The Levite Sotah

The sun was setting over the Israelite camp. A young woman rushed to the Levite section. Her rhythmic gait mirrored the fast beating of her heart. I hope he doesn’t realize, Pnina thought. He warned me not to go to Priryah again, but I couldn’t stop. I can’t let anyone know about my meetings. I would die of shame.

She paused as she approached Adeever standing in front of their tent in the Levite camp. His handsome and kind face had turned into a monstrous visage of pain and anger.

In five years of marriage Pnina had never seen her husband so furious. His fists were propped up against his waist. His face was a blazing red, his eyes bulged and she could hear him gritting his teeth from a few feet away.

“What’s the matter?” she asked. Pnina noticed two somber men she did not recognize, standing to the right of Adeever.

“Wife of mine,” Adeever barely contained his fury, “I hereby forbid thee, in front of witnesses,” he nodded at the men to his right, “from visiting or being alone with the man, Priryah son of Damchas of the Tribe of Reuven.”

Pnina opened her mouth, but made no sound. How did he find out? I must use even more discretion next time. I must continue to see Priryah.

“Why are you so upset?”

“Why am I upset!?” Adeever responded. “We have spoken of this before. I have warned you repeatedly. I don’t understand what business you have with that old man. It is forbidden for you to seclude yourself with another man.”

“But I have told you, we are not doing anything inappropriate.”

“I don’t believe you anymore. You refuse to tell me what you are doing with him. What am I supposed to think? You have now been formally warned. If you are found or reported one more time with that man, I will demand a divorce.”

“No. Adeever.” Pnina cried. “You can’t. I see him for us.”

“Then tell me what you are doing with him.”

“I can’t.” Pnina looked down at the lengthening shadow of her small frame. “You have to trust me.”

“If you can’t trust me and tell me, how do you expect me to trust you when you run off to this strange man?”

“Oh, Adeever, you don’t understand.” Tears formed in Pnina’s sparkling blue eyes. “There is no use speaking with you. Move out of the way. This is still my tent and I would like to enter.”

Adeever stepped to the side. Pnina ducked into their tent with one hand covering her face.

Pnina fell down on their simple cot without speaking further with Adeever. She felt her stomach and wondered. Will you make it, little one? Will you survive where none before you did? She cried herself to sleep, thinking of her multiple miscarriages and the tension it had created between her and Adeever.

Pnina awoke to the sound of Adeever snoring next to her. From the opening of their tent Pnina could see the full moon setting. She knew the sun would rise within an hour. She thanked God that Adeever was a heavy sleeper and quietly left the tent. The moonlight falling on the array of tents made a mosaic of black and white patterns on the desert floor. Pnina had her shawl on and covered her face with a scarf. Her distinctive blue eyes sparkled with determination in the moonlight.

She made her way to the tribe of Reuven, regularly looking behind her to see if she was being followed. She stopped at the entrance to the tent of Priryah and checked to see if anyone was watching. She did not notice two men, sitting quietly in the shadow of a tent across the path. Though she did not know their names, she would have recognized the pair.


Pnina stood in front of the Great Sanhedrin: the court of 71 elders, including Moses, the princes and the senior judges. Pnina had cried and begged Adeever not to take this step, but he was adamant. He had been livid that she had yet again visited Priryah despite his last warning. Her own father, Prince Nethaniel of the tribe of Yissachar, had excused himself from the trial, surely shamed by the news now spreading through the camp.

“My daughter,” Moses addressed her. “If you sinned, admit it, and end the marriage.”

“I did nothing wrong. Yes, I was secluded with Priryah, but I did not touch him. I did not have any intimate relations with him. The legitimate business I had with him required privacy.”

“You were warned by your husband in front of witnesses. Witnesses saw you enter Priryah’s tent and remain there alone for an inappropriate length of time. The facts indicate your willful contravention of your husband and our laws. If you forcefully claim innocence, we shall have to test you with the bitter waters.”

“The bitter waters?” Pnina repeated softly.

“Yes. You will recall what happened to the last woman that drank from the bitter waters. She died a most painful death. This is how immorality is expunged from our midst and it serves as a lesson to all.”

“And what happens if the innocent drink from the water?”

“They will be blessed with a healthy male child.”

“I shall drink from the water,” Pnina exclaimed loudly and firmly.


Pnina stood in the courtyard of the Tabernacle facing Aaron the High Priest. His sons Elazar and Itamar stood on either side of him. A small table with parchment, ink and a quill was nearby. Other Levites, many of them cousins of Adeever, stood around Pnina and the priests. Adeever and his parents hovered right outside the courtyard. A large assembly, mostly women, stood at the entrance watching the ceremony. Pnina grimaced as she remembered the last time she attended the Sotah ceremony and the gruesome ending. As ordered, she wore her simplest robe and shawl. She had removed all her jewelry. The beautiful sapphire necklace Adeever had given her, the gold bracelet and earrings she had received from her father.

“Pnina,” Aaron told her. “Your husband warned you in front of witnesses not to seclude yourself with the man Priryah son of Damchas of the tribe of Reuven. You ignored his warning. The same witnesses saw you entering Priryah’s tent. You were alone with him enough time to have intimate relations. You claim that you are innocent of any wrongdoing. I shall now administer the Sotah oath, the oath of the bitter waters in front of all of Israel as per our laws. You shall answer Amen twice after the oath.”

In a louder voice, Aaron declared:

“If a man has not lain with you, and you have not committed adultery, so as to be defiled to your husband, you shall be unharmed by this curse-bearing bitter water. But if you have committed adultery and you have become defiled, because a man other than your husband has lain with you, God will make you into a curse and into an oath among your people, causing your thigh to rupture and your belly to swell.”

Pnina answered: “Amen, Amen.”

Aaron went to the table, held the parchment down with his left hand and with his right hand dipped the quill into the ink pot. On the parchment he wrote the oath he had just declared. Itamar son of Aaron brought him a clay jug filled with water. Elazar his brother grabbed a handful of dirt from the ground of the Tabernacle and sprinkled it onto the water in the jug. He then added a piece of wormwood into the dirty water.

Aaron lifted the parchment and showed it to Pnina.

“This is one of our most sacred objects. The Name of God is on this scroll. Once I place it in the water and His Name is erased, there is no turning back. If you admit your sin now and leave your marriage, you will live. If not, and the bitter water finds you guilty, you will die. The waters will not only test you.” Aaron looked across the entrance to the courtyard and was able to spot Adeever standing in the crowd. “The water can also sense if your husband has been unfaithful. If he has been unfaithful then you will be spared.”

Pnina shifted her weight from one foot to the other, looking down at her own bare feet. “Proceed,” she murmured.

Aaron carefully placed the scroll of parchment into the jug and with a short wooden stick stirred the parchment in the water. The water though still cold, started to bubble. Aaron stirred and kept looking at the soaking parchment to make sure all of the writing was erased. The water bubbled violently. Cold steam rose from the jug.

Women in the assembly uttered curses at Pnina.

Elazar approached Pnina and grabbed her robe by the collar with both hands. In a quick violent motion he ripped the robe halfway down her chest. He then removed her head covering and ruffled her hair until it was a wild mop. A Levite brought a rope to Elazar and tied it under her armpits, which then held her ripped robe together.

The murmuring of the assembly grew louder.

Another Levite gave Elazar a metal bowl of ground barley meal. Elazar handed it to Pnina.

Itamar gave the jug with the still bubbling waters to Aaron. Elazar stepped aside to make way for Aaron to face Pnina. Aaron instructed the surrounding Levites. “If she starts to convulse, remove her from the sanctuary immediately. We do not want her death to defile this holy ground.”

“Wait,” Pnina held her stomach and looked at it. “I can’t do this. It is not worth the risk.”

“It is too late. The Name of God has been erased,” said Aaron. “You will drink the water.”

“You cannot force me. I will not drink.”

“We can force you and you will drink.”

Aaron nodded to Elazar and Itamar. They each stood on either side of Pnina and grabbed her arms. Pnina’s metal bowl clanged to the ground, with most of the barley staying in it. Aaron brought the jug to Pnina’s mouth. She refused to open her mouth and shook her head from side to side. Aaron nodded again. Elazar and Itamar forced Pnina to her knees. With one hand, Elazar forced Pnina’s mouth open. Aaron brought the jug to her lips and poured the dark bubbling water down her throat.

Pnina gagged on the water and coughed some of it out. Aaron stopped pouring. Elazar and Itamar let go of her. Pnina kneeled, face to the ground, coughing, with dark spittle dripping from her mouth. Elazar picked up the metal bowl, placed it in her hand, and with his hand under hers waved the bowl in the four compass directions, as well as up and down. He then removed the bowl from her hand, walked it to the nearby altar and threw some of the meal on to the fire.

The priests, the Levites and the entire assembly watched in rapt attention.

Pnina stood up. Her body shook as her skin seemed to change color and flow. Previously pimply, her forehead became smooth. Her face radiated light. Always dry and rough, her hair became lustrous. She smiled with an inner joy that changed her entire demeanor.

“My daughter,” Aaron addressed Pnina. “You are well. How do you feel?”

“I am wonderful,” she said, touching her stomach. Fresh tears flowed from her sparkling eyes. “And I am with child. I can feel him. He is strong and healthy. God Bless.”

“You are cleared of all charges,” Aaron said, “and fully permitted to return to your husband. Though it is clear the two of you should be more open and trusting of each other. May your marriage be loving, fruitful and long.”

Pnina reached down to her discarded shawl on the courtyard floor. She picked it up and covered her hair. As she touched her hair she noticed the new texture. She looked at it with wide eyes. She then touched her face and felt the smoothness and absence of pimples. Her smile widened even more as she walked towards Adeever at the edge of the courtyard.

“You survived,” Adeever whispered as she approached.

“Yes. Let us return to our tent. We have much to discuss.”

They walked side by side, arms length apart. The crowd parted like the sea, making way for the reunited couple.

In the tent, Adeever paced back and forth while Pnina sat on the cot. They looked at each other and did not speak for several minutes.

“The bitter waters have proved your innocence,” Adeever ventured. “So tell me. Why? Why did you visit Priryah?”

“I was too embarrassed and proud to tell you before,” Pnina stood up and started pacing opposite her husband. “Priryah prepares potions to help women have children. I was desperate to give you a healthy child. I needed us to have a child after so many miscarriages,” Pnina wrung her hands. “I couldn’t bear our childlessness. I would risk anything, even your anger and the bitter waters to have a healthy child.”

“You should have told me,” Adeever said, edging closer to his wife.

“I wasn’t sure you would understand. I didn’t want to disappoint you if it didn’t work. I still had many weeks to continue the potions.” Pnina took Adeever’s hand.

“You dared much,” Adeever said. “I was ready to divorce you.”

“I know, but now I am transformed. I feel stronger, healthier, and more beautiful. I can feel a child in my womb.” She put Adeever’s hand on her stomach. “He is strong, much stronger than any of my others. This child will survive.”

“After all these years? That is incredible.” Adeever hugged Pnina, picked her off her feet and twirled her around. “I’m sorry I ever doubted you.” He placed her gingerly back on the ground.

“Did you just call the child ‘he’? How do you know?”

“I can feel him so strongly, I just know. And Moses said that if I were innocent we would be blessed with a male child.”

“What shall we call him?” Adeever grinned.

“How about Martok?” Pnina suggested “The bitter that became sweet.”

“Martok son of Adeever,” he said looking up and embracing Pnina again. “I can live with that.”

* * * * * *

Biblical Sources:

Numbers Chapter 5:

11 and the Lord spoke unto Moses, saying: 12 Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them: If any man’s wife go aside, and act unfaithfully against him, 13 and a man lie with her carnally, and it be hid from the eyes of her husband, she being defiled secretly, and there be no witness against her, neither she be taken in the act; 14 and the spirit of jealousy come upon him, and he be jealous of his wife, and she be defiled; or if the spirit of jealousy come upon him, and he be jealous of his wife, and she be not defiled; 15 then shall the man bring his wife unto the priest, and shall bring her offering for her, the tenth part of an ephah of barley meal; he shall pour no oil upon it, nor put frankincense thereon; for it is a meal-offering of jealousy, a meal-offering of memorial, bringing iniquity to remembrance. 16 And the priest shall bring her near, and set her before the Lord. 17 And the priest shall take holy water in an earthen vessel; and of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle the priest shall take, and put it into the water. 18 And the priest shall set the woman before the Lord, and let the hair of the woman’s head go loose, and put the meal-offering of memorial in her hands, which is the meal-offering of jealousy; and the priest shall have in his hand the water of bitterness that causeth the curse. 19 And the priest shall cause her to swear, and shall say unto the woman: ‘If no man have lain with thee, and if thou hast not gone aside to uncleanness, being under thy husband, be thou free from this water of bitterness that causeth the curse; 20 but if thou hast gone aside, being under thy husband, and if thou be defiled, and some man have lain with thee besides thy husband– 21 then the priest shall cause the woman to swear with the oath of cursing, and the priest shall say unto the woman–the Lord make thee a curse and an oath among thy people, when the Lord doth make thy thigh to fall away, and thy belly to swell; 22 and this water that causeth the curse shall go into thy bowels, and make thy belly to swell, and thy thigh to fall away’; and the woman shall say: ‘Amen, Amen.’ 23 And the priest shall write these curses in a scroll, and he shall blot them out into the water of bitterness. 24 And he shall make the woman drink the water of bitterness that causeth the curse; and the water that causeth the curse shall enter into her and become bitter. 25 And the priest shall take the meal-offering of jealousy out of the woman’s hand, and shall wave the meal-offering before the LORD, and bring it unto the altar. 26 And the priest shall take a handful of the meal-offering, as the memorial-part thereof, and make it smoke upon the altar, and afterward shall make the woman drink the water. 27 And when he hath made her drink the water, then it shall come to pass, if she be defiled, and have acted unfaithfully against her husband, that the water that causeth the curse shall enter into her and become bitter, and her belly shall swell, and her thigh shall fall away; and the woman shall be a curse among her people. 28 And if the woman be not defiled, but be clean; then she shall be cleared, and shall conceive seed.

Secondary Sources:

The Sotah procedure has been drawn mostly from the description of Maimonides’ Mishne Torah, Sefer Nashim, Sotah, primarily from Chapter Three.


This was a particularly tough story to do:

– There was a lot of ritualistic detail to go through.

– I had to contrive a story that was plausible in terms of having Pnina legally require the Sotah process, yet come out innocent.

– Visualizing the details, actions and feelings of a ritual that is so foreign and bizarre to our modern existence.

About the Author
Ben-Tzion Spitz is the former Chief Rabbi of Uruguay and a candidate for the Knesset for the Zehut party. He is the author of three books of Biblical Fiction and hundreds of articles and stories dealing with biblical themes. Ben-Tzion is a graduate of Yeshiva University and received his Master’s in Mechanical Engineering from Columbia University.