“Speak to the Israelites: When men or women individually commit any wrong toward a fellow human being [chato’t ha’adam], thus breaking faith with YHVH [lim’ol ma’al], and they realize their guilt…”
“If any wife has gone astray and broken faith with her husband [uma’alah bo ma’al],…”
— Bamidbar/Numbers 5:6, 5:12
Robert Alter* notes:
The Hebrew chato’t ha’adam, “human offenses,” is unique to this text, and seems to indicate offenses of one person against another. The primary meaning of lim’ol ma’al, “to betray trust,” is to appropriate objects or good that have been consecrated to the sanctuary. Here, the meaning has been extended to the illicit appropriation of another person’s property, which is equally seen as betraying the Lord’s trust.
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary* notes that the explicit term for adultery — naaf — is missing from the passage, possibly due to “the vagueness of the accusation due to the lack of concrete evidence,” explaining:
Heb. tisteh [verse 12]. The verbal root s-t-h appears four times in this passage (5:12, 19, 20 and 29), but only twice more in the rest of the Tanach, when Proverbs 4:15 and 7:25 warn young men to remain righteous and resist the seductions of dangerous women
*see Source Materials for complete citations and more details.The “Opening the Book” series was originally presented in cooperation with the independent, cross-community Jewish Study Center and with Kol Isha, an open group that for many years pursued spirituality from a woman’s perspective at Temple Micah (Reform). “A Song Every Day” is an independent blog, however, and all views, mistakes, etc. are the author’s.