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
The Mishnah (27b) teaches that there are cases where a person can take a neder (vow) in order to protect his interests, and the halakha recognizes that this vow was taken in order to deceive and is not a true neder. The specific cases in the Mishnah are situations where a person takes a vow that the merchandise in his possession is terumah (tithes that can only be eaten by kohanim) or belongs to the king. This is done in order to keep haragin (people who may kill you and take your money), charamin (robbers) and mokhsin (tax collectors) from taking valuables from them.
With regard to tax collectors, our Gemara points to Shmuel’s ruling that dina d’malkhuta dina – that we must follow the rules of the government – and questions how the Mishnah can accept that a person may lie to avoid paying taxes. Two answers are suggested by the Gemara –
Shmuel is quoted by Rav Hinina in the name of Rav Kahane that this is only true in the case of a tax collector who does not follow the rule of law, but takes as much as he sees fit.
Rabbi Yannai suggests that our Mishnah is talking about a self-appointed tax collector, who is not operating with government approval.
The situation of a mokhes – a tax collector – was different in Talmudic times than it is today. In those days (and in some places this was true until fairly recently) the right to collect taxes was leased by the government to individuals who would then collect taxes in the name of the government. The individual who purchased this right from the government would then assign others to collect the taxes and pay him a percentage of the receipts. There was a lot of room for cheating and dishonesty given the situation was that tax collection was a business, and the more that was collected, the more profit was made. Thus, the mokhes could choose to forgive the debts of his friends and relatives entirely, choosing to collect more than was appropriate from those people with whom he did not have a relationship. It is for this reason that the Talmud often presents the mokhes as equivalent to a robber.
According to Jewish law, transfer of ownership requires a kinyan – a formal act that expresses the fact that an object has passed from one person to another. Such kinyanim are often representative in nature, for example when money is exchanged or the object is handed over, or symbolic in nature such as a kinyan halipin where a different object is handed from one party to the other, symbolizing the transfer. What is clear, however, is that a simple verbal agreement without a formal kinyan will not effect the transfer.
Our Gemara introduced us to the idea that amirato la-gavoha ke-mesirato le-hedyot – a verbal statement giving something to God is the equivalent of actual transfer in ordinary cases. In other words, when consecrating something to the Temple, once a person states clearly that a given object is to be donated, the transfer of ownership has taken place and cannot be rescinded.
The Talmud Yerushalmi explains this rule based on the passage la-Shem ha-aretz u-melo’ah – the entire world and all that it contains belongs to God. Thus when a person makes a statement that a particular object is to be transferred into His possession, it is as though He can take possession of it immediately, wherever it may be found. The Me’iri illustrates the concept by suggesting that it is conceptually a kinyan hatzer – an act of possession that takes place when an object comes into my yard and I desire to own it. Since the entire world is God’s “backyard” it moves into His possession immediately.
The Rosh offers a different approach, comparing the verbal statement handing something over to God to a neder – a vow – which takes effect simply by force of an oral commitment. This approach is helpful to understand the position of those who apply the rule amirato la-gavoha ke-mesirato le-hedyot not only to objects consecrated to the Temple, but to general situations of charity, as well.
The Mishnayot in our perek offer a list of common expressions that are to be understood according to their accepted meaning. For example, someone who says “I vow not to benefit from anyone who lives on dry land (yoshvei yabashah)” is understood to mean that he will derive no benefit from anyone – even if they are professional sailors whose home is on the sea – since every human being is considered a land dweller. If he says “I vow not to benefit from anyone who the sun sees (ro’ei ha-hamah)” he cannot derive benefit even from blind people, because they, too are seen by the sun.
One interesting case is where a person vows not to benefit from people with blackened heads (shehorei ha-rosh) which is understood to obligate him to avoid benefiting from men (even if they are bald or white haired), but permits him to benefit from women and children. The Gemara explains that the term is understood as referring specifically to men because women always keep their hair covered and children never keep their hair covered. Men, who sometimes cover their hair and sometimes do not, are the ones who fit into this category. What is clear about this expression is that this is not an actual description of a group of people, but a general expression that refers to men. In fact, we find in early Babylonian literature that the term shehorei ha-rosh was a popular colorful expression that meant “males.” It is likely that usage was borrowed in other neighboring cultures and languages, as well.
The fact that the Gemara mentions in passing that men sometimes keep their hair covered and sometimes do not would appear to support the position of those who believe (like the Gra, the Maharshal and others) that Jewish men are not obligated to cover their heads, and do so for reasons of tradition, not for reasons of halakhah. Others argue that this Gemara is not a proof for that position, since the Gemara can be understood as saying that men do not cover their hair completely, in contrast to women for whom complete hair covering is viewed as laudatory if not obligatory.
The Mishnah teaches that someone who vows not to benefit from people who rest on Shabbat cannot derive benefit from Jews or from Kutim.
The term Kutim refers to the nations (not all of whom were truly Kutim, as there were people from other nations, as well) that were exiled to the Land of Israel by the kings of Assyria who were interested in populating the land after they had removed the Israelite people from it. According to Sefer Melakhim (see II Melakhim, chapter 17), these nations converted to Judaism because of their fear of lions that had begun attacking them (from which derives the term gerei arayot – “lion converts”), but they continued worshiping their gods at the same time.
Upon the return of the Jews to Israel at the beginning of the Second Temple period, the Samaritans, decedents of the Kutim, were active in trying to keep the returnees from rebuilding the Temple and the walls of the city of Jerusalem. Even so, there were families – including members of the kohanim – who intermarried with the Samaritans.
During the following years there were continued tensions between the two communities, and Yochanan Hyrcanus led his troops into battle against the Samaritans and destroyed the temple that they had built on Har Gerizim. Nevertheless, there were also periods of cooperation, such as the period of the Bar Kochba rebellion. As is clear in our Gemara, the attitude of the Sages towards them differed, although after a period of time a final conclusion was reached and they were ruled to be treated as non-Jews, due to their continued involvement with different types of idol worship.
It is important to note that the Gemara in Yevamot concludes that while a bet din should not accept potential converts whose reason for converting is anything other than a sincere desire to join the Jewish People, nevertheless, if such a person does undergo a full conversion process they are considered Jewish according to halakha. It is possible that the Kutim did not fall into that category because they continued with their idolatrous practices even at the moment of their conversion. Nevertheless, today, the Samaritans living in Israel are no longer idol worshipers, and there has been some level of acceptance of them into the larger Jewish community.
Perhaps the most universally accepted commandment in the Jewish community is the mitzvah of brit milah – circumcision. Our Gemara brings a number of explanations of this phenomenon, quoting Sages that suggest that brit milah is equated with all of the other mitzvot (based on Shemot 34:27) or that the world exists only because of the merit of this covenant (based on Yirmiyahu 33:25).
Two other Sages that comment on the uniqueness of the mitzvah of milah are –
Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi who points to the biblical Abraham who followed all of the commandments of God, yet is called tamim – pure or perfect – only after his circumcision (see Bereshit 17:1), and
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha who points to the strange malon story (see Shemot 4:24-26) where it appears that for all of his merits, Moshe is to be killed because he was lax in fulfilling the commandment of milah on his own son.
Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi disagrees with the approach put forward by Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korchah, arguing that it impossible to suggest that Moshe would have avoided performing this mitzvah. He suggests that Moshe deserved punishment mipnei she-nitasek ba-malon tehilah – because he first took care of the lodging arrangements. This explanation also appears in the Talmud Yerushalmi which says that he was punished because he did not immediately tend to the milah and concerned himself with the physical concerns of his hotel arrangements.
Some of the commentaries point out that this approach apparently does not accept the story that is related in a number of midrashim, which tell of a promise made by Moshe to his father-in-law, Yitro, the High Priest of Midian, agreeing that his first-born would not receive a brit, because were that the case then Moshe should have been punished for his willingness to accept an agreement that rejects milah entirely, and not for the relatively small matter of postponing it while traveling.
Many nedarim (vows) are made as reactions to arguments between people, when the person taking the vows wants to punish his friend, or influence him to change his behavior. Forbidding his friend from deriving benefit from him is an expression of his attempt to accomplish this. In creating such a neder, the person who takes such a vow has one of two options –
- He can forbid his friend from benefiting from him in any way
- He can forbid his friend from deriving any benefit related to food or eating.
These are the issues that the fourth perek of Masechet Nedarim focuses on.
The first Mishnah (32b) discusses the differences that exist between forbidding food and forbidding all types of benefit. According to the Mishnah, someone who forbids food also becomes limited from lending his friend utensils in which food can be prepared, like a sieve or sifter, a mill-stone or an oven.
The Gemara on our daf questions why such utensils should be forbidden, since they are not food in-and-of themselves, and the amoraim suggest that the language of the neder apparently included more than just food. Rava suggests that the neder must have been stated in such a way that any benefit that could lead to eating was forbidden. Reish Lakish suggests that this neder forbade benefiting “from your food” which he understands to include a broader list of prohibitions.
The Gemara rejects Rash Lakish’s approach, arguing that such a statement may mean benefiting from food in a different way – that he is forbidding even a situation of chewing food, such as someone who chews wheat kernels for the purpose of putting them on a wound.
Chewed wheat kernels that are placed on the skin create a sort of bandage, whose outer layer hardens and acts as a protective element that keeps the wound clean. It also appears that some of the chemicals in wheat (like Vitamin E), combined with saliva help heal the wound while protecting it from infection.
Our Gemara relates that Rava received the following question from Rav Hiyya bar Avin: What is the law if a person says to his friend “I forbid you from deriving any benefit from my loaf of bread” and then gives him that loaf as a present? Should we assume that the person who took the vow only meant to forbid the loaf of bread while it was his, and when he transferred it into his friend’s possession, the effect of the vow was over, or should we say that the neder (vow) remains in effect throughout? Rava responds that it is obvious to him that the loaf of bread remains forbidden.
Several of the commentaries raise an obvious question. By definition, forbidding someone to benefit from an object that belongs to you should prohibit transferring ownership of the object to that person, since by taking possession of it he is clearly deriving benefit from it. In his Keren Ora, Rabbi Yitzhak mi-Karlin explains that the simple interpretation of forbidding benefit from a loaf of bread is that it becomes prohibited to eat. Therefore the Gemara takes for granted that the loaf can be given as a present to the person about whom the neder was made. The discussion in the Gemara is whether the prohibition against eating the loaf remains in force even after the bread has been transferred out of the possession of the person who took the neder and into the possession of the person about whom the neder was made.
Rabbi Avraham min-ha-Har suggests that the continuation of the Gemara effectively deals with this question. The Gemara raises the question of whether the loaf of bread would remain forbidden if it had been stolen by another and was no longer in the possession of the original owner – the implication being that if such a transfer of ownership would effectively permit the loaf, perhaps receiving it as a present would accomplish that, as well.
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.