Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Nedarim 65: Dissolving Vows in a Variety of Circumstances & Nebuchadnezzar's Rabbit

A story is told of King Zedkiah who found King Nebuchadnezzar eating a live rabbit.  Nebuchadnezzar  had King Zedkiah swear an oath, shavuah, that he would not tell anyone of this transgression.  Later, when he was physically suffering, Zedkiah asked the judges of the Sanhedrin to dissolve his oath, and they did so, allowing Zedkiah to share what he saw.  Nebuchadnezzar learned that people were treating him with less respect and he demanded to know why Zedkiah was permitted to dissolve his oath without the subject of the oath in his presence.  Realizing their errors, the judges all moved from sitting on cushions to sitting on the floor, demonstrating acknowledgement of their halachic breach.

The rabbis take from this story that a vow, which is consequenced similarly to an oath, must be dissolved in the presence of the people concerned. 

A new Mishna reminds us that a change in the conditions put on a vow does not mean that we are facing a new situation (and the halachot that apply to new situations).  For example, a man may vow that he will not set foot in another person's home because the father there is evil.  What happens when the father dies?  The rabbis agree that when the father dies, the vow dissolves automatically - without the assistance of a halachic authority.  

Rabbi Akiva notes that a man might say that a woman is konam to him for marriage because she is ugly, when in fact he realized later that she is beautiful.  In such cases, his vow can be dissolved.  It is telling and disturbing that the other examples used are black when she is white or short when she is tall.  It seems that the values of antiquity were similar to those of today: women should be beautiful, fair-skinned, and tall.  Racism - or shadism - seems to have played a part in one's choice of partners and thus in the general social structure of our ancestors.

Another new Mishna teaches that our vows are dissolved if we make those vows against a Torah law - whether that might regard feeding the poor, avoiding vengeful behaviours, or other charitable acts.  

A final new Mishna discusses the involvement of halachic authorities when a man vows that his wife will not benefit from him but he owes her 400 dinars for her ketuba.  We are told that this man had only 800 dinars and half were given to his brother.  He would be left with nothing if he were to pay her ketuba.  Thus he requested that he pay her only 200 dinars for the divorce.  The rabbis decided instead that he should be permitted to dissolve his vow and allow her to benefit from him. 

Rabbi Akiva tells him that even if he sells all of the hair on his head, his wife must get the 400 dinars.  The commentary focuses on whether 'movable property' (anything other than land) can be mortgaged in order to pay a ketuba.  My personal focus is on Rabbi Akiva's apparent understanding that the payment of a ketuba is more important than any other financial obligation.  

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