Masechet Nedarim 49a-55b

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08 Feb 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 49a-b

Perek ha-noder min ha-mevushal, the sixth chapter of Masechet Nedarim, returns us to the earlier discussion of intention and definition. What does a person mean when he says, for example, that he will not eat mevushal – “cooked food”? Does that include roasted or boiled food? How wide an interpretation should words be given?

One suggestion made by Abayye is that any food that is eaten in conjunction with bread would be considered a tavshil. He bases himself on a baraita that includes certain gourds as cooked, because sick people eat their bread with them. This leads the Gemara to tell the following story, which is understood as contradicting the idea that a gourd can be good for a sick person:

Once, when Rabbi Yirmiyah fell ill, a doctor was called to visit him. Upon seeing a kara in the house, the doctor turned around and left, saying “the angel of death is in the house, and I am expected to heal him?!” The Gemara then distinguishes between different types of gourds – whether they are soft or hard, and whether it is the whole gourd or the inside part of the gourd.

The kara is the “bottle gourd” or Lagenaria vulgaris, a summer vegetable of the gourd family. It usually grows on the ground, although sometimes it is hung to grow down from poles. It is a large vegetable (40-50 cm in length; 25-30 in width), which grows in the shape of a bottle or pitcher. If it is harvested young, it can be cooked and eaten. Its seeds are used as dessert nuts.

Gourds have a high nutritional value, although if they are harvested late, they become hard. For this reason, and also because of the fibers that it contains, gourds may be hard to digest, particularly for people who are ill and need to be eating easily digestible foods.

Nedarim 50a-b

Our Gemara is the source for one of the greatest Talmudic love stories – Rabbi Akiva and Rachel.

Rachel was the daughter of Ben Kalba Savu’a, who came from one of the wealthiest and most politically powerful families in Israel during the time of the destruction of the Second Temple. Akiva, a 40-year-old shepherd who worked for Ben Kalba Savu’a, asked Rachel to marry him.  She agreed to do so if he promised to devote himself to the study of Torah after their wedding. Akiva agreed to do so, and they secretly married. Upon learning of this Ben Kalba Savu’a threw Rachel out of his house and disowned her, condemning her to a life of poverty while Akiva studied. The Talmud relates that after 12 years of study, Akiva returned with 12,000 students, but before entering his house he heard his wife say that she would be willing to have her husband continue to learn for another 12 years. Taking her on her word, he returned to the beit midrash for another 12 years, returning home this time with 24,000 students.

According to the Gemara, by this time Ben Kalba Savu’a had come to regret the decision to disown his daughter, and upon hearing that a great Rabbi had come to town he called on him to ask to annul his vow. Rabbi Akiva asked him whether he would have made the vow to disown his daughter had she married a Torah scholar. Upon informing him that he would not have done so even if his son-in-law knew a single chapter or verse, Akiva identified himself. Released from his vow, Ben Kalba Savu’a gave the couple half of his estate.

One question that is raised by the commentaries focuses on how Rabbi Akiva’s newfound knowledge could be a reason to annul a vow. Ordinarily an argument that is nolad – a new situation – cannot be used as a reason to undo a vow; rather, it needs to be a mistake that existed at the time that the vow was made. The Ritva argues that since the marriage was predicated on Akiva’s willingness to study, his success could not be considered nolad; furthermore it is likely that he did have some learning at the time the vow was made. The Me’iri suggests that every person who is potentially a scholar – as Rabbi Akiva proved to be – cannot be considered without knowledge.

Nedarim 51a-b

Our Gemara describes the difficult relationship that Rebbe – Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi – had with one of his closest students, Bar Kappara. From the stories in the Gemara it appears that Bar Kappara was an incorrigible comic who refused to stop even upon Rebbe’s request. It appears that Rebbe – who carried himself with great seriousness and dignity, to the extent that he was called “Rabbeinu ha-Kadosh,” our holy Rabbi – did not want to engage in levity. The Maharsha explains that Bar Kappara believed that it was a great mitzvah to bring joy to people generally, and specifically to those who were, by their nature, somber and serious.

Among the specific incidents that are mentioned by the Gemara, one takes place at the wedding reception of Rabbi Shimon, Rebbe’s son. Bar Kappara asked Rebbe a series of questions, which were actually riddles related to the meaning of words in the Bible, and he succeeded in refuting all of his answers. Bar Kappara agreed to tell Rebbe the answers only if Rebbe would dance before him and have his wife serve him wine. Although Bar Kappara’s intent may have been to add to the levity of the affair, the Gemara reports that Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s son-in-law, ben Elasah, was so offended by the spectacle that he and his wife left the wedding.

Bar Kappara was one of the last tanna’im, a student of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi (Rebbe) and a friend of Rabbi Hiyya. We are never told his first name, although some suggest that his father was Rabbi Elazar ha-Kappar, who died before he was born, and that he, too, was named Elazar. He was knowledgeable in both Torah (authoring a collection of baraitot known as Mishnat bar Kappara) and in general knowledge, which is why he was sent on several occasions as the Jewish emissary to the Roman government. Almost all of the first-generation amora’im in Israel were his students. He was known as a satirist with a healthy sense of humor, and even offered critique that extended to Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nassi and his family, which may explain why – his close relationship with Rebbe notwithstanding – he did not receive Rabbinic ordination until after Rebbe’s death.

Nedarim 52a-b

Our Mishnah teaches that a person who takes a vow that he will not drink wine is allowed to eat food that has wine mixed into it, even if he can taste the wine. If, however, when he took his neder he said “I vow that I will not taste this wine,” if enough fell into the food that the taste of the wine can be discerned, then he would not be allowed to eat it.

The Ran explains that in this case we follow the language of the neder as it was expressed. If his vow prohibited wine, we understand that his intention was to forbid the drinking of the wine itself and not wine in food, even if there was enough to leave a taste of wine in the food. If, however, the statement that he made prohibited tasting wine, we must interpret his intention as relating even to the taste of wine.

The Shach in the Shulchan Aruch rules that this is true in the case of an ordinary person who takes a vow to refrain from drinking wine. If, however, the person who takes the vow is someone who does not like the taste of wine and makes the neder for that reason, then even if he said that he would refrain from drinking wine – and says nothing about the taste of the wine – we will interpret his vow to apply to the taste of wine. Rav Ephraim Navon, in his book Machane Ephraim, rejects this distinction and argues that we only seek an interpretation of his words if his statement is inherently unclear. In this case, we will simply accept the simple meaning of his neder.

Some of the commentaries have a different reading of the Gemara. According to them, the second case is different from the first not because of an emphasis on taste, but rather because the person taking the vow specified “this wine” rather than wine in general. Once the person specifically prohibited “this wine” it becomes like any other forbidden food and cannot be consumed if there is even a small taste of it.

Nedarim 53a-b

The Mishnah on our daf teaches that anything that is known by a shem levai – a qualifying name – will not be included in a general vow. For example,

An object gets a shem levai when an additional word is added to clarify and distinguish it from the normal use of the word. In the first two cases mentioned in our Mishnah, for example, plain use of the word “wine” means wine made from grapes, not wine made from any other fruit, and plain use of the word honey means bee honey, not honey made from dates. The baraita that appears in our Gemara makes clear, however, that the basic definitions of terms depends, to a large extent, on normative word usage in a given place. Thus, in the Mishnah, the plain meaning of the word “oil” is oil made from olives, not from sesame. Yet this is true only in Israel, where the Mishnah was written. In Babylon, the simple meaning of “oil” was sesame oil, and olive oil was seen as having a shem levai.

This distinction is made not only with regard to differences in place, but also regarding differences in time. As we learned in the Mishnah, under ordinary circumstances, non-cultivated vegetables are not considered “vegetables” as far as nedarim are concerned. During the shemitta year, however, when planting is forbidden and the only available vegetables are those that grow wild, it is the yerek ha-sadeh – the vegetables of the field – that take on the simple meaning of “vegetables” when someone mentions them in a vow.

Nedarim 54a-b

When someone takes a vow not to eat meat, what is included in his statement?

Our Gemara quotes a baraita which teaches that aside from fish and locusts (which are kosher), all other meat would be included in the vow. This means poultry as well as parts of the animal that ordinarily are not eaten. Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel argues that only ordinary meat would be included in the neder. According to this ruling, not only would the flesh of poultry, fish and locusts be permitted, but the innards of the animal (e.g. its liver, heart, etc.) would also be excluded from the prohibition that the person accepted on himself. The baraita concludes with the enigmatic statement made by Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel that kravayim (innards) are not meat, and those who eat them are not humans.

Not only in Talmudic times, but even until relatively recently, the internal organs of an animal were not considered edible under ordinary circumstances. At best, the innards of the animal were viewed as being “lower grade” in comparison with the main parts of the animal that were eaten – the muscular part, and, to a lesser extent, the fat of the animal. This applies not only to the windpipe, but even to the liver and spleen, heart, lungs and other inner organs, which were eaten only by poor people who could not afford to purchase regular meat. Traditional “Jewish foods” that are made from these parts of the animal were either made specifically by the poor, or were specially prepared for particular needs (e.g. for someone who was ill).

The baraita continues with an even more difficult statement made by Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel – “Those who eat them (i.e. kravayim), like meat; regarding purchase, they are not human.” This difficult line is simply removed from the Gemara by many commentators. Rashi explains that Rabbi Shimon concedes that for those people who eat these parts of the animals, their vow against eating meat will apply here, too. Nevertheless, someone who pays full price for such meat has removed himself from the normative community.

Nedarim 55a-b

The Mishnayot on our daf continue the discussion about word definitions.

How are we to understand the intention of someone who takes a vow not to eat grain? While Rabbi Meir rules that grain includes other milled products, such as pol haMitzri (which the Talmud Yerushalmi identifies as vigna luteola, a type of legume), the Chachamim limit such a statement to the five types of grain (oats, barley, wheat, spelt, and rye).

How are we to understand the intention of someone who takes a vow not to wear clothing?  The Mishnah rules that such a person can wear sackcloth, a curtain or a blanket in order to cover himself because they are not considered normal items of clothing.

At the same time, a person who takes a vow not to put on wool will not be permitted to wear woolen clothing, but can drape bundles of wool on his shoulders, since we interpret his statement as referring to traditional woolen clothing only.

Rabbi Yehuda points out that we need to examine the circumstances in order to properly assess the man’s intention when he took the vow. Thus, someone who is exhausted, having been hauling bundles of wool all day, who says “I will not put on any wool” will be allowed to wear woolen clothing, but will not be allowed to carry any more wool.

Rabbi Yehuda’s teaching obligates us to examine a person’s words and take into consideration the need to interpret a plain statement within the context in which it was said, thus recognizing that sometimes it will limit – or even change – their meaning.

Some say that Rabbi Yehuda is not arguing with the other Sages of the Mishnah, but rather he is simply pointing out that their ruling applies only in simple, straightforward situations. In more complicated situations we are obligated to consider the context in which the neder was made.

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.