Parashat Naso / Wayward Wives and Vanishing Words

Yakov Z. Meyer
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“The Supposed Form and Arrangement of the Tabernacle,” unknown, 19th century.
Yakov Z. Meyer

In Sifre, the Tannaitic midrashic work on the Book of Numbers, the sages state, “Peace is so important that the holy name which has been written with holy reverence is blotted out on the water for the sake of peace, for the sake of establishing domestic peace between a husband and wife” (Sifre, Book of Numbers: 42).

The sages are referring here to the “wayward wife” (sotah) ceremony depicted in this week’s Torah portion, Naso (Numbers 4:21-7:89). The purpose of the ceremony is to establish whether a woman whose husband suspects her of infidelity, and who denies the allegation, did or did not commit adultery. The husband goes to the sanctuary with his wife, presents a sacrificial offering, and the priest instructs the wife to declare, under oath, that she did not commit adultery.

The priest also issues a dire warning: “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; 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 – 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; 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’” (Numbers 5:19-2).

The ceremony’s climax occurs when the wife drinks the “water of bitterness that causeth the curse.” If she did, in fact, commit adultery, “her belly shall swell, and her thigh shall fall away; and the woman shall be a curse among her people” (Num. 5:27). However, if she is not guilty, “then she shall be cleared, and shall conceive seed” (5:28(.

The method described in the passage sounds very much like a chemical process. The wife consumes the “water of bitterness,” which causes a chemical reaction in her body; the nature of that reaction will depend on whether she is guilty or not of infidelity. The water’s function is binary: If she is an adulteress, it becomes toxic, but if she is innocent, it becomes a medication. The truth emerges by means of the chemical reaction.

Moreover, what gives the water its potency is the material blotted out in it: “And the priest shall write these curses in a scroll, and he shall blot them out into the water of bitterness” (Num. 5:23). The water contains the text that has just been read (“these curses”), which is blotted out in the water.

Thus, the sages’ intention in their declaration, “Peace is so important that what has been written with holy reverence is blotted out on the water for the sake of peace, for the sake of establishing domestic peace between a husband and wife,” is that domestic peace between husband and wife is more important than the preservation of this sacred text. However, the blotting out of that text does not constitute destruction in the usual sense.

Here is one of those remarkable occasions when the Torah refers to its own textuality. At first glance, there appears to be no qualitative distinction between the text denoted as “these curses” – that is, the curses with which the priest warns the wayward wife in Num. 5:19-22 – and any other verse in the Torah. All of the Torah’s verses are written down in the same way: ink on parchment. All of them are recited – or, rather, sung – in synagogue according to one of the various trope systems. (The Torah trope consists of the marks that appear above or below the words in the text and which, like musical notes, indicate how each word is to be sun).

However, the commandment to blot out “these curses” in the water used in the above ceremony distinguishes the text in Num. 19-22 from all the other verses in the Torah. All of them transmit information in a traditional manner: The author seeks to convey a specific message to the reader, phrases the message in words, and writes it down using letters; the reader sees the letters, combines them into words and understands their meaning. In this manner, the author conveys specific information to the reader. To enable “these curses” to function, however, it is necessary not only to read them, understand them and even recite (or chant) them out loud in the synagogue.

The material used for the writing down of these curses on parchment is assigned an independent function; the letters’ form vanishes and the words’ meaning is transferred to that material, charging it with great potency. The words are written down and then erased; the wife drinks the words that have been erased and which have dissolved in the water, and it is this liquid that creates the desired chemical reaction.

The power of those words to change reality is disconnected from the fact that they are a combination of consonants and vowels, constituting a verbal continuum that carries a message that can be received by the auditor’s ear or by the reader’s eye. Although the words in this passage are erased, they do not lose their literal meaning. Quite the contrary, the words’ meaning is embodied in the material used to write them down. Moreover, it is clear from the wayward wife ceremony that these words can perform their function only if they are converted into a certain material. It is as if the words’ erasure and consumption constitute a different, absolute, irresistible form of reading.

The priest makes the wife take an oath and clearly enunciates the curse. For her part, she must answer him with the words, “Amen, amen”; however, the consumption of the bitter water emphasizes the fact that the words that have been recited do not have a sufficient degree of power. In order to facilitate the chemical operation and reaction, and in order to determine in an absolute manner whether or not the wife committed adultery – the text must lose its linguistic meaning and must operate on a different level.

In order to establish domestic peace between husband and wife, the text must be fully “tapped.” This will ensure that the text is not destroyed; instead, the words can achieve their full potential, thereby transcending the boundaries of language’s loose rules and limited credibility. God’s name, written down in a spirit of sanctity, is blotted out in the water, thereby bringing about domestic peace.

One might even go further and say the following: The holiness of the text before it is erased lies in its erasability and in its capacity for extracting the truth and establishing domestic peace between husband and wife.