This Week's Torah Portion: How to Handle Infidelity Suspicions (Part 34)

We’re publishing a weekly series of articles covering each week’s Torah portion as a rabbi (such as the author) might do via a talk in a synagogue. The series is tailored so it may also be read by non-Jews who may be interested in how Jews read and interpret Scripture. Click here for the first article in the series.


Dëvar Torah – Parashath Naso (Numbers IV, 21-VII, 89)

Among the topics in this week’s parasha is the case of the suspected sota (V, 11-31). We read that if a man comes to suspect his wife of infidelity, he is to bring her to the Mishkan (and later to the Temple) together with an offering of a tenth of an eifa of barley flour.

The offering, called a minchath qin’a (“jealousy offering”), is unadorned with oil or spice. Rashi ad loc. reminds us this is because: she is being accused of allowing her “animal nature” to take command of her (barley is animal fodder); oil is a source of light, while what she has allegedly done was done in darkness; and lëvona (“frankincense”) is reminiscent of the Matriarchs (Song of Songs VI, 6; cf. Sota 5a) and she is accused of departing from their example.

The centerpiece of the drama is a concoction prepared on the spot by the kohén. It includes water from the kiyor, the great basin used by the kohanim to purify themselves of dust from the Temple courtyard, and a parchment containing the scriptural admonitions (including the ineffable Tetragrammaton). He first administers the scripture to her verbally, and then dips it into the water so that the ink runs and mixes with it. This potion is called mayim marim më’arërim (“cursing, bitter waters”).

The accused woman drinks it; if she is guilty, it causes her to swell up and die on the spot. If innocent, it renders her extremely fertile so that she will quickly become pregnant, and the resultant child will further reconcile her with her husband.

 The Talmud tells us of this ceremony, described in such detail, that it shows:

[How] great is peace between a man and his wife, for the Torah has said the name of the Holy One, Blessed is He, which is written in sanctity, should be erased in the water [for its sake] (Chullin 141a).

And it’s not just that. In any other case (larceny, for example, or even murder), the guilt or innocence of the accused rests on purely “natural” means: evidence presented by two witnesses before a duly constituted rabbinical court, a procedure analogous to the legal proceedings of any society. Yet here we have an obvious appeal to supernatural intervention (plainly a cup of water and ink with a pinch of dust, while perhaps unappetizing, cannot be relied upon in and of itself to produce these effects).

Why should G-d here depart from what seems to be His general desire that human justice be administered by human means?

Further, the passage is peculiarly introduced. We are informed of what action a man should take if he has possible evidence of his wife’s infidelity, “and a spirit of jealousy has overcome him and he has become jealous of his wife and she has not been defiled” (v. 14). The repetitiveness of the verse seems extraneous; what are we to learn from the peculiar wording?

The meaning of the word qin’a (which I have so far translated as “jealousy”) with the associated verb qinné’ is not easy to render precisely into English. We can begin by noting that G-d refers to Himself at the beginning of the Decalogue as É-l Qan-na’ (Exodus XX, 5) in connection with idolatry (as the Ramban notes, this is the only connection in which the term occurs with a Divine name). The great 16th century rabbi of Prague, Rabbi Yëhuda Loeb Löwy (known as the Maharal), explains in his work Tif’ereth Yisra’él such Divine “jealousy” in terms reminiscent of our parasha. Just as the woman is accused of lavishing her affections on a rival of her husband’s, so the idolator directs his affection to a rival god (cf. also Nachum I, 2 in which the prophet uses virtually the same epithet in a similar context).

Interestingly, the ancient Aramaic paraphrases (Targumim) treat Qan-na’ as if it were a Divine name and leave it untranslated.

Later on in the Book of Numbers, we read of the incident at Shittim in which Israel succumbed to the blandishments of the daughters of Moab and were seduced into participating in the disgusting rites of the idol Ba‘al Pë‘or (XIV, 1-16, Rashi ad v. 3). This invited the general disaster of a Divine plague, brought to an end only by the action of Pinchas (“Phineas”), who summarily executed Zimri ben Salu and Kozbi bath Tzur when they cavorted before him.

G-d subsequently described the action to Moshe as “when he avenged my jealousy” (bëqannë’o eth qin’athi; ibid., v. 11) and then tells Moshe, “behold, I am giving him My covenant of peace” in v. 12. It will be remembered that the Talmudic passage cited above similarly associates the resolution of the husband’s qin’a with peace between husband and wife.

This seems, at first glance, counterintuitive. Imagine the scene: a jealous husband, believing he has grounds to suspect his wife of infidelity, accuses her, warning her (the meaning assigned by the Talmud to the verb qinné’ here) against going off alone with the suspected adulterer. In light of this expectation, we are astonished to begin learning in the Talmud that under these circumstances it is forbidden lëqannë’oth, and Rashi explains why:

[F]or it brings [the man] into confrontation and the wife into disrepute, even when she is pure (Sota 2a, Rashi s.v. Asur lëqannë’oth).

So we adjust our thinking a little, and conclude that the provisions for the sota are among the things included in the Torah almost reluctantly, apposite the “evil inclination” which resides within men. We learn further in the Talmud, where we encounter a dispute between Rabbi Yishma‘él and Rabbi ‘Aqiva in which Rabbi Yishma‘él appears to hold something close to our view, while Rabbi ‘Aqiva holds that this matter of qinnuy ishto (“warning one’s wife”) is in fact a chova (“obligation”). We are again surprised to learn that the halacha is decided according to Rabbi ‘Aqiva!

So obviously we have to adjust our entire picture of what is entailed in this “jealousy,” and the ceremony to which it leads. For a clue, we return to the incident involving Pinchas.

The Torah is very careful, in telling us about Pinchas, to relate him back to his grandfather: he is called Pinchas ben El ‘azar ben Aharon hakohén (Numbers XXVIII, 7; 11). This is, of course, not coincidental.

Aharon was the quintessential man of peace, the ohév shalom vërodéf shalom (“lover and pursuer of peace”; Avoth I, 12) and Pinchas presumably was of the same character. The impression we have is that he acted coolly, rationally, wholly in control of himself — not (as we might surmise) as an enraged hothead.

Now let us examine how the great 12th century halachic authority Rambam characterizes the qinnuy of our “jealous” husband:

It is a commandment of the Rabbis incumbent on bënei Yisra’él to exercise qinnuy of their wives, for it is said ‘and he will become jealous of his wife’. … And he should not exercise qinnuy as a joke, nor out of conversation, nor lightly, nor as a result of a quarrel, nor to frighten her … but between him and her, pleasantly, and in a way of purity (Hilchoth Sota IV, 18-19).

So, again, what sort of “jealousy” is this?

We are dealing with a man who loves his wife. With this in mind, we note a somewhat similar passage elsewhere in the Torah:

You should not hate your brother in your heart; rebuking you should rebuke your fellow (Leviticus XIX, 17).

The Zohar turns this from a negative into a positive, telling us that the purpose of this rebuke is:

 … to show him the great love which one has for him, in order that he not be punished (III, 85b).

Tochacha, “rebuke,” should be out of love, and so should the qinnuy of the husband in our parasha.

The Talmud tells us that a man who is able to forgive once he has exercised qinnuy is himself forgiven (Sota 25a). If so, why did the Rabbis (note the Rambam’s words carefully — this is a commandment of the Rabbis, not a commandment of the written Torah; the Torah only provides the mechanism) insist on the whole operation as a chova?

One of my teachers was very fond of saying that the Rabbis were the best psychologists. They understood human nature, that once the worm of suspicion had burrowed into a man’s mind, he would find it nearly impossible to eradicate it completely. Therefore Ha-Shem instituted the ceremony in the first place, and thereby taught us how absolutely supreme is the value of peace and serenity in the home. The Rabbis made it incumbent, once the suspicion had struck, in order to guarantee an end to the business one way of the other, and so to guarantee that serenity.

The ruach qin’a, the “spirit of qin’a” which overcomes the man can be a ruch tahara, a “spirit of purification.” It can be that the woman really has done something wrong, and that purity which should be the hallmark of the Jewish family must be preserved. It can be a ruach sent from Heaven. Or, it can be from a very different, unworthy source, bringing suspicion upon a perfectly innocent woman.

That is what the double language of the verse is trying to teach us. In either case, it must be dealt with decisively and removed completely without further question.

But the Rabbis tell us another thing as well. The husband overcome by the ruach qin’a must himself be pure: “and the man is clean of sin”, as v. 31 of our parasha states. The Rabbis assert firmly:

[A]t a time when the man is clean of sin, the waters test his wife; at a time when the man is not clean of sin, the waters do not test his wife (Sota 47b).

For the man to be worthy of this miraculous intervention, he himself may have no “feet of clay.”

Which is why, in part, in this debased day and age, the institution of qinnuy basota as the Torah relates it is not in effect, only the gentle rebuke recommended by the Talmud and the Rambam. The lesson imparted by the erasure of Ha-Shem’s name remains to demonstrate how precious the peace and serenity of our households really is.