Naso: Shalom Bayit Not Worth Spit?

According to Jewish law, the Divine Name must be treated with great care.  We may not use it improperly, nor obscure nor destroy it when it is written on any object. 

How, then, are we to understand the apparently sacrilegious judicial procedure in this week’s Torah portion, Naso, when a husband accused his wife of infidelity?  The priest wrote curses – using G-d’s name – and rubbed them off into “the water of bitterness,” which she then drank.  If she was guilty, she died.  If innocent, she benefitted from the potion and her innocence was proven.  Either way, the Divine name was eviscerated! 

From this the rabbis concluded that the value of promoting/protecting shalom bayit (marital harmony) takes precedence even over the obligation to honor G-d.  Certainly, it takes precedence over our own honor or interest. 

The Midrash relates the following incident:

A certain woman used to attend Rabbi Meir’s lectures.  Once, the lecture took longer than usual, and the woman came home late.  Her husband was upset about her tardiness and demanded an explanation.  When she told him that she had been listening to Rabbi Meir’s lecture, he told her, “ I won’t let you back in the house until you spit in Rabbi Meir’s face.” 


Rabbi Meir found out about the woman’s plight and knew that she would be very reluctant to carry out her husband’s orders.  Therefore, he pretended that something had fallen in his eye, and asked the woman to spit in his eye seven times to cure him.  After the woman spat in his eye, Rabbi Meir told her, “Go tell your husband that you did more than he asked of you.  He told you to spit once and you spat seven times.” 


Upon hearing this, Rabbi Meir’s disciples were greatly angered at the husband’s lack of respect toward their teacher.  They told Rabbi Meir that had they been informed of the matter, they would have beaten up the insolent fellow. “Meir’s honor should not be greater than his Creator’s honor,” replied Rabbi Meir.  The Torah states that even the sacred name of G-d is erased in water to make peace between husband and wife.  All the more so should I forgo my honor.”  (Bamidbar Rabbah 9:19, related in Pliskin, Love Your Neighbor, 340).

Most marriages experience serious difficulty at one time or another.  If one of the couple is our family member or close friend from before the marriage, that individual naturally expects us to take his or her side in the dispute.  Doing so is risky, though, because if the couple does reconcile, the individual who solicited our support may come to resent any criticism of his/her partner that we made (or agreed with) at the time.  Certainly, if the individual makes known to his/her partner that we took the other side, our relationship with that partner may suffer long thereafter, perhaps permanently.

The “pragmatic approach” when confronted by a family member or friend with marital discord is therefore empathy, but without either partiality or criticism of the partner.  Still, the ethical problem with the “pragmatic approach” is its misplaced focus.  In adopting it, we are mostly concerned with ourselves and how to protect our relationship with the individual who sought our support and with the couple after they reconcile, if they do.  Our focus should instead be on the couple and, except in the most extreme circumstances of abuse and/or danger, how we might best seek to facilitate their reconciliation.

Whether or not we would allow someone to spit (seven times!) in our eye just to placate their spouse, the point is clear.  We must sublimate our interests and our honor if doing so will promote shalom bayit.  

How much more obvious, then, is our obligation not to do anything that might detract from shalom bayit – such as criticizing another’s spouse or the marriage, regardless of our feelings!  (Again, unless there is actual danger or abuse).   Due to our great interest and on-going opportunity to comment, this admonition would seem to especially apply to our children’s marriages.  And, above all, to our own!

We can see the Torah’s example of the priest effacing the Divine Name for the sake of shalom bayit, as an exception to the general prohibition on defacing the Name.  I prefer to interpret it as demonstrating that when we act to preserve shalom bayit, or refrain from taking any potentially harmful action, we honor it.   

Shabbat shalom!



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He who guards his mouth preserves his life
Proverbs 13:3