Masechet Nedarim 14a-20b

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03 Jan 2008

The Coming Week’s Daf Yomi by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

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.

This month’s Steinsaltz Daf Yomi is sponsored by Dr. and Mrs. Alan Harris, the Lewy Family Foundation, and Marilyn and Edward Kaplan


Nedarim 14a-b

Our Gemara examines the case of someone who is noder ba-Torah – he makes a vow in the name of the Torah – which is not considered to be a vow. If, however, his vow is made on “what is written in the Torah,” then his vow is accepted as a legitimate one.

The Ra’avad accepts this Gemara at face value and understands that the discussion is about a neder that is expressed in language that forbids something “the way the Torah is forbidden.”  Most commentaries (the Rosh and the Ran, for example) argue that the discussion in this case is really about shevuot (oaths) rather than nedarim (vows). Their argument is that the Torah is not forbidden, so such a vow would make no sense. What we have here is an example of someone who is saying “I swear by the Torah” or “I swear by what is written in the Torah.”

In a case where a person makes his vow or takes his oath by saying “in the Torah and what is written in it” the Gemara teaches that there is still room to distinguish between a situation where a person is understood to be referring to the physical scroll itself, and where he is referring to the azkarot – the names of God – that are written in it.

Here, too, the Ra’avad understands that the person is making a vow in which he compares an object to the names of God that are written in the Torah. Just like the ink is turned into something that is holy – and forbidden – by the act of writing, similarly the object that I am forbidding by means of my vow will become prohibited to me.

Most of the other rishonim disagree, arguing that all of the words written in the Torah are considered to have kedushah – holiness – attached to them, and there is no need to specify that it is the azkarot that are being referred to in the vow. Furthermore, the Rashba points out that once written upon, the parchment that makes up the scroll of the Torah is kadosh, as well.

Although the Rashba does suggest that the Ra’avad’s intention may be that the parchment does not have inherent kedushah, rather that its holiness only derives from the words written on it, the approach of the rishonim in general is to understand that our Gemara is discussing a shevuah – an oath – and that the reference to azkarot means that the person is swearing in God’s name, which would certainly create a legitimate oath that must be kept.

Nedarim 15a-b

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).

When examining the case of the Mishnah (14b) where someone who takes a neder that he will not sleep is understood to be obligated by this pronouncement, the Gemara objects that “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). In response, the Gemara offers the possibility of taking a neder forbidding one’s eyes from closing with sleep. In this case, since the neder is made on a specific object (his eyes) the neder will take effect.

Still the Gemara points out another difficulty with a vow against sleeping. If the person did not state a specific amount of time that he will not sleep, we know that 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. Thus the Gemara is forced to offer an alternative case of neder, where the person in fact did limit the amount of time that he would keep his eyes from sleeping.

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.

Nedarim 16a-b

In continuing our discussion of the differences between a neder (vow) and a shevu’ah (an oath), the Mishnah teaches that nedarim can take effect on mitzvot while shevuot cannot. The example given by the Gemara is that a person who forbids on himself a sukkah, a lulav or tefillin will be obligated to fulfill his neder even if he can no longer perform these commandments. If he takes an oath that he will not perform these mitzvot, however, he is still obligated to do them, since ein nishba’im la’avor al ha-mitzvot – a person cannot take an oath to abrogate a mitzvah.

The explanation offered by Abayye as to why a person can take a neder not to do mitzvot, even as he cannot make a shevu’ah not to do them, fits in with the ideas that we have already learned with regard to these laws. Abayye teaches that the neder – which works – has the man saying “the pleasure derived from sitting in the sukkah is forbidden to me,” while the shevu’ah – which does not work – has him saying “I swear that I will derive no pleasure from the sukkah.” Since the Torah commands every man to sit in a sukkah, the oath that a man takes to refrain from doing – which aims to create a prohibition on the person – contradicts the Torah’s command. This stands in contrast with the person who creates a prohibition on the object – the sukkah – which is not an object of mitzvah in and of itself.

The Talmud Yerushalmi suggests that the difference stems from the foundations of nedarim in the world of kodashim (holy things). As we have learned, nedarim are ordinarily expressed in language where the person compares the object of the vow to a holy object – e.g. this meat should be to me like a sacrifice. Just as a sacrifice is forbidden, so this meat becomes forbidden by means of the neder. In our case, since kodashim can take effect on any object – even on objects of a mitzvah – similarly nedarim have the power to do so.

Nedarim 17a-b

Another difference between nedarim (vows) and shevuot (oaths) is whether you can make two nedarim or two shevuot on the same thing. The Mishnah on our daf teaches that this cannot be done in the case of shevuot, but it can take place in the case of nedarim. The example presented by the Mishnah is a person who says “if I eat I will become a nazir” and then repeats the same statement a second time. In such a case, once the person eats he is obligated in nezirut twice.

There are two approaches to this rule about neder.

Tosafot, the Ran and others argue that it is only in the case of nazir that a neder will take effect twice. In other cases, once a person has declared an object to be forbidden it cannot become “more forbidden” by the person’s statement. According to this approach, the unique status of nezirut stems from a gezerat ha-katuv – a passage in the Torahnazir le-hazir, which is understood by the Gemara to teach this law. Furthermore, nazir is unique in that the two obligations of nezirut will take effect one after another, unlike ordinary cases of neder where the prohibition would need to affect the object twice in the same way.

The Ritva and Rabbi Avraham min ha-Har follow the Rambam in arguing that the Mishnah means that all cases of neder have this rule. Therefore, if a person states two times that a given object is forbidden to him as a neder – and then eats it – he will be liable for two sets of punishment for breaking his word. This works because of the parallel between neder and korban (sacrifices), which we have noted in the past. Just as a person can obligate himself to bring repeated sacrifices similarly when he says “this object is to me like a korban” it will take effect more than once. The Ritva explains that the Mishnah chose the example of nezirut not because of its unique status, but because the source for this law – the repetition of the words nazir le-hazir – appears in that specific case.

Nedarim 18a-b

When discussing nedarim (vows), how clear does a statement need to be in order for a person to become obligated in it? What if the statement that is made can be interpreted in more than one way?

Although our Mishnah rules that stam nedarim le-hahmir – that we will be stringent with regard to the interpretation of vows – the Gemara quotes a Mishnah that states sfeik nezirut le-hakel, seemingly indicating that regarding the laws of a nazir we will tend towards leniency. Since we have learned that nezirut is a type of neder, how are we to understand this contradiction?

Rabbi Zeira responds by presenting a baraita that shows a disagreement between tanna’im in situations of doubt, and argues that our Mishnah and the Mishnah about the nazir have two different authors. What if a person sanctifies all of his domestic and wild animals – does this include a koy or not? The Tanna Kamma rules that it does (i.e. he interprets the statement to include unclear situations), but Rabbi Eliezer rules that it does not.

Identifying the koy is a difficult task. Even though it is mentioned many times in the Mishnah and Talmudic literature, that is not because it is a common animal, rather because its status between a wild and domesticated animal allows it to be a test case for many halakhot. The disagreement as to its identification began in the time of the Mishnah, when some of the Sages argued that it is the offspring of a deer or similar animal with a goat. Others claim that it is a unique type of animal – an Ayal ha-bar.

The Ayal ha-bar can be identified with the ovis musimon, which, according to many, is the forerunner of domesticated cattle. It is distinguished by its short hair and grey color, and it lives in mountainous regions, where it is a nimble climber – today mainly in uninhabited areas in Europe. It is likely that the clear similarities between a koy and a sheep, together with its being a wild animal, led to the Sages’ confusion about its classification.

Its name – koy – and even the pronunciation of the name, are themselves the subject of disagreement.

Nedarim 19a-b

As a tangent to a different discussion the Gemara brings a baraita that quotes Yossi ben Yo’ezer as ruling that an el kamtzah is kosher.

An el kamtzah is a type oflocust. The word kamtzah in Aramaic means locust, and the expression el kamtzah – a “ram locust” – probably refers to the fact that this particular type of locust had a head and antennae that appeared similar to ram’s horns (in many languages we find that beetles and insects are called by names of larger animals, e.g. the Hebrew word for a lady bug is parat Moshe Rabbenu – Moses’ cow).

The Torah lists a number of locusts that are tahor – they are kosher and permissible to eat (see Vayikra 11:21-22). Since the Torah not only offers bodily indications of kashrut, but also gives the names of the locusts that are kosher, the Sages insisted that locusts could only be identified as kosher if there were additional signs that they fell into a kosher category. In many cases there was also an existing tradition with regard to their status. From its description in the Talmud, it appears that the el kamtzah had a different appearance than other kosher locusts, which is why there was a specific need for testimony that would establish its kashrut.

Yossi ben Yo’ezer ish Tzreda was the first head of the pairs of scholars who are mentioned at the beginning of Masechet Avot, a student of Antigonos ish Sokho. At that time, scholars were not given titles and were simply called by their names. According to the Talmud, Yossi ben Yo’ezer, who was a kohen, lived during the period when the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem was made up of Hellenists. He was put to death by his nephew Alkiyos, who was an evil kohen, and died a martyr’s death.

He was known as the hasid she-bakehunah – the righteous among the priests – because he was particularly strict about issues of ritual purity. It was he who instituted the Rabbinic ordinance declaring the lands of the Diaspora to be considered ritually defiled. Although he was known for his strict positions in this area of halakhah, in other fields he was known to be lenient – so much so that he is sometimes referred to Yossi sharya – “Yossi, the one who permits.”

Nedarim 20a-b

Our Gemara begins by discussing the difficulties caused by taking nedarim (vows) lightly and segues to a discussion of other things that must be taken seriously. Several of the issues discussed have to do with appropriate behavior when men interact with women, including a discussion of propriety during marital intercourse.

The Gemara teaches:

Rabbi Yohanan ben Dahabai said: The Ministering Angels told me four things: People are born lame because their parents “overturned their table” [i.e., practiced unnatural cohabitation]; dumb, because they kiss “that place”; deaf, because they converse during relations; blind, because they gaze at “that place”.

Rabbi Yohanan ben Dahabai’s views notwithstanding, the Gemara quotes Rabbi Yohanan who teaches that the abovementioned cases are a da’at yahid – they only are the view of Rabbi Yohanan ben Dahabai, but the Sages rule that the halakhah does not follow Rabbi Yohanan ben Dahabai, rather a man may do whatever he pleases with his wife during sexual relations.

The Gemara continues by quoting Ameimar, who said: Who are the ‘Ministering Angels’? The Rabbis. For if we understand it literally, why did Rabbi Yohanan say that the halakhah does not follow Rabbi Yochanan ben Dahabai, given that the angels know more about the formation of the fetus than do we? And why are they designated ‘Ministering Angels’? — Because they are as distinguished as they.

According to some opinions, Talmud scholars are considered as distinguished as angels because they wore unique clothing that made them stand out from the rest of the people. Such clothing was popular amongst the scholars of Bavel, but was not worn in Israel. According to Rashi, the scholars were distinguished in that they wore a tallit with tzitzit at all times. This clothing was the clothing of the angels, as is clear from the book of Daniel, where the angel is referred to as ha-ish lavush ha-badim – the man wearing the cloth (see Daniel 12:7).

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 or contact the Aleph Society at 212-840-1166.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.