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Sotah and a Woman’s Prayer

In this week’s Torah reading, Parshat Naso, we come across a fascinating mitzvah. It is the only mitzvah in the entire system of 613 mitzvot that directly involves a miracle. This mitzvah, known as the process of Sotah, when properly followed and administered, determines whether or not a wife has been faithful to her husband.

But lest anyone jump and get the wrong idea, the Oral Law makes it clear that this process will not be effective if the husband, ever in his life, had a forbidden sexual relation. Basically speaking, should a husband, having previously warned his wife in front of 2 witnesses not to seclude herself with so and so, then he becomes suspicious of her fidelity, he may employ the mitzvah of Sotah. If she is guilty, the special water that she drinks (which includes dust from the floor of the Temple and the dissolved ink with which God’s name was written) will simultaneously kill her and the man with whom she consorted. However, if she is innocent, she will conceive, via normal process, a male child with her husband. Quite obviously, a miracle must occur if this sequence of events is to happen and clearly no man could have created this mitzvah. Only God, who knows the thoughts and actions of every person could create such a system to substantiate the accusation or vindicate the innocent.

This mitzvah, however, is only applicable when two conditions are met: 1. The Holy Temple exists and 2. A majority of the Jewish people live in accordance with the Will of God. “Thus this matter was stopped from the time the people became debauched with (sexual) sins, as the Oral Law states, ‘When the adulterers became frequent, the water of Sotah ceased.’” (Ramban, Bamidbar 5:20)

Yet, there is one Jewish woman who uses the mitzvah of Sotah in an unusual way to accomplish a very lofty goal. This woman is Hannah, the wife of Elkanah. Their story is recorded in the Book of Samuel I, chapters 1-2. It is read as the Haftorah portion the first day of Rosh Hashanah. Hannah is barren and longs for a child with her husband. Her emotional pain and agony are vividly described by the prophet. Eventually, Hannah uses her anguish in a positive way. She prays to Hashem for a child and offers a vow. Only part of her prayer is presented in the written account. The Oral Law tells us the other part of her prayer.

Prayer, in part, is an opportunity for a human being to present before Hashem a rational request and plan to satisfy their personal needs. Hannah is very brilliant. She formulates her prayer and petition such that God must give her a child. Her argument is twofold. She desires a child for the highest purpose, to serve Hashem. But she continues her plea with a halachic (legal) argument. “If You, Hashem, do not grant my sincere, prayerful request for a child, then Hashem, I will force You to grant me a son. How so? I will use institution of the mitzvah Sotah.”

As Hannah continued her prayer, she expressed to God that she will contrive a situation where her husband will warn her about seclusion with another man. She will then arouse his suspicion and he will bring her to the Temple for the Kohain to administer the Sotah process. She will drink the water of Sotah and of course, be found innocent. In accordance with the mitzvah, as a reward for her innocence, “God,” she implored, “You will have to see to it that I conceive a male child with my husband. So either way Hashem, You must give me a child.” That was the essence of Hannah’s prayer

As the story unfolds, Hannah’s prayer is heard. Hannah and Elkanah do have a son without employing the mitzvah of Sotah. Hannah appropriately named this child Shmuel, Samuel, which means, “God hears.” This name refers to the truth that God heard the prayer of Hannah and likewise He hears the prayers of all who call out to him in truth. As promised, after weaning her son, Hannah brings him to serve in the Temple. This child eventually becomes the great prophet Samuel for whom the Book of Samuel is named.

So while the mitzvah of Sotah, designed as an honor to the nation of Israel to demonstrate God’s closeness to us, has been temporarily forfeited, the mitzvah and power of prayer remains with us to this day.

May Hashem continue His protecting care over the nation of Israel, and Jewish and peace loving people the world over.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan