The musings of a previously unemployed Jewish Freemason. I write about the job search, about Judaism, and about Freemasonry.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Naso: Sotah and Nazir

In this Torah portion, we deal with two very strange procedures. The first is sotah, a trial by ordeal for a woman accused by her husband of adultery, and the second is the nazir, or the closest thing that Judaism has to an ascetic tradition. Both of these practices are deprecated, and nobody does either of them today, but they are sufficiently weird that they deserve comment. Indeed, the Talmud devotes a tractate to each.

Sotah is a ritual to determine if a woman accused by her husband of adultery is innocent. If a husband suspects his wife of adultery, and there is not enough evidence to make a positive case (remember that adultery was a capital crime), he can bring his wife to a priest, or bring her before the entrance to the Tabernacle, or before one of the gates of the Temple, and offer a grain offering as a sacrifice. Water would be taken from the sacred washstand, put in a clay vessel and mixed with earth from the Tabernacle floor, and used to make a "bitter" potion. The woman's hair was uncovered (and Josephus reports that she was stripped to the waist), and she was made to offer an oath:
"And the priest shall charge her by an oath, and say unto the woman, If no man have lain with thee, and if thou hast not gone aside to uncleanness with another instead of thy husband, be thou free from this bitter water that causeth the curse: But if thou hast gone aside to another instead of thy husband, and if thou be defiled, and some man have lain with thee beside thine husband: Then the priest shall charge the woman with an 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 [genitals] to rot, and thy belly to swell; And this water that causeth the curse shall go into thy bowels, to make thy belly to swell, and thy thigh to rot: And the woman shall say, Amen, amen." [Numbers 5: 19-22].
The priest then writes down the oath on parchment, and then washes away the ink with the bitter water. The woman then is made to drink the bitter water, and he offers the grain sacrifice. The Torah predicts that if the woman is guilty, then her belly will distend and her genitals will swell up and rupture, which is fairly ghastly. However, if she is innocent, she will not be harmed, and instead will become pregnant.

This is highly peculiar. Trial by ordeal appears nowhere else in the Bible. Even if the woman is innocent, she would be profoundly humiliated by this ordeal. Why is this in the Bible?

Maybe because, unlike most ordeals, the woman is usually proven innocent by her trial. Most women who drink dirty water don't have their genitals explode. Her husband, by subjecting her to such an embarrassment, looks like an idiot for putting her through this. How was adultery often handled in the Ancient World (and sometimes even today)? Through a revenge killing. Instead of a revenge killing, Jewish law demands that the woman undergo the sotah instead. An intermediary, in the form of the priest, handles the situation rather than her husband. He runs the sotah, and keeps her from undergoing anything more harmful than drinking bitter water and exposing her hair (or chest if Josephus is correct). Considering that the other option is revenge killing, this seems like a saner alternative.

The nazir, or nazirite, is a person who undertakes a vow to

  • Abstain from wine, wine vinegar, grapes, raisins, intoxicating liquors and vinegar distilled from such, and refrain from eating or drinking any substance that contains any trace of grapes.
  • Refrain from cutting the hair on one's head; but to allow the locks of the head's hair to grow.
  • Not to become impure by corpses or graves, even those of family members.
Why? Nobody really knows. In the vow, the nazirite would decide for how long to be a nazirite. After the period is over, the person takes a ritual bath, makes a series of sacrifices, and then shave their head and place their hair in the fire with their burnt offering. The nazirite is considered holy unto God (the same phrase as on the headband of the High Priest), and yet must offer a sin offering upon the termination of their nazir period.

Today, the Temple does not exist, and therefore all modern nazirites implicitly take a permanent vow. In the Book of Judges, Sampson's mother makes a vow that her baby will be a nazirite, and Samson is a nazirite for life, but the description of his arrangement differs from that in the Torah. Therefore, the Talmud describes the nazir-like-Samson as another alternative, where he does not need to avoid a dead body. That Samson drinks wine with Delilah and cuts his hair shows his moral shortcomings as an oath-breaker.

The Talmud is divided on whether the vow of a nazirite is good or evil. Maimonides believed that it was immoderate to be a nazirite, while Nachmanides regarded the vow as very holy, and felt that a nazirite should ideally make a whole-life vow. Jews in general eschew asceticism. The Jewish religion, in its Rabbinic form, is a householder religion, and holding a job and supporting a family are important portions of the Jewish spiritual path. Similarly, Freemasonry seems to be a householder path. The Mason is active in the community, in business, and with his family, while still adhering to his Masonic obligations.

Contemporary Rastafarians take a similar vow to the vow of the nazirite. The prophet Samuel was also a nazirite, again because his mother Hannah made the vow before his birth because she was barren.

Oh, and by the way, this Torah portion also contains the Priestly Blessing (or Priestly Benediction). I blogged about this previously. The Masons have the Masonic Benediction:
May the Blessings of Heaven rest upon us and all regular Masons. May Brotherly Love prevail, and every moral and social virtue cement us. Amen.
I've traced the Masonic Benediction back at least as far as Preston's Illustrations of Masonry, but I would suspect it is much older still. 

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