The sotah ritual determining the guilt or innocence of a suspected adulteress (see Numbers 5:11-31) took place at the Temple in Jerusalem before the great Sanhedrin of 71 judges. If, after questioning by the court, the accused woman maintained her innocence and said, “I am clean”, they brought her to Nicanor’s Gate to administer the bitter waters required by the ritual. The Mishnah (Sotah 1:5) notes that this is also the place where women would come to be purified after childbirth and where lepers would come to be purified.
Nicanor’s Gate was a central site in the Jerusalem Temple. There is a great deal written about this gate into the Temple. In part it has to do with how these doors came to be and, in part, with where they were located in the Temple itself. The location of this gate made it the prime site for many rituals.
In M. Yoma 4:10 we learn that “As to Nicanor, miracles were associated with his doors. And they remembered him with honor.” The mishnah only tells us that miracles were associated with these gates. That same mishnah tells of about various donations that were made to the Temple: by Ben Qatin, King Munbaz, Queen Helene, and Nicanor. The mishnah offers some details about the other gifts, but of the doors of Nicanor we learn only that miracles happened there and that he was honored.
The full story of these doors is found at B. Yoma 38a (a slightly different version is found at T. Yoma 2:4).
When Nicanor was bringing the doors from Alexandria, Egypt, a storm blew up and threatened to capsize the boat. They took one of the doors and threw it overboard, but the seas did not calm down. They wanted to throw the 2nd door over as well, but he grabbed hold of it and said, “Throw me overboard with it.” The seas clamed down. He remained distressed over the lost door. When they arrived at the port of Acco the other door bubbled up and came out from under the boat. And there are those who say that a sea monster swallowed it and then regurgitated it onto the shore.
Very special doors, indeed. And they were treated with extra respect. At some point the doors of the Temple were all changed to be covered with gold, with the exception of Nikanor’s gate, because of the miracle associated with them. Others say that it was because their bronze shone like gold. (B. Yoma 38a)
According to M. Middot 1:4 there were seven gates to the courtyard….on the west was Nicanor’s gate. The doors stood between the Court of the women and the court of the Israelites. It must have been a magnificent place. M. Middot 1:5 says fifteen steps led to the court of the Israelites, corresponding to the fifteen Psalms, the Songs of Ascent, and the Levites would sing on those steps. One source suggests the doors were so large it took 20 priests to open them each morning.
Tosefta Kelim 1:12 places this all into a mythical geography. Just as there were three camps in the wilderness: the camp of the Shekhina, the camp of the Levites and the camp of the Israelites, so to in Jerusalem. From the entrance to Jerusalem to the entrance to the Temple Mount paralleled the camp of the Israelites. From the entrance of the Temple Mount to Nicanor’s gate paralleled the camp of the Levites. From Nicanor’s Gate inward represented the camp of the Shekhina.
Nicanor’s gate marked liminal space. It stood between the outer and inner court. It was the dividing line between the area that was open to all and the area that required ritual purity. The opening at Nicanor’s gate offered a space that stood between the holy and the profane. The Mishnah notes that the sotah is brought to Nicanor’s gate for the ordeal and that the leper and the woman following childbirth bring their offerings to that same gate. In each case the reason is the same – they need a place that was neither holy nor profane from which to present their offering, see it offered, but not threaten the ritual status of the inner courtyard.
These rituals share one other common element. After a birth there is a period of purification. At the end of that period the woman brings an offering to the priest “at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting.” (Leviticus 12:6) When the leper completes his period of isolation he presents an offering “at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting.” (Leviticus 14:11) The sotah also brings an offering which “the priest shall present before the Lord” (Numbers 5:16). In the mythic geography of the Temple, Nicanor’s Gate parallels the door of the Tent of Meeting.
As I said in a previous post, 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, her fate is literally in God’s hands. Nicanor’s Gate places her at just the right spot, perhaps the only spot on earth, where God can judge her guilt of innocence.
© Rabbi Louis Rieser