This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim (original ideas) of Talmudic scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, as published in the Hebrew version of the Steinsaltz Edition of the Talmud.
Shevu'ot 19a-b – Masechet Shevu'ot begins to discuss oaths
The third perek (=chapter) of Masechet Shevu'ot begins on today's daf (=page) and with it the Gemara turns its attention to the main subject of the tractate – the issue of oaths – a topic discussed in a number of places in the Torah.
In the Ten Commandments (see Shemot 20:6) the Torah forbids taking God's Name in vain, which is understood to be referring to the context of an oath. In Sefer Vayikra the Torah forbids false oaths (see Vayikra 19:12). These types of oaths are referred to by the Sages as shevu'ot shav.
In Sefer Vayikra (5:4-10) the Torah also requires that someone who takes an oath le-hara o le-hetiv – committing to perform a positive act or to refrain from doing something – fulfill his statement. This is referred to by the Sages as a shevu'at bituy.
Shevu'at bituy refers to a situation where a person makes a positive or a negative statement, either regarding past events or future ones. If it was made regarding the future, it is similar to a vow, and will be treated as a false oath if he does not fulfill the statement that he made. The difference between a shevu'ah (oath) and a neder (vow) lies in the fact that a shevu'ah is what a person accepts upon himself, while a neder relates to the object under discussion, and in the different sacrifices that are brought if they are not fulfilled. If the shevu'at bituy was made regarding past events, if his statement was false, he is held liable immediately - if it was done knowingly, he will receive malkot (lashes) and if unknowingly, he will have to bring a sacrifice according to his financial standing.
Shevu'at shav is a type of false oath, when a person takes an oath that he will do something that cannot be done, or if he tries to affirm a false statement that he made by means of an oath or if he swears for no reason at all. In these situations he will be liable to receive malkot if he did it knowingly; if unknowingly there is no punishment.
Shevu'ot 20a-b - Keep the Sabbath and remember it, too
In the Torah we find that it is forbidden to take a shevu'at sheker – a false oath (see Vayikra 19:12) – and also a shevu'at shav – a worthless oath (see Shemot 20:6). What is the difference between them?
Rav Dimi quotes Rabbi Yohanan as teaching that a shevu'at sheker is an oath taken regarding the future that is not kept, while a shevu'at shav is a false oath about something that happened in the past. The Gemara on today's daf (=page) challenges this opinion with a baraita that teaches that these two are the same, but explains that this means that the two were taught simultaneously – they were said at the same time in a manner that allowed the listener to realize that two similar laws were being taught and understand the nuance of difference between them..
A parallel teaching that uses this same concept is the divergent readings in the Ten Commandments, where we find that there are differences between the "first tablets" in Sefer Shemot (chapter 20) and the "second tablets" in Sefer Devarim (chapter 5). One of those differences relates to Shabbat, which we are commanded to "keep" (shamor) and to "remember" (zakhor). The explanation is that these two concepts were said simultaneously (shamor ve-zakhor be-dibur ehad), from where we derive laws like the fact that women are obligated in Kiddush on Shabbat.
The challenge regarding women and Shabbat stems from the fact that Shabbat appears to be a mitzvat aseh she-hazeman gerama – a positive commandment dependent on time – a type of commandment from which women are usually exempt. The Gemara teaches that since shamor – which refers to the negative commandments of Shabbat – and zakhor – which refers to the positive commandments, like Kiddush – are viewed as connected since they were uttered simultaneously, they are seen as coming into effect together. For this reason, women, who are obligated in refraining from the negative commandments of Shabbat, are required to perform the positive commandments, as well.
Shevu'ot 21a-b – We know that speech is significant. Is it considered an action?
Generally speaking, as we learned in Masechet Makkot, punishments meted out by Jewish courts were given only when the perpetrator committed an act forbidden by the Torah. If, however, the person neglected to perform a positive commandment, the Torah does not punish him in any way (although the Sages enacted punishments whose aim was to encourage performance of positive mitzvot). Similarly, negative commandments that do not involve forbidden actions – referred to in the Gemara as lav she-ein bo ma'aseh – are not punishable, since there was no forbidden action that was done.
Where do false oaths fit in? Since an oath usually involves speech with no action, is it considered to be a lav she-ein bo ma'aseh, or, perhaps, the act of speaking is considered significant?
On today's daf (=page) Rabbi Yehudah is brought quoting Rabbi Yossi ha-Galili as teaching that there are three exceptions to the rule of no punishment for a lav she-ein bo ma'aseh. The three exceptions are nishba (taking a false oath), meimar (announcing one's intent to switch one consecrated animal for another) u'mekalel et haveiro ba-shem (cursing one's fellow while invoking the name of God).
It appears, somewhat counter-intuitively, that the Gemara does not consider speech to be an action, yet nevertheless, these types of speech are presented by the Torah as exceptions to the rule and malkot (lashes) will be given to someone who transgresses them.
In explaining the unique punishment of malkot for a false oath, Rabbi Yohanan quotes Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai as teaching that the source is the passage in the Ten Commandments where we find that God will offer no atonement for someone who takes his name in vain (see Shemot 20:6). From this they infer that while there is no heavenly atonement offered, atonement can be made by means of punishment meted out by the courts.
Tosafot point out that there are other examples of speech for which punishment is given, e.g. eidim zomemin (witnesses that are found to be testifying falsely since they were not at the scene that they describe) or motzi shem ra (someone who falsely accuses his wife of premarital infidelity), and explain that in those cases the Torah itself clearly states the punishments associated with those statements.
Shevu'ot 22a-b – If someone swears not to eat, how much must he eat to break his oath?
According to Rabbi Akiva in the Mishnah (19b), if someone takes a shevuah, an oath, saying that he will not eat, if he eats even a tiny amount he has broken his oath and he will be obligated to bring a sacrifice. The Sages disagree with Rabbi Akiva, arguing that the minimum amount that a person must eat in order to be obligated is a ke-zayit – food the size of an olive – and we never find that someone is liable for eating less than that amount. Rabbi Akiva responds to that argument saying that we never find that someone is obligated to bring a sacrifice simply because of something that he said, yet we find that to be true in the case of a shevu'ah. Therefore we can conclude that the sacrifice is not brought because of what he ate so much as because he has broken his oath, and the amount that he ate is irrelevant.
The dialogue between Rabbi Akiva and the Sages continues in the Gemara on today's daf (=page). Several more cases are brought where we find that someone will bring a sacrifice simply because of statements that he made. For example:
Megadef – someone who blasphemes, who curses God accidentally. In that case Rabbi Akiva rules that the person who did this must bring a sacrifice. In response Rabbi Akiva argues that the megadef brings the sacrifice because of the sin that he did, not because of the statement that he made.
Nazir – a Nazirite brings a sacrifice at the close of his nezirut. Here Rabbi Akiva explains that the sacrifice does not come because of his statement; its purpose is to allow him to drink wine.
Hekdesh – someone who consecrates an animal to the Temple will have to bring a sacrifice if he makes use of it for mundane purposes. Rabbi Akiva explains that in that case once he has consecrated the animal the same rule applies to all, and the sacrifice that he brings is not unique to him.
Konamot – when someone makes a neder – a vow – he must "attach" it to some object that represents the source of the prohibition. Thus a typical neder would be "This will be forbidden to me like a korban – a sacrifice." The Mishnah in Masechet Nedarim teaches that the word konam was considered an appropriate substitute for korban. Taking such a vow would create a situation where for the person who made the neder the object would be considered consecrated, while for the rest of the world it remains ordinary. To this challenge Rabbi Akiva responds that he does not view the case as being literally a korban, and the person who made something konam would not be required to bring a sacrifice.
Shevu'ot 23a-b – Is non-Kosher food inedible?
According to the Mishnah (22b), if someone takes an oath not to eat or drink, and then he ate or drank things that are not edible, he would not be held liable for his shevu'ah. If, on the other hand, he ate and drank foods that are forbidden, like nevelot, terefot, shekatzim u'remasim – animals that were not slaughtered properly or creepy crawly creatures forbidden by the Torah – he would be held liable. Rabbi Shimon disagrees and frees the individual from responsibility for a shevu'ah in the latter case, since he is liable for another reason – he is mushba ve-omed me-har Sinai – he had a standing oath forbidding him from eating these things from the time of the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.
The Gemara on today's daf (=page) asks why the first tanna distinguishes between food that is not edible and food that is forbidden, since from a halakhic perspective, forbidden food is also not considered edible!
Rashi explains that this question was raised for discussion, but that really the difference between the two is clear. In the first case we are discussing someone who ate non-foods, e.g., he ate dirt or drank kerosene, while in the second case what is being eaten is real food that a Jew is not allowed to eat, but is perfectly edible to others. Others suggest that these differences notwithstanding, the Gemara can be explained otherwise. When a person takes a shevu'ah, swearing that he will not eat, we must try to understand what his intention was. Logically it makes sense that he means to say that he will not eat food that is ordinarily eaten, without distinguishing between food that cannot be eaten because it is inedible and food that cannot be eaten because it is forbidden to eat.
Shevu'ot 24a-b – Can someone "pile on" additional prohibitions to ones that exist already?
Can someone add shevu'ot on to existing shevu'ot? Can he "pile on" additional prohibitions to ones that exist already?
The Gemara on today's daf (=page) introduces us to two concepts that may allow him to do just that: issur kollel and issur mosif.
Issur kollel means an inclusive prohibition. In a case of issur kollel we do not find an extra prohibition added, rather the new issur expands the context of the already existing prohibition so that this activity is now included under a different category at the same time that it retains its original prohibition. An example of this is a nevelah – non-kosher meat that is forbidden in-and-of itself, that is eaten on Yom Kippur. Since Yom Kippur creates a situation wherein all food is prohibited, the nevelah will gain a second prohibition in addition to its basic prohibition.
Issur mosif means an additional prohibition. There are some cases where the issur does not fall under a larger category that adds a prohibition to it, rather there is an actual addition made to it that did not exist beforehand. One example of this is a situation where the prohibition becomes more severe, e.g. where originally there was a prohibition forbidding food to be eaten and now we find that it is also forbidden to derive any benefit from this food. Another example is where the prohibition now covers more people than it did beforehand, e.g. when someone gets married, his mother-in-law is forbidden to him, although she is permitted to the rest of the world (assuming that she is not married). Once she gets married, the prohibition no longer applies to him only, she is now forbidden to everyone in the world as a married woman.
Tosafot point out that we find some opinions that believe that in the case of issur mosif we will find one prohibition added to the existing one, but reject that same possibility in the case of issur kollel.
Shevu'ot 25a-b – How different is a vow and an oath?
We have already noted the basic difference between a neder - a vow - and a shevu'ah - an oath - that is commented on by the Gemara. While a neder acts on an object (e.g. a person declares that meat is forbidden to him), a shevu'ah acts on the person (e.g. he accepts upon himself a prohibition that will keep him from eating meat).
The case of the Mishnah on today's daf (=page), where someone takes a shevu'ah that he will not sleep, will only work if it is an oath, since "sleep" is not an object, and it can only become forbidden by means of a shevu'ah (which will create a prohibition on the person keeping him from sleeping).
The Gemara points out a problem with the Mishnah's ruling that an oath against sleeping takes effect. Rabbi Yohanan teaches with regard to shevu'ot that a person who takes an oath not to sleep for three days is understood to have taken a false shevu'ah - since it is impossible to go without sleep for 72 hours. Therefore, rather than forcing him to attempt the impossible we punish him immediately (for having made a false shevu'ah) and allow him to sleep whenever he wants. The Gemara explains that our Mishnah is talking about a case where the person did not specify how long he planned to remain awake, so he will be able to fulfill his oath.
The rishonim are sensitive to the fact that an open-ended shevu'ah sounds as if it should last even longer than three days. While Rabbenu Hananel says that we must be dealing with a case where the person specified an amount of time less than three days, the Rashba suggests that in a situation where the person cannot fulfill the oath that he took, it will be defined as applying only for as long as it is feasible.
In theory it is possible for a person to go without sleep for a period of three days if he is constantly prodded and woken by others whenever he begins to doze off. Nevertheless, withholding sleep from someone for that length of time will likely cause long-term physical and psychological damage, which the Talmudic Sages could not condone.In addition to his monumental translation and commentary on the Talmud, Rabbi Steinsaltz has authored dozens of books and hundreds of articles on a variety of topics, both Jewish and secular. For more information about Rabbi Steinsaltz's groundbreaking work in Jewish education, visit www.steinsaltz.org or contact the Aleph Society at 212-840-1166.