Is Judaism's sotah ritual just meant to humiliate women?

The continuation of an analysis of Judaism's laws on married women's hair covering.

 IN AKKADIAN, ‘pe-ra wasarat’ means hair that is unloosened rather than uncovered.  (photo credit: Element5 Digital/Unsplash)
IN AKKADIAN, ‘pe-ra wasarat’ means hair that is unloosened rather than uncovered.
(photo credit: Element5 Digital/Unsplash)

As a reminder to readers, this column is continuing an analysis of married women’s head covering that was started in my previous column. The biblical verse cited as textual support for hair covering in the Talmud is found in the context of a portion dealing with a woman accused by her husband of adultery, and there are no witnesses to the act. In Rabbinic texts, this woman is referred to as a sotah, literally, “one who goes astray.” There is no way to determine in court whether this woman has sinned or whether her husband has been overcome by jealousy.

Given the severity of the accusation and the lack of evidence, the woman is brought before the High Priest to undergo a ritual that will establish her guilt or innocence. One of the steps involves a ritual that involves an act of “p’ria” to her head:

Vehe’emid hakkohen et-ha’ishah lifnei adonai ufara et-rosh ha’ishah venatan al-kappeiha et minchat hazzikkaron minchat kena’ot hi uveyad hakkohen yihyu mei hammarim ham’arerim (Numbers 5:18).

"Vehe’emid hakkohen et-ha’ishah lifnei adonai ufara et-rosh ha’ishah venatan al-kappeiha et minchat hazzikkaron minchat kena’ot hi uveyad hakkohen yihyu mei hammarim ham’arerim."

Numbers 5:18

After he has made the woman stand before the Lord, the priest shall uncover/dishevel 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.

While not practically relevant in terms of halachic practice, it is nonetheless interesting to trace the literal meaning of the biblical verse in order to tease out, to some degree, the evolution of interpretation within the halachic discussion.

 STYLES ON offer at a Jerusalem salon for women’s wigs.  (credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90) STYLES ON offer at a Jerusalem salon for women’s wigs. (credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)

Based on recent scholarship, it seems that, biblically, the word p’ra most likely means to dishevel or scatter. Similarly, in the ancient language of Akkadian, which was spoken around the time that the Torah was given, pe-ra wasarat means hair that is unloosened rather than uncovered.

It is likely that the original ceremony involved a ritual in which the priest loosened the woman’s bound hair in order to humiliate her. Thus, the accused woman stood before the priest holding a poor offering of barley sheaves with her hair disheveled, forced to drink water with some dirt and ink that had God’s name dissolved in it. The verse most likely did not describe the removal of a head covering, nor is there any indication from any other biblical text that such a head covering was mandated by the Bible.

In the (pre-Rabbinic) Second Temple period, head coverings for women are mentioned in the works of biblical commentaries, such as the Greek translation of the Bible known as the Septuagint, as well as in the writings of Philo and Josephus. In all three, the passage in Numbers is understood to describe the baring of a woman’s head rather than the dishevelment of hair. They insert a word into their transmission of the text that indicates the removal of a veil or head covering worn by a woman accused of adultery.

The purpose of the sotah ritual, as understood by these early interpreters, was clearly to expose and humiliate the woman by baring her head. The intent is no different than the way dishevelment of hair would have humiliated her in the previously suggested biblical reading. The shift from dishevelment to baring of head is well illustrated in tractate Sotah.

These two different, but somewhat overlapping, interpretations of the word p’ra can be found in Rabbinic texts. The dominant approach follows the tradition of removal or uncovering. However, a secondary approach exists in which p’ra is interpreted as being similar to the Hebrew root s’tr, or loosen. A clear example of this overlap is found in Tosefta Sotah when describing the ritual (Tosefta Sotah 3:2-3).

  1. And so you find with the accused wife, by the same measure which she behaved, retribution is meted out to her. She stood before the man so as to be attractive to him; therefore, the priest stands her before all to show her disgrace as it is written: And the priest stood the women before God.
  2. She spread beautiful shawls for him, therefore the priest removes the kipah (cover) from her head and places it at his feet. She braided her hair for him, therefore the priest loosens her hair.... The interpretation of the ritual in the Tosefta involves two stages that incorporate the two meanings of the word p’ra: The priest first bares her head by removing her kipah (head covering). He then loosens her braided hair. Loosening her braids was seen as an act of sexual intimacy, far beyond the simple removal of the kipah.

To summarize

While the biblical word p’ra most likely meant to dishevel, by the Rabbinic era, the priest is described as also uncovering the woman’s head. For some women, the lack of a clear biblical proscription, or even a description of women covering their heads, is alienating and fails to convince them of the d’orayta (Torah-mandated) nature of the practice. 

Yet, as we will see in the next column, from the Talmud onward, it is indisputably accepted that there is some form of obligation for married women to cover their heads, regardless of the halachic leap from the literal understanding of the sotah ritual to the Babylonian Talmud’s assertion that head covering is biblically mandated.■

The writer teaches contemporary Halacha at the Matan Advanced Talmud Institute. She also teaches Talmud at Pardes along with courses on Sexuality and Sanctity in the Jewish tradition.