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
In order for a neder (vow) to take effect, the individual who is taking the vow must have true intent, and a vow that is uttered without meaning does not obligate the person who made it. Nevertheless, a person cannot simply claim that he did not mean what he said; we always work with the assumption that what a person said is what he meant. Still, the Sages of the Talmud teach that there are some instances where it is clear to all that the person making the neder did not really mean to obligate himself, and in such cases the person is not obligated to keep his word – his vow notwithstanding.
The third perek of Masechet Nedarim opens with a discussion of such cases, which are defined by the Mishnah as including four separate types:
- Nidrei ziruzin – vows made to encourage someone to agree with him
- Nidrei havai – worthless or meaningless vows
- Nidrei shegagot – mistaken vows
- Nidrei onasin – vows that will remain unfulfilled for reasons that are out of the individual’s control
Our Gemara brings the opinion of Rav Yehuda quoting Rav Ashi, who requires that a person who made one of these types of nedarim to approach a chacham (rabbi or sage) and ask that he be released from his vow. Shmuel strongly objects to that suggestion, arguing that the Mishnah clearly presents these vows as being permitted by the Sages, so it is impossible that they require she’elat chacham – the permission of a rabbi.
Some of the commentaries explain Rav Yehuda’s position as requiring a pro forma visit to a rabbi to arrange for the vow to be annulled, but in this case the rabbi will not have to make inquiries in order to find a way to permit the neder, since the circumstances themselves indicate that the neder does not stand. Others explain that on a biblical level there is no need to end the neder, but Rav Yehuda believes that there is a rabbinic requirement to do so. The Ritva argues that even Rav Yehuda only required this of amei ha’aretz – unlearned people – who we want to discourage from taking vows lightly.
One of the methods that a sage makes use of when working with someone who wants to have his neder annulled is called charatah – regret. The sage may point out unintended consequences of the vow and ask the person whether he would have taken the vow had he realized that this is what would develop from it. Responding in the affirmative – i.e. stating that he never would have made such a neder had he realized that – allows the sage to permit the neder.
The Gemara relates a series of cases where this was done. One example of such a situation is the story of Rabbi Yannai Sabba‘s grandson who approached his grandfather and asked him to annul his vow. Rabbi Yannai Sabba asked him whether he would have taken a neder had he realized that his pinkas (account book) would be opened. The grandson replied that he would not have done so, and Rabbi Yannai Sabba permitted the neder.
The word pinkas is Greek, and its original meaning was a board on which one could write. Later on, the term came to mean a number of such boards that were bound together to make a small book. During the time of the Talmud, pinkasim came in a variety of shapes and sizes and were made of different materials. It appears that the most popular ones were made of wood covered with a layer of wax that could be written on and erased.
According to the Rosh, the concern that the pinkas of a person who made a vow would be opened stems from the fact that he violated the advice of the Sages who discouraged taking vows in general. The Talmud Yerushalmi explains it as a criticism that a person is looking to add more prohibitions to himself than are required by the Torah, for are not the Torah ‘s prohibitions sufficient? The Midrash Tanchuma claims that even Yaakov Avinu was punished for taking a neder, and that the incident with Dina and Shechem was the result of his vow.
Our Gemara teaches that a person who does not want his nedarim (vows) to take effect throughout the year should stand on Rosh Hashana and declare “all vows that I take this year should be null and void.”
The Rosh explains that there is nothing special about Rosh Hashana in this regard; this declaration can be made any day of the year. The Gemara mentions Rosh Hashana simply as a specific day on which this could be done with intent for the upcoming year. Many argue that this Gemara is the source for the tradition of saying the Kol Nidrei prayer – in which we request that all of our vows be annulled – at the beginning of Yom Kippur. The fact that we say it on Yom Kippur rather than Rosh Hashana is not of great significance, given that we have already established that Rosh Hashana was suggested by the Gemara simply as an example. Therefore, Yom Kippur, when all Jews traditionally come to the synagogue, is the most appropriate day to recite this publicly. Furthermore, a day set aside for atonement and forgiveness would seem to be a good day for such a prayer, particularly in light of the fact that Yom Kippur is referred to by the prophet Yechezkel as Rosh Hashana (see Yechezkel 40:1).
The efficacy of this tradition is discussed by the various commentaries. The Geonim generally reject the idea of a blanket hatarat nedarim (annulment of vows) and did not practice this in their communities. Rav Hai Gaon suggests that rather than a request for annulment, the congregation should recite the prayer as a request for forgiveness for all those who transgressed vows they had taken. Nevertheless, many follow the position of Rabbenu Tam, who accepts the ruling of the Gemara as stated and permits a person to make a condition that all vows made during the upcoming year should be declared void. The declaration is made in a public forum in order to make the matter known to all.
We learned previously (on daf, or page, 21) that there are four types of vows that are not seen as taking effect at all. One example was nidrei havai – vows that are worthless or meaningless. The Mishnah on our daf offers two examples of nidrei havai:
- Saying “if I didn’t see a group of people as large as the children of Israel who left Egypt”
- Saying “if I didn’t see a snake as large as the pole of an olive press”
One approach to these cases is that they are two examples of expressions that are wild exaggerations and that everyone knows are not true. Still they are statements that people ordinarily make when they see or experience a particular event. According to this approach, Tosafot explain that such utterances will only be considered to be nidrei havai if the person actually did see something that he then refers to in an exaggerated manner. If, however, he did not see anything, the neder will be considered to be a full, proper vow. This explanation helps us understand why the Gemara does not bring a case that is discussed in Masechet Shevuot – that if a person claims to have seen a flying camel it is considered to be a shevu’at shav, or an oath taken for no purpose. Since such a case is impossible, it would not be classified as nidrei havai.
Another approach is presented by the Ran, who understands that the two cases presented by the Gemara are actually two separate rules. One is the case of an exaggeration, but the second – as is explained by the Gemara – is a total falsehood. Nevertheless, the Gemara also refers to this case as nidrei havai.
The case of an olive press pole is where one end of a large, heavy pole is placed in a hole in a wall above a basket of olives and weighted down on the other side in such a way that it presses down on them. The olive oil that is squeezed out is collected in a hole in the ground or in special utensils prepared for it.
Today’s Daf Yomi is dedicated in memory of Samuel Bravmann, z”l (8 Shevat)
One of the things that the Sages demanded of someone taking an oath is that they must mean what they say. The person is told that his statement must conform to the simple meaning of the words that he says without any secret meanings or intentions. This was done in order to avoid situations like the one the Gemara calls kanya d’Rava – Rava‘s stick.
Two people were arguing. One claimed that he had lent money to the other; the second one claimed that the loan had been repaid. Rava ruled that the borrower had to swear that he had repaid the money. The borrower went home, hollowed out a stick, and placed all of the money that he owed into the stick. He returned to the courtroom leaning on the stick and volunteered to hold a sefer Torah and swear that the money had been returned. He asked the lender to hold the stick, ostensibly so that he could hold the Torah. Taking the Torah in his hand he said, “I have returned all of the money that I borrowed from this man; he now has them in his possession.” The lender – knowing that this claim was untrue – became angry and in his anger broke the stick that was in his hand. It then became clear that the oath taken by the borrower was technically true, even though it was an attempt at trickery.
The Geonim explain that only in the case of an oath that is required by the Torah would a person hold the Torah in his hands while swearing; in cases where the oath is Rabbinic in nature, there is no need to hold a Torah. Thus, in our case, it would appear that there was no real need for the borrower to hold a Torah while swearing (someone who is a kofer ba-kol – one who denies that he owes anything – is only obligated to swear on a Rabbinic level). The Meiri explains simply that although he was not personally obligated to hold a sefer Torah in his hands, he wanted to do so, since he needed an excuse to hand the walking stick to the lender.
One example of nidrei shegagot that do not need to be annulled (see daf, or page, 21) is someone who says “I take a neder (vow) to refrain from eating onions, since onions are bad for the heart.” Upon being informed that one type of onion – batzal kofri – are good for the heart, the person will be permitted to eat all types of onions.
The potential danger involved in eating onions is described by the Gemara in Eruvin (see Eruvin 29) as relating to the leaves of the onion, which are potentially dangerous and cannot be used. In that Gemara a baraita is brought which teaches that onions should not be eaten because of “the snake that is in it.” The baraita continues with a story that Rabbi Hanina ate half an onion with half of the “snake” that was in it and became ill to the extent that he was close to death. His peers then prayed on his behalf and he recovered, since the generation needed his teaching and leadership.
The “snake” that the Gemara understands to be the danger lurking in the onion is subject to much speculation. The Ritva suggests that it is a worm that is found in the leaves of the onion that is potentially lethal. According to most traditions, however, it refers to a sprouting onion, which looks very much like a snake. It is difficult to come to a clear conclusion regarding the Gemara’s contention that eating onions generally, or their leaves specifically, presents a danger, since experience shows that onions are eaten with no ill effects. Nevertheless, onions contain the chemical n-propyl disulfide (C2H12S2). Ingestion of even relatively small amounts of raw onions can, theoretically, cause toxicity from this chemical, which denatures hemoglobin leading to the destruction of red blood cells. People with specific sensitivity may even be in danger of death.
The Mishnah on our daf deals with the case of nidrei onasin, which, as we learned (on daf 21) do not need to be annulled. The example suggested by the Mishnah is a case where a person makes a neder obligating someone to come and join him in a meal, but then the invited guest or one of his children becomes ill or cannot cross the river to attend the meal.
Rava explains that this ruling is based on a general principle of the Talmud called anoos rachamana patrei – someone who cannot perform an obligation for reasons that are beyond his control is forgiven by God. Our Gemara points out, however, that there are other cases of onasin in which we do not apply the rule of anoos rachamana patrei. An example is the case of a conditional divorce in which a man writes a get (divorce document) to his wife that says “this will be your bill of divorce if I do not return within 30 days” and at the end of the 30 days the husband is stranded on the wrong side of the river with no ferry to take him across. Even though he is shouting “I have returned! I have returned!” we do not consider him to have come back and the divorce goes into effect.
The Gemara explains that being stranded on the wrong side of the river with no available ferry to take him across was an ones that should have been anticipated and made part of the conditions of the divorce. Since it was not done that way, we do not consider it to be a true ones.
The ferry to which the Gemara refers here is called a ma’abra – a small boat or raft that took people across the river. Such ferries usually made several crossings every day, with a group of people each time. Generally speaking, it was not worthwhile for the owner of the ferry to cross the river with just one passenger, and people needed to wait until the boat filled up before it would set sail. When the rivers were wide and deep – as was the case in Babylon – there was no other way to cross the river aside from these ferries, and if the boat was on the opposite bank of the river it may have even been possible that the boat’s captain would not realize that someone was waiting on the other side of the river for him. Thus, problems of crossing the river should have been taken into account by someone who made a condition to return by a certain time.
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.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.