Naso: Distanced by Hair

May 31, 2017 at 11:43 am | Posted in Naso | 1 Comment
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A man suspects his wife of adultery, and takes her to the temple to test her with a magic ritual.

A man or woman takes a vow to live as a holy ascetic and avoid wine.

What do the instructions for the sotah1 (the wife suspected of adultery) have in common with the instructions for the nazir (the holy ascetic)—besides that they appear in the same Torah portion, Naso (“Lift it”)? One answer is:  unbound hair.

The ordeal to establish the guilt or innocence of a woman whose husband suspects her of adultery begins with the priest unbinding the woman’s hair.

And the priest shall make the woman stand before God, and para the head of the woman. Then he shall place upon her palms the grain-offering of the reminding: it is the grain-offering of jealousies. And the water of the bitterness of the cursings shall be in the hand of the priest. (Numbers/Bemidbar 5:18)

para (פָּרַע) = let loose, remove from restraint, let go wild and uncontrolled. (For a head of hair, para = unbind, unbraid.)

The ordeal turns on what happens when wife drinks the magic water in the priest’s hand. (See my post Naso: Ordeal of Trust.) But the first step is to unbind the suspected woman’s hair. The Torah does not say whether married women before the time of the Second Temple bound their hair in cloth, or merely put up their hair in braids or pins. Either way, a wife was probably shamed if her hair came down in public.2

Loose hair marks the suspected wife as outside normal society, at least for the duration of the ordeal. In normal situations both men and women in the Torah restrain their hair in public. The only people who appear in public with unbound or uncovered hair are the mourner3, the metzora (someone afflicted with a certain disease) 4, the sotah, and the nazir.

Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: Any man or woman who vows the extraordinary vow of a nazir, lehazir for God: From wine or alcohol yazir … (Numbers 6:2-3)

nazir (נָזִיר) = someone dedicated for a period of time to devotion to God through abstaining from the usual norms for hair, wine, and mourning. (Plural nezirim, נְזִרִים. From the root nazar, נזר = separated, consecrated.)

lehazir (לְהַזִּיר) = to separate oneself through abstention; to live as a nazir. (From the root nazar.)

yazir (יַזִּיר) = he shall abstain. (From the root nazar.)

Nezerim must abstain not only from drinking any form of alcohol, but also from consuming any grape products. They must avoid all contact with any corpses—even if a family member dies. But even as they restrain themselves from drinking or mourning, they must let their hair grow unrestrained.

All the days of his vow of nizro, no blade shall pass over his head; until the fulfillment of the days that yazir to God,  his big, pera head of hair will be holy to God.  (Numbers 6:5)

nizro (נִזְרוֹ) = his dedication to undertaking the abstentions of a nazir. (From the root nazar.)

pera (פֶּּרַע) = unbound, loose, unrestrained, wild and out of control. (From the verb para; see above.)

Nezirim choose to set themselves apart from normal society for a period of time, like ascetics in other cultures. (See my post Haftarat Naso—Judges: Restraining the Abstainer.) Israelite ascetics, unlike those in most cultures, do not leave their community or their family; but they do follow different rules regarding hair, wine, and corpses.

The unconventional hair of nezirim is a visible sign that they must be treated differently in society—perhaps with extra consideration for the thoughts that absorb them, as the Israelites in the Torah, and Jews today, treat people who are visibly mourning. Similarly, they are distanced from the rest of society by avoiding not only wine, but even grape juice (which might substitute for wine when their friends are drinking).  This social distance marks nezirim as holy, separated and dedicated to God.

When the period of their vow ends, nezirim shave their heads and put their hair on the altar fire, under the wholeness-offering, thus making their wild manes offerings to God.5

Israelite captives with tidy hair in Assyrian relief, 8th Century BCE

Hair is an indicator of a person’s relationship to the rest of society—in the Torah, and today. When I am getting ready to leave the house, I always “fix” my hair. Even today, an acceptable appearance in public includes hair that looks trimmed, combed, and arranged (sometimes in a carefully tousled style).  When someone appears in public with unkempt hair, it means that the person does not belong in normal society, for good reasons or bad.

In the Torah, the pera hair of mourners signals that their thoughts and feelings are so overwhelmed by the death in the family that they should not be expected to engage in normal social intercourse.

The pera hair of metzora-im signals that they are both ritually impure (and so excluded from communal worship) and socially impure (and so excluded from communal life).

The pera hair of the sotah (the wife suspected of adultery) is a sign of shame. Since she has behaved in a socially unacceptable way by being alone with a man other than her husband for even a short time, she is shamed even if it turns out she is not guilty of adultery. (There is no equivalent ordeal for a husband suspected of adultery, since in the Torah marital fidelity is not required of men.)

The pera hair of nezerim signals that their attention is on spiritual communion with God, rather than on social intercourse.

On the streets of my city, people whose hair is greasy and pera are often homeless and/or mentally ill.  Not wanting to be identified with these categories, I make sure my hair is clean and pulled back in a barrette when I go out.

But I have had times of mourning, and times when I am absorbed in questions about the meaning of my life and God.  At those times, when I go out in public for necessary errands, I wish I had a visible signal that would separate me from normal chatter and frivolity, while granting me the respect the Israelites granted to mourners and nezirim.

(An earlier version of this blog was published in May 2010.)

1  The noun sotah does not appear in the Hebrew Bible, though in this week’s Torah portion, Naso, the verb satah is used three times to describe an adulterous woman. (Numbers 5:19, 5:20, 5:29)  The passage concludes: This is the teaching of the kena-ot, when tisteh, a wife, from under her husband, and she becomes impure. (Numbers 5:29)

tisteh (תִּשְׁטֶה) = she goes aside, goes astray. (Satah (שָׁטָה) = he went aside, went astray.)

2  The Babylonian Talmud, Ketuvot 22a, states that when a woman goes out with an uncovered head, she transgresses Jewish practice, and cites Numbers 5:18 as a proof text.  19th-century rabbi S.R. Hirsch explained: “…the uncovering of the woman’s hair is intended to expose the woman as immodest. The head covering that hides the woman’s hair is an external symbol of her marital fidelity.” (Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash, Sefer Bemidbar, trans. by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2007, p. 83.)

3  Mourners in the Torah let their hair hang loose and tear their clothing.  In Leviticus/Vayikra 10:6 and 21:10, priests are instructed to refrain from mourning by not doing those two things.  It is still customary for Jews to make a small tear in a shirt or a symbolic ribbon at the funeral of a family member, and then refrain from cutting their hair or shaving their beards for 30 days.

4  A metzora is someone with the skin disease called tzara-at in the Torah. Until a priest declares them cured, metzora-im must be thoroughly segregated from the community, and therefore they must tear their clothing, para their hair, cover their upper lips, call out “Impure! Impure!” when they pass others, and live outside the town or camp. (Leviticus 13:45-46)

5  Numbers 6:18.  According to 19th-century rabbi S.R. Hirsch, this indicates that the purpose of living for a time as a nazir is self-improvement, so the nazir will rejoin society as a better member of the community—less vain, perhaps, or wiser because of the extra time for self-reflection. (Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash, Sefer Bemidbar, trans. by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2007, p. 116.)

 

Naso: Ordeal of Trust

May 27, 2015 at 1:15 pm | Posted in Naso | 2 Comments
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

The first person who says “Amen” in the Torah is a wife agreeing to a curse on her own body if she is guilty of adultery.

The law given in this week’s Torah portion, Naso (“Lift up”), stipulates a husband who suspects his wife of adultery—a serious crime against both the husband and God, according to the Torah. He cannot prove it, since there were no witnesses and she was not caught in the act. But even if his wife proclaims her innocence, he cannot believe her.

…and [if] a spirit of jealousy passed over him and he was jealous of his wife and she had defiled herself;  or a spirit of jealousy passed over him and he was jealous of his wife and she had not defiled herself—then the man shall bring his wife to the priest… (Numbers/Bemidbar 5:14-15)

The priest then conducts a unique ritual in the Bible: an ordeal by water.

The Jealous Husband by  Joseph Ducreux

The Jealous Husband by Joseph Ducreux

The husband has two other options:  he could divorce his wife, giving her the usual separation payment; or he could continue the marriage and live with his doubts.  If he is vindictive, like some husbands discussed in the Talmud, he might choose to bring his wife to the priest in the hope that she will be proven unfaithful, so he can divorce her without giving her the payment.  But if he hopes his wife has been faithful, yet he is tormented by jealousy, he brings her to the priest for proof or her guilt or innocence.

The priest takes an earthenware bowl, puts in some “holy” water (water from the basin where the priests wash their hands and feet, according to later commentary), and adds dust from the floor of the sanctuary (where only the priests may walk).  Then the priest pauses to undo the woman’s hair, thus publicly shaming both wife and husband.

The priest holds the bowl of water and dust, now called “water of the bitternesses of the cursings”, and addresses the sotah, the woman suspected of adultery.

And the priest shall make her swear with these oaths: he shall say to the wife: “If a man did not lie down with you, and if you did not stray in defilement from under your husband, be cleared by these waters of the bitternesses of the cursings!  But if you did stray from under your husband, and if you defiled yourself, and a man other than your husband put his semen into you—!”  Then the priest shall make the wife swear the oath of the imprecation; and the priest shall say to the wife: “May God make you a curse and an oath among your people, when God makes your yareikh fall and your belly tzavah.  And these waters of the cursings shall enter into your innards to make the belly tzavah and to make the yareikh fall.”  And the wife shall say: “Amen, amen.” (Numbers/Bemidbar 5:19-21)

yareikh (יָרֵךְ) = upper thigh, buttocks, genitals; side of a tent.

tzavah (צָבָה) = swelled.  (The root tzavah appears only four times in the whole Bible: three times in this passage, and once in Isaiah as a misspelling of the homonym tzava (צָבָא) = fought, assembled against, went to war. Maybe in this passage about the sotah, the curse is that her genitals will fall and her belly will fight against her arries.)

Amen (אָמֵן) = Amen; a solemn statement of confirmation or acceptance.  (From the root verb aman = be reliable, be faithful; trust, be certain.)scroll, blank

Once the wife has said amen twice, the priest writes out the curse on a scroll, and wipes off the ink so it dissolves into the water.  Now the liquid in his hand contains “holy” water, dust from the sanctuary floor, and the sacred name of God (which was part of the written curse).

And he shall give her the water to drink, and it will happen that if she defiled herself and she really betrayed her husband, then [when] the water of cursings for bitternesses come into her, her belly will tzavah and her yareikh will fall, and the woman will become an imprecation among her people. But if the woman did not defile herself, and she is pure, then she will be cleared, and she will bear seed. (Numbers 5:27-28)

In other words, if the presumably pregnant wife actually did commit adultery, the water will cause a painful miscarriage.  But if she did not, she will bear her husband’s child.

Few guilty wives would submit themselves to this ordeal unless they were innocent of adultery. Why go through the public shaming, saying amen, drinking the magical water, and the horrible miscarriage? It would be easier for an unfaithful wife to confess privately to her husband, and let the divorce proceed without the extra trauma.

But for an innocent wife, the ordeal would be the only way she could prove her faithfulness to her jealous husband.

When I wrote about the sotah in 2013 (Naso: A Suspicious Husband)  I concluded that any marriage was doomed without mutual honesty and trust, which requires that the marriage partners stick to their covenant, whatever it might be.

But now I wonder about the case in which a wife did stick to her marriage covenant, yet her husband could not believe her when she told him she was innocent. In this week’s Torah portion, the wife has faith that God will prove her innocence in the ordeal by water; she demonstrates that by saying “amen, amen”, confirming her acceptance of the two alternatives in the curse.

The husband is not required to say “amen, amen”.  Perhaps the ritual is so powerful, it would convince even the most jealous fool. But why is he unable to believe his wife until she goes through the ordeal?

I think the answer is that the husband could not have faith in any wife, or even in himself.  Maybe he grew up among untrustworthy women, so he believes no women can be trusted.  Or maybe he grew up believing he is so unimpressive or unlovable, he does not deserve a faithful wife.

How can you have confidence in another person’s reliability and faithfulness, if you do not have confidence in yourself?  And if you do not have confidence in any human being’s reliability and faithfulness, how can you have confidence in God?

A ritual as serious as the sotah ordeal is no longer available to us. What we can do is pay attention to the problem and wrestle with it until we find we have grown past it.

May each of us grow until we trust ourselves, so we can trust others who deserve it.  Maybe then we will even come to trust what we call “God”, like the innocent sotah. Then we can say “amen” and mean it.

(Next week: Moses wonders if he is a wet-nurse—another word related to “amen”.)

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