By Rabbi David Hartley Mark
“If a man’s wife has gone astray [and committed adultery]…and a fit of jealousy comes over the husband, and he becomes angry at the wife…the man shall bring his wife to the Priest. …The priest shall take holy water…and some of the dirt from the floor of the Tabernacle. He shall uncover and loosen her coiled hair [in public] and make her drink the ‘bitter water.’
“And it shall be, that if the woman has had carnal relations with another, the Priest shall curse her, and say, ‘May the LORD cause your thigh to sag and your belly to distend; may the spell enter your body, causing your belly to sag and your thigh to sag.’
“And the woman shall say, ‘Amen, Amen!’
“The priest shall write these curses down and rub them off into the water of bitterness….
“The husband shall be clear of guilt; but the wife shall suffer for her guilt” (Num. 5:11-29; translation mine).
OF THE HOLY FAMILY COURT
AT ORDEAL OF BITTER WATER
AND WIFE SUSPECTED OF ADULTERY
Date: 5th Day of 9th Month, 7th Year since Exodus from Egypt
High Priest Itamar ben Aaron v’Elisheva, Av Bet Din, Presiding Judge
Priest K’shay-Ruach ben Dode-El, Secondary Judge
Priest Rachmiel ben Nechushtan, Tertiary Judge
Court Scribe: Kotev ben Chibur oo’Machberet
Accused Wife: Mor bat Miriam oo’Malach
Accusing Husband: Shelumiel ben Shel-Mazel
NOTE: There were no witnesses to give testimony, but Wife Mor did appear with two friends for personal support; the Three Judges did allow it
I, Scribe Kotev ben Chibur, do set down these proceedings of our Holy Family Court, exactly as I witnessed it on the Day of the Ordeal of Suspected Wife-Adultery. [I have not, I admit, been to many of these. Nor did I know the wife well; how could I, a priest devoted to service of G-d, spend time among strange women? I did, however, know the husband—an idle, drinking sot. He claimed to be a cobbler, but I admit that neither I nor any of my Levite friends ever saw him holding a sandal in his hand, unless it was his own.]
We met in the anteroom directly behind the Tabernacle—it was part of the Tent of Meeting, used for meetings of the Council of Elders, and for legal hearings.
The Ordeal-Meeting was scheduled for High Noon At precisely twelve of the clock, the curtains of the Tent-Opening parted, and the Wife swept in—not in plain, woolen homespun shortcloth, no. Indeed, I was surprised at her appearance; even the High Priest Itamar was impressed, and sat back in his throne, blinking.
For Mistress Mor bat Miriam, daughter of Miriam the Prophet, Dancer, and Singer, Leader of the Women at the Splitting of the Sea of Reeds; niece of Rabbi Moshe, was dressed in gold, brocade, and pearl trim, with a tall, crownlike mitre, similar, almost, to that of the High Priest himself. Her hands were henna’d, and she wore golden slippers that could barely be seen beneath her long gown. Two of her friends?—retainers?—held her train behind, and they seated her on one of the extra thrones that a goggle-eyed Levite scrambled to fetch and drag forward.
In no time, however, Priest K’Shay-Ruach, the Prosecutor [and a harsh fellow he was, too], found his voice, and began to inveigh against the woman in gold: “Never before seen, dressed like this—unheard of liberties taken with common custom—harrumph!—order her to change her dress, and reschedule the hearing—cough!—if it please the Court, of course.”
In the meantime, I looked, and saw the Husband Complainant, that lazy Shelumiel, sneaking in—unshaven, robes all filthy and smelly, and beard all unbrushed. Priest K’Shay-Ruach looked at the man he was supposed to accuse the wife of, and rolled his eyes. “I must say, Holiness—“
While K’shay was taking a breath, the Wife’s defender, the gentler, compassionate Priest Rachmiel, broke in: “What say you, Mistress? Why are you dressed in this—this—flamboyant fashion?”
And Mistress Mor spoke up—a most unusual event in our male-dominated court system: “I wore my finest clothing, to prove my innocence, Milord Priest, as a true Daughter of Israel.”
And here came the sloppy Husband: “She lies! She is as unfaithful as the day is long. She lies about the house, and does nothing for me, when I come home after a hard day’s work at the shop. Why, she—“
“Silence!” rumbled the High Priest Itamar, “Let us hear more from Mistress Mor, daughter of Miriam. She speaks well. And then to prove whether she is adulterous or no, she will drink the Bitter Water with Curses.”
“All Respect to you, Judges,” said Mor softly but firmly, “but I will do no such thing! If you favor this—this—goat of a husband over me, his hardworking wife—and with four little ones at home—then, I will not accept your authority over me, nor over my sisters of Israel, who work equally hard, as wives, mothers, homemakers, and workers.”
“Now, why so, you nervy minx?” asked harsh K’shay, defender of men and husbands in particular, “for we are the judges. You are but a woman.”
“Yes,” said Mor, “but without us Israelite women, there would be no more Israelite men.”
The judge-priests murmured in assent.
“I have not committed any crime this day, nor prior to it,” said Mor, “and I declare your foolish, prejudiced, absurd Ordeal to be null and void. I and my sisters—(her friend-attendants nodded) declare this court to be invalid in matters of suspected adultery. From this day on, let there be required at least two witnesses to prove any suspicion of sexual crime.”
High Judge Itamar declared: “The suggestion has merit, coming as it does from a woman who is most strongly affected. Give us a week to deliberate, and we will return our decision.”
[And, in the end of the judges’ deliberation, I, Scribe Kotev ben Chibur oo’Machberet, set down the invalidation of the Ordeal by Bitter Water. It remained in the Books of Canon Law, but was never again suggested or practiced.]