Simcha Feuerman
Psychology, Torah and the Daf Yomi

Dr. Fauci and Talmud Bavli Sotah 7 Psychology of the Daf Yomi

Our Gemara on Amud Beis discusses various traditions of what is stated to the Sotah, in order to encourage her to confess (assuming she is guilty) and avoid the Ordeal of the bitter Waters:

וְאוֹמֵר לָהּ בִּתִּי הַרְבֵּה יַיִן עוֹשֶׂה הַרְבֵּה שְׂחוֹק עוֹשֶׂה הַרְבֵּה יַלְדוּת עוֹשָׂה הַרְבֵּה שְׁכֵנִים הָרָעִים עוֹשִׂין

And additionally, the judge would say to her: My daughter, wine causes a great deal of immoral behavior, levity causes a great deal of immoral behavior, immaturity causes a great deal of immoral behavior, and bad neighbors cause a great deal of immoral behavior. The judge encouraged her to admit her sin by explaining to her that he understands that there may have been mitigating factors.

However, our Gemara finds this teaching to contradict another teaching:

וּמְאַיְּימִין עָלֶיהָ וְכוּ׳ וּרְמִינְהוּ כְּדֶרֶךְ שֶׁמְּאַיְּימִין עָלֶיהָ שֶׁלֹּא תִּשְׁתֶּה כָּךְ מְאַיְּימִין עָלֶיהָ שֶׁתִּשְׁתֶּה אוֹמְרִים לָהּ בִּתִּי אִם בָּרוּר לִךָ הַדָּבָר שֶׁטְּהוֹרָה אַתְּ עִמְדִי עַל בּוּרְיִיךְ וּשְׁתִי לְפִי שֶׁאֵין מַיִם הַמָּרִים דּוֹמִין אֶלָּא לְסַם יָבֵשׁ שֶׁמּוּנָּח עַל בָּשָׂר חַי אִם יֵשׁ שָׁם מַכָּה מְחַלְחֵל וְיוֹרֵד אֵין שָׁם מַכָּה אֵינוֹ מוֹעִיל כְּלוּם

The mishna teaches: And they threaten her in order that she admit her sin, to obviate the need to erase God’s name. And the Gemara raises a contradiction from that which was taught in a baraisa in the Tosefta (1:6): In the same manner that they threaten her so that she will not drink, so too, they threaten her so that she will drink, as they say to her: My daughter, if the matter is clear to you that you are pure, arise for the sake of your clear position and drink. If you are innocent you have nothing to fear, because the bitter water is similar only to a dry poison placed on the flesh. If there is a wound there, the poison will penetrate and enter the blood stream, but if there is no wound there, it does not have any effect. This teaches that the woman is warned not to drink if she is guilty, but if she is not guilty she is encouraged to drink. There is no mention of the latter in the mishna!

Our Gemara answers:

לָא קַשְׁיָא כָּאן קוֹדֶם שֶׁנִּמְחֲקָה מְגִילָּה כָּאן לְאַחַר שֶׁנִּמְחֲקָה מְגִילָּה

The Gemara answers: This is not difficult. Here the mishna is referring to before the scroll was erased, and at that point the woman is warned only not to drink if she is guilty, so that the name of God will not be erased. There the baraisa is referring to after the scroll was erased. Then she is warned that if she is innocent she should drink because if she now refuses to drink, it will turn out that the scroll was erased for no purpose.

Rav Aharon Balas notes that the Yerushalmi reacts differently to what the Bavli saw as a contradiction. The Yerushalmi quotes the second beraisa that encourages the accused to hold steadfast if she believes she is innocent, with no additional commentary. Apparently, the Yerushalmi does not consider this to be a contradiction at all, and both warning (in case she is a cheater), and encouragement (in case she is innocent) , are offered prior to erasing the scroll.

It occurs to me that the disagreement between Bavli and Yerushalmi depends on an idea about communication and education. Bavli says compound and paradoxical messages are not understood well. Keep the message simple. Yerushalmi seems to be fine with giving over a complicated message: Don’t be afraid to confess, we understand, people can make mistakes. At the same time, if you’re innocent, be strong, hold your ground, you have nothing to fear.

I wonder if this approach is also connected to an observation about the different style of studies between Bavli and Yerushalmi that is commented on by Gemara Sanhedrin (24a):

א”ר אושעיא מאי דכתיב (זכריה יא, ז) ואקח לי (את) שני מקלות לאחד קראתי נועם ולאחד קראתי חובלים נועם אלו ת”ח שבארץ ישראל שמנעימין זה לזה בהלכה חובלים אלו ת”ח שבבבל שמחבלים זה לזה בהלכה

This demonstrates what Rabbi Oshaya says: What is the meaning of that which is written: “And I took for myself two staves; the one I called Graciousness, and the other I called Binders” (Zechariah 11:7)? “Graciousness”; these are the Torah scholars in Eretz Yisrael, who are gracious to one another in discussions of halakha. They treat each other with honor and love, as demonstrated in the statements of Reish Lakish and Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi. “Binders [ḥovelim]”; these are the Torah scholars in Babylonia, who injure [shemeḥabbelim] each other in discussions of halakha, i.e., they speak harshly to each other when they disagree.

Since the style of disputation was adversarial and critical in Bavel, as compared to Israel, they developed different beliefs about the degree of complexity that the common person could tolerate. Since the Babylonians, at least believed themselves to have a superior and sharper analytic ability, they didn’t give much credit for the average person to digest more than a simple message. On the other hand, since the Yerushalmites consider their discourse to be patient and gentle, perhaps they believe themselves capable, or actually experienced themselves as capable, of speaking to the common person in a manner that they can understand even complex and contradictory messages.

Another possibility that occurs to me is based on what we will learn tomorrow on Daf 8:

תָּנוּ רַבָּנַן אֵין מַשְׁקִין שְׁתֵּי סוֹטוֹת כְּאַחַת כְּדֵי שֶׁלֹּא יְהֵא לִבָּהּ גַּס בַּחֲבֶירְתָּהּ

The Sages taught in a baraisa  in the Tosefta (1:6): Two sotah women are not given to drink simultaneously, in order that the heart of each one not be emboldened by the other, as there is a concern that when one sees that the other woman is not confessing, she will maintain her innocence even if she is guilty.

Perhaps the Bavli felt that we cannot tell the Sotah anything that might give her courage. Even if it is true, that if she would be telling the truth, she would be fine, there’s a fear that somehow or another, it would allow the liar to rationalize and be more bold. On the other hand, the Yerushalmi might have taken a different approach. Their belief might be, that by offering people rational and balanced information, they will be able to make better choices.

Sadly, this reminds me of current events, where trust in medical and governmental health experts have been eroded due to their unwillingness to provide all of the information and all sides of the debate, lest it lead to “vaccine hesitancy”. Apparently, there is a belief out there that the common man is too unintelligent to hear opposing points of view, and come to a wise decision.

Does that mean that the Bavli agrees with Dr. Fauci? I certainly hope not! One cannot compare what our sages thought about an accused person in public, under duress, as compared to the responsibility of mature leaders. (Forget about Elon Musk’s wish to prosecute Fauci. I wish the entire CDC could be forced to drink from the waters of the Sotah so we don’t have to rely on Twitter files to understand how much healthy debate was being squelched out of fear that some people might become “misinformed” and get confused by facts?) But seriously, one way to understand the difference between the Babylonian and Yerushalmite perspective is how much information people can digest under the pressures of guilt, sin, and accusation. The Bavli holds that it is better to keep the message simple, and hopefully the guilty will be encouraged to confess and the innocent, because they are after all innocent, will find strength on their own to remain steadfast and hold the line. On the other hand, the Yerushalmi feels that both groups, the cheaters, and the honest people, need strength and encouragement to do the right thing at the right time. One needs to drink, and one needs to refuse.

About the Author
Rabbi, Psychotherapist with 30 years experience specializing in high conflict couples and families.
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