Jealousy and Magic: Letting Your Hair Down

In this week’s Torah portion in Numbers, Parashat Naso (פרשת נשא), one section of that portion (5:11-31) is about jealousy and its treatment. The treatment involves magic and is a rare if not the only part of the Torah where we find a tale recording the practice of a kind of sorcery.

This short story starts in a customary way with God addressing Moses and telling him, in turn, to address the Israelite people. What does He say? God relays the basic story and then commands a ritual known as the Sotah (to turn aside) ritual.  The topic is stated first. It is about an unfaithful wife. Or so her husband claims: she slept with another man unbeknownst to her husband. There are no witnesses. And she is never caught in the act by the husband. Further, there seems to be no evidence to back up the husband’s claim. Nevertheless, the husband has a fit of jealousy.

Clearly, she cannot be stoned to death if there is no evidence. (Leviticus 20:10 or Deuteronomy 22:21-22) But he could have divorced her even if he had no evidence of adultery. He did not seem to want to do that. Further, if she had committed adultery, was he not defiling himself by continuing to live with her? It would appear that he wanted to stay married. Of course, the latter is all conjecture but is more than plausible given the information we have.

The question is: how should the situation be handled whether the wife committed adultery or not? Further, is the topic of the portion her unfaithfulness or the husband’s reaction when he believes she was unfaithful? Or perhaps both – a trial about truth and a therapeutic session about jealousy. But it is called a jealousy law, not an adultery trial. Further, the term “jealousy” is appropriate since we are dealing with the outcome of the magical ritual whether or not the wife did what she is alleged to have done? Jealousy is not about objective cognitive knowledge but subjective imaginative reasoning.

To figure out how this magic works to free the man of jealousy, we need to understand the ritual in greater detail. Note the following steps:

  1. The woman comes before the altar and her hair is let loose.
  2. The priest offers her a mixture of holy water laced with dust from the floor of the tabernacle.
  3. The priest, in offering this mixture to the woman to drink, warns her that if she is guilty the result will be a sagging thigh and a distended belly.
  4. The woman voluntarily agrees to participate in the ritual and says, “Amen, amen.”

That depiction is clear enough, except for the consequences if she is found guilty of adultery. Does a distended belly mean she was pregnant or is a distended belly the result of her guilt that produces bloating in the belly? Or is she already possibly pregnant and the Torah depicts a miscarriage? Her belly implodes and sags. Or perhaps a relapsed uterus? Or both?

It is interesting to read in the Mishnah the various explanations offered for historically cancelling the ritual:

  1. Adultery of women became so common, the punishment if meted out would destroy the community;
  2. If adultery became so common, the ritual would no longer work;
  3. The ritual depends uniquely on magic for meting out justice and magic is an aberration and has no place in Jewish justice.
  4. The ritual was one imported from the goyim suggesting, thereby, that it was inauthentic.

But there is general agreement that the primary purpose of the ritual was to determine whether or not the wife was guilty of adultery. I suggest that the primary purpose was, in fact, not that, but rather to free the man of his jealousy that threatens to consume him. In other words, it does not matter whether the woman was really guilty or not. Sorcery would not establish that in reality. But if the husband was credulous, and jealousy is a sign of such credulity, then he would believe the magic and this magical ritual would free the man, whatever the outcome. His jealousy would be sublimated. Even if the magic worked and she had a distended belly and sagging thigh?

The jealous man is instructed to bring his wife before the priest as well as a meal-offering of jealousy without any oil or herbs, which the text describes as “a meal-offering of memorial, bringing iniquity to remembrance.” What is the gross injustice or iniquity? Is it the alleged adultery or the jealousy? Does bringing a gross injustice to memory of illicit fornication make any sense? How would the wife recalling the illicit incident, if it did occur, be of any help? However, if the gross injustice is, indeed, the husband’s jealousy when he has no evidence to back up his suspicions, then confronting the jealousy with the remembrance of his love for his wife does seem to be understandable.

The priest puts the meal-offering in the wife’s hands. The woman is then asked to swear to reveal what really happened. If she is innocent of the charge, she will be “free of the water of bitterness that causes the curse.” But if she is guilty as charged, she will be cursed, her thigh will sag and her belly will swell. The priest will then record the results. This is the ordeal of the “bitter waters.”

What happens in the Sotah ritual? The woman is made to drink the water of bitterness that caused the curse and it will enter into her and become bitter. It seems like some form of transference is taking place wherein, if the wife seems to have been guilty of cheating, she takes on the bitterness physically that her husband has been feeling emotionally. He becomes free from his bitterness and fit of jealousy, the adulterous wife becomes cursed, her belly swells, her thigh falls away and she is cut off from her people. However, if she is innocent, she will be cleared of the charge and will conceive. That is how the story appears if you are credulous enough to believe it. Or does it mean that as she absorbs the bitterness, he is freed and it would not matter whether she had slept with another and even become pregnant by him?

Sacred water has been made bitter by mixing holy water with dust. What does the bitter water as a metaphor stand for? The wife’s bitterness that she is forced to go through such an ordeal? Or the bitterness that comes out of her husband in his allegations of adultery? I suspect it is latter, for when she drinks the mixture, she will likely discover that, in fact, it does not taste bitter. Then she presumably would clue in that this so-called test is not about her behaviour but about her husband and the bitter water is a placebo. In fact, the miracle is so outlandish, bizarre and non-natural that this alone suggests a tale of misdirection to get through to the real culprit, the jealous husband.

What the test seems to be saying is that the whole ritual is intended to remind the husband of the wife he loved before he tried to destroy that love by his possessiveness. The expectation is that her belly would not become distended nor her thighs sag. If that happened, and I do not see how it could or would just because she slept with another man, then she would be guilty. Except if she slept with another man, became pregnant and the concoction resulted in a miscarriage. Since the husband is so credulous as to jump quickly to conclusions on presumably the slightest excuse, he would believe such magic.

On the other hand, if her thigh sagged and belly blew up, that would be real magic, unless, of course, she had been pregnant and had a miscarriage. Otherwise, the exercise or ritual is a set up or a magic performance to facilitate the husband getting beyond his jealousy. But perhaps he could even get beyond his possessiveness, beyond his bitterness, beyond his jealousy even if she had been pregnant and had a miscarriage. For without the bitterness, he would and could recall his genuine love and her miscarriage would not matter because he would come to the realization that he wanted a child by her. And she is promised that she will conceive. The very fact that she conceived might make him realize how much he wanted a child by her.

Recall that the priest places the woman before the altar with her hair let loose. We will soon read the story of Samson, the Nazirite, who only retained his strength if his hair was long like a woman’s and not cut. Does the requirement that the wife have loose hair allude to the strength she will need to go through this exercise in a magic performance? The association of hair with strength is also suggested in Revelations in the depiction of the monster locusts with hair like that of a woman.

The ritual is intended to “blot them [the curses] out into the water of bitterness.” That is, it is intended to transfer the bitter jealousy of the husband and drown those emotions in the mixture of the holy water of righteousness and the filth of a dirty mind. The case is really only about the husband’s jealousy, “jealous zeal”: רוח קנאה “spirit of jealous zeal,” מנחת קנאות, “zealous offering,” and תורת הקנאות, “instruction of jealousy.” Does a reader really believe a wife’s thigh would sag and her belly become distended by drinking some dirty water? Unless, of course, the reference is to a miscarriage.

As further support for this interpretation, all one has to do is rehearse the various ways men used their wives, even offering them to another to ensure their own safety. Look at the story of the way Judah treated his daughter-in-law, Tamar. And the relationship between Reuben and his father’s concubine, Bilah. Even Esther is used as a high-class prostitute by her uncle, Mordechai, who plants her in the royal palace to secure his own position. The Biblical tales are full of stories of the abuse of women by men.

Finally, let me add two more pieces of evidence to support this interpretation. First, God Himself is often portrayed as a jealous God. God is full of jealous zeal. The jealousy presumably targets true unfaithfulness. God’s punishment – allowing Israel to be destroyed by her former lovers. (Ezekiel 16:38 and, in another variation, Ezekiel 23:25) If the Sotah ritual followed that pattern, the alleged adulterous wife would be destroyed by her lover or lovers. That would be real and not just stage magic. Nothing of the sort happens. Further, the story of God’s jealousy and Israel’s betrayal always ends in reconciliation, not in the destruction of Israel.

My last argument is the frame provided for the story. The frontispiece (Numbers 5:5-10) includes instructions about the required behaviour of a man or woman who wrongs another. In doing so, he or she breaks faith with God. If that individual recognizes his guilt and confesses the wrong that he has done, he pays restitution. A jealous man who wrongs his wife by accusing her falsely of adultery and never recognizes his error or, further, never confesses that the problem is his responsibility, even if she happened to sleep with another, is a sharp contrast with the prefatory tale.

However, what if you had a system of retributive justice for false charges of jealousy? I cannot imagine such a system. It would push the male into greater anger, greater defensiveness, greater bitterness and who knows what the consequences of all that would be. Beating his wife? Killing her? What about obtaining reconciliation indirectly by tricking the man into putting aside his jealousy long enough that he could rediscover his deep love for his wife in contrast to his jealous possessiveness? The consequences would be much better even if the route taken did not go through a process of recognition and taking responsibility.

The story that follows the tale of the Sotah jealousy ritual is about abstinence. More importantly, it is about vows. A man and a wife marry and vow to be faithful. They do not vow not to be jealous. If the husband has a hissy fit of jealousy, however, does he not break his vow of faithfulness when he has absolutely no evidence for his suspicions? Further, as it is written in the Plaut commentary (p. 1057), “Long hair was thus a sign of holiness, a symbolism meaningful in various cultures and ages.” The woman in the Sotah ritual lets her hair down. She is not uptight. She goes along with the magic gag as the real proof of her own faithfulness and her willingness to help her husband get over his irrationality. She abstains from defending herself, from attacking him and from throwing doubt on the effectiveness of the ritual. She is a very strong woman. She thus sets herself “apart for the Lord” by letting her hair grow wild and untrimmed.

For a complementary commentary that also argues that the section is really about jealousy rather than adultery, see Professor Hanna Liss, “The Sotah Ritual: Permitting a Jealous Husband to Remain with His Wife.”

I will end with the poem, “My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning that captures so well the irrationality, arrogance and self-ignorance of the jealous male.


That’s my last Duchesspainted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive.I call
That piece a wonder, now:
Frà Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.

Will ‘t please you sit and look at her?I said
‘Frà Pandolf’ by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,

The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned(since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)

And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there;
so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus.
Sir, ‘t was not
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek: perhaps
Frà Pandolf chanced to say, ‘Her mantle laps
Over my lady’s wrist too much,’ or ‘Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat:’
such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough

For calling up that spot of joy.She had
A heart — how shall I say? — too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, ‘t was all one!
My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her,
the white mule
She rode with round the terrace
all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least
She thanked men, — good!but thanked
Somehow — I know not how
 — as if sheranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody’s gift.Who’d stoop to blame
This sort of trifling?
Even had you skill
In speech — (which I have not) — to make your will

Quite clearto such an one, and say, ‘Just this
Or that in you disgusts me;
here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark’
andif she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours
forsooth, and made excuse,
— E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop.
Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile?
This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together.
There she stands
As if alive
Will ‘t please you rise? We’ll meet
The company below then.
I repeat,
The Countyour master’s known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretence
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;

Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object.
Nay, we’ll go
Together down, sir.
Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s