Rabbi Margo Hughes-Robinson has written a translation for and commentary on the 3rd chapter of Tosefta Sotah. Part of a larger book which she envisions writing on the entire text, Margo offers a side-by-side translation of the text itself along with a reading of the themes of rebellion and a feminist analysis of the text.
The reader is encouraged to read Margo's commentary alongside her running commentary. To read her translation and commentary side-by-side, click here and the insightful footnotes will appear in the resource panel. Note that the reader will need to scroll down on both panels as they read through. One can also find the commentary by scrolling down to the bottom of this sheet.
The Tradition teaches us that “for every soldier-sandal that is stomped with commotion,”1 we measure.
What lies before us, then, is a great reckoning of small things.
I have no way to understand all this, other than in reference to some thing that extrudes slowly, measurely.
I must recount it a little at a time.
We learn from the Tradition that even pennies2 are counted together to render a great receipt:
“one by one” are they counted, “in my search for the reason of things.”3
And indeed, in my Sotah-trial you will learn that in my character I am measured; in my assets and my attributes did they weigh me out.
They presuppose me guilty and force their way into my bed, remaking it according their imagination:
|I stood before my lover, so that I would be lovely before him||the priest of the Temple makes me stand before them all, so that they might see my explosive disgrace.4 They follow the ritual to the letter, “and after, the priest sets the woman before God.”5|
|I spread6 out my sheet for my love||now the priest snatches the scarf from my head and steps on it.7|
|I adorned my hair with braids,||the priest accordingly dishevels it.8|
|I made up9 my face||now it saffrons with shame10|
|I painted my eyes blue with kohl for him||And as I remember, my eyes bloat with tears.|
|I beckoned to him,||closer,|
|with my finger||now my nails feel like they could fall out|
|I showed him my sweetest flesh,11||and the priest now tears my shift12 , and displays my explosive disgrace to all.|
|I encircled him, glistening and all-petals13||the priest brings a rope to bind me, and ties it above my breasts. All who want may come and see me.|
|I extended my thighs to him||and now they will rot.14|
|I took my love upon my belly15||now my guts churn, distended|
|I nurtured him, fed my love with delights16||now my meal-offering, my sin-payment feeds not the priests, but cattle.17|
|I bade him to drink my finest wine||today the priest makes me drink bitter waters, in a firepot fragment made of clay.|
|I did it in secret||it is said, “the eye of the adulterer waits for twilight,”18 saying, ‘not a single eye shall notice me.’”|
I did not know that the One, Enthroned in Concealment from the world, watching for sin but Unseen, cast His Face upon me for it is written "that his face will be set as concealed!”19
This is to teach you that the Infinite brings all hidden things out
into the open,
(even though it is said that God “covers His own hatred."20 )
I am not alone in this sin.
The people of the Flood did not act pridefully before the Infinite for any other reason
but for the abundance that was showered upon them.
It is said of them
“their houses are peaceful, without fear;”21
“his bull seeds, and is not rejected;”22
“their children multiply like a flock of sheep”23
“They wear out their days in abundance”24
It was she, this bounty, that made them do it-- “and they said to God,
‘Turn away from us!25 What is the Almighty, the Nourisher,26 that we should labor on God’s behalf?!’”27
They said, “is all this painstaking of ours only for two drops of rain?!
Hey, we have rivers and springs! From them we can be satisfied,
both in the hot season and in the rainy season.
As it is said, ‘mist rises’ not from heaven, but ‘from the earth.’”28 They knew not that the earth was God’s, the depths the doings of the Infinite.
The Infinite replied to them. “Through this abundance that I heaped upon you, shall I call you to account.”29 What was to happen?30
“And now I am ready31 to bring the Flood of water upon the earth.”32
2 Prutot, small coins or pennies, sounds similar to the word prutiot, mules or hybrid animals about whom it is unknown which parent was a donkey and which was a horse. It also sounds like prutzot-- loose women.
4 Kalon is often used in reference to sexual degredation or even forced prostitution, but also carries with it a valence of combustion
6 This verb is also used for the sudden onset of a menstrual period-- to “spread into niddah”
7 Instead of spreading his heads out in benediction to render a priestly blessing (and mirror more closely the spreading of the Sotah’s sheet, he instead grabs away her headcovering. The priest’s body engages so intimately with the Sotah and her clothing that he becomes an invert to her-- her headcovering lands under his feet, her assumed behavior is contradicted by his behavior throughout the investigative ritual.
8 One popular rabbinic motif used to describe the sexually “loose” woman is the woman with uncovered and especially curly or expansive hair.
9 There’s a range of possibilities of “making up” adornment here-- the Sotah may have used makeup, perfume, or jewelry to adorn her face. Even in a ritual attempt to shame her, the Sotah’s creativity hides under the range of meanings implied by this word.
10 Traditionally the word is translated as “green,” but the yarak may also be a saffron crocus, whose stigma impart a rich orangey-red color. This trial-by-ordeal has long been understood as a ceremony that turns a guilty woman into a literal monster, disfiguring her.. What was titillating and an act of agency in private becomes a public shaming, transforming the private sexuality of the suspected adultress into a public spectacle of the grotesque.I have chosen to read into this translation the somatic consequences of shame and embarrassment-- the flushed skin, the wide-eye anxiety, the heat-- that can accompany both this kind of ordeal and too often, sexual encounters and our discussions of them.
11 The word for “meat” or “flesh” is closely tied to a verb for gladdening or announcing good tidings. It also carries with it a whiff of mortality.
12 In the feminine possessive form of this noun, the word chaluk, a shift or undershirt, becomes chalukah-- “separation”
13 The word tzitz, which appears here in the plural, has both floral and lustrous connotations. It is related to the sparkling frontplate of the High Priest, but also flowers in full bloom.
14 This may be a sagging or melting of the skin and fat at the inner thigh, a decay with sores, or it may mean that her legs buckle from fear.
15 Does this mean that the Sotah’s partner rested on her belly during sex, or that she permitted her partner to enter her while she laid on her belly? Either way, the text is allowing the reader into the intimacy of the Sotah’s bed-- even this description of the ritual becomes voyeuristic.
16 Literally, “fed him with edenim,” small bites of luxury like the Garden of Eden-- but the root word also carries the resonance of being nursed at the breast, as if one is an infant or small child
17 Typically, the mincha meal-offering was partially burned up on the altar in the Temple, while the priests ate the rest of it.
18 Job 24:15
19 Job 24:15
20 Proverbs 26:26; the verse in Proverbs continues “...with deceit, his evil shall be revealed in public.” The next verse proclaims, “whoever digs a pit will fall in it” (Proverbs 26:27), another sticking place for the rabbinic ideal of middah keneged middah
21 Job 21:9
22 Job 21:10 the idea here is that the bull successfully impregnates the heifer-- while lo yag’il here means that semen is viable, the root of the word is itself entangled in a resonance of failure, even loathsome sexual rejection.
23 Job 21:11
24 Job 21:13
25 Job 21:14; These three verses from Job are part of a longer description decrying the ways that the wicked prosper on earth. While the original Job text focuses heavily on agricultural success, the Tosefta brings only the first half of each of the four successive verses as its prooftext, instead asking “why are the wicked fertile?” Verse 21:12, which highlights the singing of these wicked accompanied by the timbrel and harp, is omitted-- perhaps because of its suggestion of worship.
26 The Divine name Shaddai, while typically translated as “Almighty,” denotes both sufficiency (“dai!”- enough!) and mountainous breasts (shaddim),
27 Job 21:15
28 Genesis 2:6; interestingly, the generation of the flood seem to be using the Biblical text as a justification for why they should not engage in troublesome worship of God.
29 God makes it plain that he will collect a debt, measure for measure.
30 Literally, “what does he say?” This technical phrase often signals that a second biblical text is being summoned to clarify or reveal the intention only hinted at by its predecessor.
31 “Hineini,” says God in the moments before the Flood: I am present and prepared.
32 Genesis 6:17
About Rabbi Margo Hughes-Robinson
Rabbi Margo Hughes-Robinson is the New York Rabbinic Organizer at T’ruah and a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary, where she also pursued an MA in Midrash and served as the Program Coordinator for the Milstein Center for Interreligious Dialogue. A New Yorker by birth, Margo grew up in communities all over the United States before attending Clark University, where she graduated with degrees in Theatre and in Jewish Studies. She is also a proud alumna of the Conservative Yeshiva Lishma Fellowship and the Hartman Rabbinic Student Seminar, and is a former Marshall T. Meyer Rabbinic Fellow at B’nai Jeshurun in NYC. Margo’s work has been published online and in print, most recently in Alma, PRTCLS, and Jewschool.