Masechet Sotah follows Masechet Nazir.42 The sotah procedure is a divine determination of the wife’s innocence or guilt regarding suspected adultery after having being caught in seclusion with another man. Once a husband suspects his wife, it is unlikely that he will trust her, even if a Beit Din finds that she is innocent. The sotah test, whereby the woman drinks the bitter waters and Hashem Himself testifies, can convince a husband of his wife’s innocence. The Mishnah (1:1) teaches us that the sotah procedure is only used if the husband first warns his wife not to seclude herself with that particular man. If the woman is guilty, the bitter waters cause her to die an unnatural death. If there is already evidence that the woman is guilty, the sotah procedure is not administered. The woman is divorced without receiving her ketubah (or executed if she was properly warned).
Hashem allows His sacred name to be dissolved in the water as part of the procedure. To erase even one letter of Hashem’s name is usually a d’oraita prohibition punishable by lashes (Rambam, Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah 6:1-2). Nevertheless, an exception is made for the sotah procedure43 demonstrating the importance of shalom bayit between a husband and wife.
The prohibition against adultery is the seventh of the ten commandments. The commentators have pointed out that the first five commandments (which appear on the first tablet) relate to mitzvot between man and Hashem. The second five commandments (which appear on the second tablet) relate to mitzvot between man and man. In addition, each of the first five commandments has a parallel in the second set. Under this system the second commandment (prohibiting idolatry) is parallel with the seventh commandment (prohibiting adultery) (Mechilta Yitro).
The connection between adultery and idolatry makes sense. Both sins involve a special, sanctified relationship. An idolater is being unfaithful in the relationship between man and Hashem. An adulterer is being unfaithful in the relationship between man and wife. There are many occasions in the Tanach where Bnei Yisrael stray after idols and the prophets compare them to an unfaithful wife (e.g. Yirmiyahu Ch 3; Hosea Ch 2).
This connection between idolatry and adultery sheds light on the events that follow the sin of the golden calf.
Firstly, Moshe instructed the tribe of Levi to go through the camp and execute three thousand of the sinners. According to Rashi, these were the idolaters who had been properly warned. This group of idolaters parallels the confirmed adulterer who was properly warned – she does not drink the bitter waters and is executed by the Beit Din.
Secondly, Hashem sent a plague that killed further idolaters. According to Rashi, these were the idolaters who sinned intentionally before witnesses but were not properly warned. The lack of proper warning means that these people could not be executed by the Levites. This group parallels the confirmed adulterer who was not properly warned. She does not drink the bitter waters but the lack of a proper warning means that she cannot be executed by the Beit Din. She is forced to divorce her husband and she does not receive her ketubah.
Thirdly, Moshe ground up the golden calf, added the particles to water and forced Bnei Yisrael to drink the water. Those that had sinned without witnesses were punished upon drinking the water. This parallels the sotah who secludes herself with a man away from witnesses. Only the divine test of drinking the bitter waters can determine whether or not she is guilty. Similarly, the water that Moshe gave Bnei Yisrael to drink determined who fell into this third category of idolaters.
Like a husband who warns his wife not to seclude herself with a particular man, Hashem warned Bnei Yisrael before the sin of the golden calf when he told them the second of the ten commandments – do not commit idolatry.
42 As well as being next to each other in the mishnayot, the parshiyot of nazir and sotah are next to each other in the Torah (Bamidbar 6-7). From this juxtaposition, the Chachamim derive that if someone witnessed a sotah being tested they should take upon themselves a nazirite vow (Gemara Sotah 2a). From this we can learn the powerful effect that a sin can have. Merely being exposed to this sin can have a negative impact and can remind you that it is possible to be overcome by temptation. The Torah’s antidote is to sanctify yourself as a nazir and to abstain from wine for a period of time.
43 This follows the general rule that where a negative commandment and a positive commandment conflict, the positive commandment takes precedence (Yevamot 3b).
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