Seconds of Seclusion: Sex and the Not-So-Single Sotah (Sotah 4a)

I wish I had been stuck in an airplane bathroom or riding in an elevator while learning today’s Daf Yomi, which is about how long is long enough for a man and woman who are alone together to arouse suspicion. The Torah states that a woman may be suspected of adultery if she is secretly alone with another man (Numbers 5:13). The Talmud adds a few additional caveats: The woman needs to have been warned, this warning needs to take place in the presence of two witnesses, and the woman needs to have been alone with her seducer for a minimum period of time.

But how long is that period of time? כמה שיעור סתירה? The rabbis suggest a series of answers, each of which seems (to my ears, at least) laden with sexual overtones:

Rabbi Eliezer: For the time it takes to encircle a date palm. This is the Freudian/phallic response.

Rabbi Yehoshua: For the time it takes to mix a cup [of wine]. Cups are frequently associated with sex in the Talmud. In Nedarim 20b we learned that a man should not think of other women during sex with his wife because “A man should not drink from one glass while his eyes are on another.” אל ישתה אדם בכוס זה ויתן עיניו בכוס אחר From Ketubot we know that a man would not sleep with a woman unless he checked her out beforehand, because “A man does not drink from a glass unless he first inspects it.” אין אדם שותה בכוס אלא אם כן בודקו Furthermore, one of the three intimate labors that a woman performs for her husband (and which she is not allowed to delegate to a maidservant) is mixing his cup of wine.

Ben Azzai: For the time it takes to drink from a glass. Ben Azzai seems to require consummation. The rabbis at first do not accept his response. After all, the assumption is that each rabbi derives his answer based on his own sexual experiences.כל אחד ואחד בעצמו שיער But Ben Azzai never got married – how could he possibly know anything about sex? We know that Ben Azzai did not marry from Yevamot 63b, where this sage is attacked by the rabbis for saying that anyone who does not procreate is considered as if he committed murder. The rabbis respond to Ben Azzai, “Hey dude, practice what you preach!” נאה דורש ואינו נאה מקיים. Ben Azzai shrugs his shoulders: “What can I do? My soul’s passion is for Torah.” ומה אעשה וחשקה נפשי בתורה Here in Masechet Sotah, too, Ben Azzai speaks not from his own experience (presumably).

Rabbi Akiva: For the time it takes to roast an egg. Roasing an egg and fertilizing an egg are not all that different. Akiva, then, dispenses with the phallic symbol in favor of the ovoid.

Ben B’teyrah: For the time it takes to swallow an egg. Eggs, orifices, and oral activity. Indeed!

Pleymu (a student of Rabi) says: For the time it takes to extend an arm into a basket and grab a loaf of bread. Bread, too, is frequently associated with sex in the Talmud. “There is no comparison between one who has bread in his basket and one who does not” אינו דומה מי שיש פח בסלו למי שאין פת בסלו, the rabbis comment in extolling the virtues of having a spouse over remaining single. In a midrash about Potiphar, who entrusted Joseph with everything except “the bread that he ate” (Genesis 39:6), the rabbis comment that this bread refers to his wife. And in the continuation of our sugya in Sotah, we are told that “anyone who eats bread without washing first — it is as if he had sex with a prostitute.” Furthermore, snatching bread from a basket seems to suggest an illicit activity, and the extension of the arm can certainly also be phallic. Pleymu’s suggestion preoccupies the rabbis, who want to know whether the loaf of bread is hot or cold; whether it is densely or loosely packed in the bag; whether it is a fresh loaf or a a stale one; whether it is made from wheat (which may slip from the hands) or from barley (which would not); whether it is soft or hard. Perhaps the rabbinic imagination, in its search for ever more graphic description, has other surfaces and textures in mind.

The rabbis’ discussion goes on for quite a while, certainly for longer than it takes to roast an egg or mix a cup of wine. And so I can only wonder about the parallel sugya that was never recorded: What were their wives doing for the duration of this conversation?

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