R. Meir regularly preached in the synagogue of Hammata every Sabbath eve, and there was a woman there who regularly came to listen. Once he spoke for a long time, and the woman went home to find that the lamps burned out. Her husband said to her, “Where have you been?” She said to him, “I was listening to the lesson.” He said to her, “I swear that this woman (i.e., you) shall not enter this house until she (i.e., you) spits in the face of the teacher.” R. Meir perceived [what happened] through the Holy Spirit, and pretended to have an eye ailment. He said, “Any woman who knows how to whisper an incantation over an eye, let her come and do so.” The woman’s neighbors said to her, “Here is an opportunity for you to return home. Pretend to whisper an incantation and spit in his eye.” She went to R. Meir. He said to her, “Do you know how to whisper an incantation for an eye ailment?” Out of reverence for him, she said, “No.” He said, “If one spits in it seven times, it is good for it.” After she spat he said, “Go and say to your husband, ‘You told me to spit once but this woman (i.e., I) spat seven times.’” His students said to him, “Should one disgrace the Torah in this way? Had you told us, we would have brought [her husband] here, lashed him to a bench, and forced him to make up with his wife.” He said to them, “Should Meir’s honor be greater than the honor of his Creator? For if Scripture says that the Holy Name, which is written in holiness, should be erased in the waters [the ritual of the sotah, Numbers 5:11–31] in order to restore peace between a husband and his wife, how much more Meir’s honor?”
(Jerusalem Talmud, Sotah 1:4, 16d)
In TMT #145, we met a discordant couple. The husband came dangerously close to uttering a vow against his wife that would have carried legal weight, which may explain why the story is found in tractate Nedarim (Vows). The husband rashly and uncivilly demanded that his wife publicly harm a sage and, in doing so, embarrass herself. The sage, recognizing the situation, resolved the situation in defense of the woman.
Here, a jealous husband does not hold back: he utters a legally binding dreadful vow. This story, however, is in tractate Sotah (Suspected Adulteress), which concerns the ritual Torah prescribes when a husband is wrought with jealousy because he suspects his wife has committed adultery, but there is neither evidence nor witnesses to confirm his suspicion. The public ritual, as Numbers 5:11-31 describes in detail, is held in the Tabernacle (later, the Temple) and presided over by the priests. It seems clear that the Bible’s presumption is that the ritual will exonerate the woman, but in publicly embarrassing her, it will assuage the husband’s overwrought jealousy and restore some semblance of peace between husband and wife.
A woman who regularly attends R. Meir’s lessons returns home late one Shabbat evening because his address ran particularly long, so long that the shabbat lamps she lit before sundown have burned down entirely. Her husband, who did not attend the lesson, is angry and jealous. Given that the story is in tractate Sotah, it is reasonable to think he suspects her interest in R. Meir extends beyond Torah learning. Minimally, he is jealous of how much time she devotes to listening to R. Meir rather than attending to him. The husband utters a drastic vow: she is banned from his house until she spits in the face of R. Meir—an unthinkable act that would dishonor the great sage. Jealousy, which launches the sotah ritual, sparks the events here.
Aware of the woman’s predicament, R. Meir devises a clever plan to ameliorate the situation. He contrives a way for the woman to carry out the literal requirement of the husband’s vow without causing harm or insult to himself. As in the TMT #145 story, a sage finds a path for fulfilling the “letter of the law” while avoiding the objectionable “spirit of the law.” R. Meir claims to be afflicted with an eye ailment that can be cured by someone whispering an incantation over it. Although the wife does not immediately recognize the opportunity being offering her to fulfill the demand conditioned by the husband’s vow, her savvy friend does and convinces her to seize it. Yet when the wife approaches R. Meir and he makes a show of asking her if she knows the proper incantation for his eye, she feels compelled to answer honestly out of regard for the sage and her sense honesty. Without missing a beat, R. Meir asks her to spit in his eye seven times. She can hardly say no to the great sage’s direct request. R. Meir then tells her that she has more than fulfilled the husband’s requirement and can now return home. Everyone’s needs have been met and R. Meir has transformed the insulting act demanded by the husband into a “healing” act.
R. Meir’s stodgy students object that, in inviting a woman to spit in his eye (quite different from uttering an incantation), he demeaned himself and thereby the Torah he represents. He points out that God did no less in prescribing that the Holy Name to be washed off the scroll on which the curse of the sotah, which contained God’s Name, was written (Numbers 5:23). God permitted dishonoring the Name for the sake of shalom bayit, to restore peace between husband with wife.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
- Many people understand the ritual of the Sotah as a “trial by ordeal” reflecting God’s judgment of guilt or innocence. R. Meir understands it differently. Which understanding do you think is correct and why?
- R. Meir draws a parallel between himself and God: as God willingly sustains dishonor to restore peace between a husband and wife, so, too, R. Meir willingly sustains dishonor in pursuit of the same end. Is comparing himself to God blasphemous? Is there another way to understand the parallel he draws?
- The wife is unwilling to lie, but R. Meir justifies his deception in order to restore marital peace as a higher good. When do the ends justify the means? Have you ever made the determination that you must commit a “wrong” in order to effect a greater good?