The ninth commandment forbids coveting. It’s unusual for Torah to command or prohibit an emotion (how is it even possible?) yet jealousy is so insidious that Torah makes the effort. How do we dissipate a toxic emotion when there is a risk it can boil over into violence?
People in the ancient world did not enjoy the benefits of police, an extensive court system, legal restraining orders, locking doors, and home alarm systems. If a man became overcome with jealousy and believed his wife to be involved in an illicit affair, he could be a real danger to her. I googled “jealous husband kills wife” and found an alarming number of articles chronicling horrific examples – and in some cases there were restraining orders. Anger given over to rage is perilous, and the anger of presumed betrayal in an intimate relationship can explode and become homicidal.
What does one do with a man whose jealousy is boiling over yet there is no evidence that his suspicions are valid? I would contend that the ritual of the Sotah is a valve for releasing pent-up jealous rage, hopefully before violence ensues.
…If any man’s wife has gone astray and broken faith with him in that a man has had carnal relations with her unbeknown to her husband, and she keeps secret the fact that she has defiled herself without being forced, and there is no witness against her – but a fit of jealousy comes over him and he is wrought up about the wife who has defiled herself; or if a fit of jealousy comes over one and he is wrought up about his wife although she has not defiled herself – the man shall bring his wife to the priest… (Numbers 5:11-15)The ordeal of the Sotah involves elements that are unquestionably demeaning to the woman: her dress, her hair, the concoction she must drink, the whole manner of the ritual. With a defined course of action and priests overseeing the entire ritual, which is held in the Mishkan (Tabernacle) or Mikdash (Temple), there are several layers of control in place so that the jealous husband is less likely to attack his wife.
Most importantly, the “decision” is out of all human hands; it is in God’s hands alone and thus cannot be questioned once rendered. The woman drinks a potion containing a bit of ink, some dust, and water. Perhaps not nutritious, but unlikely to cause serious harm. (Have you heard the saying, “You have to eat a peck of dirt in your life”?) The horrific consequence of drinking the potion if guilty of adultery – that her genitals will fall out – is unlikely to occur. Rather, the ritual would most likely exonerate the woman. Moreover, if she had indeed been engaged in an adulterous affair, and if she were pregnant by her lover, the ritual covered that exigency, too. The Sotah who underwent the ritual and survived was rewarded with fertility – a special gift of recompense from God. This child would be considered her husband’s – no question of paternity. This precludes branding an innocent child a mamzer.
The entire ordeal is public, and this too is important. Everyone now knows that the husband’s jealousy overcame him and that he put his innocent wife through a horrendous ordeal. This alone could serve as a check on future emotional outbursts and behavior. I would imagine that a husband who put his wife through such an ordeal only to see her both exonerated and pregnant would be a man with a fair stock of guilt to work off and a long road to walk to make up to his wife what he had put her through. Perhaps this was the best-case scenario in a world without police, locks, and marriage counselors, for promoting reconciliation. Far from perfect, but possibly effective.
The Rabbi, interpret kin’a as “warning” rather than the pshat, “jealous fit.” Jealousy can lead to chaos and violence; a warning might lead to repentance and reconciliation. But on what basis is a warning issued? Somebody must have seen something; there must be a witness. Yet Torah says that there were no witnesses. While the simple meaning of the text is inescapable, picturing the reality of the situation is far more difficult for the Rabbis as it is for us.
The Rabbis wonder about the “spirit of jealousy” that overcomes the husband. The word ruach generally has positive connotations, but not always:
A tanna of the academy of R. Yishmael taught: A man does not warn his wife unless a spirit enters him, as it is said: And the spirit of jealousy came upon him and he became jealous of his wife. What is the meaning [of the word] “spirit?” The Rabbis identify it as a spirit of impurity, but R. Ashi says it is a spirit of purity. It is logical accordingly to the view of the one who declares that it is a spirit of purity, because it was taught (in a baraita): and he became jealous of his wife lends the husband permission. These are the words of R. Ishmael. But R. Akiba says it is an obligation. It is well if you say that it means a spirit of purity, then everything is right; but if you say that it means a spirit of impurity, [can there be] permission or an obligation for a man to bring a spirit of impurity into himself?Rashi tells us that the source of the “spirit of impurity” is satan who incites the husband to accuse his wife. The spirit of purity inspires a similar warning, but with the intent of insuring her decency. Did the Rabbis see these “spirits” as from without (good angels and satan) or from within (the yetzer tov/good inclination and the yetzer ra/evil inclination)?
R. Ashi of the academy of R. Yishmael, holding that it is a good spirit that inspires the husband, tells us that the husband thereby has permission to warn his wife, but not an obligation. R. Akiba, however, holds that the husband is obligated to warn the wife. The Rabbis point out that if the impetus could come from an impure spirit, then the man ought not have permission, let alone be obligated by it. R. Akiba, for whom no word is extraneous, will eventually argue (on 3b) that the double use of the root kuf-nun-aleph in Num. 5:14 makes the act of warning an imperative.
It appears that the Rabbis would like to ascribe to the man good motives, but leave open the possibility that he was truly overcome by a “fit of jealousy.” Yet, having defined kin’a as “warning” in order to place a layer of control (safety) on the process, they feel constrained to presume it was a spirit of purity. The hole dug by jealousy and even sincere attempts to curtail its consequences grows deeper and deeper, messier and messier. No wonder we have the ninth commandment!
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman