Each week we discuss one familiar halakhic practice and try to show its beauty and meaning. The columns are based on Rabbi Meir's Meaning in Mitzvot on Kitzur Shulchan Arukh
A vow (neder) is a kind of oath that works by imposing a prohibition on a particular object by likening it to a sanctified item. For instance, instead of swearing that he will not eat cake (shevu'ah=oath), a person may prohibit cake to himself (neder) (SA YD 204).
If a person regrets a vow he can go to a Torah scholar and have it released, by explaining that if he had known the difficulties he would have in fulfilling the vow he would never have made it. This uproots the vow since it reveals that the person never really had wholehearted intention to keep it under the actual circumstances (SA YD 228). However, the Mishna states that four kinds of vows don't require a release; these vows don't apply at all. It is clear from the beginning that there is no true intention to abide by them (Mishna Nedarim 3:1, SA YD 232).
One kind of "stillborn" vow is an "urging" or "prodding" vow (nidrei zeruzin). An example is haggling over a sale; the seller vows that he will not accept less than four (otherwise he forswears any benefit from the object); the buyer likewise vows that he will never give more than two.
The mishna explains that all along both have in mind that they will compromise on an intermediate price; the vow is only meant to nudge the other side into softening his bargaining stance.
The simple explanation, as mentioned in the commentaries, is that all vows have force only if the person sincerely intends them ("his mouth and his heart are one").
Why then can't a person get out of any vow by explaining that he didn't mean it? Because we generally assume that a person is sincere in his words. But in this case it is well known that hagglers use such vows only as a way of prodding the other side; thus, we have a firm basis for believing that the vow is insincere. Some commentators add an additional rationale: the vow is not really nullified, it is merely inexact. When the seller vows not to sell for less than four, his actual intention is that he won't go so low as to sell for two. According to these opinions, if he were actually to sell for two or for less the seller would indeed transgress his vow.
Likewise, the buyer vows not to pay the full four demanded by the seller.
However, we can also discern a profound human insight based on the foundations of the laws of vows and commerce alike.
We have written in previous columns that there are two different levels of da'at, or commitment. One level is where a person has sufficient judgment to fully comprehend a commitment made to himself; the other is where a person can comprehend a commitment made to another. The second level is more complex and interpersonal and hence more advanced. In this way we explained a unique law of vows: In general, a person is considered to attain da'at only at the age of mitzvot: twelve for girls and thirteen for boys. At this age a person can engage in commerce. However, a year earlier, a mature child can make a valid oath or vow (SA YD 233). Since an oath or vow is a personal commitment, it requires a somewhat lower level of maturity.
We have also written that the "meeting of the minds" which is the distinct characteristic of a commercial transaction can be viewed as an end in itself. Our material interdependence was created by HaShem to provide an incentive for human interaction and understanding.
In the case of nidrei zeruzin, the vow itself represents understanding is at the immature level of a selfish commitment. The underlying desire to prod the other side into making a transaction at a mutual agreeable level represents understanding at the advanced level of a mature meeting of the minds. Therefore, the commitment of the vow is subordinate to the higher level of commitment inherent in the intended sale.
Rabbi Meir authors a popular weekly on-line Q&A column, "The Jewish Ethicist", which gives Jewish guidance on everyday ethical dilemmas in the workplace. The column is a joint project of the JCT Center for Business Ethics, Jerusalem College of Technology - Machon Lev; and Aish HaTorah. You can see the Jewish Ethicist, and submit your own Qs — www.jewishethicist.com or www.aish.com