Masechet Shevuot 26a-32b

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22 Jul 2010

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.

Shevuot 26a-b: What if someone’s oath leads to a situation that puts him in danger?

What if someone’s oath leads to a situation that puts him in danger or makes him uncomfortable?

This is the question posed by Ravina to Rava. If someone swore not to eat a loaf of bread and then was forced to eat it because otherwise his life would have been in danger, would he need to bring a sacrifice for having broken his oath, or would the circumstances that brought him to eat it save him from having to do so?

Rava answers that the person should simply have the oath annulled, since the laws of piku’ach nefesh – life threatening situations – would allow for any mitzvah to be “pushed aside,” and Rashi points out that if the oath would be annulled in any case, then if he accidentally broke his oath he will not be held liable.

The Gemara then restates the question: What if someone who takes an oath to refrain from eating a loaf of bread then finds that keeping it makes him very uncomfortable? If he ultimately eats it accidentally will he need to bring a sacrifice?  In response Rava quotes a baraita that only someone who forgot his oath will bring a sacrifice, but if he is aware of it them he will not bring a sacrifice.

Rashi explains this as follows. The question was: In a case where someone’s oath to refrain from eating the loaf makes him so uncomfortable that he would eat the bread purposefully, if he ultimately eats it accidentally, should we suggest that he be considered to have done it on purpose, since he would have done it anyway? Rava’s answer is that, in fact, such a person cannot be considered to be a shogeg – someone who does this accidentally.

The Rambam explains that the “accident” is that the person who took the oath is convinced that he does not need to keep his word, since he is so uncomfortable. Would such a person bring a sacrifice? Rava’s answer is that such a person cannot be considered to have done this accidentally, since he is fully cognizant of his oath.

Shevuot 27a-b: Should one swear to perform mitzvot?

The opening Mishnah on today’s daf teaches that if someone took an oath to perform a mitzvah or to neglect a mitzvah, the oath has no meaning and the person would not be held liable for a wrongful oath even if he did not fulfill what he said.

In his Commentary to the Mishnah, the Rambam explains that if someone swears to neglect to perform a mitzvah he will not be held liable because the passage in the Torah regarding such an oath limits it to situations where the person can choose le-hara o leheitiv – that the individual controls whether to perform that particular action or not (see Vayikra 5:4). When a person swears that he will not perform a mitzvah, since he cannot do so, the laws regulating this type of an oath will not apply. It should be noted, however, that the laws of shevuat shav will apply, since he invoked God’s name in vain when taking an oath that he could not keep.

In the case where he swore to fulfill a mitzvah, again the laws of a wrongful oath will not apply, since he had no choice but to fulfill the mitzvah. In this case, however, he will not be held liable for a shevuat shav, since a person is allowed to make use of oaths or vows in order to encourage himself to fulfill commandments.

The Mishnah presents this ruling in contrast with the opinion of Rabbi Yehuda ben Beteira who believes that the laws of wrongful oaths do apply to someone who swears to fulfill a mitzvah. His logic is that if a person will be held liable if he does not uphold a voluntary oath that he takes upon himself, how much more will he be responsible if he does not uphold an oath that is taken regarding a mitzvah that he is already sworn to fulfill, that is, the commitment taken by every Jewish person on Mount Sinai.

Shevuot 28a-b: Seeing double Nazirites

The Gemara on today’s daf discusses a case where a person accepts upon himself two consecutive periods of nezirut (under ordinary circumstances, a nazir must go thirty days without cutting his hair, drinking wine or coming into contact with the dead – see Bamidbar chapter 6). If, upon completing the first thirty days the nazir successfully petitions to have his first vow of nezirut annulled, then the time that he kept the laws of nezirut will be applied to his second vow and he has completed his obligation.

At first the Gemara tries to limit this ruling to a situation where the first nezirut was not fully completed, e.g. cases where the final sacrifices had not yet been brought, or the closing ceremony of cutting the nazir’s hair had not yet be fulfilled. Rav Ashi, however, rejects these limitations and argues that the case of a nazir is unique, since it is only the first nezirut that keeps the second one from beginning. Once the first one is removed the second one can replace it.

Rav Ashi’s explanation is understood in a number of different ways.

Rashi explains that even though this person had fully completed his first commitment as a nazir, nevertheless that vow still remains inasmuch as it keeps the second vow of nezirut from beginning. Once the first vow is removed, the second one immediately takes effect. The Ritva suggests that there is an element of fulfillment of the second vow of nezirut even during the period when the first nezirut is taking place. Therefore we view the two commitments as somewhat intertwined and we do not distinguish between the counting of the days for the first vow or for the second vow. Thus, when the first vow is annulled, it is clear that the second vow of nezirut has already been fulfilled and there is no need to complete it a second time.

Shevuot 29a-b: Swearing about the impossible

The Mishnah on today’s daf brings a number of examples of shevuot shav – a false or purposeless oath. These include:

It is interesting to note that although a person who takes such a shevuat shav will be liable to bring a sacrifice, had he taken a neder – a vow – such as this, he would not be held responsible in any way, as we would assume that he is simply exaggerating, or speaking in a manner that is not serious.

Why is there a difference between shevuot and nedarim with regard to these types of statements?

One approach suggested by Tosafot is that when discussing nedarim, we are inclined to pay attention to the way people ordinarily speak. Since we know that people exaggerate, we will assume that that was his intention. Shevuot, on the other hand, which include invoking the name of God, are treated in a more serious manner. Rabbeinu Chananel adds that this type of oath is the one that is specifically referred to in the Ten Commandments (see Shemot 20:6).

The Talmud Yerushalmi quotes two different baraitot regarding these issues – one of them appears to hold the individual liable for making such a shevi’it shav, while the other one appears to free him of any responsibility. The Yerushalmi distinguishes between cases by saying that it depends whether the person was ma’amid – if he “stands” – or not. This is explained as follows: If a person says a wild exaggeration and is challenged, if he recants then we understand that it was merely an exaggeration and he is not liable. If, however, he insists that what he said is true, and swears that it is so, then he is held liable for having taken a shevuat shav.

Shevuot 30a-b: Who can and cannot testify in a Jewish court?

The fourth perek of Masechet Shevuot begins on today’s daf, and – as its name Shevuat ha-Edut indicates – its focus is on oaths taken in response to a demand that someone testify about something that he witnessed, and he refuses to testify. This law is based on the passage in Sefer Vayikra (5:1).

The Mishnah opens by listing who is included in this law and who is exempt from it. Thus, the law applies only to men and not to women, it does not apply to relatives who cannot testify nor to people who are removed from testimony because of forbidden acts that they committed (e.g. if they are robbers).

The rishonim ask why we need a list of people who can and cannot testify, rather than sufficing with a simple statement that the law applies only to people who, theoretically, would be accepted as witnesses in a Jewish court. They explain that there are a number of situations where a person would be allowed to testify based on Torah law, but the Sages prohibited him from acting as a witness. The Mishnah needs to spell out cases in order to emphasize that even though they are acceptable on a Torah level, we will not apply the laws of shevuat ha-edut to them since we would not accept their testimony in court.

Rabbi Akiva Eiger points out that there are cases where a woman’s testimony would be accepted in court – e.g. a case of sotah. Why don’t these laws apply to a woman who has witnessed something about which she can testify? He argues that the passage in the Torah emphasizes that these laws apply to an ed – someone who is a kosher witness. When a woman’s testimony is accepted in a Jewish court it is because she is a proper witness so much as it is because there are other factors that allow the bet din to accept her words.

Shevuot 31a-b: “Stay far away from falsehood”

Mi-devar sheker tirchak – “Stay far away from falsehood” (Shemot 23:7).

The Gemara on today’s daf offers a series of applications of this passage.

Among them we find:

When a teacher says to his student “you know that I would not lie, even if I was offered money; I have only a single witness to a loan that I made – please join the witness in testifying on my behalf” – how do we know it is forbidden to do so?

Mi-devar sheker tirchak

When a judge hears testimony and know that the witnesses are lying, how do we know that he should not say “since the witnesses are testifying, I will rule accordingly and the responsibility will rest on their shoulders” (the language of the Gemara is that the kolar will be hung on the necks of the witnesses – a kolar being metal shackles that were put around the neck of prisoners)?

Mi-devar sheker tirchak

When two litigants approach the court, one who is dressed in rags and the other dressed in expensive finery, how do we know that the court insists that the wealthy litigant either matches the clothing of the poor one or else must dress the poor man in appropriate garments?

Mi-devar sheker tirchak

In this last case, the concern is that when the two litigants are dressed in radically different manners, the court will be unable to remain objective unless the discrepancy between them is minimized. The Ritva points out that the wealthy litigant will not be required to dress the poor man in an equivalent manner to himself, but the difference between them must be less obvious. The Ri”d argues that this ruling applies only if the wealthy litigant is the claimant, but if he is the defendant he will not be required to help his adversary with his dress; the Ri”az, however, disagrees with that position.

Shevuot 32a-b: Taking something back that belongs to you

The Gemara on today’s daf relates the following case:

A certain person grabbed a silver piece from his friend. He was brought before Rabbi Ami and Rabbi Abba was sitting before him. The claimant brought a single witness who testified that the defendant had taken the silver piece from him, a claim to which the defendant readily agreed saying: “Yes, I took it, but I was only taking back property that belonged to me!”

Hearing the exchange of claims, Rabbi Ami mused: “How should the judges rule on this case? On the one hand, we cannot make him pay, since there is only a single witness. On the other hand, we cannot trust him to take an oath that he took what belonged to him (the ordinary ruling in a case where there is a single witness) since he has admitted that he is a thief?” Rabbi Abba responded that we will make him pay for the silver, since he is someone who is obligated to take an oath, and anyone who is obligated to take an oath and cannot do so, must pay.

One question raised regarding Rabbi Ami’s musing is his assumption that the defendant cannot be trusted since he admitted his guilt in taking the silver. In fact, the defendant claims that his actions were totally within his rights, since he was just taking back his property, and there is only a single witness who accuses him of wrongdoing. Some manuscripts leave out the argument that the defendant is considered to be a thief, and instead simply have the Gemara read “he admits it.” The meaning of this statement becomes that he must pay since he cannot swear regarding this case. His inability to swear does not stem from the fact that he is a thief, rather it is because he cannot deny the testimony of the witness, since he has already admitted that what the witness said is true – he did take the silver.

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.