In our passage we see the power of the editor in a different way. I believe, as I will detail below, that the editor added one line to the teaching of Rabbi Hisda and turned the meaning of that teaching on head. While Rabbi Hisda intended to teach that both men and women bear responsibility in the relationship, the editor added one line that permanently exonerates the husband.
Sotah 3a offers a teaching by Rabbi Hisda, a student of Rav who later became the head of the academy at Sura in Babylonia until his death in 620. He is a powerful teacher and leader. His teaching here consists of three statements and argues that the husband and the wife may share blame when the situation in the house deteriorates and the charge of sotah is brought forward. There is a fourth line in the passage, in my view added by the editor, which subverts Rabbi Hisda’s understanding.
Rabbi Hisda uses a graphic image to suggest that both husband and wife may be suspect. R’ Hisda said: Unfaithfulness in the house is like a worm in a sesame plant. R’ Hisda said: Anger in the house is like a worm in a sesame plant. These seem to be paired statements. The destruction of the household may come as a result of her unfaithfulness or of his anger. It seems a reasonable argument since both unfaithfulness and anger can lead to or result from alienation in the relationship. Like a worm eating at the stalk of a plant, these behaviors destabilize the infrastructure of the relationship until it cannot stand on its own.
The next line, unattributed and so in my mind the work of the editor, places the blame unilaterally and completely on the woman: Each of these applies to a woman, but in a man there is no objection. For the moment I am not going to comment further on this line. It is important to read Rabbi Hisda’s third statement before returning to comment on the effect of this unattributed line.
Rabbi Hisda final statement teaches: In the beginning, before Israel sinned, the Divine Presence rested on every one of them, as it says, (Deuteronomy 23:15) For the Lord your God walks with you within the camp… Once they sinned, the Divine Presence separated from them, as it says, (Deuteronomy 23:15) Lest He see some unseemly thing in you and turn away from you. The key words are that the Divine Presence rested on every one of them – not on males alone, not on females alone, on every one of them. The Hebrew reads, kol echad v’echad, each and every one.
Take out the middle line – the one I disagree with – and the passage reads smoothly:
- unfaithfulness brings on destruction of the marriage,
- anger brings on destruction of the marriage,
- once upon a time every single person was blessed by the Divine Presence,
- sin caused the Divine Presence to depart from every one.
We know that the editors of the Talmud worked to smooth out the arguments found in the gemara. We hear their unattributed voice in a variety of places. Sometimes it closes an argument by declaring that halakhah, Jewish practice, follows a particular position. Sometimes they insert material to reconcile conflicting positions by declaring that the two statements refer to different situations and therefore they are both right. I believe the editors insert this intermediate statement as a way of spinning Rabbi Hisda’s statement to match their own point of view.
What does that additional line do? By inserting the line, Each of these applies to a woman, but in a man there is no objection, the editor changes the story. The burden now rests solely on the shoulders of the wife. This change replaces uncertainty with certainty. Even if the woman is not guilty of adultery, she remains guilty of provoking anger or other behaviors that undermine the marriage. The editor exonerates the husband before the process has even begun. Worse still, this change allows the husband to act out with impunity – since neither his philandering nor his anger are objectionable – while she bears all the responsibility.
The editor subverts Rabbi Hisda’s teaching, but also skews our understanding of the precarious moment in which the husband and wife find themselves. Neither of them stands on solid ground. The sotah ritual is most unusual; the only instance in which God is asked to come judge a person directly, as Nachmanides explains in his comment on Numbers 5:20-21, “There is no other matter among all the laws of Torah that hangs on a miracle except for this one.” No human court can decide her guilt or innocence, so how can our editor declare that only the woman can be held liable and the man’s deeds are unobjectionable.
I always appreciate the advice of a good editor. In this instance I wish the editor had let Rabbi Hisda speak for himself.
© Rabbi Louis Rieser