Sotah 3

Science and Health

The American rock band OK Go is known for their amazing music videos, my favorite of which is “This Too Shall Pass,” which features a fantastically elaborate Rube Goldberg machine. At the beginning of the video, one band member tips over a domino, setting off a series of events featuring multiple bowling balls, a falling piano, paint guns and more marbles than I cared to count. It’s a reminder of the potentially powerful impact of our actions, which sometimes make an impression long after we’ve left the scene. 

On today’s daf, we start off with a teaching about the disparate impact of men’s and women’s conduct that might be off-putting to modern ears. 

Rav Hisda says: Licentiousness in a home is like a worm to sesame. And Rav Hisda says: Anger in a home is like a worm to sesame. 

Both these statements are with regards to a woman. But with regards to a man, although these behaviors are improper, we do not have (the same consequences) with regard to it.

The Gemara doesn’t object to Rav Hisda’s statements that licentiousness and anger are as destructive as a worm on a sesame plant, but it limits them to a wife’s licentiousness and anger. How is this double-standard justifiable? Rashi explains that it’s because of the disparate impact of men and women on home life: When women are licentious and angry, they neglect their household duties and drive their husbands to adultery.

We’ll come back to this claim in a bit. But first let’s look at another teaching further down today’s daf: 

Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahmani says that Rabbi Yonatan says: Anyone who fulfills one mitzvah in this world, it precedes him and goes before him to the World to Come, as it is stated: “And your righteousness shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your reward” (Isaiah 58:8).

And anyone who commits one transgression in this world, it shrouds him and goes before him to the Day of Judgment, as it is stated: “The paths of their way do wind, they go up into the waste, and are lost” (Job 6:18).

This is a far more palatable and beautiful idea that our deeds, whether good or bad, go ahead of us, almost as if we exist a step or two behind our reputations. Just like in a Rube Goldberg contraption, the impact of our actions isn’t limited to what or who is immediately around us. Even before we’ve arrived — whether in this world or the next — our faithfulness (or lack thereof) has already been felt. The imagery here is echoed in a statement from Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi in Midrash Tehilim, who said that when a person walks down the road, a band of angels goes before them proclaiming, “Make way for the image of the Holy One!”  

With that context, the daf brings forward another teaching about the endurance of our actions, this one hitting a bit closer to Rav Hisda’s teaching:

Rabbi Elazar says: (The transgression) is chained to him like a dog, as it is stated: “That he listened not to her, to lie by her, or to be with her” (Genesis 39:10). Lie by her in this world, to be with her in the World to Come. 

Continuing in this vein of our actions having long-term impact, Rabbi Elazar quotes a verse from Genesis describing Joseph’s refusal to commit adultery with the wife of the Egyptian officer Potiphar. The apparent redundancy in the verse — “lie by her” and “be with her” seem, on the surface, to be saying the same thing — is taken to mean that if Joseph lay with her in this world, he would be saddled with his sin in the World to Come

This teaching feels like a gentle, if oblique, rejoinder to the gender discrepancy we encountered above. While the Gemara cites Rabbi Hisda above to distinguish between the impact of licentiousness and anger exhibited by men and women, Rabbi Elazar subtly reminds us that the Torah prescribes an identical punishment on an adulterous wife and the man she has sex with; the impact of their action is a reputational stain that adheres to the man even after his death. It doesn’t completely undo the misogyny inherent in Rav Hisda and Rashi’s statement, but it’s something.

That stain might not always be readily apparent to us (nor as visually awesome as the OK Go video). But today’s daf helps us to remember that our behavior doesn’t occur in a vacuum, nor is its impact limited to the moment it occurs. In fact, it sticks with us — or even runs ahead of us.

Read all of Sotah 3 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 1st, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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