The Sotah, the Leper, and Shakespeare’s Macbeth (Ketubot 77b)

The final sugya of the seventh perek reminds me of the witches’ song in Macbeth:

1 WITCH. Round about the cauldron go;
In the poison’d entrails throw.—
Toad, that under cold stone,
Days and nights has thirty-one;
Swelter’d venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i’ the charmed pot!
ALL. Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and caldron bubble.
2 WITCH. Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the caldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork, and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg, and owlet’s wing,—
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
ALL. Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and caldron bubble.

In our sugya, too, the rabbis are preparing a mysterious concoction. Here is the most literal translation I can manage: (I was unable to replicate the tetrameter.)

Take grasses and walnut shells and lilies and red date calyxes
And cook them together–
And bring the man [i.e. a man afflicted with leprosy] to a house built of marble
Or to any sealed house–
And pour 300 cups of this mixture over his head.
Open his skull and find the lizard inside
Put myrtle leaves under the legs of the lizard
Then grab the lizard with tongs, and burn it.

The concoction described here on the last daf of Ketubot is supposedly the cure for leprosy, which is the main subject of the sugya. Perhaps you are wondering: How is leprosy relevant to Masechet Ketubot? I will backtrack a little to the top of the amud.

The rabbis ask, “In what cases do we force a husband to release his wife from their marriage and give her the ketubah money?” They answer that there are certain types of individuals with whom we don’t expect any woman to be able to abide. One of those types of unbearable husbands is the “mukeh shchin,” the one with a bad skin affliction. The Mishnah teaches that even if a woman says she is willing to live with a husband who is “mukeh shchin” we don’t let her do so, because his illness prevents him from being able to have proper marital relations.

The Gemara then brings a brayta from Rabbi Yossi, who notes that there are 24 types of skin disease. The one that most impedes sexual relations is leprosy [ra’atan]. Having now arrived at our subject, the rabbis present us with a leprosy Q &A of the kind you might find in a dermatologist’s waiting room:

Q: How does one become a leper?
A: If a man and wife engage in bloodletting and then have sex, their children will be lepers.
Q: What are the symptoms of leprosy?
A: Teary eyes, runny nose, noxious breath, infestation with flies.
Q: What is the cure for leprosy?
A: Take grasses and walnut shells and lilies and red date calyxes… (see above).

This informational Q & A is then followed by a series of admonitory sayings attributed to individual rabbis, all (but one) of whom were concerned to protect themselves from lepers. This section, which unfolds like a mishnah in Pirkei Avot, includes the following statements:

Rabbi Yochanan would say, “Stay away from the flies that are found around lepers.”
Rabbi Zeyra would not sit anyplace downwind from the place of the lepers.
R. Elazar would not enter the lepers’ tents
R. Ami and R. Asi would not eat eggs that came from their homes.
[But] R. Yehoshua ben Levi would sit with them and teach them Torah
He used to quote the verse, “A loving doe, a graceful mountain goat” (Ayelet ahavim v’ya’alat chen).

Only Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi (who is featured in the rest of the amud) was not afraid of the lepers. In fact, he took it upon himself to teach them Torah, and he cites a Biblical verse to defend his actions. He explains, “If gracefulness protects those who learn Torah, should it not protect me as well?” The verse he cites is Proverbs 5:19. When I looked up this verse and read it in context, I began to develop a theory as to what is really going on in this sugya. In fact, the context is so crucial (as I see it) that I am including the full sequence of verses here, Proverbs 5:18-20:

Find joy in the wife off your youth.
A loving doe, a graceful mountain goat.
Let her breasts satisfy you at all times;
Be infatuated with love of her always.
Why be infatuated, son, with a forbidden woman?
Why clasp the bosom of an alien woman?

The verse about the loving doe, like the sugya on leprosy, is flanked by a discussion of marriage. Just as the subject of leprosy comes up in a sugya dealing with the cases in which a man is obligated to release a woman from marriage (given that he is unable to have sex with her), the verse from Proverbs arises amidst a discussion of permitted and prohibited sexual relationships: A man is encouraged to find continued delight in the wife of his youth, and not to go off in search of other women.

Immediately upon contextualizing this verse from Proverbs, I thought of the Sotah. The Torah uses this term to refer to the wife who is suspected of committing adultery. This woman — who allegedly fails to find delight in the husband of her youth and instead goes off in search of other men — is subjected to a highly ritualized treatment not unlike that of the leper:

“If any man’s wife has gone astray and broken faith with him . . the man shall bring his wife to the priest . . . The priest shall bring her forward and have her stand before the Lord. The priest shall take sacral water in an earthen vessel and, taking some of the earth that is on the floor of the Tabernacle, the priest shall put it into the water.

After he has made the woman stand before the Lord, the priest shall bare the woman’s head and place upon her hands the meal offering . . . And in the priest’s hands shall be the waters of bitterness, that induce the spell.

The priest shall adjure the woman, saying to her… ‘If you have gone astray while married to your husband and have defiled yourself…may the Lord make you a curse and an imprecation among your people, as the Lord causes your thigh to sag and your belly to distend.’ He shall make the woman drink the waters of bitterness that induces the spell.” (Numbers 11:5-24)

The eye of newt and toe of frog have become the walnut shells and lilies, which have in turn become sacral water and earthenware. The witches’ cauldron has become the lepers’ sealed room, which has in turn become the floor of the Tabernacle. These similarities are not coincidental, I suspect. Both the leper and the Sotah are sequestered in a private location and administered their respective concoctions to determine whether they are fit to return to their spouses. In each case, we create a liquid solution in the attempt to avoid marital dissolution: If only we can prove the woman innocent, then she can return to her husband; if only we can cure the leper, then he can return to his wife. And so we pour the walnut shell mixture over the head of the leper, and we force the Sotah to drink the waters of bitterness.

I used to find the Sotah passage troublingly misogynistic. It is nice to know, I think, that there were cases when men were forced to undergo a similarly humiliating treatment. Of course, the best solution is not to require these liquid solutions at all, but to “remain true to the [spouse] of your youth.” Who has time for all of that toil and trouble, anyway?

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