In an Earthen Vessel


And G-d spoke to Moses, saying: A man whose wife shall stray and commit a betrayal against him… that man shall bring his wife to the Kohen… And the Kohen shall take holy water in an earthen vessel…

Numbers 5:11-23

Life, as described by the Kabbalists, is a marriage of body and soul. The soul—the active, vital force in the relationship—is its “male” component. The body—the vessel that receives the soul and channels and focuses its energies—is the “female” element in the relationship.

Common wisdom has it that spirit is loftier than matter and the soul superior to the body. Indeed, the soul of man maintains a perpetual awareness of its Creator and Source, while the body, susceptible to the enticements of the material, is often the culprit in man’s tendency to forget, stray and betray.

But this is a “male” vision of life. There also exists another perspective on reality—a perspective in which passivity is superior to activity, being is greater than doing, and earthiness is truer than abstraction. A perspective in which the body is not, at best, no more than a servant of the soul, but is itself a conduit matrix of the divine.

Our sages tell us that there will come a time when the supremacy of the female will come to light. A time when the physical will equal and surpass the spiritual as a vehicle of connection to G-d. A time when the soul shall draw its nourishment from the body.[1]

Oil and Water

Therein lies the deeper significance of the laws of the sotah (the “wayward wife”), legislated in the fifth chapter of Numbers:

A man who suspected his wife of unfaithfulness (and had evidence  that substantiated his suspicions[2]) was to bring her to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. There the Kohen (priest) would fill an earthen vessel with water from a Temple well and mix in earth from the Temple ground. He would then inscribe the oath of faithfulness (Numbers 5:19-22) upon a parchment scroll, which he also placed in the “bitter waters” until the words were dissolved in the water. The “wayward wife” would then drink of the water.

If the woman had been indeed guilty of adultery, the “bitter waters” would spell her end. In the case in which her husband’s suspicions were unjustified, they not only exonerated her, but actually enhanced her relationship with her husband and the productivity of her marriage.

It is significant that the “wayward wife” was vindicated by means of holy water placed in an earthen vessel. This is in contrast to a law regarding the kindling of the Chanukah lights, which instructs that one should avoid kindling them in a clay lamp or other earthen vessel, as the placement of oil in such utensils yields unaesthetic results.[3] Indeed, the lights in the Holy Temple, after which the Chanukah lights are modeled, were lit with the finest olive oil in a candelabrum of pure gold. While the Chanukah lights are not held to such a high standard of purity and refinement, they require a clean-burning fuel (oil or wax) and a utensil of metal or other “clean” material.

The Chanukah lights proclaim the supremacy of spirit over matter.[4] It is only natural, therefore, that something of such a “spiritual” and “male” character would shun the earthen vessel. The spirituality of Chanukah is also expressed in its oil, whose nature is not to mix with other liquids but to rise above them, as spirit holds itself aloof from the physical and the earthly.

But there is also a fluid of another sort.

“The Torah has been compared to water,” writes Rabbi Schneur Zalman in his Tanya, “because just as water tends to descend from a higher place to a lower place, so has the Torah descended from its place of glory, which is the will and wisdom of G-d… until it has clothed itself in physical things and in matters of this world.”[5]

When a soul contemplates his body and finds her a “wayward wife” contentious to his spiritual goals, his wont may be to lay the blame on her femininity—on her physicality and earthiness. But if he truly desires to achieve harmony between them, he must learn to incorporate her feminine vision into their marriage. He must learn that life is more than spiritual oil flickering in vessels of purest gold. He must learn that it is also water—water that gravitates earthward to fill the most material containers with its divine essence.

Based on the Rebbe’s talks on Shabbat Nasso 5720 (June 4, 1960) and on other occasions


Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber


[1]. See Torah Ohr, Vayigash, 44d-45b; Sefer HaMaamarim Melukat, vol. III, p. 321 and sources cited there; et al.

[2]. I.e. witnesses that she was alone with the man with whom her husband suspects she is being unfaithful to him (the laws of sotah do not apply in the case that there are witnesses to her act of betrayal itself).

[3]. Tur and Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, 673:3; commentaries, ibid.

[4]. See The Transparent Body, The Week in Review, vol. IX, no. 12.

[5]. Tanya, ch. 4. Cf. Isaiah 55:1; Talmud, Taanit 7a and Bava Kama 17a.


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3 years ago

Is glass an earthen vessel (keli cheres)?

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