Naomi Graetz

The Jealous Husband and his Faithful Wife: Parshat Naso

Screenshot of HaYehudim Ba'im, Eshet Manoach and Angel
Screenshot of HaYehudim Ba'im, Eshet Manoach and Angel

This week’s parshat naso is one of the longest parshot. It was my oldest grandson’s bar mitzvah portion and he read the entire parsha beautifully. There are also many interesting passages in this parsha: vows, the laws of the Nazarite, the priestly benediction. I also like to look at the haftarah of this parsha which is about Samson’s mother who meets up with an angel who tells her about the forthcoming birth of her son. In this story, Samson’s unnamed mother, eshet manoach has a husband, Manoach, who is jealous of her relationship with the angel. This by the way is picked up beautifully in The Jews are Coming.


Speaking of jealous husbands, this week in our parsha we read the rule of the sotah, the case of the suspected adulteress. The suspect is tested with an oath and an ordeal. First, we are introduced to the case:

Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: Any party whose wife has gone astray and broken faith with him, in that another 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 him and he is wrought up about his wife although she has not defiled herself—that party shall bring his wife to the priest. And he shall bring as an offering for her one-tenth of an ephah of barley flour. No oil shall be poured upon it and no frankincense shall be laid on it, for it is a meal offering of jealousy, a meal offering of remembrance which recalls wrongdoing (Numbers 5:12-15).

It does not matter whether the wife has cheated or is innocent. There is no proof one way or the other. But there is a jealous husband who has to be reckoned with. He is told to bring her and “a meal offering of jealousy” as a reminder of her wrongdoing (even though she may not be guilty). Then the ritual ordeal is prepared:

The priest shall bring her forward and have her stand before יהוה. The priest shall take sacral water in an earthen vessel and, taking some of the earth that is on the floor of the Tabernacle, the priest shall put it into the water. After he has made the woman stand before יהוה, the priest shall bare the woman’s head and place upon her hands the meal offering of remembrance, which is a meal offering of jealousy. And in the priest’s hands shall be the water of bitterness that induces the spell (Numbers 5:16-18).

Before administering the waters, the priest takes an oath saying that if no man has lain with her, she will be immune to harm (and able to retain seed), but if she has gone astray and defiled herself her belly will distend. She is further humiliated by having to bare her head. It is not clear what the curse is. Does it imply that she will be unable to have children or that the child she might have conceived with the other man will be aborted?

But if you have gone astray while living in your husband’s household and have defiled yourself, if any party other than your husband has had carnal relations with you”—here the priest shall administer the curse of adjuration to the woman, as the priest goes on to say to the woman—“may יהוה make you a curse and an imprecation among your people, as יהוה causes your thigh to sag and your belly to distend; may this water that induces the spell enter your body, causing the belly to distend and the thigh to sag.” And the woman shall say, “Amen, amen!” (Numbers 5:20-22).

According to the text the curse derives its strength from God, not the water, and the woman has to cooperate against herself in this ceremony. In baring her head, she is forced to perform an immodest act. In a sense she is being pre-judged and there are no apologies if she is innocent.

Once he has made her drink the water—if she has defiled herself by breaking faith with her husband, the spell-inducing water shall enter into her to bring on bitterness, so that her belly shall distend and her thigh shall sag; and the wife shall become a curse among her people. But if the woman has not defiled herself and is pure, she shall be unharmed and able to retain seed (Numbers 5:27-28).

 If she is guilty, the waters will work their effect within her causing her belly to distend and her thigh to sag. If she is innocent, she passes the test and is cleared: “she shall be unharmed and able to retain seed.” It is interesting that according to R. Elazar, Hannah’s knowledge of this text is how she plans to get pregnant:

Rabbi Elazar explains that Hannah said before the Holy One, Blessed be He: Master of the Universe, are You not the Lord of the Hosts, and of all of the hosts and hosts of creations that You created in Your world, is it difficult in Your eyes to grant me one son? The Gemara suggests a parable: To what is this similar? It is similar to a flesh and blood king who made a feast for his servants. A poor person came and stood at the door. He said to them: Give me one slice of bread! And they paid him no attention. He pushed and entered before the king. He said to him: My lord, the King, from this entire feast that you have prepared, is it so difficult in your eyes to give me a single slice of bread? As for the double language in the verse, “if you will look upon [im ra’o tireh],” Rabbi Elazar said: Hannah said before the Holy One, Blessed be He: Master of the Universe, if You will look upon [ra’o] me now, fine, and if not, in any case You will see [tireh]. What was Hannah threatening? She said: I will go and seclude myself with another man before Elkana, my husband. Since I secluded myself, they will force me to drink the sota water to determine whether or not I have committed adultery. I will be found innocent, and since You will not make Your Torah false [pelaster], I will bear children. With regards to a woman who is falsely suspected of adultery and drank the sota water, the Torah says: “And if the woman was not defiled, but was pure, then she shall be acquitted and she shall conceive” (Numbers 5:28) (BT Berakhot 31b).

However, there is some controversy over this and in a continuation of this passage, R. Akiva is threatened by the fact that all women who are barren will seclude themselves with men who are not their husbands:

Rabbi Akiva said to him: If so, all barren women will go and seclude themselves with men who are not their husbands, and any woman who did not commit the sin of adultery will be remembered by God and granted children. Rather, the verse teaches that this is merely a promise for greater ease in childbirth; if she has previously given birth with pain, she now gives birth with ease, if she has previously given birth to short children, she gives birth to tall children, if she has previously given birth to black children, she now gives birth to fair children, if she has previously given birth to one child, she now gives birth to two children (Berakhot 31b).

At any rate since this is the law of the land זֹ֥את תּוֹרַ֖ת הַקְּנָאֹ֑ת the question is how to soften the decree. The commentary in Berakhot does this in one way, almost satirizing the law. In contrast to the commentary above, the Mishnah, in cognizance of a double standard, attempts to soften the effect of this law. Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai suspended the sotah ordeal because adulterers became too numerous to control.

From the time when adulterers proliferated, the performance of the ritual of the bitter waters was nullified; they would not administer the bitter waters to the sota. And it was Rabbi Yoḥanan ben Zakkai who nullified it, as it is stated: “I will not punish your daughters when they commit harlotry, nor your daughters-in-law when they commit adultery; for they consort with lewd women” (Hosea 4:14), meaning that when the husbands are adulterers, the wives are not punished for their own adultery (M. Sotah 9:9).

It is interesting that Hosea 4:14 is used as a prooftext:

I will not punish their daughters for fornicating nor their daughters-in-law for committing adultery; for they themselves turn aside with whores and sacrifice with female consecrated workers, and a people that is without sense must stumble.

It is possible that the rabbis saw the wife who committed adultery as being similar to the Jewish people who betrayed God and caused the destruction of the Temple. Whatever the reason, the practice certainly fell into disuse after 70 C.E. when the Temple was destroyed, if not before. The rabbis in the first three chapters of Tractate Sotah argue that an accused woman should not have to drink the bitter waters, and even if she does have to drink them, she may have some merits that make the waters inoperative. Thus a woman who educates her children, supports her husband in his studies or who herself studies Torah might be able to ward off the effects.

From here Ben Azzai states: A person is obligated to teach his daughter Torah, so that if she drinks and does not die immediately, she will know that some merit she has delayed punishment for her. Rabbi Eliezer says: Anyone who teaches his daughter Torah is teaching her promiscuity [tiflut] (M Sotah 3:4).

But clearly not all rabbis agree with Ben Azzai that a woman should be taught Torah by her father. There are those like R. Eliezer who argue that learning might empower her with (dangerous) knowledge; and that she might not fear the consequences of adultery.

One might argue that the Sotah passage is not actually an act of violence against women–that it is in fact a way of preventing violence, since in ancient times (and even today) a man who suspects his wife of betraying him will often kill her. They argue that the woman is better off, since she “only” has to drink the bitter waters. Some have written that this was a good way for women to clear themselves—because by undergoing the ordeal in public, she us using the system which on the surface threatens her, to protect herself publicly from her husband’s jealous wrath. However, even if this apologetic explanation has some truth to it, we still have a form of institutionalized violence, humiliation, and violation of a woman’s body.

Women are threatened in any case. But, most importantly, this “law” reminds us of the similarity of God’s owning the body of Israel and His power over her. Just as Israel will be punished and humiliated by a jealous God for straying, this wife, the Sotah, is accused of adultery by her husband. Clearly, the reason that only the wife is considered to have committed adultery is because the relationship is only one way: she is her husband’s possession.

Both God and the priest take the husband’s side (even if it is ostensibly to protect a suspected adulteress from a jealous husband’s vengeance) and force her, not him, to acquiesce and partake in this degrading and possibly painful ritual. To understand the psychological, if not physical, harm done a woman by this ritual, we should think of a modern-day situation such as husbands returning from the battlefield routinely demanding to have their wives tested with a polygraph to determine if they were faithful while they were gone. The description of the suspected adulteress in the Bible demonstrates once again that the wife is the husband’s sexual property and that there is a lack of symmetry in the laws that pertain to husband and wife. She is publicly humiliated and has no alternatives but to acquiesce and undergo the ordeal


Women too often are viewed as sex objects, property, a tool. The image of the helpless woman of no intrinsic worth is challenged by the haftarah which shows Manoach’s unnamed mother to be the one chosen by the angel to receive the communication and orders regarding the birth of Samson. If anything, the husband is seen to be somewhat of a buffoon and also jealous of his wife’s “conversation” with the angel. A careful reading of the text and between the lines hints that the birth of a child with supernatural powers—usually ascribed to the fact that his hair is never to be cut–is because of the angel.

2)There was a certain man from Zorah, of the stock of Dan, whose name was Manoah. His wife was infertile and had borne no children. 3)An angel of GOD appeared to the woman and said to her, “You are infertile and have borne no children; but you shall conceive and bear a son. 4) Now be careful not to drink wine or other intoxicant, or to eat anything impure. 5) For you have conceived (כי הנך הרה )and will bear a son; let no razor touch his head, for the boy is to be a Nazirite to God from the womb on. He shall be the first to deliver Israel from the Philistines” (Judges 13:2-5).

If you look at verse three, Manoach’s wife is barren, but after she is alone with the angel, she is pregnant. So, who is the father? Manoach is right to be jealous—and the intertextuality between the haftarah and the passage about the sotah is highlighted. Unlike the passage in this week’s parsha, she does not have to undergo the ordeal of the bitter waters. It is hard to overlook that the “Judge” Samson will grow up to be a womanizer and one who engages in guerilla warfare. But since he is one of ours, he is lauded as a hero in Israel —Shimshon Ha-gibor. His dubious parentage and his inappropriate behavior are overlooked and excused.  Sounds familiar? If you have not as yet opened the satiric version of the haftarah from “The Jews are Coming”, you can do so now. Enjoy!



About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible and Modern Midrash from a feminist perspective on zoom. She began her weekly blog for TOI in June 2022. Her book on Wifebeating has been translated into Hebrew and is forthcoming with Carmel Press in 2025.
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