Monday, 15 June 2015

Nedarim 23: How to Get Around the Need to Dissolve Our Vows

Vows are only meaningful if they cannot be broken.  If it is simple to dissolve a vow, then that vow holds no importance.  How do the rabbis know which vows can be dissolved and which vows are to be upheld?

Today's daf suggests some basic guidelines:

1) One cannot dissolve a vow if it is introduced with new information not yet know at the time that the vow was made - unless the new information is a common occurrence.  Both poverty and pregnancy are considered to be common enough occurrences that they can be introduced toward the successful dissolution of a vow.

2) An opening to dissolve a vow may be based on the vow itself.  For example, Rabbi Akiva vowed that his wife would not benefit from him should their daughter marry his wife's relative and not his chosen relative.  She defied him.  Akiva had this vow dissolved, for he only used the vow to threaten her and would not have made the vow if he knew his wife would defy him.

A new Mishna explains how we should vow. If we vow about ending the benefit in a relationship if something does not happen, the vow should end in words explaining that "any vow that I take in the future shall be void".  In that way, the vow need not be dissolved.

But how could this work, ask the rabbis?  If a person knows that a vow is meaningless, they won't take vows seriously.  Do we rely on the Kol Nidre contract, where we dissolve all vows in advance of the coming year, and lightly vow throughout the year?

Rava suggests that in fact we should do just that.  We dissolve our vows at the start of the year, but we do not know which vows we will wish to dissolve in advance.  Thus each time we make a vow, we must affirm whether or not we agree with our statement.  If so, we say, "I am vowing in accordance with my initial intention."

Rabbi Huna bar Chinanna decided to teach this during the Fesitval lecture.  Apparently other rabbis were appalled.  How can you worry about people taking vows lightly and then encourage them to dissolve their vows in advance?!

Because I lead a congregation in chanting Kol Nidre each year, I am very familiar with the form of that contract.  It is always very exciting to learn more about the the history and the meaning behind that very strange and powerful part of our most holy services.

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