April 15, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

The typical administration of the bitter sotah waters are via her drinking them, as it states, (Bemidbar 5:24) “וְהִשְׁקָה֙ אֶת־הָ֣אִשָּׁ֔ה אֶת־מֵ֥י הַמָּרִ֖ים הַמְאָֽרְרִ֑ים, he shall cause the woman to drink.” But what if she were to take them intravenously, because she cannot tolerate the extreme bitterness? Would that be effective, since the verse ends וּבָ֥אוּ בָ֛הּ הַמַּ֥יִם הַֽמְאָרְרִ֖ים לְמָרִֽים, implying that so long as they enter her, it works? The answer is an obvious no, since we immerse Hashem’s Ineffable Name in these waters, and one of the Ten Commandments is not to take Hashem’s name in “vein.”

Jokes aside, this question has practical ramifications, in terms of fasting on Yom Kippur. In some circles, the practice has arisen for people to set up IV drips for hydration, for the ill, or nursing or pregnant, on the theory that this doesn’t count as drinking. This may well be so, but if hydration is indeed truly needed, either outright drinking or drinking via shiurim should be allowed. To me, to accept this as either stringency or leniency feels rather misguided, but consult your local Orthodox rabbi for halachic and hashkafic guidance.

In Sotah 18a, Rava asks whether drinking the water through a siv or a shefoferet is valid. The consideration, as per the Talmudic Narrator or else Rava, is whether this is considered derech shetiya, the normal mode of drinking. The question is left unresolved.

Rashi defines siv thusly: שֶׁהוּא חָלוּל כְּדֶרֶךְ שֶׁהַתִּינוֹקוֹת שׁוֹתִין. The palm bast is hollow, in such a manner that the babies drink (like a sippy cup.) He doesn’t define a shefoferet, nor does it appear in a dibbur hamatchil, beginning words (perhaps meaningfully). A shefoferet is a tube. Isn’t it strange that Rava would ask identical questions, one after the other, namely בְּסִיב, מַהוּ, בִּשְׁפוֹפֶרֶת, מַהוּ? Not necessarily. Both precede the spelling out of the concern, so it could be a meaningful way of narrowing in on the point of the question. Also, Oxford 2675 and Vatican 110 turn have it as a single question, בְּסִיב אוֹ בִּשְׁפוֹפֶרֶת מַהוּ.

The Aruch, entry סב, meanwhile writes: בעי רבא השקה בסיב מהו. פרוש נתן הסיב במים ובלע הסיב למים כמין ספוג ונותן הסיב בפיה ומוצצת למים. He defines it as a sponge-like material which soaks up the water, and she sucks the water from it. Tosafot Shantz first quotes Rashi, just about siv:

שֶׁהִיא חָלוּל כְּדֶרֶךְ שֶׁהַתִּינוֹקוֹת שׁוֹתִין בְּגִבְעוֹלֵי קַנַּבּוֹס ל”ה. The last three words (via hemp stalks, the language of Rashi) are extra. Next, he writes יֵשׁ סְפָרִים דְּגַרְסִי בְּסִיב אוֹ בִּשְׁפוֹפֶרֶת מַהוּ, כְּאֵין קְלִיעָה שֶׁעוֹשִׂין נְקָבִים כְּמִין סַל וְלָאו דּוֹמֶה לַשְּׁפוֹפֶרֶת. I’m unsure what alternative girsa he’s addressing, whether of the Gemara or of Rashi. If both סיב and שפופרת occur, then סיב might have a different meaning than שפופרת, and thus can mean something sponge-like. However, I’d distinguish between two instances of mahu and a single one with two items, trying to convey a single point.

 

Normal Drinking

Sipping through straws seems to have been something only babies did in Rashi’s time and place. But perhaps it was more common elsewhere and elsewhen. The Sumerians already used straws in 3000 BCE, though not from cups, but to drink beer from large vats. If fourth-generation Rava, 280-352 CE, asks whether such is considered normal drinking, this might reveal something about drinking practices in Mechoza or Pumpedita in that era. It’s common enough to pose the question, but uncommon enough to wonder if it is derech shtiyah, in the way of drinking.

In Yoma 84a, (Rava’s contemporary) Abaye describes the cure for one bitten by a rabid dog, beginning with bringing the skin of a male hyena. The cure ends with drinking water only from a copper tube, lest he see the image of the demon in the water and be endangered, just as fourth-generation Abba bar Marta, who is Abba bar Minyumi, whose mother fashioned for him a gold tube. This might indicate the availability of drinking straws, though put to only irregular use.

Drinking through straws is fairly common nowadays. Ask your local orthodontist, but this is good for dental hygiene, protecting your teeth from staining, acid damage and being bathed in sugar. If we were to assess derech shtiyah based on current practice, I think it would clearly be so. However, in 2011, 9-year old Milo Cress called a few companies, and arrived at the inaccurate statistic that the Americans use 500 million straws a day. This was echoed by Eco-Cycle, who were cited by the National Park Service and, since no one bothers to check sources of sources, echoed by The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, CNN, Fox News and others. This contributed to an anti-straw environmental movement, and New York City and New Jersey governments have enacted straw bans, in which “food service businesses shall only provide a single-use plastic straw to a customer upon request by the customer.” Starbucks has developed a sippy cup lid, and many businesses have adopted costlier alternative straws that dissolve into your drink in minutes. Use of straws may eventually not be a regular means of consuming drinks.

 

Rava’s Global Concern

Tosafot (d.h. ba’ei Rava) point us to a parallel passage, Pesachim 115b, where Rava says: if he swallowed (without chewing) matzah, he fulfills; if he swallowed maror, he doesn’t fulfill; if he swallowed the two together, he fulfills matzah but not maror. If he wraps the twain in a siv and swallows them, he fulfills neither. The implication, say Tosafot, is that this isn’t the normal manner of eating. Couldn’t Rava deduce from his own position that the same is true for the sotah? They answer by distinguishing between the cases because, in Pesachim, the siv interposes between the matzah and the gullet1.

We should explore other passages where siv is mentioned, and consider whether the issue may be aligned with chatziza, an interposition2. In Bavli, Rava is always involved. In Sukkah 36b, Rabbi Yehuda says one must bind the lulav with its own species. Rava states that this is even with a siv or the trunk of a date palm. In Shabbat 133a, some understand Rava’s position about פְסִיק רֵישֵׁיהּ וְלָא יְמוּת as operating upon a brayta in which one removes leprosy indirectly, בְּסִיב שֶׁעַל גַּבֵּי רַגְלוֹ, by tying a thick rope on his foot. In Chullin 70a, discussing a firstborn animal (defined as the first from the womb), Rava wonders: what if one wrapped the animal fetus with a siv or with his garment and brought it out? The concern seems to be chatzitza, though a follow-up question about wrapping it in its own afterbirth is dismissed by the Talmudic Narrator as אוּרְחֵיהּ הוּא, the natural manner of birth3.

In many of these cases, the concern seems to be interposition. This is, of course, because a siv by its nature creates an interposition. The question is really whether the concern is the interposition itself, or the unnaturalness. Regardless, it’s fascinating how Rava consistently introduces this concern, in its various forms.


Rabbi Dr. Joshua Waxman teaches computer science at Stern College for Women, and his research includes programmatically finding scholars and scholastic relationships in the Babylonian Talmud.


1 Note that we could otherwise distinguish between cultural norms for eating and for drinking. Further, it is strange for the siv to be employed in different manner (straw or sponge vs. wrapping) by the same Amora in different contexts, so we might look for a globally acceptable definition for siv (e.g. swallowing the sponge). Finally, could Rava’s concern in both Sotah and Pesachim be experiential – that she must taste the water’s bitterness, and he must taste the maror’s bitterness and the taam matzah?

2 While in our sugya in Sotah, it seems Rava himself states the concern as דֶּרֶךְ שְׁתִיָּה, consider that the preceding sugya had Rava’s inquiry in Hebrew and the two sides of the concern in Aramaic, with multiple follow-up inquiries. This culminates in a rather non-standard application of the principle of אֵין בְּרֵירָה where, as Tosafot explain, the materials have already acquired a status. We might wonder whether the explanations of concerns are from Rava himself.

3. Finally, in Yerushalmi Chagiga 3:2, one cutting a tube (שְׁפוֹפֶרֶת) for kodesh and one who immerses it require immersion. The gemara asks, couldn’t one wrap it in a sit, with a variant text of a siv? Tosefta Keilim Kamma 6:8 speaks of wrapping a small bone in a siv or paper; Tosefta Taharot of wrapping a loaf in a siv or paper to separate it from touching something impure. See also Menachot 26b, about arranging the wood on top of the handful from the minchah, and where the concern is דֶּרֶךְ הַקְטָרָה.

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