The Bitter Water in Law of Jealousy

Posted by on Jun 8, 2023

In the law of jealousy, a wife who allegedly has been disloyal to her husband and defiles herself with another man, and jealousy comes upon the husband, because he has suspected her fidelity, is required to drink bitter water.

When the law is read at first glance, it appears that the wife has no say in her defense. It also appears that the law applies only to the suspected woman who has been accused by her husband of infidelity. But is the opposite also in force when a jealous wife makes charges against her husband? What does the Torah say about a husband accused of infidelity against his wife?

It is the object of this work to seek the answers to these questions, because it seems that there is an apparent partiality in the law, namely, that a man could sue his wife for adultery and even for suspecting her, but a wife cannot even accuse her husband of infidelity. Can we rethink this?

“In Judaism, to be without questions is a sign not of faith but of lack of depth.” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

The law of jealousy requires a wife, who is suspected of being unfaithful to her husband, to drink bitter water in which the ink with the Name of the Creator is dissolved.

The law of jealousy requires a wife, who is suspected of being unfaithful to her husband, to drink bitter water in which the ink with the Name of the Creator is dissolved.

The law of the jealous husband reads thus,

If any man’s wife turns aside and has committed a trespass against him, and a man has intercourse with her, and it is hidden from the eyes of her husband, and it is concealed that she has defiled herself, and there was no witness against her, nor was she caught, and a spirit of jealousy comes upon him and he becomes jealous of his wife who has defiled herself, or a spirit of jealousy comes upon him and he becomes jealous of his wife although she has not defiled herself, then the man shall bring his wife to the priest. (Num 5:12-15)

Then the jealous husband will bring his wife before the priest with the specified offering for her, and the priest will bring her before YHVH (that is, at the Temple). The priest will mix set-apart water and some of the dust that is on the floor of the Temple in an earthen vessel. Then, he will uncover the woman’s head and make her swear the following oath,

If no man has lain with you, and if you have not turned aside to uncleanness, being under your husband, be free from this bitter water that brings a curse. But if you have turned aside under, being your husband, and if you have defiled yourself and some man other than your husband has lain with you, … Yehovah make you a curse and an oath among your people, when Yehovah makes your thigh rot and your belly swell, and this water that causes the curse shall go into your inward parts, and make your belly swell and your thigh waste away.” And the woman shall say, “Amein, amein.” (Num 5:19-22)

Grammar note: The word צָבָה tzavah means to swell. The word is not found anywhere else in Scripture but here in the law of jealous husband. In such a case, it is very difficult to determine its proper meaning, since there is no other reference from where we can derive its literal meaning. Hence, its meaning can only be ascertained from the immediate context. We should therefore render it in the context of “your thigh rot (lit. fall) and your belly swell”, which is a euphemism for becoming barren. We now return to the text.

Then the priest will write the oath on a scroll, which has the Name of the Creator written on it, immerse it into the water, and will make the suspected woman drink it. The water that brings the curse will enter her to become bitter.

And if the woman has defiled herself with another man while being under her husband’s authority, the water that brings the curse will enter her inner parts (genitals), and they will swell, and she will become barren, and thus she will become a curse among the people. But if the woman has not defiled herself and is clean of any wrongdoing, then she will be clear of guilt and be able to conceive and bear children.

What exactly is being described here? The idea of the curse is this: the transgression begins first in the mind and ends in the sexual organ: the organ of lust. The punishment, therefore, ends in the same source as the sin has begun and falls upon the organ with which the woman has sinned. In other words, since the transgression ends in this organ, the punishment ends with it.

Two legal cases in the law of jealousy

The law of jealous husband presents two legal cases for a proceeding in the court of law through which the husband seeks a legal remedy to recover a right for a possible wrongdoing of his wife. These two legal cases are addressed by the law in Num 5:12-15 and distinguished from each other by the conjunction “or” which introduces an alternative. We will first present them in brief, after which we will explain them at length:

(1) A wife has committed adultery against her husband, but the infidelity cannot be proven for there is no witness against her;

(2) A wife has not defiled herself with another man, but jealousy has come upon the husband, and he has suspected her of defilement of their marriage.

The first case poses the lawsuit of adultery, which is presented in the Torah as an extramarital sex that willfully and maliciously interferes with marriage relations. The adultery is cited in the Scripture as grounds for capital punishment, but it must be proven.

Note: The rabbinic ruling based on Sifrei Naso 1:41 and Sotah 2b is that if there is even one witness against her, who claims that she has been defiled, she does not drink the bitter water, and the law of jealousy does not apply to her; this is the case of adultery and therefore is to be treated as an adulteress along with the adulterer.

The second case, however, is a case of jealousy, which is not a crime to start with, nor does it present grounds for divorce. It is jealousy. A feeling of jealousy does not prove or disprove adultery; it is a feeling. Nevertheless, the Torah saw fit to address this case as well. Why?

We will present to our reader these two legal cases in the following vein. And we will now remove all the difficulties, as we are asking the reader to consider what we intend to say.

When the Name can be blotted out

At this point in the discussion, it is necessary to understand the issue with blotting out the Name of the Creator. But before we go into the details of these cases, two things we should note here. Verse 18 says that the priest is to presents her before YHVH and uncover her head (literally, to loosen her head; by implication to expose). “To loosen her head” is an euphemism for “the hair of the woman’s head go loose”.

The uncovering of woman’s head thus symbolizes that she is coming out from under her husband’s covering (authority) and going under the direct authority of YHVH (see the distinction in authority in 1Cor 11:3).

We should understand that in the ancient world, the unmarried girls had their hair to flow freely as a sign of their unmarried status. A married woman, however, had her head covered as a sign of modesty, humility, and respect to her husband that she was a woman under her husband’s authority. Hence, it was a custom that it is still around today among observant Jewish women to cover their heads and let hair go loose only for their husbands when they are intimate. Such an example in the Scripture is Rivka’s conduct when she first met her husband Yitschak (see Gen 24:65).

The second thing we will bring to the reader’s attention is the mystery of the bitter water the priest makes the wife drink. As we read in the law of the jealousy, the priest writes the curses of the oath on a scroll, which has the Name “Yehovah” written on it twice. When the priest immerses this scroll in the set-apart water, the ink dissolves in it and everything that has been written in the oath along with the Name is erased by the water. Then, he asks the wife to drink it. In doing so she thus accepts the oath upon herself.

And if she has committed adultery against her husband, the water that enters her becomes bitter and brings the curse upon the woman, namely, she becomes barren. The water itself is not bitter. It only turns bitter and brings the curse, if there is adultery committed. In other words, the curse of the oath comes into her body through her false swearing.

Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra teaches that there is a mystical aspect of the matter of “bitter water”. He interprets the word “waters” as being a genitive form placed next to the word הַמָּרִים ha’marim, literally, “the bitter ones”, as if the Torah had written “the water of the bitter matters”. The water has turned bitter only after the inked oath has been dissolved in it. Which are the bitter matters the Torah is referring to? These are the bitter matters of adultery.

As the wife’s alleged crime, of which her husband has accused her, is neither witnessed nor proved by any other means, the only way left to determine whether there was grounds for crime or for her husband’s spirit of jealousy, is to let the verdict be decided by YHVH Himself.

But we should not even entertain the idea that the ink itself or much less the water somehow cause the curse, as if they had any intrinsic properties to cause it. By definition that would be idolatry. What causes the curse is neither the water, ink, nor even the inked Name written in the oath, but YHVH who has judged the unfaithful wife.

When the priest, therefore, makes the suspected wife take the oath in the Name of YHVH, he has in mind neither the water, not the ink, but that the Merciful One will judge the woman according to His emanations of Mercy and Justice, which always work in harmony and agreement. If the wife has not committed any adultery, the weight of Mercy dominates. But if she has sinned against her husband, she must bear the consequences. For more insight on the ten emanations of YHVH, refer to the article The Ten Sefirot of the Creator Part 1 & 2 – Time of Reckoning Ministry.

The Name of YHVH appears twice in the oath which is written on a piece of parchment and then erased in the water. Why would YHVH allow His Set-apart Name to be blotted out and thus desecrated in this ritual in accordance with the law of jealousy? We do not know as we are not explicitly told anywhere in the Torah. But we can reason that perhaps YHVH allows His written Name to be blotted out in the hope of saving the family in the reconciliation of the husband and wife.

Equality under the law

Nothing however is said about what is to be done in case the woman refuses to take the oath prescribed in the law of jealousy. What if the woman refuses to drink the water after the ink on the scroll has already been erased and the Name blotted out?

The sages have ruled that in such a case, she will be either forced to drink it (according to the rabbinic ruling in Sotah 19b:1) or pronounced guilty (Sotah 19b:10), since she has admitted her guilt and accepted the curse of the oath upon herself. Then, if this is the case, she would have to be put to death as an adulteress together with the adulterer, according to the law in Leviticus,

And a man who commits adultery with another man’s wife, who commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor: the adulterer and the adulteress shall certainly be put to death. (Lev 20:10)

Thus, the woman is placed on an equality with the man and both are to be charged and judged for adultery. According to the sages this must be done so only if they were both witnessed in the act of adultery, i.e., they engaged in actual coitus, for only in this way are both parties equally guilty of the crime. We should recall that Yeshua saved an adulteress from being stoned by the mob, not because she was not guilty, but because she was the only one who was judged. But where was the adulterer?

Is the law of jealousy partial?

The law of adultery in Leviticus 20 treats the man and woman who have committed adultery equally: both are under the same law regardless of gender. But can that be said about the law of jealousy in Numbers 5? Because if the Torah is impartial towards husband and wife, can a wife have a spirit of jealousy and accuse her husband of infidelity?

The sages have noticed this issue in the law of jealousy and addressed them in Sotah (a halakhic term for a woman suspected of adultery).

Rabbeinu Bahya on Num 5:31 comments that the sages hold the view (Sotah 47b:13) that if a husband ever in his life has indulged in illicit sex, “he is in no position to call upon heavenly intervention to prove his wife’s guilt”, and the whole procedure in the law of jealousy thus becomes ineffective. Thus, they have found the way to protect the woman from her husband’s abusive charges.

The sages holding this view base it on the wording in verse 31. As interpreted by the sages, the words of the law mean that only when the husband is free from guilt of infidelity will the wife have to go through the procedure in the law of jealousy and bear her guilt. Otherwise, she is free of charge; this does not necessarily mean free of guilt. We read,

And the man shall be clear from iniquity, but the woman shall bear her iniquity. (Num 5:31)

According to the sages, the wording of this line teaches that if the wife has committed adultery herself and been aware of her husband’s infidelity, she does not go through the ritual of the law of jealousy but is divorced without receiving the financial settlement, which otherwise she should have been entitled to.

Then Rabbeinu Bahya goes on to say that due to the increased number of instances of marital infidelity, the effectiveness of the bitter waters and the law of jealousy declined over time. He quotes Hos 4:14 concerning the deterioration of the moral values. It is for this reason that it was said,

I will not punish your daughters when they commit whoring, nor your daughters-in-law when they commit adultery, for they themselves go with whores and sacrifice with prostitutes, and the people that is without understanding are distraught! (Hos 4:14)

Rabbeinu Bahya explains that “I will not punish your daughters” means “by making them drink the bitter waters for fornicating”, for they themselves consort with whores (the husbands) and sacrifice with prostitutes. What the prophet is saying, concludes Rabbeinu Bahya, is that there was no longer a justification for Elohim to restore the domestic peace between husband and wife when both parties had already deliberately destroyed that relationship.

When YHVH established the law of jealousy in which His Name was to be blotted out, the purpose of this law was to avoid the birth of illegitimate children or children suspected of being such, and all negative consequences that come with them for the society, namely, that the intimacy between a husband and wife is degraded to a mere sexual act and ceases to be an instrument for producing children. And the society comes to such a degradation, that sex has already become a means for satisfying the lust and indulging in extramarital relationships.

The Torah, we read in Deu 22:13-21, goes against such indulgence in lust. This is the case of a man who takes a wife and after he has a sexual intimacy with her, he hates her after gratifying his carnal needs (like Amnon in 2Sa 13:15). And in order to divorce her, he makes abusive charges against her saying that she was not a virgin, i.e., he brings an evil name on her of being fornicatress before their marriage.

We are returning now to our two legal cases in the law of jealousy addressed Num 5:12-15:

(1) A wife has committed adultery against her husband, but the infidelity cannot be proven for there is no witness against her;

(2) A wife has not defiled herself with another man, but jealousy has come upon the husband, and he has suspected her of defilement of their marriage.

In case 1, the Torah is completely clear: both the adulterer and the adulteress are guilty and deserve capital punishment, and we read why,

When a man is found lying with a woman married to a husband, then both of them shall die, both the man that lay with the woman, and the woman. Thus you shall put away the evil from Israel. (Deu 22:22)

If one has been disloyal in the marriage instituted by YHVH, what legal grounds can be found that they are loyal in the marriage with YHVH Himself? But because no witnesses have come up to testify against her (this implies that the adulterer in unknown), the wife is not punished with death.

In case 2, the wife is suspected of adultery by her husband, but she is innocent. In this case, the wife seems to be in a disadvantageous position: even jealousy is good enough for the husband to seek his rights. What about the woman’s feelings and her good name? Torah seems silent. But does it?

Is the law of jealousy fair to the women?

After all of the above, it remains for us to explain whether the woman is slandered but her husband by accusing her of infidelity.

Let us read closely the language the Torah employes in the law of jealousy. In both legal cases, there are only two who know the truth: YHVH Himself and the woman; neither the husband nor the priest—only the Judge and the accused.

The first case is an undisputable case of adultery with no witnesses, because the law says, “If any man’s wife turns aside and has committed a trespass against him”. The husband does not know the truth, but he will when the bitter water brings the curse upon the unfaithful wife, and she is punished with barrenness. Justice is served, the capital punishment has been avoided.

In the second case, the wife is suspected of infidelity, but there are no witnesses to testify for her. The husband has the full right to be doubtful whether his wife is faithful, but she is innocent, because it is further said, “he becomes jealous of his wife although she has not defiled herself”. She knows that but he does not; there are no witnesses—only suspicions. In this legal case, she is not alone—YHVH is the only witness of hers and also the Judge. The woman is vindicated, and her good name restored, because she is innocent. Justice is served again.

But a troubled heart will ask the question: Indeed, the woman’s name is restored, but it was previously slandered by the husband. Is the law of jealousy fair to allow this?

What does the law say? The man shall bring his wife before the priest, and the priest shall bring her before YHVH. There are four involved in the case of jealousy: the husband, wife, priest, and YHVH. The law does not say “priests” as in plural, but a priest, any priest, not even the High Priest. There is no “public hearing”, not even “court hearing”; this is a private case of family dispute between a husband and wife. The priest does not act as a judge, not even as a family counselor; he is merely an employee who performs clerical work. No one outside of the family is involved except the priest, and YHVH.

The next thing we need to clarify is that the wife is not like she has no say in the family dispute. She can defend herself, but since she has no witnesses on her side, the case is brought before YHVH, who foreknows the case. The wife’s name is not slandered and will not be, because the husband has not made publicly abusive charges against her thus bringing an evil name upon her. If the husband has made such abusive charges (“abusive” implies he has made them public), this will be the case of lashon hara, “evil tongue”, because he has accused her wife of crime (which deserves capital punishment) without witnesses. The case of lashon hara is altogether different case whose punishment, according to the Torah, is tsarah.

Another consideration in the case. If the wife was unfaithful to her husband and defiled herself with another man, she knows what will come out from the ritual of the bitter water. In such a case, it will be most natural for her to try to make reconciliation with her husband, who has no witness to testify against her.

But if she too suspects her husband of adultery (not without reason) and accuses him before a priest, the husband knows that “he is in no position to call upon heavenly intervention to prove his wife’s guilt”, and the whole case will be dismissed by the priest, because they are both guilty and cannot disprove one another.

One final thought. This law of jealousy reminds us of the case of Miryam, in which Yoseph suspected his wife of being unfaithful but did not bring her to the priest to go through the procedure of the bitter water and bear her guilt.

Suggested reading: The Status of Woman in the Law of Divorce – Time of Reckoning Ministry

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