SOTAH (Heb. סוֹטָה; "Errant Wife"), the fifth tractate in the current edition of the Mishnah order of Nashim, with Tosefta and Gemara in the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds. Dealing mainly with the laws concerning a woman suspected of adultery (Num. 5:11–31), the tractate also discusses incidentally extraneous matters like the rite of the eglah *arufah and the rules of exemption from military service (Deut. 20:1–9;
The contents of the nine chapters of this tractate are as follows: Chapter 1 discusses the form in which the husband has to manifest his jealousy and how the Sanhedrin urges the woman to admit her guilt rather than undergo the ordeal; the first stages of the ordeal are also discussed. The last passages of this chapter are of aggadic nature, debating the principle of measure for measure in divine justice. Chapters 2–3 deal with the "meal-offering of jealousy" and the writing of the "scroll of curses." Incidentally, the question of whether daughters should be taught Torah is considered, and information is given on the differences between men and women in respect of various halakhot. The "bitter water" is discussed in chapter 4, mainly those cases exempted from this ordeal. Chapter 5 is dedicated to the halakhot which were taught bo va-yom ("on the very same day"), i.e., when Rabban Gamaliel was deposed and R. Eleazar b. Azariah was made nasi. Only the first Mishnah in this chapter deals with sotah.
Chapter 6 is concerned with the question of the "minimum evidence" necessary to decide the woman's guilt without her having to undergo the ordeal. Since it is laid down that the declarations with regard to the sotah may be made in any language, chapter 7 lists other biblical passages to which this applies and then enumerates passages which must be read in Hebrew. In connection with this it is related how King Agrippa, who was partly of Edomite descent, wept when he read the sentence "thou mayest not put a foreigner over thee," but the people encouraged him, exclaiming: "Thou art our brother!" Chapter 8 speaks first of the priest anointed for war, since his address to the army (Deut. 20:3–4) has to be in Hebrew, and then deals in detail with the whole passage, including the grounds for exemption from military service. Of particular interest is the concluding paragraph, stating that the exemption applied only to optional wars of conquest like those of King David but not to obligatory wars, like those of Joshua's conquest of the Holy Land, or to defensive wars at any time. The second half of chapter 9, which deals with eglah arufah, is of a general aggadic nature, which is introduced by the observation that with the great increase in murders (the reference is to a time of civil disorder preceding the destruction of the Temple) the rite of breaking the heifer's neck was discontinued, and with the increase of immorality the ordeal of bitter water was abolished. The chapter goes on to describe how at various times, especially at the time of the destruction of the Temple, other laws and customs were abolished or fell into disuse and how scholarship and piety declined after the death of the great sages, such as Ben Azzai and Ben Zoma. Many other profound aggadic passages are also found in the Babylonian and Jerusalem Gemara and in the Tosefta. The Babylonian Talmud (22b) lists seven types of hypocrites and in connection with this cites Alexander Yannai's well-known observation that neither sincere Pharisees nor sincere Sadducees should be feared, only the hypocrites. In 49b there is a description of the struggle between Aristobulus and Hyrcanus; an interesting distinction is made in this context between the Greek language and Greek wisdom.
The Mishnah of Sotah was taught at the end of the Temple era. The main early portions of the Mishnah belonging to this period are 1:2 and 4–6; 2:2; 3:1–4; and 7:1–9:15. The account of Agrippa and the reading of "the chapter of the king" described in 7:8 almost certainly refers to Agrippa *II and the incident which took place in 62 C.E., since the Tosefta says of this Mishnah: "On that same day R. *Tarfon saw a lame man standing and sounding the shofar." Mishnah 9:9 is by Johanan b. Zakkai, who testifies about something which occurred in his time, as is also clear from a comparison with Tosefta 14:1. Basing himself on this, Epstein believes that the main part of chapters 8 and 9 is from the Mishnah of Johanan b. Zakkai. The order of procedure in dealing with the sotah differs in several details from those given in the Bible, and this is already discussed in the sources themselves (Sot. 3a; TJ 1:5, 17a). Since the Mishnah was taught in Temple times, it obviously gives the procedure customary during this period. Other differences are reflected in various books of Philo, and some of them are alluded to in early beraitot and fragments of them (see Epstein in bibliography). The Babylonian Talmud to Sotah has a distinctive style: it contains passages in Hebrew (39b); it does not use the phrase "there is a lacuna" (ḥassurei meḥassera); and it usually gives the final decision (mistavra keman de-amar). This tractate was translated into English and published by the Soncino Press (1936).
Epstein, Tanna'im, 394–413; Epstein, Amora'im, 84–93; Ḥ. Albeck, Shishah Sidrei Mishnah, Seder Nashim (1954), 227–31.