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>The Rite that Was Not
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500 gr.

The Rite that Was Not

Temple, Midrash and Gender in Tractate Sotah


This book examines the place of the Temple and its rituals in early Rabbinic (Tannaitic) discourse, through a specific case study: the reconstruction of the ritual of the suspected adulteress (Num 5:11-32) in Mishna Sotah. Numbers chapter five describes a ritual performed to test suspicions raised by a husband regarding his wife’s sexual fidelity. The jealous husband is required to bring his wife to the priest in the Temple, where she is subjected to an ordeal of a character unparalleled in Biblical law. The Mishnaic ritual differs significantly from the Biblical one, both in detail and overall character. The private priestly ritual becomes, in the Mishna, a grand public event (in which the Mishna invites “whoever wants to stare at her” to come and stare) directed by the Rabbis themselves. A new demand for objective evidence, to comply with standard Talmudic rules of evidence, is introduced. A number of procedures have been added at the beginning and during the course of the ritual. Even the conclusion of the ritual, the actual result of the test, has been radically altered. Why were these measures added to the Sotah ritual? Where were they taken from? How do they function in the context of Mishna Sotah as a whole? How do they relate to the Biblical ritual, on the one hand, and to the reality of the temple on the other? And, finally, what led the Rabbis to reinvent a ritual already described at length in the Bible? Through specific textual engagement with these questions the book suggests a new look at the Tannaitic discourse and the place of the temple in it.


"In titling his book The Rite That Was Not, Ishai Rosen-Zvi points to the main argument, which he persuasively outlines in the sixth chapter of this study—namely, that the rite of the suspected adulteress (the sotah), as it is designed and developed in the Mishnah, never took place..." - Mira Balberg, Stanford University, Stanford, California, AJS Review (April 2010), 34/1: 127-129 Cambridge University Press