Important Statuses, Jews as Brides, as Nezirim, as Husbands of Sotot

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Naso

Versions of the Torah Itself

HaKetav VeHaKabbalah’s comment to Bamidbar 7;1 either shows us what happens when we have insufficient sources or a tendency to favor explanations that help us avoid problems. When the verse speaks of the day Moshe completed the Mishkan, Rashi quotes a Midrash which likened the Jews on that day to brides entering the canopy.

The easiest ground for the Midrash’s comment would be if the word kalot, completed (“on the day Moshe finished setting up the Mishkan”), had been written without a vav, making it possible to read it kalat, a word reminiscent of kalah, bride.

The longstanding problem, more acute for those faced with deniers of the divinity of the Torah, is that our Torah scrolls have it with a vav. Another easiest but unpalatable answer is that the Midrash had a slightly different version of the text from ours (alhatorah.org, a website I like very much and use often, reports that there are in fact several manuscripts of the Torah without the vav we have).

[When I was much younger and did some work trying to convince high schoolers to stay within the fold of Orthodoxy, someone gave me a talking point about the authenticity of the Torah, how it must be accurate because the only difference in Torah texts, over centuries, is the word daka in Devarim 23;2; oh, well.]

Accurate Sources Matter

R. Mecklenburg adopts the interpretation of R. Wolf Heidenheim, who rejected the lack ofvavas the source for the Midrash. Had it been so, the Midrash would have said kalat ketiv, it is written kalat, as is the Midrash’s wont with this type of comment. Adds R. Mecklenburg, the word kalot is written with a vav in all Biblical texts.

He therefore argues there is an ambiguity in the word kalot, whether its root is kilui, completion, or kalah, bride, with kalot meaning “being made into a bride,” with Yechezkel 36 an example of where Tanach does use such a form for words.

It is a creative idea and would be helpful. Problem is, aside from there being Torah scrolls with the other version (which he may not have known), I found this Midrash in Pesikta de-R. Eliezer, which seems to have taken it from Midrash Tanchuma, both of which do say “it’s written kalot (without the vav).” So his main reason to argue for another grounding of the insight isn’t accurate!

I did also see a Midrash Aggadah (in my Bar Ilan, a later compilation), where the phrase was left out. It seems that R. Mecklenburg (and R. Wolf Heidenheim, whom I only know thanks to R. Mecklenburg) only knew of sifrei Torah with a vav, and knew or only knew the version of this Midrash without the idea of it being written defectively. Or chose to focus on the versions written their way, despite Rashi also having the idea that it is written without the vav.

In their world, they found a good answer; we probably have to be satisfied with less satisfying answers.

The Nazir and the Kohen Gadol

Bamidbar 6;6 bans the nazir from contact with all deceased, including close relatives. A kohen, who in general also may not have contact with people who have passed away, does engage in such contact as part of mourning parents, siblings, spouse, or children; only a Kohen Gadol does not.

To explain, R. Hirsch returns to an idea he tells us he has shared a few times already, the tendency of idolaters to focus on Nature as the controlling power in their lives, including especially death (for a non-monotheist, the true end of life). The Torah resists materialist perspectives, especially its view of death as the end to all.

The Torah seeks to inculcate a radically opposite view, humanity’s full freedom to make choices, a kind of life where death can be overcome, by earning a place in the World to Come, to remind people we are not bound by Death because we were made in the image of God.

Greater Physical Needs Might Lead to Greater Physicality

It’s why death is excluded from the Mishkan/Mikdash completely, why God wanted the attendants there (the kohanim) to avoid contact with it, the High Priest completely, the plate on his forehead declaring him Kodesh LaShem, sanctified to God, and therefore removed from involvement with death.

While the kohanim and the Temple make the point for the nation, the nazir makes the point for his/her local social circle. Normally, says R. Hirsch, society restricts a person’s ability to be radically morally free (he doesn’t specify, but I think he means we must abide by certain social norms and mores, where the nazir separates, to do what s/he is guided by the Torah to think is right).

Society also provides easy access to material needs, so the nazir’s temporary withdrawal might lead him/her to focus on securing the physical, make the nazir more involved with nature. To ensure s/he remember to be less, to be involved with Hashem, and radical moral freedom, the Torah has him/her stay away from death.

[I grew up hearing that R. Soloveitchik, zt”l, taught that Judaism abhors death, because it is the loss of the ability to serve Hashem, and to have us absorb this view, it makes the various rules of tum’ah and taharah. I don’t know if he was adjusting/reacting to R. Hirsch, but he has provided a slightly different reason for the same idea, death being a strong symbol of idolatry and a worldview where people cannot be who they want, do not have the freewill Judaism strongly emphasizes.]

Let Him That Be Without Sin

The sotah ceremony ostensibly provides a way for a suspicious husband to discover if his wife cheated on him when she went into a secluded place with a man the husband had previously told her he thought was her paramour. At the start of the discussion, 5;12, the verse calls the woman in this situation ishto, his wife, a word Pesikta Zutreta reads to mean a wife appropriate to this man.

Rambam, Laws of Sotah 2;8, ruled a wife would not ever drink sotah water if the marriage was prohibited by the Torah, because another verse speaks of the man being cleansed of sin, leading Sotah 28a (and other places) to say the water only checks her if the husband was free of sin. Ramban included if he had ever sinned sexually, where Rashi limited it to where the husband sinned by having marital relations with her after she became a sotah, a specific prohibition not to live with her until they went to the Mikdash for the waters to check her.

Unless the Waters Are Supposed to Produce Definite Conclusions

Malbim points out this whole discussion seems to disagree with the Talmudic view of R. Shim’on, who objected to the possibility of an uncertain conclusion. When Sotah 22 suggested a woman’s merits might protect her even an adulterous woman from the waters’ effect, R. Shimon disagreed, thought such a system would allow tongue-waggers to continue to badmouth innocent women, to say she had committed adultery, had survived because of other merits.

Malbim says R. Shim’on should therefore object to the idea here as well, that the husband’s lack of propriety could stop the water from checking her. Logically, R. Shimon should also worry women would continue to be suspected of adultery despite a clear sotah test, could live only with Rashi’s minimalist version, because it was so infrequent to have a man have relations with a wife he is in the process of having tried by ordeal.

[I could imagine R. Shimon differentiating between completely extraneous merits of hers interfering with the sotah effects, as opposed to where the husband is at fault. Even if people would say that, that she was “only” saved because of her husband’s checkered past, I could imagine R. Shimon thinking that cost was less terrible, because it puts the blame on him.]

Three insights with a greater dose than usual of commentarial input: R. Mecklenburg’s attempt to explain a problematic Midrash, R. Hirsch’s view of the role of tumat met in general and for a nazir, and Malbim’s ideas about the husband’s contribution to whether a sotah might be tested by sotah water.

About Gidon Rothstein

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