If, they sin, however, God’s presence departs and we are left with destruction (without the letters yod and heh, the words ish ve-ishah become esh – fire).

    The Maharal suggests that God’s blessing rests on a home that is built on the correct values and ideals. Should the couple destroy the natural order by illicit sexual behavior that is driven by lust or anger, God cannot reside in a place that is built on such inappropriate values. The Meiri suggests simply that ordinarily a person receives Godly attention – hashgaha peratit – in this world, unless his sin causes God’s presence to leave him, in which case he will be left to the vicissitudes of the forces of nature.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  4. Sota 4a-b: The length of seclusion

    As we have learned, in order for the laws of sota to come into play, the husband must warn his wife that she should not be secluded with a certain man, and his warning notwithstanding, she does exactly that. In order for the seclusion to be considered significant, it must be long enough for the man and woman to have engaged in at least the beginning of an act of sexual intercourse. Several suggestions are raised with regard to the definition of that length of time:

    Rabbi Yishmael says, it is the amount of time it takes to walk around a date palm

    Rabbi Eliezer says it is the amount of time it takes to prepare a cup of wine

    Rabbi Yehoshua says that it is the amount of time it takes to drink it

    Ben Azzai says the length of time it takes to roast an egg

    Rabbi Akiva says the amount of time it would take to eat it

    Rabbi Yehuda ben Beteira says the amount of time it would take to swallow three eggs

    Rabbi Elazar ben Yirmeya says sufficient for a weaver to knot a thread

    Hanin ben Pinehas says enough time for a woman to extend her hand to her mouth to remove a chip of wood from between her teeth

    Peleimu says sufficient for her to extend her hand to a basket and take a loaf.

    After listing all of these different opinions, Rav Yitzhak bar Rav Yosef quotes Rabbi Yohanan as saying that each of the Sages based his statement on his personal experience with sexual relations. To the objection that ben Azzai was single, the Gemara offers three possible explanations:

    He had been married, but he left his wife

    He was quoting what he learned from his teacher

    Sod ha-Shem le-yere’av (see Tehilim 25:14) – those who fear God have hidden knowledge, even of things that they did not experience personally.

    Although ben Azzai never received formal Rabbinic ordination, he was considered one of the great scholars of his generation. Apparently he did not learn until he was an adult, when he met Rabbi Akiva’s daughter who promised to marry him if he studied Torah. Although it is clear that he did so, we do not know whether he actually married her or not. If he married her, he soon divorced her, because his desire for Torah study did not allow him time to live a normal family life.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  5. Sota 5a-b: Even a slight wind disturbs him

    Today’s daf (page) focuses – almost in its entirety – on the evils of gasei ha-rua’h – arrogance. A lengthy list of Sages offer prooftexts from Tanakh all of which clearly indicate that pride is a destructive force.

    One example is the teaching presented by Rabbi Alexandri, who says that someone who is a person with gasut ha-rua’h will be disturbed by even the lightest of winds, based on the pasuk (verse), ve-ha-resha’im ka-yam nigrash (see Yeshayahu 57:20). Rabbi Alexandri explains that if the ocean – which contains many rivi’iyot (a revi’it is a liquid measurement – one quarter of a log) is pushed and pulled by the wind, certainly a human being who has just one revi’it of blood will be buffeted by the wind, as well.

    This teaching is difficult since we know that a human body has much more than a single revi’it of blood, something pointed out by the rishonim. While some suggest that Rabbi Alexandri is referring to a baby, even so we must explain that the intention is the amount of blood whose removal would put the child in danger, since even a baby has more than a revi’it of blood in his or her body. Another suggestion is that this statement refers to the amount of blood that is in the human heart. This explanation works well with the fact that every heartbeat expels about 80 cubic centimeters of blood, which is approximately equivalent to a revi’it.

    Somewhat surprisingly, the Gemara continues with the statement of Hiyya bar Ashi who quotes Rav as saying that it is essential that a Torah scholar should have some small amount of gasut ha-rua’h – he says “one eighth of one eighth” – which, Rashi
    explains, is the smallest measurable amount that has its own name. Rav Huna the son of Rav Yehoshua teaches that such gasut ha-rua’h crowns the scholar like a sasa (awn of bristle-like growth on the top of the husk) crowns the stalk of wheat. The Meiri explains this simile by saying that just as the sasa protects the wheat, similarly a minimal amount of pride will protect the scholar from being looked down upon by others.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  6. Sota 6a-b: Suspicion of adultery and teruma

    When a woman who is not the daughter of a kohen marries a man who is a kohen, she becomes part of his household and is allowed to eat teruma, which is permitted only to kohanim. Should their marriage come to an end – i.e. if they divorce or if she becomes widowed and has no children from him – she reverts to her original status and can no longer eat teruma.

    The Mishna on our daf (page) teaches that there are five situations related to the case of sota in which the woman suspected of adultery will lose her right to partake of teruma:
    •If she says “I am defiled to you,” indicating that she committed adultery
    •If witnesses come forward and testify that she committed adultery
    •If she refuses to drink the “bitter water” of the sota
    •If her husband refuses to allow her to drink the “bitter water”
    •If she and her husband had sexual relations after she had been warned to avoid a certain man and she was found secluded with him.

    The Talmud Yerushalmi points out that the first case brought by the Mishna seems to be in agreement with the preliminary approach of the Mishna in Nedarim (90b) which teaches that if a woman made a statement that indicated that she could no longer live with her husband, the beit din would obligate him to divorce her and pay her ketuba. Later on, however, the Sages became concerned that a woman who no longer desired to be married to her husband would make one of these claims, so the ruling was changed, and she was no longer trusted with such a claim.

    According to the Yerushalmi’s conclusion, the ruling in our Mishna is true even according to the final ruling of the Mishna in Nedarim, and we must distinguish between a situation where a woman steps forward and says teme’ah ani lekhah – where the wife of a kohen tells him that she had relations with another man – and the situation in our Mishna where suspicion of infidelity is already a public matter.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  7. Sota 7a-b: They would bring her to Jerusalem

    The Mishna on our daf (page) describes how the woman who is accused of adultery and is brought to the Beit HaMikdash to drink the “bitter water” of the sota is first interrogated and encouraged to admit her sin in order to avoid the need to actually carry out the ritual. This is done by assuring her that she should not be ashamed to admit her sin, which may have come under the influence of alcohol, levity, immaturity or bad company. The Gemara explains that they would recount to her stories of great leaders in Jewish history who sinned and then admitted their guilt (such as Yehuda – see Bereishit 38:26).

    If she admitted her guilt, she was allowed to go free without participating in the sota ceremony and would not be held liable for her behavior since there were no witnesses to the act of adultery. Still, she would need to accept a divorce from her husband and would not receive her ketuba.

    If she insisted that she was innocent, then they proceeded with the ceremony of the sota. The Mishna describes that she was brought to the eastern gate near Sha’ar Nicanor, which was the entrance where the ceremony was held. This was also the place where yoldot – women who were bringing their sacrifices after childbirth – and metzora’im – people who were suffering from leprosy – were purified.

    Sha’ar Nicanor is famous because of its beautiful copper doors and because of the miracles that accompanied them on their trip from Egypt. This main entrance into the Temple served a number of purposes, specifically related to situations where a person had to come as close as possible to the azara (inner court) without actually entering it. This was accomplished by arranging that the area of the entranceway would not have the level of holiness of the azara itself.

    Thus, the reason that yoldot and metzoraim were brought there is clear – they needed to bring sacrifices, but could not enter the precincts of the azara. The reason that a sota was brought to those gates is less clear. Rabbi Pinchas Epstein, in his Minha Hareva, suggests that the fact that the sota’s clothing are torn and her hair uncovered is reason enough to have the ceremony done outside the mikdash itself.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  8. Sota 8a-b: Measure for measure

    The Mishna on our daf (page) describes what the Sages refer to as middah ke-neged middah – “measure for measure” – meaning that a person receives what he deserves. The Mishna applies this specifically to the case of sota, indicating that the various degradations and punishments that the sota receives are all directly connected to her behavior and the activities in which she participated.

    In the Gemara, Rav Yosef teaches that the concept of middah ke-neged middah remains in force even though we no longer carry out biblically mandated punishments. For example, the four methods of capital punishment that are applied by the Torah to different capital crimes can only be carried out on the basis of a decision made by the Sanhedrin, and since the destruction of the Temple, the Sanhedrin no longer sits in judgment. Nevertheless, Rav Yosef argues, people who commit criminal acts that would call for one of the four methods of capital punishment receive them in other ways:
    1.Someone liable for sekilah (stoning) would either fall off a building – which is similar to the way stoning is carried out – or be killed by a wild animal, which would tear apart his limbs.
    2.Someone liable for sereifah (death by burning) would either be killed in a fire or bitten by a poisonous snake.
    3.Someone liable for hereg (decapitation – death by sword) will either be condemned by the local authorities and killed or will find his death at the hand of robbers
    4.Someone liable for henek (strangulation) will either drown or die of seronekhi (diphtheria).

    Most of the examples offered by Rav Yosef can be easily understood as serving as substitutes for the punishments mandated by the Torah. In the case of sereifah, the parallel between death by burning and a snake bite can be understood by recognizing that snakes produce different types of poison. The snakes that live in Israel – which are mainly a variety of viper – produce a type of venom that creates a sense of intense heat throughout the body, which is similar to a feeling of being burnt by fire.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  9. Sota 9a-b: Their enemies did not rule over their achievements

    Rabbi Hinnana bar Pappa taught that Tehillim 33:1 can be understood as offering praise to two people who built sanctuaries for God that were never destroyed by their enemies. Those two people are King David and Moshe.

    The prooftext with regard to King David’s edifice is found in Megillat Eikha (2:9), which describes the gates of the Beit HaMikdash as being buried in the ground, but not destroyed. The sanctuary built by Moshe was the mishkan (tabernacle), about which there was a tradition that when the first Temple was built, the mishkan was taken down and hidden away. According to Rav Hisda, it was put into tunnels under the Temple.

    Rashi suggests that the gates built by King David were not the gates of the Temple, but rather were the gates to David’s palace, since he did not build the first Beit HaMikdash. The Maharsha, however, argues that the reference is to the gates of the Temple and that King David is credited with having built them since he prepared much of the material for the erection of the Beit HaMikdash prior to his death. Furthermore, the Sages had a tradition that the gates opened only in King David’s merit; since they were attributed to him, they were not destroyed or taken into captivity, as was the case for the rest of the Temple.

    Rav Hisda’s reference to the tunnels under the Temple relates to an array of caves, tunnels and secret rooms that exist in the Temple Mount. We are familiar with many such subterranean areas that were used during Second Temple times, like the tunnel that allowed kohanim to access the Shilo’ah spring where they could purify themselves before performing the priestly service in the Temple. Since there was limited access to the Temple grounds themselves, many of these places remained secret, and the particular place where the mishkan was hidden was apparently unknown.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  10. Sota 10a-b: Five individuals

    Continuing with the theme of middah ke-neged middah that was introduced by the Mishna (8b) that we studied earlier, our Gemara focuses on some of the characters who are presented by the Mishna (9b) as prime examples of people who suffered this fate.

    For example, a baraita is brought on our daf (page) describing how there were five individuals who were created me-ein dugma shel ma’alah – a term understood to mean that they had characteristics that were beyond those of normal people. (The term ma’alah could be interpreted to refer to God, which would mean that these five people were “modeled on the Almighty,” i.e. had Godly attributes and were uniquely created in His image. This approach is rejected by the commentaries on our Gemara who object to the idea that flesh-and-blood humans could be compared to God, even for the purpose of expressing their special attributes.) Failing to use these powers for noble purposes, these five suffered punishments specifically related to their unique abilities.

    The five personalities – and their unique attributes – are:
    •Shimshon and his strength (see Shoftim 16:19)
    •Sha’ul and his neck (see I Shmuel 10:23 and 31:4)
    •Avshalom and his hair (see II Shmuel 18:9)
    •Tzidkiyahu and his eyes (see II Melakhim 25:7)
    •Asa and his feet (see I Melakhim 15:23 and II Divrei HaYamim 14:12)

    Avshalom was King David’s son who rebelled against his father and claimed the kingdom. When King David’s troops successfully defended the kingdom, Avshalom’s hair became caught in an overhanging branch while he was trying to escape from them. He was left hanging in the air until Yo’av – King David’s cousin and chief of staff – heard of his situation and took the initiative to kill him.

    Our Gemara describes that upon finding himself in this difficult situation, Avshalom’s first reaction was to cut his hair and free himself, but that nivka she’ol mi-tahtav – the netherworld opened under him. Although Rashi understands this as an attempt to offer an explanation as to why Avshalom did not cut himself loose, the midrash suggests that the term nivka she’ol mi-tahtav should be understood to mean that Avshalom recognized that he was deserving of damnation and that he chose to allow himself to be killed as atonement for his sins against his father. In fact, the Gemara continues and describes that King David prayed on his behalf to raise him from the depths of gehinom.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  11. Sota 11a-b: The reward for good deeds

    The same Mishna (9b) that pointed out how biblical characters like Shimshon and Avshalom were punished middah ke-neged middah – measure for measure – also teaches that good deeds are rewarded middah ke-neged middah. One specific example brought in the Mishna is that of Moshe’s sister, Miriam. Just as Miriam stayed to watch what would become of little Moshe who was left in the bulrushes by their mother (see Shemot 2:4), similarly the Jewish people waited for Miriam to recover from her illness in the desert before traveling (see Bamidbar 12:15).

    The inclusion of this story in the Mishna leads the Gemara to a lengthy aggadic discussion of the exodus story, which examines the Torah’s descriptions of events, pasuk by pasuk (verse by verse).

    One well-known midrash tells of three famous biblical characters who were brought before Pharaoh and asked to give advice on how to deal with the population explosion of the Children of Israel. Eventually, each received his just desserts, middah ke-neged middah –
    •Bilam advised Pharaoh to kill the Jewish children, and he was killed (see Bamidbar 31:8)
    •Iyyov remained silent, and he was punished with suffering (see the book of Job)
    •Recognizing that the terrible decree would be carried out, Yitro chose to flee, and his children ended up as members of the Sanhedrin.

    Many raise the question: why did Iyyov’s silence make him deserving of the intense suffering that he endured, unlike Bilam and Yitro, who each received the equivalent of his own advice?

    One suggestion is that his silence was viewed as acquiescence, so, in effect, it was his agreement that sealed the fate of the children who were killed, and thus he was held accountable. According to the Zohar, Iyyov did not remain entirely silent during the discussion. He recommended that the Jewish people should not be killed, but rather should be tortured and have their valuables taken from them – the very sufferings that Iyyov himself eventually experienced.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  12. Sota 12a-b: But you decreed both on the males and on the females

    Continuing the discussion of the exodus, with a particular emphasis on the role played by Miriam in the story, our Gemara quotes a baraita that introduces Moshe’s father, Amram, as the gadol ha-dor – the leader of his generation. Upon hearing of Pharaoh’s decree to kill every male child, Amram chose to divorce his wife, an act that led many others to follow his example.

    The baraita teaches that Miriam argued with her father, pointing out that his decision to refrain from having children was even worse than Pharaoh’s. By divorcing his wife, Amram had effectively destroyed the future – not only of Jewish sons, but of Jewish daughters, as well. While Pharaoh’s decrees were only effective in this world, Amram’s decision would have an effect in the next world as well. Furthermore, while the evil Pharaoh’s decree may or may not have been successful, Amram’s actions would certainly be successful. Under the force of her arguments, Amram remarried, encouraging others to do so as well.

    With regard to the impact of the decrees on “this world” and on “the World-to-Come,” Rashi explains simply that children who are killed by Pharaoh will still merit the next world, while children who are never born into the world cannot do so. The Iyun Ya’akov suggests that it is an issue that affects the parents, who will be rewarded for fulfilling the commandment of peru u’revu – having children – even if those children are killed; someone who rejects that mitzva, on the other hand, is punished in the next world.

    The Gemara questions whether the text supports this approach, arguing that the passage va-yikah et bat Levi (Shemot 2:1) sounds like a description of a first marriage. To this Rav Yehuda bar Zevina responds that in his desire to get others to remarry their wives, Amram made their wedding a public act, as though it were a first marriage. He arranged for them to be carried by two people in an appiryon – a palanquin – with Aharon and Miriam dancing before them.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  13. Sota 13a-b: If you show yourself, it is good

    Continuing the discussion of examples of middah ke-neged middah (measure for measure) in a positive sense, the Mishna (9b) points to Yosef who personally took responsibility to bury his father (see Bereishit 50:7) and in turn had his own burial needs tended to by Moshe (see Shemot 13:19), who, in turn was buried by God, Himself (see Devarim 34:6).

    Our Gemara discusses how in the midst of preparation for the Exodus, while the rest of the Jewish people were busy taking property from the Egyptians, Moshe chose to involve himself with the mitzva of tending to Yosef’s bones, preparing to take them to Israel. It was, apparently, a difficult task to find Yosef’s remains, and the Gemara offers two explanations as to where they were. According to the first, he had been placed by the Egyptians in a metal box and placed in the Nile so that its waters would be blessed by his presence. The second possible place is suggested by Rabbi Natan who says that he had been buried in the kabbarnit shel melakhim – apparently the burial crypt of the kings. In either case, the Gemara describes how Moshe called out to Yosef asking him to reveal himself in order to be taken for burial in Israel.

    The Maharsha points out that according to the Midrashim, it was not only Yosef’s remains that were taken out of Egypt during the Exodus; all of the tribes took their forefathers’ remains with them. Nevertheless, only in Yosef’s case had the Egyptians taken an interest in burying him according to their traditions. Therefore, in all the other cases the place where the father of the tribe was buried was well known.

    In fact, the Midrash offers an alternative reason to why Yosef had been placed in the Nile – that since the Egyptians knew that Yosef had made his brothers swear to take his remains with them to Israel (see Bereshit 50:25), they hid him in the hope that it would keep them from leaving.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  14. Sota 14a-b: Just as He clothes the naked

    Rabbi Hama bar Hanina taught that the passage commanding us to walk in tandem with God (Devarim 13:5) cannot be understood literally because God is an all-consuming fire (see Devarim 4:24). Rather we must understand this to mean that we should follow in the way of God, emulating His deeds.

    For example –
    •Just as God clothed the naked (Bereishit 3:21), so we should clothe the naked.
    •Just as He visited the sick (Bereishit 18:1), we should visit the sick.
    •Just as He comforted those in mourning (Bereishit 25:11), we should comfort those in mourning.
    •Just as He buried the dead (Devarim 34:6), we should bury the dead.

    The first example, which describes God as preparing “garments of skin” for Adam and Hava, is subject to a dispute between Rav and Shmuel, one of whom understands them as clothing made of skin, while the other defines them as clothing from which the skin benefits.

    Rashi explains that the opinion which says “clothing made of skin” actually means that the clothing was made of wool, while the other opinion believes that it was made of linen. The Maharsha quotes the Hizkuni as pointing out that no animal had been killed at that time, so the clothing could not have been made of animal skins, and must be understood otherwise. Others argue that although Adam was not allowed to kill animals, there is no reason to think that he would not be allowed to make use of animals that had died.

    In the midrashic literature there are a wide variety of opinions that offer different approaches to the essence of these garments.

    The Maharal suggests that the dispute between Rav and Shmuel revolves around the question whether the purpose of these clothes was to cover their nakedness (i.e., for reasons of modesty) or for reasons of comfort.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  15. Sota 15a-b: Preparing the bitter water

    The second perek (chapter) of Massekhet Sota teaches about the preparations for the ceremony itself. The Mishna on our daf (page) teaches about how the “bitter water” is prepared. The kohen would bring an earthenware peyalei, and would fill it with a half log of water from the kiyor – the Temple washbasin. Rabbi Yehuda requires only a revi’it, one quarter of a log. Based on the passage in Bamidbar (5:17), dirt would be taken from the floor of the mishkan – or from under the stones of the Temple floor – to be placed in the water.

    The peyalei – or the Greek phiale – was a utensil used for cooking and drinking. The peyalei could be made out of different materials, e.g. from earthenware or metal, and it was apparently shaped like a shallow pan (the Greek translation of the word ke-ara that appears as a utensil used in the mishkan is phiale).

    One question that is raised about our Mishna is why a Greek word is used to describe this utensil, rather than using a Hebrew word like kos (cup) or kedera (bowl). The Meiri points out that the Targum of the expression kuba’at kos ha-tarela – “the cup of staggering” – in Yeshayahu (51:17) is, in fact, peyalei, which hints to the cup from which the sota drinks, as well.

    The word peyalei is found many times in the Targum that originated in the Land of Israel as the translation of the word sefel (a bowl) – see, for example, Shoftim 5:25 in the Targum Yonatan.

    Perhaps the simplest explanation of why the Mishna chose to use this term is because it refers to a very specific type of utensil, which could not be expressed with the use of a generic term like “cup” or “bowl.”

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  16. Sota 16a-b: Three items are required to be seen

    As we learned on yesterday’s daf (page), the procedure for preparing the “bitter water” involves mixing dirt from the floor of the mishkan or mikdash with the water that will be used. Our Gemara quotes a baraita that teaches that this is one of three cases where things are required to be seen –
    1.The dirt mixed with water in the case of sota
    2.The ashes mixed with water in the case of Para Aduma
    3.The spit of a Yevama during the halitza ceremony.

    Rabbi Yishmael adds the case of the blood of the bird used in the ceremony marking the recovery of a metzora (someone suffering from biblical leprosy) that is mixed with water.

    With regard to this last case, Rabbi Yirmeya asked Rabbi Zeira what to do if the bird is so large that the blood overwhelms the water so that no water can be seen, or if it is so small that the water overwhelms the blood and no blood can be seen. Rabbi Zeira’s response was “haven’t I told you not to take yourself out of the halakha?! The Rabbis were referring to a tzipor dror which does not grow so big or so small.”

    We find quite a few questions in the Talmud raised by Rabbi Yirmeya that relate to issues of limits on shi’urim – the size requirements of the halakha. These questions appear to lead to a possible conclusion that the shi’urim cannot truly be significant since they cannot work in every single case. In many cases we find that Rabbi Zeira responds by saying that such questions should not be raised, since they are based on incorrect assumptions.

    The tzipor dror that Rabbi Zeira mentioned is the passer domesticus or house sparrow, one of the most common birds, that lives wherever there is human habitation. Although they live in close proximity with humans, they have never been successfully domesticated – in the language of the Talmud (Beitza 24a) einah mekabelet marut. They reach full growth (about 14 centimeters) in 2-3 weeks, although they continue to be raised by their parents for some time after that.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  17. Sota 17a-b: As reward for that which Avraham said

    Our Gemara quotes a number of aggadic teachings in the name of Rava.

    According to Rava, as a reward for Avraham’s statement (Bereishit 18:27) ve-anokhi afar va-efer – “who am I to argue with God; I am but dust and ashes” – the Jewish people merited the mitzvot of sota (where the bitter water is made from dirt taken from the floor of the mishkan) and Para Aduma – the Red Heifer (which is made from ashes mixed with water).

    In another statement, Rava taught that as a reward for Avraham’s statement (Bereishit 14:23) im mi-hut ve-ad serokh na’al – “I will take neither a thread nor a shoe strap” – the Jewish people merited the mitzvot of tefillin straps and the thread of tekhelet on their tzitzit.

    The Torah mentions the color tekhelet on many occasions, but it is not really a shade of color; rather it is the dye from which this color is made. Various discussions in the Gemara make it clear that the blue dye of the tekhelet was taken from a living creature called a hilazon. Because of the many Gemarot that describe the hilazon, it is difficult to identify one particular animal that meets all of the criteria, and there are many different opinions regarding its classification. The consensus of most opinions is that the hilazon is the snail “Murex trunculus” that is found on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea in the north of Israel. This creature has a unique liquid dye (that is not the animal’s blood), which, when mixed with other materials, produces the blue tekhelet color described in the Torah. Already during Talmudic times the use of tekhelet became a rarity, and within a short time its true source was forgotten.

    It appears that the color of the tekhelet dye was a dark blue containing shades of green, which is why the sources compare it both to the sea and to grass.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  18. Sota 18a-b: The woman does not drink and repeat

    We have learned that a woman whose husband has warned her of his concern regarding her behavior with a certain man will drink the “bitter water” of a sota if she is seen having secluded herself with that individual. Our Gemara asks whether the woman can be put through this ordeal more than once. The position presented by Rabbi Yehuda is that a woman cannot be a judged as a sota more than once. He supports this with a story that once Nehunya Hofer Shihin testified before the court that a woman could be a sota more than once, but that his position was accepted only if she was married to a second husband, but not with the same husband.

    According to the Mishna in Shekalim (5:1) Nehunya Hofer Shihin – whose name literally means “Nehunya the ditch digger” – was one of the appointed workers in the Temple, whose official position was to be responsible for water for Jerusalem generally, and specifically for the pilgrims coming to the Temple during the holidays. The Gemara tells that Nehunya was an expert in choosing the correct place to dig wells, thus he was able to fill cisterns not only from the collection of rainwater, but from underground reservoirs, as well.

    It appears that “the great cistern” referred to was one with which the Sages were familiar. In the Gemara in Yevamot (121b) a baraita is brought that tells the story of Nehunya Hofer Shihin’s daughter who fell into “the great cistern.” When the report reached Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa, he reported that all was well, and after a time that she had been saved. When questioned about it, Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa said that throughout the ordeal he was certain that Nehunya Hofer Shihin’s daughter was safe because she would not be punished with the very object that her father devoted his life to.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  19. Sota 19a-b: The meal-offering

    While the second perek (chapter) of Massekhet Sota focused on the preparations that were done for the ceremony, the third perek, which begins on our daf (page), deals with the ceremony itself.

    The first Mishna in the perek teaches that the minha – the meal-offering

    – was removed from the basket and placed in a keli sharet – a utensil belonging to the Temple – and was given to the woman to hold. As is generally the case with menahot, tenufa – lifting the minha – was then done, with the kohen placing his hands under the hands of the owner and lifting the minha up in the air. Afterwards it was brought to the altar and sacrificed, with the remainder given to the kohanim to eat.

    Tosafot bring a question that is presented by the Talmud Yerushalmi. Is there not a lack of propriety in having the kohen lift the minha up thereby touching the hands of the woman? The Yerushalmi rejects the possibility that a cloth was placed between their hands, arguing that something like that would create a hatzitza – a separation – which would not allow the requirement of tenufa to be fulfilled correctly. Rather, the Yerushalmi concludes, such a short term physical touch does not lend itself to sensuality.

    Others suggest that the kohen did not actually place his hands directly under the woman’s while he was performing tenufa with her, rather he would hold the edges of the utensil lower down than her hands. The Tosefot HaRash suggests that we can reconcile the two explanations by saying that the Talmud Yerushalmi recognized that given the close proximity of the kohen and the sota, it was likely that they would come into contact with one another, and that putting them into such a situation was deemed inappropriate. The conclusion, however, was that contact for just a moment is not something that should be of concern to us.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  20. Sota 20a-b: So she does not render the Temple courtyard impure

    According to the Mishna on our daf (page), if the sota is in fact guilty of adultery, after she drinks the “bitter water” her face will begin to turn green and her eyes will bulge out. At that point the people standing nearby immediately remove her from the Temple precincts lest she metameh (ritually defile) the holy place.

    The Gemara attempts to clarify what the fear of ritual defilement might be. It cannot be a concern that she will die since – at least on a biblical level – someone who is tameh met (one whose ritual defilement stems from contact with the dead) is permitted in the ezrat nashim – the area where she is given the “bitter water.” Abaye explains that the concern is that she might bleed and become a nidda.

    The Gemara offers support to the idea that a sudden fear might cause a woman to become a nidda from the passage in Megillat Esther (4:4), which is understood by Rav to mean that Esther became a nidda upon hearing that Mordechai was in sackcloth following Haman’s decree. At the same time, the Gemara questions whether this is true, given the Mishna in Massekhet Nidda which teaches that fear stops a woman from menstruating. The Gemara’s explanation is that although a long-term fear may keep a woman from menstruating normally, a sudden shock may cause a woman to bleed.

    A woman’s monthly menstrual cycle is dependent on hormonal activity which is directed by the brain. Severe emotional stress, like a long-term threatening situation, may cause regular menstruation to cease – even for an extended period – until the stressful situation has passed. At the same time, a sudden shock or severe emotional event may cause a woman to bleed outside of her normal cycle.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  21. Sota 21a-b: A foolish man of piety

    In the Mishna (20a) Rabbi Yehoshua mentions a number of people who he categorizes as mevalei olam – those whose actions destroy the world. One of them is a hasid shoteh – a “foolish man of piety.” Our Gemara defines the term by giving the example of a man who sees a woman drowning and reacts by saying that, as a religious person, it is inappropriate for him to look at her – even though that is the only way to save her.

    In his Minha Hareva, Rav Pinhas Epstein asks why this person is considered a hasid shoteh; by allowing this woman to drown, he has transgressed the prohibition of lo ta’amod al dam re’ekhah (“do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor” – see Vayikra 19:16) and should be considered an evildoer. One possible answer is that there are other people in the vicinity who can step forward and save her, and he is considered a hasid shoteh since he does not hurry to fulfill this important mitzva because of skewed priorities.

    The definition of a hasid shoteh as offered by the Rambam is not only someone who refrains from performing mitzvot because of what he believes to be religious stringencies, but also someone who is overly concerned with stringencies in general (the example given by the Meiri is someone who fasts on a daily basis). The Talmud Yerushalmi offers other examples to illustrate this concept, including someone who sees a child drowning and decides that he must remove his tefillin before jumping into the water to save him, someone who sees a potential rapist chasing after a young woman and is unwilling to strike out at the person, or even someone who sees a choice fruit on his tree and hurries to give it to charity without first making sure that the basic terumot and ma’asrot (tithes) have been taken properly.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  22. Sota 22a-b: Those whose actions erode the world

    On yesterday’s daf (page) we learned about Rabbi Yehoshua’s teaching in the Mishna (20a) that a number of people are considered mevalei olam – those whose actions erode the world. Makot perushin (those who injure themselves out of false abstinence) are yet another example that Rabbi Yehoshua presents as mevalei olam. Our Gemara teaches that there are seven types of perushin that fall into this category, the common thread among them is that these people are hypocrites who present themselves as God-fearing, religious people when in fact they are just putting on a show.

    The Gemara concludes with the advice that King Yannai offered his wife Shlomzion before his passing. He told her that she should fear neither the perushin nor the zedukim, but rather she should fear the hypocrites who present themselves as though they are perushin, when in fact they are not. “Their actions are those of Zimri (see Bamidbar 25:14) but they expect to be rewarded like Pinehas (see Bamidbar 25:10-13).”

    The perushin are the Pharisees, the sages of the Talmud, while the zedukim are the Sadducees, the elite class that rejected many of the traditions of the perushin. According to the Gemara, King Yannai was suggesting to his wife – who was to take the throne upon his passing – that although the he and the perushin had been enemies throughout his life, she had nothing to fear from them, since they would not hold his excesses and cruelty against her. Those who use the crown of Torah to further their personal objectives were the dangerous ones.

    This deathbed speech is recorded differently in Josephus (Book XIII, Chapter 15, number 5), where we find King Yannai telling his wife that she should run her affairs of state entirely according to the direction of the perushin. Historical evidence shows that she did so throughout her rule.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  23. Sota 23a-b: A woman cannot vow that her son shall be a nazirite

    The Mishna on our daf (page) lists a number of differences between men and women with regard to a variety of issues of Jewish law. Among them are:

    •When declared a metzora (biblical leper) a man must rend his clothing and loosen his hair (see Vayikra 13:45) while a woman does not.
    •A man can accept upon himself his father’s nezirut, but a woman cannot (see the Gemara in Nazir 30a).
    •A man can declare his son a nazir, but a woman cannot.

    With regard to this last halakha, the Radak points out that the example of Hannah that appears in the Book of Shmuel would seem to stand in contradiction with the law of our Mishna, for there we find that Shmuel’s mother appears to successfully commit him to a life of nezirut (see I Shmuel 1:11). The Tiferet Yisrael on the Mishna in Nazir (9:5) suggests that Hannah’s statement should not be understood as a full, complete neder (vow), but rather as a suggestion that she would encourage her husband to do so. In any case, it is difficult to see Hannah’s statement as a neder, given that it was made before the unborn child had even been conceived.

    Moreover, it is not clear that Hannah’s statement referred to nezirut at all. In the last Mishna in Massekhet Nazir there is a disagreement as to whether the prophet Shmuel was actually a nazir. Rabbi Nehorai points to the prayer said by Shmuel’s mother, Hannah, prior to his birth where she promises u-morah lo ya’aleh al rosho (I Shmuel 1:11). He interprets this to mean that his hair will not be cut, similar to the statement made about Shimshon (see Shoftim 13:5), perhaps the most famous biblical nazir. Rabbi Yosei argues that morah simply means “fear” and that Hannah is saying that should he be born, her son will show no fear of man.

    Most of the commentaries on Tanakh, including the Septuagint, translate morah in our context as “metal” – that is to say, a razor. Targum Yonatan, however, suggests that the root of morah is marut – ownership or leadership.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  24. Sota 24a-b: In the case of a betrothed woman

    The fourth perek (chapter) of Massekhet Sota focuses on the question of whether the laws of sota apply to all couples. Among the cases presented in the first Mishna (23b) is the case of an arusa – a woman who is betrothed to her husband (i.e. she is considered married, having received kiddushin from him, but they have not completed the nissu’in and they have not had huppa).

    The Gemara brings a series of proof-texts to show the source of this halakha and suggests that the simplest source may be the tradition that Rabbi Aha bar Hanina brought “from the South” – that the passage mibaladei ishekh (see Bamidbar 5:20) teaches that the bitter waters of the sota will only work if the woman has first slept with her husband before transgressing.

    Rami bar Hama rejects this as a possible source, pointing to a case where the engaged couple had relations before their marriage. We see, therefore, that it is possible to have a case where an arusa will have slept with her husband before transgressing.

    The Rambam teaches that the reason an engaged couple that had relations before completing their marriage cannot participate in the sota ceremony is because the husband also committed a transgression when he had relations with his wife before their marriage was complete. The Ra’avad argues, claiming that this Gemara disproves the Rambam’s thesis, since it is clear according to Rami bar Hama that an arusa who slept with her husband would be eligible to drink the “bitter water” were it not for other sources that forbid her from doing so.

    With regard to Rabbi Aha bar Hanina bringing a tradition mi-daroma – “from the South” – apparently this is a reference to the period following the Bar Kokheva revolt when the center of Jewish life moved northward to the Galilee. At that time, only a small number of Jewish communities remained in Judea and the southern part of Israel. These communities retained ancient oral traditions, and it is not unusual for the Gemara to report that a Sage returned from travel to the southern part of Israel with baraitot that were unknown to the Sages of the Galilee.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  25. Sota 25a-b: A woman who violates Jewish custom

    Our Gemara discusses the case of overet al dat – a woman who violates the precepts of Jewish custom, asking whether she needs to be warned by her husband if he plans to divorce her without paying her ketuba. Can he simply divorce her, given her behavior, or must he warn her in order to give her the opportunity to rectify her behavior? After some discussion of the matter, the Gemara concludes that she needs to be warned.

    The case of overet al dat is discussed at length in Massekhet Ketubot (72b) where two different types of overet al dat are presented:
    1.overet al dat Moshe
    2.overet al dat yehudit.

    The case of overet al dat Moshe is one in which the woman transgresses a biblical law, and specifically, as explained by the rishonim, when her actions bring her husband to transgress as well. Examples include feeding him non-kosher food or engaging in relations with him when she is a niddaand forbidden to him.

    The case of overet al dat yehudit is where the woman engages in behaviors that are considered inappropriate for a Jewish married woman – for example, going out in public without a covering on her head.

    The Gemara continues this discussion by asking whether a husband can choose to remain married to his wife even if she is overet al dat. Is the “Jewish code of ethics” objective, or does an individual husband have the ability to declare that these things do not disturb him? The conclusion of the Gemara is that overet al dat may be grounds for divorce, but a husband is not obligated to divorce his wife for these behaviors and can choose to remain married to her.

    Although Rashi is viewed as limiting this discussion to the case of overet al dat yehudit (in his opinion, were she to have been overet al dat Moshe and causing her husband to transgress biblical laws, there would be no need to warn her that she needs to change her behaviors), it appears that most of the rishonim understand the Gemara as applying to the case of overet al dat Moshe, as well.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  26. Sota 26a-b: Those who cannot become a sota

    One of the cases presented in the Mishna (24a) of those who cannot become a sota is the aylonit, who, according to the Tanna Kamma (first), will not be given the “bitter water” to drink.

    From the detailed discussions in the Gemara – mainly in Massekhet Yevamot- it appears that an aylonit suffers from a genetic defect that does not allow her to have children. This is a different categorization than an akara – a barren woman – whose physical and sexual development is ordinarily normal, but cannot have children because of some other deficiency or impediment. From those descriptions it appears that an aylonit can be recognized by certain unique physical traits, including a lack of secondary sex characteristics, like pubic hairs. Furthermore, it appears from the Gemara that there are different types of aylonit, ranging from women who have an overabundance of male hormones to those who suffer from Turner syndrome, where only one X chromosome is present and fully functioning. Approximately 98% of all fetuses with Turner syndrome spontaneously abort; the incidence of Turner syndrome in live female births is believed to be about 1 in 2500.

    Within Jewish law there are many discussions about the status of an aylonit, mainly because of the lack of secondary female sex characteristics and because they develop at a relatively advanced age. Thus we find questions about when an aylonit is considered to have reached the age of adulthood, which halakhaordinarily defines as physical maturity.
    From our Gemara, the exception of aylonit appears to be based on the fact that according to the Tanna Kamma a man is not permitted to marry an aylonit since she will not be able to bear him children. The Talmud Yerushalmi, however, suggests that the source for this law is the passage (Bamidbar 5:28) that promises that a sota who is tested by the “bitter water” and found innocent will become pregnant – a promise that applies only to women who can become pregnant.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  27. Sota 27a-b: A woman of suspected promiscuity

    Our Gemara discusses the question of whether it is appropriate to marry a duma or the daughter of a duma. A duma is an Aramaic word that – in our context – refers to a woman about whom there are rumors that she is unfaithful to her husband. Shmuel permits marrying such a woman, but not her daughter, who may be the product of a forbidden relationship. Rabbi Yohanan permits marrying the daughter, about whom there are no rumors, and forbids marrying the mother, who has developed an unenviable reputation.

    Rashi and others make the point that neither Shmuel nor Rabbi Yohanan actually forbid marriage to these women, but rather offer strong recommendations against marrying one or the other. It appears that the point of argument is whether the greater concern is with the daughter, given her uncertain status that will never be resolved, or with the mother, who gives every reason to be concerned lest she commit adultery when she is married.

    Our Gemara comes to a clear conclusion that marrying the daughter is permitted, since – as Rav Tahalifa bar Ma’arva taught Rabbi Abbahu – even if we are certain that a woman committed adultery, we do not cast aspersions on her children, since we rule rov be’ilot ahar ha-ba’al – that the majority of her sexual encounters were with her husband, so the children are most likely his.

    The Rambam (Hilkhot Isurei Bi’ah 15:20) accepts the Gemara’s ruling and concludes that a person can marry the daughter with no compunctions (unless she is perutza be-yoter – unusually promiscuous). The Meiri, however, deems it appropriate for a person who wants to avoid unpleasant situations to avoid both the mother and the daughter since we have reason to suspect that the daughter will follow in her mother’s footsteps.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  28. Sota 28a-b: Just as the water evaluates her fidelity

    The fifth perek (chapter) of Massekhet Sota, which began with the Mishna on daf (page) 27b, is a collection of homiletic interpretations of a number of biblical passages. The thread that holds these interpretations together is the fact that they were all said bo ba-yom – “on that day” – which is to say, on the day that Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya was appointed to the position of nasi of the Sanhedrin (see Massekhet Berakhot 28a).

    The first of these teachings relates to the laws of sota, where we find that Rabbi Akiva learns from passages in the parasha of sota (see Bamidbar 5:12-31) that the “bitter water” evaluated not only her fidelity, but his, as well. Although the pronoun is unclear, our Gemara concludes that when Rabbi Akiva says that the “bitter water” evaluated “his” behaviors, he must be referring to her lover and not her husband. That is to say, if the woman had, in fact, committed adultery, not only would she die the horrible death described in the Torah, but the man with whom she committed adultery would suffer that death as well. It cannot be understood as referring to her husband – i.e. that her husband would be punished if he had been unfaithful or committed some sexual crime – because the Sages had a tradition, based on the last pasuk (verse) in the parasha (Bamidbar 5:31), that if the husband had committed such a crime, the “bitter water” would simply be ineffective.

    According to the Rambam (Hilkhot Sota 2:8), this rule applies to any sexual misdeed. If at any point in his life the husband engaged in a sinful sexual act, the sota ceremony will not work on his wife. Many of the commentaries disagree with this position, ruling that it is only if the forbidden act related to his wife that the “bitter water” would have no effect. In his commentary on the Torah, the Ramban argues that this rule applies to the entire family, so that if anyone in the family had transgressed a sexual prohibition, the water would not work.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  29. Sota 29a-b: On that day

    As we learned on yesterday’s daf (page), the fifth perek (chapter) of Massekhet Sota is a collection of homiletic interpretations of a number of biblical passages. The thread that holds these interpretations together is the fact that they were all said bo ba-yom – “on that day” – which is to say, on the day that Rabban Gamliel was removed from his post as head of the Sanhedrin and replaced by Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya. On that day a large number of open questions were examined and clarified – many of which appear in Massekhet Eduyyot.

    It appears that the shift from Rabban Gamliel to Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya included a change in the method of learning in the beit midrash. This allowed for greater freedom among the scholars to present their own learning and interpretations, which brought up teachings that had never been shared before. While the first teaching of Rabbi Akiva that appears in our perek – which was, according to Rashi, taught bo ba-yom – relates directly to sota, the ones that follow deal with a wide variety of subjects.

    The second bo ba-yom teaching brought in the name of Rabbi Akiva focuses on the question of tumah – ritual defilement – and specifically how far removed an object might be from the source of tumah, and still retain an element of ritual defilement. Generally speaking, the levels of tumah work as follows:
    •A dead body is avi avot ha-tumah – the highest level of tumah.
    •Contact with an avi avot ha-tumah creates an av ha-tumah (a tumah source).
    •Contact with an av ha-tumah creates a rishon le-tumah (one level removed from the source).
    •A rishon le-tumah can create a sheni le-tumah (two levels removed) only if it touches food or drink.
    •A sheni le-tumah can create a shelishi le-tumah (three levels removed) only if it touches teruma.
    •A shelishi le-tumah can create a revi’i le-tumah (four levels removed) only if it touches kodesh (e.g. a sacrifice).

    Rabbi Akiva’s teaching in the Mishna is an attempt to find a source text for a shelishi le-tumah in all food and drink, a position that is not accepted as the halakha.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  30. Sota 30a-b: This is my God and I will glorify Him

    As we have learned (see daf, or page, 28), the fifth perek (chapter) of Massekhet Sota is a collection of homiletic interpretations of a number of biblical passages. The thread that holds these interpretations together is the fact that they were all said bo ba-yom – “on that day” – which is to say, on the day that Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya was appointed to the position of nasi of the Sanhedrin (see Massekhet Berakhot 28a).

    We find that bo ba-yom Rabbi Akiva taught that az yashir – the song sung by the Children of Israel as they crossed the Red Sea in their escape from their Egyptian pursuers – was sung responsively (i.e. Moshe recited a line and the people repeated it), while Rabbi Nehemya understood that Moshe would begin a passage and the people would complete it. This discussion leads to a statement brought in the name of Rabbi Yosei HaGelili:

    When the Children of Israel climbed out of the sea onto dry land, natnu enehem lomar shirah – they wanted to sing a song of praise. What did they do? With the appearance of the Shehina (God’s presence), a child resting on his mother’s lap sat up and a baby nursing at his mother’s breast dropped it from his mouth to say zeh eli ve-anvehu – “this is my God and I will glorify Him” (Shemot 15:2). The source for this is the passage in Tehillim (8:3).

    Based on the passage in Tehillim (68:27) Rabbi Meir taught that at that time, even unborn children broke out in a song of praise.

    Some explain that the emphasis on the children’s song can be understood from the opening words of Rabbi Yosei HaGelili’s statement – natnu enehem lomar shirah – which implies that they were not entirely certain that a song of praise was appropriate, given that their redemption came at the cost of the deaths of the entire Egyptian army. When they saw the spontaneous response of the children, however, it became clear to them that the adults were obligated in a similar response.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  31. Sota 31a-b: But the fetuses could not see

    As we learned on yesterday’s daf (page), based on his interpretation of the passage in Tehillim (68:27) Rabbi Meir taught that at the time the Jewish people crossed the Red Sea, even unborn children in their mothers’ wombs broke out in a song of praise.

    The Gemara on our daf questions how this could have happened; after all, how could they have seen the miracle that was taking place from their position inside the womb? Rabbi Tanhum responds to this question by saying that despite being hidden from the world, they were able to see because their mothers’ stomachs became like aspaklarya ha-me’ira – luminous crystal – which allowed them to look out.

    The term aspaklarya has its source in Latin as specularis or speculare, meaning “something transparent” or “a seeing glass” – from the same root as the word “spectacles.” On occasion the Talmud uses it to mean “a mirror.”

    In truth, this entire discussion in the Gemara is a difficult one, and in some manuscripts it does not appear at all. The problem stems from the fact that the Gemara is describing a miracle that contains elements that are much more difficult to accept than the problem of unborn children seeing the miracle of the parting of the sea. Simply put, how can unborn children break into song? Given this difficulty, why would the Gemara choose to focus on just one aspect of the miracle – their inability to see – and ignore the other issues?

    In his Torat HaKenaot, Rabbi Moshe Betzalel Feibush suggests that when the Gemara raised this point, it did not mean to question the occurrence of the miracle, but rather its point was to clarify one further aspect of the miracle, beyond the obvious miracle of the children singing. The point was to explain how the unborn children were aware that the miracle took place.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  32. Sota 32a-b: These are recited in any language

    The seventh perek (chapter) of Massekhet Sota, which begins on our daf (page), teaches the halakha that the warning given to a woman who is suspected of adultery can be given be-khol lashon – in any language; it does not need to be said in the language that it is written in the Torah. This teaching leads the Mishna to list a number of formal statements that can be made in any language (e.g., the recitation of Shema, Grace after meals, various vows made in court) and some that can only be said in the original Hebrew text (e.g. the Priestly blessing, halitza, the speech made by the kohen before leading the army into battle).

    The notion that some statements can be made be-khol lashon – in any language – follows Rashi’s reading of the Mishna. According to Tosafot (this is also the reading that appears in the Talmud Yerushalmi and other places) the correct reading is bi-leshonam – in their language. Tosafot explain the difference between the variant readings as follows: According to Rashi’s text, it makes absolutely no difference what language is used, while according to Tosafot, if the reading is not done in the original Hebrew, it must be said in a language that will be understood by the listener.

    In fact, the cases listed in the Mishna do not encompass all of the situations where a foreign language can be substituted for the original Hebrew. Tosafot explain that the only cases mentioned are those where the principals involved must understand what is being said, so the halakha allows for the statement to be made in a way that is comprehensible to them. This is opposed to acts that are done primarily for ritual purposes, and we are less concerned with being sure that everyone understands what is being said.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  33. Sota 33a-b: As the angels are not familiar with Aramaic

    One of the examples presented by the Mishna (32a) of things that can be said in any language is tefillah – prayer. The Gemara explains simply that since prayer is a heartfelt request from God, a person must be able to express it in any way that he desires.

    The Gemara raises an objection to this by pointing to a statement made by Rav Yehuda that a person should not pray in Aramaic, since the heavenly angels cannot understand that language; Rabbi Yohanan teaches that if a person prays in Aramaic, his prayers are ignored by the angels since they do not understand Aramaic. The Gemara responds to this question by distinguishing between individual prayer that cannot be in Aramaic, and communal prayer, which can be presented in that language. Rashi explains that since God’s presence resides with the community, there is no need for the intervention of angels, and the prayers can be said even in Aramaic.

    Many explanations are offered for the Gemara’s assertion that angels do not understand Aramaic. Tosafot question whether this is true, arguing that angels have the ability to know people’s thoughts, so they certainly can understand people’s spoken words, no matter the language in which they are said. This question leads Tosafot to offer a different interpretation of Rabbi Yohanan’s comment. Rather than stating that the angels do not “understand” Aramaic, they suggest that he is saying that they do not have a high opinion of that language. Thus Rabbi Yohanan is understood to be saying that the angels will reject prayers offered in Aramaic because they see them as being of little value.

    Many commentaries disagree with Tosafot’s line of reasoning. The Sefat Emet, for example, argues with Tosafot’s basic premise, and teaches that the Zohar clearly does not believe that angels know the thoughts of men unless they are specifically granted access to that information.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  34. Sota 34a-b: The stony land of Hebron

    As we have learned, the seventh perek (chapter) of Massekhet Sota discusses how some religious ceremonies need to be said in Hebrew, while others can be said in any language. A series of segues leads the discussion from the blessings and curses that the Children of Israel recited on Har Gerizim and Har Eival to a general discussion about entering the land of Israel at the end of the forty year trek through the desert, and the story of the spies who entered the land to scout it out many years before.

    Our Gemara focuses on some of what the spies chose to speak about when they returned to report to the Jewish People. According to the Torah (Bamidbar 13:22), they told of a number of giants who lived in the area of Hebron, mentioning that Hebron was built prior to the city of Zoan in Egypt. This is understood by the Gemara as teaching that although Hebron was poor agricultural land, it was considered better than Zoan, which was the best land in Egypt.

    The term used to describe the land around Hebron is trashim, which describes ground that is so hard that it cannot be plowed and planted normally. Generally speaking, such earth is found in rocky areas where the earth between the rocks also becomes hard and cannot be used for normal agricultural uses. The Gemara’s proof that the land in Hebron was trashim is that it was used as a burial place.

    The Sefat Emet questions how the fact that the burial place of the forefathers of the Jewish people is in Hebron can serve as a proof that the land was of poor quality. He explains that according to burial custom in Israel, soft earth was not a good place to bury people, since the walls of the grave will collapse. Rather, the ideal burial ground is one where the earth is hard and cannot be used for farming. In such a place, the body will remain properly buried.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  35. Sota 35a-b: They died an unusual death

    As we saw on yesterday’s daf (page), our Gemara is focusing on the story of the spies (see Bamidbar 13-14). The Torah teaches that after the spies offered their testimony about the land, a report that was rejected by God and Moshe, the spies died of plague (see Bamidbar 14:37). Reish Lakish understands the passage as saying that they died an unusual death.

    What was this unusual death?

    According to Rabbi Hanina bar Pappa, their tongues became elongated reaching their navels and worms came out of their tongues, penetrating their navels and out of their navels, penetrating their tongues. The Iyyun Ya’akov explains this strange description as stemming from the fact that they sinned against the land of Israel – referred to as the center, or navel, of the world (see Yehezkel 38:12) – by use of their tongues.

    Rav Nahman bar Yitzhak suggests that they died of askara. The Gemara’s askara is identified as diphtheria, which is a very contagious and potentially life-threatening infection that usually attacks the throat. A membrane that forms over the throat and tonsils makes it hard to swallow. The infection also causes the lymph glands and tissue on both sides of the neck to swell to an unusually large size. Until the advent of modern medicines, it was particularly lethal; children literally choked to death. During Second Temple times, one of the responsibilities of the “Anshei Ma’amad” – the people whose week was consecrated for spiritual duties – was to fast “so that children would not be struck by diphtheria.”

    According to the Talmud, askara comes to the world because people do not tithe properly, or, according to Rabbi Elazar b’Rabbi Yosei, because people spread evil tidings (Lashon hara). Given the identification of the spies’ sin as lashon hara regarding the land of Israel, we can easily understand why the unusual death that they suffered may be assumed to be this disease.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  36. Sota 36a-b: And I will send the hornet before you

    Our Gemara is continuing the ongoing discussion of the Children of Israel entering the land of Israel after their trek through the desert. One of the topics discussed on today’s daf (page) is the passage that the tzira will be sent before the people in order to drive out the Canaanite nations (see Shemot 23:28). The Targumim (translations of the Bible) and most of the commentaries translate tzira as a type of flying insect, likely a large hornet of the species Vespa orientalis – commonly known as the Oriental wasp. This insect has a painful sting, which is particularly potent if it stings a sensitive part of the body. An attack by a group of these hornets can bring about a person’s death. The ibn Ezra suggests that the word tzira refers to a type of disease (like tzara’at) but our Gemara does not appear to support such an approach.

    The Gemara attempts to understand how to reconcile a baraita that says that the tzira did not actually enter the land of Israel with the passage quoted above that seems to indicate that they did.

    Reish Lakish suggests that the tzira stopped at the banks of the Jordan River, shooting their venom across onto the Canaanites, blinding their eyes above and castrating them below (based on Amos 2:9).

    Rav Pappa suggests that there were two separate groups of tzira – one connected to Moshe, which only accompanied the Jewish people until the Jordan River, and another connected to Yehoshua, which entered the land. Although there is no real source for the idea that there was a separate group of tzira accompanying Yehoshua, the Iyun Ya’akov suggests that the promise made to Yehoshua that all of the miracles that were done for Moshe would be done for him, as well, can be understood as a source for the hornets assisting him, as well.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  37. Sota 37a-b: The first into the water

    There is a well known midrash that describes how when the Children of Israel stood poised by the Red Sea with the Egyptian army chasing them, the first person to jump in, thereby precipitating the splitting of the sea, was Nahshon ben Amminadav from the tribe of Yehuda. According to our Gemara, there is a difference of opinion as to whether this is what happened.

    According to Rabbi Meir, the argument that took place on the shore of the Red Sea related to the fact that members of all of the different tribes wanted to be the first to jump into the water, and it was the tribe of Binyamin that succeeded in reaching the waters first. Rabbi Meir teaches that this act is what allowed the tribe of Binyamin to merit that the Temple was built within the boundaries of their shevet (tribe).

    Rabbi Yehuda disputes this version of events, claiming that when the tribes were standing on the shore of the Red Sea, none of them wanted to throw themselves into the water until Nahshon ben Aminadav from the tribe of Yehuda did so. At that time Moshe was in the midst of prayer and God instructed him to pay attention to his people who were already in the water, and instruct the others to follow. Rabbi Yehuda teaches that the act of Nahshon ben Aminadav was what allowed the tribe of Yehuda to merit the monarchy.

    In the book Ben Yehoyada, Rabbi Yosef Hayyim mi-Baghdad’s work on the aggadic portions of the Talmud, the author points out that the reward granted to both Yehuda and Binyamin are eternal rewards – the Jewish people’s monarchy will always be from the house of King David, and the place of the Temple will always remain on Har HaBayit in Jerusalem. The Iyyun Ya’akov argues that both rewards contain an element of monarchy, since King Sha’ul, the first king of Israel, came from Shevet Binyamin.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  38. Sota 38a-b: A synagogue made up entirely of priests

    The Mishna (37b-38a) focuses on birkat kohanim – the three part blessing that the kohanim give to the rest of the people – distinguishing between the way it was done in the Temple and the way it is done outside the Temple as part of the prayer service. Among the differences enumerated in the Mishna are the way God’s name is pronounced (according to the actual writing or the way it is commonly said) and the way the kohanim hold their hands during the blessing (in front of them or above their heads).

    The Gemara presents an odd situation and asks how birkat kohanim should be done when the entire group is made up of kohanim. Rav Adda quotes Rav Samlai as teaching that they stand up and make the blessing in the normal way. In response to the question of who they are then blessing, Rabbi Zeira says that the blessing will affect those Jews who are working in the fields. When another baraita is quoted that appears to require some listeners to remain in the synagogue and recommends that some of the kohanim rise to give the blessing and others remain to listen and respond appropriately, the Gemara distinguishes between a situation when there are ten people in total, all of whom are kohanim and when we will have a quorum of people remaining to receive the blessing when some of their friends stand to offer the blessing.

    The Talmud Yerushalmi takes up a similar question and concludes that the women and children in the synagogue will be the ones who respond to the blessing, although, as noted, our Gemara does not seem to think that there is any significance to a response, unless it is made by a standard minyan (a quorum of ten) adult males.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  39. Sota 39a-b: The translator

    Our Gemara quotes a series of halakhot taught by Rabbi Zeira in the name of Rav Hisda. Several of them focus on how the public Torah reading must be done. He teaches, for example, that –
    •The congregation cannot respond “Amen” until the reader has finished his blessing
    •The reader cannot begin the reading until after the congregation has finished their response of “Amen”
    •The metargem cannot begin his translation until the reader has completed the passage
    •The reader cannot continue the Torah reading until the metargem has finished his translation.

    The job of the meturgeman (translator) was to partner with the ba’al koreh (reader) who was reading the Torah and translate that reading – one pasuk (verse) at a time – into a language that could be understood by all. That language was the standard one spoken by people at that time – Aramaic. The Targum that was used in the synagogue was Targum Onkelos, the same one that appears in standard Humashim. Many of the rishonim insisted on keeping the tradition of the meturgeman alive even after the language was no longer understood by the masses.

    Although we are not familiar with the practice today, the meturgeman was an essential fixture in the synagogue during Torah reading in the time of the Mishna and the Talmud, as well as for generations that followed. For Jews of Yemenite extraction, the meturgeman is part of the standard Torah readings in their synagogues to this day, and in some communities the Yemenites also added an Arabic translation that was penned by Rav Sa’adia Gaon.

    There is another type of meturgeman who is occasionally referred to in the Gemara; he is the individual whose job it was to “broadcast” the teachings of the Sage to the audience who came to hear him – an essential job prior to the invention of the loudspeaker. Such a meturgeman not only presented the words of the Sage, but offered explanations and clarifications of the teachings, as well.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  40. Sota 40a-b: The blessings of the High Priest on Yom Kippur

    Among the statements that the Mishna (32a) says must be made in Hebrew are the blessings of the kohen gadol. The Mishna on our daf (page) discusses these blessings that are made by the kohen gadol on Yom Kippur. After the kohen gadol finishes the special Temple service of the day, the hazzan hakkeneset ceremoniously hands a sefer Torah to the rosh hakkeneset, who hands it to the segan (assistant) kohen gadol, who gives to it the kohen gadol. The kohen gadol then reads selections from the Torah and makes eight berakhot.

    The Tosefot HaRosh points out that there is no clear source that these blessings must be made in Hebrew any more than other berakhot. He suggests that the sanctity of the day may be what encouraged the sages to establish that the service be done specifically in Hebrew.

    In his commentary to the Mishna, the Rambam explains that the procedure of handing the Torah from one person to another is an attempt to honor the Temple and the proceedings by making it a ceremony that involves many people.

    The rosh hakkeneset was in charge of the ongoing activities of the beit hakkeneset. In many communities this job was given to the individual who was the head of the community. In some synagogues we find a special seat reserved for the Rosh ha-Knesset. During the Second Temple period there was a special synagogue that was situated on the Temple Mount where the people who came to the Beit HaMikdash would assemble for set prayers. It was in that synagogue that the sifrei Torah were kept.

    The hazzan hakkeneset was more of a functionary – a shamash (attendant) – who was responsible to make sure that things were kept in proper order. In some synagogues the hazzan hakkeneset also served as the teacher of young pupils, or was responsible for their learning. Since they occasionally also led the services, the term became used popularly to describe the individual who leads the services on a regular basis.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  41. Sota 41a-b: The passage concerning a king

    The Mishna on our daf (page) describes an event that it calls parashat ha-melekh (the passage concerning a king). The reference is to hakhel, a biblical commandment obligating the entire Jewish people to gather on Sukkot following the Sabbatical year (see Devarim 31:10). This event included a public reading of certain parts of the Torah by the king.

    The Mishna relates that during the times of the second Temple, King Agrippa read the Torah publicly, and broke into tears when he reached the passage describing the obligations of the king, and the rule forbidding the people from accepting upon themselves a non-Jewish king to rule them. The response of the people was to cry out “Do not fear, Agrippa! You are truly our brother!”

    This incident refers to King Agrippa I, King Herod’s grandson, who ruled from 10 BCE until 44 CE. In his youth he grew up in the Caesar’s court in Rome, where he became friendly with the family of the Caesar. He was particularly close with Gaius Caligula, who, upon ascending the throne in Rome, granted him rule over part of Herod’s kingdom. Later on, after Agrippa played a role in establishing Claudius as Caesar, he was rewarded with control of Judea, effectively taking over Herod’s entire kingdom. Upon his arrival in the land of Israel, King Agrippa developed close relationships with the Sages. He publicly showed his connection with the Jewish people and their traditions by his active participation in fulfilling the mitzvot, behavior that was praised by the Sages.

    Agrippa was active in developing the defenses of the city of Jerusalem, including a new wall that enclosed suburban areas within the city proper. He died – it is possible that he was poisoned by Roman government agents who were concerned about his activities – after ruling in Judea for just four years.

    In response to this Mishna, the Gemara quotes a baraita that criticizes the Sages for their flattery of Agrippa.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  42. Sota 42a-b: The priest who was anointed for war

    The Torah contains a series of commandments that relate directly to rules of warfare. Among them is the charge made by the High Priest – called mashu’ah milhamah – a priest anointed specifically for the purpose of leading the troops to war. The Torah commands that this priest instruct the soldiers – in Hebrew – that they cannot fear their enemies as they enter into war, and followed by listing those individuals who were free from participating as soldiers. Those exemptions included people who were in the middle of various uncompleted projects, e.g. someone who was building a house, planting a vineyard, or had gotten engaged to be married (see Devarim 20:1-9).

    The Gemara concludes that the exemptions apply only to situations when the war is a milhemet reshut – a war of choice. Were it a milhemet mitzva – an obligatory war – such exemptions would not apply. According to the Meiri, a kohen mashu’ah milhamah was established in all times of war; during a milhemet mitzva only the first part of the speech, which were words of encouragement, was presented, and the exemptions were omitted.

    According to the Mishna, the kohen mashu’ah milhamah warned the people of the noises and experiences of war that may disturb them, including the cries of the horses and clashing of swords, the banging of the shields and the pounding of the calgassim, the horns of war and shouts of people. The Sefer Be’er Sheva suggests that this is simply the interpretation of the tanna of the Mishna; the kohen mashu’ah milhamah simply read the verses that appear in the Torah. The Sefer HaHinukh, however, clearly understands that the kohen mashu’ah milhamah embellished the Torah’s descriptionwith these interpretations as well as his own.

    Rashi and the Arukh translate calgassim as hordes of foot soldiers, whose marching sounds frightening. In fact, a calgas was the Latin word for shoe or boot, which, apparently, was used to indicate the soldiers themselves, as well.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  43. Sota 43a-b: One who plants

    As we learned on yesterday’s daf (page), people who were involved in various activities were not obligated to serve as soldiers in a milhemet reshut – a war of choice. One example was the individual who had planted a vineyard. Our Gemara quotes a baraita that broadens the category to include not only a vineyard, but also other fruit-bearing trees, and not only someone who planted it, but also someone who purchased it, someone who received it as a present or someone who inherited it. Furthermore, someone who was mavrikh or markiv a vine would also be exempt.

    To be mavrikh (layer) a vine is to take a branch of the tree – particularly a vine – and place it in the ground so that it takes root there. Once it successfully takes root, it is cut off of the mother tree and develops on its own. This method is similar to planting saplings, but it has the distinct advantage that the developing branch receives sustenance from the mother tree – in addition to what it gets from the ground – until it is ready to grow on its own.

    To be markiv means grafting. Grafting plants is one of the most ancient methods of treating and improving trees. The idea was that a tree that produced excellent fruits, but whose roots were not strong could have a branch placed onto a tree whose roots are better. There are different methods of grafting that have developed over time, but the basic approach has remained the same throughout. The branch of a given tree is removed and is inserted in an opening that is made in another tree. The exact method of connecting the new branch into the established tree differs depending on the type of tree that is involved, but from the Talmud it appears that grafting grape vines was very common at that time.

    During the times of the Talmud it was not unusual for a branch to be grafted onto a new tree, even while it was partially attached to its original tree. This ensured that the branch would not dry up, even if the grafting was unsuccessful.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  44. Sota 44a-b: A man that is fearful and fainthearted

    When the Mishna teaches how the kohen mashu’ah milhamah – the priest who was anointed specifically for the purpose of leading the troops to war – concludes by telling the soldiers that anyone who was frightened of war was allowed to return home, we find two opinions about what that means. Rabbi Akiva says that it means simply what it says: someone who was frightened of the battlefield should not be placed in that situation. Rabbi Yosei HaGelili argues that it refers to someone who is frightened because he knows that he has committed sins. He goes so far as to suggest that the reason the others (i.e. the people who variously planted vineyards, built houses or became engaged to women) were told to go home, was to offer an opportunity to the individual who had sinned to recuse himself without being embarrassed.

    According to the Talmud Yerushalmi all of the people who are freed from army service needed to bring witnesses who would attest that they had, in fact, planted vineyards, built houses, etc. An opinion is brought in the Yerushalmi that this includes also the individual who sinned, who must bring witnesses that will testify before the shotrim or the mashu’ah milhamah as to his transgression. Since the testimony is not done in public, however, it is not viewed as a great embarrassment. According to this approach, even Rabbi Akiva would require some level of proof that the person was afraid, as the Mishna explains later, that the person loses control of his bodily functions – mayim shotetim al birkav (urine was trickling down his knees).

    The expression of mayim shotetim al birkav refers to a situation where the psychological trauma of a given event causes a physiological reaction, like an uncontrollable shaking of the knees. Such a reaction, which involved involuntary tensing of muscles, also can cause a loss of control over bodily functions, leading to situations of incontinence.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  45. Sota 45a-b: Precisely between two cities

    The ninth perek (chapter) of Massekhet Sota, which began on yesterday’s daf (page), focuses on the case of an egla arufa – a situation where a dead body is found between two cities and there is no indication as to which of the two cities was responsible for this individual. The Torah requires that the elders of the two cities appear in order to measure which of the cities is closer to the body; the elders of that city will bring a calf, which is killed, while the elders recite – in Hebrew – the statement that appears in the Torah, affirming that they played no role in the man’s death (see Devarim 21:1-9).

    The Mishna on our daf discusses a situation where the measurements are to be taken, but the dead man’s head and body have been separated from one another. Rabbi Eliezer rules that we place the head near the body and measure from there; Rabbi Akiva rules that the body is moved next to the head. Similarly we find that with regard to the question of measuring in a normal case, Rabbi Eliezer believes that we measure from the dead man’s navel; Rabbi Akiva says that we measure from his nose.

    The Gemara wants to suggest that the dispute between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva parallels another mahloket (argument) that is found in Massekhet Yoma (85a), where one tanna holds that an embryo develops from his head, while Abba Shaul believes that it develops from its navel. This suggestion is rejected by the Gemara, which argues that even if Abba Shaul believes that development begins at the navel, he may still agree that the life force of a living person is in his head.

    On some level the dispute between the tanna kamma (first) and Abba Shaul can be understood as a disagreement about where to place the emphasis in evaluating the center of the embryo’s development. On the one hand, the embryo’s head is the first part of the body that develops into a recognizable form, and only afterwards do the other limbs begin to develop. On the other hand, since the embryo’s development is sustained by the connection of the umbilical cord to the navel, one might suggest that it is from there that all development is seen as taking place.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  46. Sota 46a-b: In need of an escort

    As we learned on yesterday’s daf (page), when a dead man is found between two cities, measurements are taken to ascertain which of the cities is closer to the man and the elders of that city are called upon to bring an egla (calf) arufa and to state that they did not play a role in this man’s death. The Gemara explains that we do not really suspect the city elders of having killed the man, rather they are being called upon to attest to the fact that the man received an escort when he left the city. This leads the Gemara to discuss the importance of offering an escort to someone who leaves your city.

    As an example, the Gemara evaluates the story of the prophet Elisha who was involved in an altercation with two young men when he left the city of Yeriho, an altercation that left the young men dead (see II Melakhim, or Kings, chapter 2). Rabbi Yohanan quotes Rabbi Meir as deriving from this story the importance of accompanying your guests, claiming that the entire incident would not have happened had the people of Yeriho escorted Elisha out of the city. According to the Navi, having been taunted by these young men, Elisha gazes upon them and bears come out of the woods and kill the youths.

    Our Gemara wonders what Elisha saw that convinced him that they were deserving of such punishment. The answers range from the suggestion that he saw that there was not even a small credit of mitzva in their future, to their hairstyle – a blorit (plaited locks), in the fashion of the non Jews.

    Many suggestions are offered to define the term blorit, but no word in Greek or Latin is a perfect match for it. The hairstyle involved allowed the hair to grow long particularly on the sides and in the back of the head, and the hair was tied and braided into different shapes. Later on, the braided hair was shaved off in a special pagan ritual ceremony.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  47. Sota 47a-b: The stronger hand should draw him near

    Having introduced us to the story of Elisha and the young men whose deaths he caused (see yesterday’s daf, or page), our Gemara continues discussing Elisha, and another incident in which he was involved. In II Melakhim, or Kings (chapter 5) we learn that Elisha’s student, Gehazi, was condemned to suffer from leprosy because he accepted a reward from Naaman, a foreign general whose leprosy was cured by Elisha. The Gemara concludes from this story that a person should always encourage a relationship, even when rebuking a student – le-olam tehe semol dohah ve-yemin mekarevet – a person should push aside with his weaker hand while bringing closer with his stronger hand. Elisha is presented as having failed as a teacher and mentor, having pushed Gehazi away with both hands.

    Another example of this kind of fault is the story of Yehoshua ben Perahya, who is presented as having pushed aside Yeshu HaNotzri – Jesus – with both hands. The story that is told is that Yehoshua ben Perahya was returning to Jerusalem following his flight to Alexandria in Egypt, together with his student, Yeshu HaNotzri. When they stopped in an inn and were treated well, Yehoshua ben Perahya mentioned to Yeshu that the service was good. Yeshu responded that the innkeeper was unattractive. This response led Yehoshua ben Perahya to ban Yeshu, and Yehoshua ben Perahya was unable to change his mind until it was too late and Yeshu had turned away from traditional Judaism.

    In standard printings of the Talmud, this story appears without the name Yeshu HaNotzri, which was removed by censors for reasons of sensitivity to the Christian society in which they lived. It should be noted, however, that the story of Yehoshua ben Perahya who was driven from Jerusalem by King Yannai, could not have taken place any later than 76 BCE. Thus the reference to Yeshu HaNotzri cannot be connected with the individual who established the Christian faith. Many commentaries suggest that all of the Talmudic references to Yeshu refer to another person, or else that there is more than one person with that name who lived during the times of the Mishna.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  48. Sota 48a-b: A Divine Voice from heaven

    Our Gemara describes the end of prophecy by stating that from the time that Haggai, Zekhariah and Malakhi died, clear prophecy no longer existed, although a bat kol – a heavenly voice – was still used.

    The baraita offers two stories of bat kol use. In the first, the sages were gathered in the attic of Beit Gurya in Yeriho and a heavenly voice came out that said that among them sat an individual who was worthy of receiving prophecy, but he did not because the generation was not worthy. Those present understood that the reference was to Hillel HaZaken, a student of Ezra. In the second story the sages were gathered in an attic in Yavne, and the heavenly voice again pointed to one of them as being worthy of prophecy, were it not for the undeserving generation. This time the reference was understood to be to Shmuel HaKatan, who was Hillel’s student.

    The Talmud Yerushalmi brings other examples of a bat kol announcing information to the Jewish people. From our Gemara it is clear that the bat kol not only made statements, but also acted as the source for the information that the generation no longer merited true prophecy.

    Gatherings of the sages in various attics – in the aliya, or the second story of the houses at that time – are mentioned on many occasions throughout the Talmud. It appears that such meetings were arranged when the sages wanted to discuss a matter privately, or, perhaps, even secretly. One example is the decision to add a “leap month” to the calendar, something that was always done privately with specifically invited guests. Others are things that could not be discussed publicly because of political ramifications.

    Shmuel HaKatan was one of the tanna’im who lived during the period of the destruction of the second Temple. The source for his title as hakatan (the small one) is unclear. It may refer to his modesty, or, perhaps, to the claim that he was only slightly “smaller” – i.e. inferior – to the biblical Shmuel.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  49. Sota 49a-b: The decree against Greek wisdom

    The closing Mishna in Massekhet Sota teaches that historical events impacted on the day-to-day behavior of the Jewish community. Various tragedies led the sages to limit the festivities at weddings and even to change the educational curriculum, forbidding the study of hokhmah yevanit – Greek wisdom.

    The Gemara quotes a baraita that attributes the prohibition against studying Greek wisdom to the following story. After the death of Shelomtzion HaMalka who bequeathed her kingdom to her son Hyrcanus, his brother Aristoblus contested the decision and succeeded in ousting his elder brother. With the encouragement of Herod’s father, Antipater, Hyrcanus gathered an army and attacked the city, forcing Aristoblus and his supporters to barricade themselves in Jerusalem. During this siege, which took place in 65 BCE, the Jews inside the city offered to purchase animals for daily sacrifices in the Temple in exchange for large sums of money.

    The baraita relates that someone who was there who was knowledgeable in Greek wisdom hinted to the men outside the city that it was only the Temple service that kept Jerusalem from falling. The next day, in exchange for the coins that were sent down, instead of the promised sacrifice the soldiers sent back a pig, which reached out with its hooves halfway up the wall and caused the ground to shake. At that point the sages established an enactment forbidding the raising of pigs in Israel and teaching Greek wisdom to children.

    This story appears in Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews 14:2), where it is related that the Jews inside the city offered 1000 drachmas for every Pesah sacrifice. The consequence of the story according to Josephus was a storm that destroyed almost all of the harvest in the land of Israel. Perhaps this incident is what the baraita means when it says that “the earth shook.”

    Hokhmah yevanit – Greek wisdom – does not appear to be secular knowledge generally, but rather refers to knowledge of Greek culture, music, literature, etc. Few people spoke classical Greek, and the story in our Gemara may indicate that the man “knowledgeable in Greek wisdom” was able to hint his intentions to others by presenting his message in a manner that only a select few could understand.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

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