Why would a woman drink the bitter waters?

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By Sabrina Sojourner

This week’s Torah portion is Naso, Numbers 4:21-7:89.


I never tire of reading Torah. There is always something new to grasp, notice or learn. Parshat Naso is no exception. It contains the Sotah ritual, among the most difficult passages in Torah.

The ritual — imposed on women accused of “going astray” voluntarily with a man who is not her husband — does not stand alone. Its equivalent is found in Exodus 32:20, in which Moses burned the Golden Calf, “ground it to powder… strewed it upon the water and made the Israelites drink.” The people drank water with tiny gold flecks and ash because they had committed “theological adultery.” Who knows which ritual came first; and each speaks to the other.

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The Sotah passages (Numbers 5:11-31) begin with a woman who “has gone astray.” “A fit of jealousy” overcomes her husband. Only then is he to take her to the priest for the Sotah ritual. The husband brings a meal offering for her, yet twice it is called “a meal offering of jealousy.”

The ritual is quite elaborate and takes place in the Tent of Meeting. The woman publicly stands before God. Holy water is poured into an earthen vessel. Dirt from the Mishkan (tabernacle) floor is added. The priest “bares the woman’s head,” places the husband’s jealousy offering over her hands, and instructs her.


She is assumed neither guilty nor innocent. She is immune from harm if she is faithful. An oath that is written on parchment describes the consequences if she is not. It is read aloud and she must say “Amen, amen!”

Affirming the oath is the only moment the woman has a public voice. Now, the parchment is dipped into the water. The ink, the words, are rubbed into the potion. The woman drinks the bitter waters and leaves with her husband.

Since there is no consequence to her husband and she can only be put to death if there is a witness against her, what if a woman could assuage her husband’s insecurities by urging him to take her to the priest? The text indicates that there could be a benefit for her. The ritual could allow her “to retrain seed” (Numbers 5:28), become pregnant.

The Sotah ritual is for all parties to make clear what is so. Organic materials (impure) mixed with holy water (pure) would not necessarily cause immediate illness. The text makes clear the effect is over time.

Over time, the husband could become more certain and more loving. Over time, she could become more secure and pregnant.

A test is not an ordeal when you choose to engage it standing in your truth. Rabbi Elazar seeks to redeem sotah (Berachot 31b) through Chanah’s story (1 Samuel). He notes that Elie, the priest, prays that Chanah’s request for a child be fulfilled. Privately, she swears, if she does not get pregnant, she will seal herself with a man and experience Sotah to receive God’s promise of “being able to retrain seed.”

It may be hard to imagine that a woman would be willing to experience “public shaming” to have a child.

The “Chanahs” in my life go through amazing “ordeals” to conceive and give birth. The children they birth affirm the efforts. As the only instance in the Torah in which the outcome depends on the placebo effort of the ritual, perhaps it demonstrates that the ancients understood human psychology in ways we are only now scientifically coming to know.

Sabrina Sojourner is the spiritual leader for Revitz House, a Charles E. Smith Life Communities independent living residence.

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