Monday, 29 June 2015

Nedarim 37: Educating Children on Shabbat

Addressing the question of ways that one might benefit even though a vow forbade it, our last Mishna included the idea that one cannot teach Bible directly to that person.  However, he can teach Bible to his sons and daughters.  Today's daf digs into that question.

Some competing facts that are presented or understood through today's daf:

  • Teaching is work and should not be done on Shabbat
  • Teaching verses for the first time is difficult and will take away from rest on Shabbat
  • children are generally taught Bible through repetition of one verse until children can read and understand it on their own
  • Repeating verses already taught is permitted on Shabbat
  • Teaching minors is different from teaching adults, though sometimes similar guidelines are used when discussing teaching children and Torah scholars
  • If one is paid for teaching children Bible on Shabbat, they are paid for watching, not teaching, but payment for 'work' on Shabbat is forbidden
  • If work is done on Shabbat by a Gentile, it is not paid work OR it is lumped in with other work over a longer period of time
  • If something is stolen or broken on Shabbat, the volunteer is not held responsible
  • If something is stolen or broken on Shabbat, the paid person is held responsible
  • Perhaps the Mishna is referring to learning Bible without cantillation notes and punctuation 
  • Children might not learn well on Shabbat because they eat more than usual and are sluggish
  • Children should not refer to girls - they stay home anyway
  • Rav and Rabbi Yehuda discuss whether or not cantillation is a necessary part of learning Torah
  • Words are written that are not spoken; other words are spoken that are not written (proof texts are shared)
A fascinating digression!

Nedarim 36: Benefiting as Personal Giving

Even more than past dapim, today's daf focuses on intention.  Does is matter if a priest knew in advance that an offering was piggul, for it would be sacrificed at the wrong time?  Does it count if a person is making a request to inspire motivation rather than personal benefit?  Must a person know that they are doing a mitzvah (tithing for someone else, for example)?  What if the invitation to help with tithing is not specifically made to the person who should not be 'benefitting' another?

One story told is that of a man who encouraged the boys and girls in his group to offer the korban pesach to race to the Temple.  In the end, the girls arrived first.  Because there is no mention of one group being rewarded over the other, the lesson is taken to be motivation.  Even though minor children are not counted in the mitzvah of bringing the korban pesach, they were being taught to be motivated to perform mitzvot.   I wonder about the original context of this story and what it was said to prove.  What is the significance of noting that girls were the winners of this race?

The Gemara comments on priests who are forbidden from benefiting from other priests; about eating the forbidden fat and proceeding to make an offering.  Many examples, each discussed in some detail.

Nedarim is certainly about the intricacies of practical legal interpretation.  Although it is relatively simple (compared with other masechtot), I am finding Nedarim to be extremely tedious.  I just hang on for those brief stories; the transgressions that make everything brighten up as the law steps off of the page.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Nedarim 35: Examples of Benefiting Though One's Vow Forbids Benefiting

The Gemara continues to help us clarify specific exceptions to vows that are made to forbid benefit from another person.  They discuss the details of each example in some detail.  Both cows and spades are used to help us understand what happens if a person has more than one of the items that has been specified in the vow.  The rabbis understand property law from this point: a person must actually own the item in question for the vow to take effect.  

Another set of examples is concerned with vows regarding consecrated items.   Does the transgression of 'misuse of consecrated property' come into play in cases where an item is vowed to be konam?  The rabbis consider complex cases, where a person is returning a lost item and receives payment.  What is to be done if that payment must be consecrated to the Temple? 

Amud (b) begins with a new Mishna speaking of how benefit might continue even after a vow against benefiting is enacted.  Separating one's teruma from his tithes, sacrificing one's bird nests - including those of zavot and mothers after childbirth, sin-offerings, guilt offerings, and teaching. One can be taught midrash, halachot, aggadot, but not Torah - although one can teach his children Torah.

The rabbis question whether priests are our agent or agents of Heaven when they perform Temple rites.  This suggests that priests are able to perform their rights even if vows are forbidding those actions.  As agent of Heaven, priests have a higher set of obligations.

In discussing the Mishna's references to women after childbirth and zavot, the Gemara asks who is included in these situations.  Are minors included when referring to women who have had children?  No, the rabbis determine, because minors are permitted to use 'contraceptive reabsorbents', barriers to pregnancy, for pregnancy could result in their deaths.  Along the same line of thinking but with an opposite result, husbands are responsible to bring offerings for their wives who are 'imbeciles'.  

Through their discussion, the rabbis decide that husbands must always bring offerings for their wives, regardless of their wives' status or intelligence.  A wealthy husband is responsible for his poor wife's offerings.  In fact, financial responsibility for one's wife's debts is written into the ketuba.  

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Nedarim 33: The Limitations of a Vow (One Will Not Benefit From Another)

The rabbis continue to debate how we understand 'benefit' when we vow not to benefit from another person (or their food, for example).  Where do we limit that benefit?  Can we borrow a utensil? A nose ring or a finger ring?  Can we walk on their land?  Or do we simply avoid being in their presence in public places?  

Two very short Mishnayot and their commentaries continue this line of questioning.  One Mishna asks about paying the annual half-shekel to the Temple on their behalf.  Can we pay their debts or lend them money?  What is considered to be 'benefitting' from someone?

Amud (b) examines the repayment of loans.  Must such a loan be repaid in this circumstance of vowing not to benefit from another person?  The rabbis quote Chanan, who ruled that a husband whose wife was supported by another man when the husband went overseas need not repay that man. Without a contract, there is no need to repay that debt.  However, the wife could have asked to borrow money.  In that case, the husband would be responsible for that loan when he returned.  The High Priests* argued that the man lending money to the wife should take an oath on how much he spent and that that amount should be repaid by the husband on his return.

On a side note, nose rings must have been ubiquitous - why else would they be lent and borrowed with ease?  Did they denote status, or fashion sense, or physical power, for example?  How were they used and why were such personal items shared?  

* We learn in a note that the High Priests were, at the time of the Second Temple, appointed from among several prominent families, sometimes through bribes.  In earlier times the High Priest was chosen according to inheritance.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Nedarim 32: Astrology & Divination, Circumcision, Numerology, Wholeheartedness

Nedarim is the study of contract law.  But the most interesting parts of this masechet, for me, are shared through the digressions.

The rabbis wish to prove that the mitzvah of circumcision is more important than the halachot of Shabbat.  They use proof texts from Exodus (2:24-26) and other places to understand how Moses did not circumcise his child but Zipporah did.  They point to a fear of both anger and wrath (Psalms 37:8, Isaiah 27:4, Deuteronomy 9:19) which may have led to Moses killing the angel Cheima.  Further, Abraham was called tamim, wholehearted, only after he performed circumcision.  

Wholeheartedness is not specifically defined, but it seems to be a very important concept. Is it focus?  Mental direction?  Does it involve more than the mind but the soul, as well?

The rabbis use different proof texts to validate their claim that the mitzvah of circumcision is equal to all other mitzvot of the Torah (Exodus 34:27, Jeremiah 33:25).  Some rabbis disagree with that assertion and argue that the Torah, not circumcision, is being discussed in those and other proof texts. 

Abraham went outside and looked to the constellations, noting that he was only to have one son - and he already had Ishmael.  The rabbis speak more about the significance of acting with wholeheartedness, and then they proclaim that divination - looking to see the future - will lead to that same 'sign' injuring the person who seeks answers.  The proof texts for this argument revolve around Jacob, for it was said that "For there is to him/no divination with Jacob".  The word for "to him" is "lo", which could also mean "no" when spelled lamed aleph (which is the case here).  Another argument suggests that all divination is unacceptable because of Jacob and because Israel is already closer that the angels to G-d (Numbers 23:23).

Speaking about why Abraham's children were enslaved to Egypt for 210 years, the rabbis suggest that  he was punished for sending his trained men - his Torah scholars - to war.  The rabbis then begin a conversation about numerology: the numeral value of the men who went to war (Genesis 14:14) is the same as that of the letters of Abraham's name: 318.  Further, G-d enthroned Abram over 243 limbs - also the numerical value of his name - until he changed his name to Abraham.  At that point he w ruled over 248 limbs, which is the numerical value of the name Abraham.

We learn that limbs are any part of the body with a bone that is covered over with skin.  Additional limbs - eyes, ears, tip of the sex organ - are considered to be "additional limbs".  Rami bar Abba explains Ecclesiastes 9:14-15 as follows: A little city with a few men in it refers to the body with its limbs.  The great king who came against it and besieged it and built great bulwarks against it refers to the evil inclination and our sins.  A man who was poor and wise delivered the city with his wisdom but was not remembered means that the good inclination - good deeds and repentance - overcomes the evil inclination, but no one remembers the good when faced with the evil.

The rabbis also explain Ecclesiastes 7:19 in a similar manner.  They then speak about G-d's wish for all of G-d's children to be priests.  This is discussed.

The daf ends with a new Mishna: Those who vow not to benefit from another person's food, in particular, may not lend or borrow any food-related item, from a strainer to an oven.  However, unrelated items - cloaks, nose rings, etc., may be shared.

Today's daf mentioned things I'd understood as law without any reason or meaning attached.  The first was the idea that circumcision is equal to all of the Torah; it is more important than Shabbat.   The second was that divination is against Jewish law.  Again it is incredibly powerful to find the reasoning behind what I have understood as law. Divination, for example, seems weaker than other halachot.  I suppose I'll find out more about what the rabbis have to say about this as I continue to learn.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Nedarim 31: Are Kutim Jewish?, and the Mitzvah of Circumcision

Amud (a) of Nedarim 31 repeats the pattern of 'brief Mishna, brief Gemara' over and over.  This is the first time in almost three years of learning that I have seen anything like it.

The first Mishna is short but not unusually brief.  It tells us that a person who vows not to benefit from those who keep Shabbat will not benefit from Jews nor from Samaritans/Kutim.  A person who vows not to benefit from those who eat garlic, which was recommended to do on erev Shabbat, will not benefit from Jews nor from Samaritans/Kutim.  However, those who vow not to benefit from those who make aliyah to Jerusalem will not benefit from Jews alone.  Our notes teach that this is because Samaritans/Kuitm ascend to Mount Gerizim rather than to Jerusalem.

The Gemara demonstrates the rabbis' various opinions regarding whether or not a Samaritan is a Jew or not.  In some circumstances it would seem that they are commanded, as are Jews, to observe halachot.  At other times it seems that Samaritans are idol worshippers and thus not Jewish, end of story.

The short Mishnayot and their responses are decisions about people who vow not to benefit from different groups of people - what is different about those who vow not to benefit from the offspring of Noah versus the offspring of Abraham versus the property of a Jew in particular?  

This last Mishna opens up a larger set of considerations regarding how to determine who is Jewish.  If we are making vows that include or exclude groups of people based on religion or ritual practice, we must be sure about who is Jewish and who practices in which ways.  The Gemara also looks at how Jews might do business with each other, using a shared religious belief system to advantage - or disadvantage - each other.  It continues this line of thought, discussing who is liable to pay for damaged property lent by one person to another if the damage was done accidentally. 

A new Mishna tells us that if a person vows not to benefit from one who is uncircumcised, they are referring only to Gentiles and not to those Jews who were uncircumcised for heath or other serious reasons.  The Mishna goes on to provide us with numerous proof texts on the significance of circumcision.  Some of those include the notion that circumcision is more important that Shabbat, as we override the halachot of Shabbat to perform circumcision (Rambam, Sefer Ahava).  As well, Shabbat is thought to be the reason that G-d created heaven and earth: it is a consecrated mark of G-d's connection in human flesh.

The Gemara picks up on this conversation and looks to Moses and the role that circumcision might have played in his life.  Why was his punished by G-d and not allowed to see the promised land?  Was it because he neglected the mitzvah of circumcision?  Was it because he waited to circumcise his child while leaving for Egypt (on the third day, we have learned that people are incapacitated due to the pain of circumcision - was he protecting the child from the journey ahead?)?  Was it because he was concerned about lodging first, ignoring his delay of the mitzvah of circumcision?

Amazing how we can move so quickly from one topic to another! Today's daf is packed with fascinating information about halachot, societal cohesion, and ideological underpinnings of this ancient world - and our own world.

Nedarim 30: Tricky Vows

Unfortunately today's daf will receive only a cursory review, due to my own poor time management skills. 

The gist of today's daf is that people make bizarre vows, and sometimes those vows will stick.  If a person says that he will not benefit from anyone who's skin sees the sun, he will not benefit from almost anybody.  Even the skin of people who are blind sees the sun.  

If a person makes a vow regarding people with blackened heads, to what is he referring?  Children, who do not cover their heads?  Women always cover their heads.  Could it be that men only cover their heads sometimes, and thus this is referring to men?

What is interesting to me about this daf is:

1) the rabbis understand that people can vow about anything, and it is their job to figure out how those vows might play out
2) in examining one of these bizarre questions, the rabbis come up against something that is actually fascinating.  Who's head is blackened?  What do we learn about society based on that statement?  What do we learn about halacha based on that statement?  

Sometimes it feels as though the Talmud is a treasure map - with many, many treasures - and it is our job to figure out what is metaphor, what is pshat, and what is something else entirely.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Nedarim 29: Inherent Sanctity and Sanctity Inherent in its Value

The rabbis dive into the tension between inherent sanctity and the power of a vow.  Can a man say to a woman, "Today you are my wife and tomorrow you are not my wife" and expect her to leave the marriage without a ketubah?  Sanctity that is inherent in its value will disappear if nothing is done.  Inherent sanctity relates to something that is consecrated, like a betrothed woman.  An action must be done to remove that inherent sanctity.

But is that actually the case?  Apparently a baraita teaches that one can make a vow that states that  an ox can be brought as a burnt offering and then changed to a peace offering after thirty days without any 'action'.  The Gemara counters that this is a case where one is consecrating the ox for its monetary value which will be used toward a peace offering.  Thus the sanctity changes via an action.

The rabbis use the example of a woman who is betrothed when a man gives her a peruta and says, we will be betrothed after thirty days.  Even if she spends or loses that money, they are betrothed after thirty days unless one of them retracts.  The rabbis go on to consider what happens if one of them does retract and the peruta is gone.   One of their considerations is a vow made to G-d in comparison with a vow made to a common person.  Vows made to G-d are not dependent on place, as G-d is everywhere, and thus those vows are enacted immediately.  

The daf ends with a story about Rabbi Yirmeya dozing, menamnem, while they discuss this case.  We'll learn where it goes through tomorrow's daf.  

Nedarim 28: vows to those who are undeserving

The rabbis address vows and oaths made to tax collectors or other unscrupulous people.  We can assume from their words that tax collectors are not necessarily scrupulous in their dealings.  They remind us that in a kingdom, we follow the laws of that kingdom.   However, tax collectors might not follow those laws themselves.

Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai discuss differences in how and whether laws or oaths might be used in such circumstances, of course where Beit Hillel's views are more lenient and Beit Shammai's views are more lenient.

We are introduced to the notion of the redemption of trees and clothing in a new Mishna.  A person might vow that his saplings are (like) and offering if they are not cut down/burned.  If no-one destroys his land, his trees/land is consecrated.  As well, if one says that these saplings are like an offering until they are cut down/burned, then they cannot be redeemed.  

The Gemara takes these statements and runs - it considers making vows on produce that does not belong to the house of the king.  It discusses more ideas about tax collection.  It speaks to extortionists who force people to take vows that disadvantage their wives and/or children.  As well, it speaks to the greater severity of oaths, which means that we must be more careful when we take oaths.  Beit Shammai do not even allow people to request the dissolution of oaths.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Nedarim 26: All, Nothing, or Some?

The rabbis continue to debate yesterday's question regarding a father that has been included with all others, erroneously, in a person's vow.  Can a person say that something is konam for him/her from all people except for one's father?  Today, the rabbis delve deeper into that question.  When, if ever, can a person make a vow that is conditional in that way?  

The notions of connection based on similarities (so-and-so is like so-and-so) and precision of speech are discussed as well.  The rabbis wonder what to do if a person states that all onions are konam for him, for they harm his heart - but another person reminds the first person about kuferi onions, which are actually healthy for the heart.  Can the vow be dissolved only in part?  Can the vow be restated in such a way that renders kuferi onions exempt from the vow?

Although I know that I am missing the nuance - and perhaps even the core - of Nedarim, but I am finding this masechet much more 'simple' than the others.  It seems that the dapim are shorter (did I just jinx myself?) and the arguments are easier to follow.  We'll see where this goes.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Nedarim 25: Common Understandings; Unintentional Oaths

The Gemara tells the story of a person who said that he had repaid a debt.  The man owed the debt disagreed.  The debtor took money and hid it in a cane.  He asked the lender to hold his cane while he made an oath on the Torah that he gave the lender his money.  Watching this blatant "lie", the lender became irate and broke the cane into pieces, coins hitting the floor.  However, the debtor had made his oath in truth, for he had returned the money to the lender for the moment that the lender held the cane.

The rabbis take from this that one must make oaths according to the understanding of the court.  Even though one might be telling the truth when he takes an oath, his oath must hold the same meaning to others - the court, the witnesses - that it holds for himself.  But don't people always make oaths according to their own understandings?  The rabbis go on to discuss the difficulty of defining what people hold in their hearts.  They find proof texts in the Torah that suggest that Moses helped us to understand this very point.

Amud (b) focuses on unintentional vows, which are dissolved just like unintentional oaths are dissolved.   A new Mishna tells us that an unintentional vow might be one where a person vows not to eat something but then forgets and eats that thing.  Or where a person forbids people to eat figs but realizes that this applies to his father, too, though that was not his intention.  There is no partial dissolution of a vow; the vow is fully dissolved in this case and all people are permitted to eat figs again.

Today's daf addresses some fundamental principles that ensure social cohesion.  How do we ensure that people do not lie to advance their own causes?  What do we do about honest mistakes?  How can we be stringent and yet flexible enough to account for normal human behaviour?

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Nedarim 24: Exhortation and Exaggeration

The rabbis consider vows of exhortation.  They use the example of one who says, “if you do not take for your son a kor of wheat and two barrels of wine from me as a gift, benefiting from you is konam for me”.  Such a vow can be dissolved without a halachic authority, because the one who vowed was vowing to uphold his own honour.  The other person can refrain from accepting the gift for the  same reason - to uphold his own honour.

One of the arguments discussed by the rabbis is that of a dog or a king.  One person can say to the other, Am I a dog/king that only one person benefits and the other does not?  The rabbis do not go into the question of benefit – for example, though we give to the king and the king gives nothing, doesn’t the king also benefit from the power and good feeling that is position imposes upon himself?

Again, the rabbis provide examples of vows that are dissolved because those vows are delayed for reasons beyond the person’s control.

A new Mishna teaches us about vows of exaggeration.  These vows are understood as either tools to explain something unusual, or complete fabrications.  One of the examples is, “I take an oath that I saw on this road as many people as those who ascended from Egypt”.  It is not meant to be literal, nor is it held up to be a real oath. 

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.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Nedarim 22: Avoiding Vows, Anger, Murder, and Hemmeroids

After all of these conversations about making promises, today's daf backtracks.  Not only is it ill advised to make a vow, we should be actively discouraging people from making vows.  As they discussed earlier, the rabbis know that when we vow, we create the possibility of breaking that vow.  That means that we open ourselves to the possibility of sin when we vow - there is no possibility of the sin of transgressing a vow if we do not make that vow.  Thus the rabbis discuss how to bring up the topic of dissolving vows.  There are verses from Proverbs and rabbis' own words that might remind people to avoid making vows.

Our previous Mishna says that "There the wicked cease from troubling".  Rabbi Yonatan is known to have said that "Anyone who gets angry, all kinds of Gehenna rule over him" [because anger leads to sin]. Ecclesiastes 11:10 tells us "Therefore remove vexation from our heart and put away evil from your flesh".  Evil refers to Gehenna - we know this from Proverbs 16:4: "The Lord has made everything for His own purpose and even the wicked for the day of evil".  

What will plague a person who is angry?  Hemorrhoids.  Why?  Because in Deuteronomy 28:65, we learn about a sickness: "But the Lord shall give you there a trembling heart, and failing of eyes, and languishing of soul".  Personally, I might think of another sickness that causes these symptoms - diabetes, for example?  But the rabbis consider a different direction of interpretation.

Ulla is said to have travelled to Eretz Yisrael with two people from Chozai, a place far from other Jewish communities (close to Shushan) and without Torah learning.  One of these men killed the other after an argument.  The killer asked Ulla if he had done the right thing, and Ulla replied that he had.  In fact, he said, open the place of slaughter so that your neighbour dies more quickly.  Ulla found Rabbi Yochanan and asked the same question: did I do the right thing?  Perhaps I helped him to feel good about sinning when I just wished to save my own life.  Rabbi Yochanan reassured him - you saved yourself.

Our daf ends noting that the original verse from Deuteronomy referred to time in Babylonia.   Exile to Bavel was thought to cause anger and trembling of the heart, which could lead a person to murder another person.  But how could such a thing happen in Israel?  The answer to that question will begin tomorrow's daf.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

Nedarim 21: Regret and Dissolution of Vows

Of the four types of vows that can be dissolved with halachic authority, the rabbis first consider the concept of regret.  If a person makes a vow and then realizes that they don't wish to keep the vow, that is considered to be 'regret'.  Most rabbis argue that regret is not a good enough reason to justify the dissolution of a vow. Instead, if a vow was made in error - for example, if at the time of making the vow, the person was not aware of relevant information - that is a justifiable reason to dissolve the vow.

This brings the rabbis to conversations about intent.  People promise to do things or not to do things all of the time.  Were they seriously vowing, though?  Or were they exaggerating, for example?  Anything that has to do with nazirut must be specific and intentional.  But what about paying debts?  What should be done if we don't know whether or not the vow was intended to be specific and directed and serious?  The rabbis leave some of these dilemmas unresolved.

We learn about the halacha regarding regret in our notes.  The rabbis decide that if a person simply regrets their vow after having made it, s/he approaches a halachic authority or, if none is available, three laypeople.  After s/he expresses fundamental regret, they dissolve the vow.  Stringent communities suggest a different protocol: the person is then asked, "If you knew that you would regret it would you have mdd the vow to begin with?"  The vow is resolved if the answer is "no".

Friday, 12 June 2015

Nedarim 20: The consequences of sexual acts

Today we are taken on an interesting path off to the side.

Before getting into the very interesting material learned in today's daf, a comment.  Although there are places in the Talmud where we learn about women's agency, women's sexual preferences and women's lives, today's daf is not one of those places.  These rabbis argue about what is safe, halachic, and even Torah-derived sexual behaviour between a man and his wife.  While there is some mention made of women's complaints about their husbands sexual preferences, those complaints are met with something along the lines of "You are his property, so it's his right to do what he wants with you. Put up with it."  The zinger is that there are consequences attached to the children, not to the parents, if the parents have intercourse in different ways.

There is no way around it - in this daf, we read that men see women's bodies as simultaneously alluring and repulsive; holy and dangerous; all-powerful and meant to be dominated.  Take a deep breath.... the discussion, though intense, begins slowly.

If a vow is taken with certain understandings, that vow might be invalid and thus not needing a halachic authority to dissolve it
  • We should not vow frequently for we might learn to take vows lightly - which might lead to taking oaths lightly, which is more serious
  • We must not spend time around an ignoramus, for they will lead us to transgress halachot
  • We must not talk too much with women, for that leads to adultery
  • "Women's heels" is a euphemism for women's genitals (because our heels are opposite our genitals when we are crouching down)
  • Men should not look or stare at "women's heels" as it leads to adultery
  • Shame can be seen on our faces - shame leads to a fear of sin
  • Rabbi Yochanan ben Dehavai: Ministering angels taught me four things:
    • lameness: fathers overturned their tables
    • muteness: fathers kissed "that place"
    • deafness: parents conversed during intercourse
    • blindness: fathers stared at that place
  • Imma Shalom, wife of Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyraanus, explained why her children were so beautiful:
    • my husband converses with me only at midnight (they speak during sexual intercourse but only in full darkness, though he could have a candle lit as a scholar)
    • at that time he reveals only one handbreadth and covers a handbreadth (many opinions on what this means)
    • he is as if he were coerced by a demon (he covers himself up as though in fear?)
  • Imma Shalom asked her husband the meaning of this
  • He responded: so that I do not set eyes on another woman (if he thinks of another woman during intercourse, the children will be close to mamzerim)
  • Rabbi Yochanan disagrees with Rabbi Yochanan bar Dehavai:
    • men can do whatever he wishes to to with his wife
    • men can eat meat from the butcher with salt, roasted, cooked, boiled...
    • who were these ministering angels and how were they recognizable?
    • if their clothing was distinct, perhaps they were Torah scholars whose clothing is distinct
    • Rav and Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi both ruled against women who came to court claiming that they set their tables but their husbands turned them over (whether this refers to a sexual position or to anal intercourse, the man is able to have intercourse the way he likes)
    • A man cannot think of one woman while having intercourse with another, even if they are both his wives
  • There are nine types of children produced from their parents' states while having intercourse:
    • eima-childre of a woman in fear of her husband (whether coerced or raped)
    • anusa-children of women who were raped
    • senua- children of a hated woman
    • nidui- children who had one parent ostracized by the court
    • temura-children of men who substituted thoughts of another woman during intercourse
    • meriva-children of strife (from parents arguing during intercourse)
    • shikhrut-children of drunkenness
    • gerushat halev- children of a couple who already decided to divorce
    • irbuveya-children of mixture, where the husband did not know which woman he was with
    • chatzufa-children of a shameless woman who demanded that her husband have intercourse with her
  • The rabbis argue that righteous women do suggest that her husband have intercourse with her, but in the subtler manner mastered by our foremother Leah, "You must come in to me; for I have hired you with my son's mandrakes" (Genesis 30:16)
  • Women who entice their husband to have intercourse have excellent children
Our daf ends with a new Mishna that begins Perek III.  We learn that the Sages dissolved four types of vows without requiring a halachic authority to be involved.
  • vows of exhortation
  • vows of exaggeration
  • vows that are unintentional
  • vows that cannot be kept due to circumstances beyond one's control

So I've been thinking about this daf since yesterday and I have one more idea to add.

First we learn that men are only supposed to have intercourse with their wives in very specific ways.  Women's preferences are not considered.

This is challenged, not based on the fact that people are supposed to enjoy sexual pleasure.  Instead, the challenge is that men are supposed to be able to do whatever they wish with their property, just like they can eat meat that they have purchased from the butcher in any way that they please.  Again, women's preferences are not considered.

Neither of these two approaches to permitted sexual practices enhances women's pleasure - unless, of course, an individual man finds his greatest pleasure in pleasing his wife.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Nedarim 19: Conditional vows regarding Nazirut

Maybe it's the effects of learning Nedarim or maybe it's my mood, but daf 19 seems to begin with the rabbis just bickering.  What about this sort of firstborn animal; what about that sort of forbidden animal?  Doesn't intention count?  Isn't there a difference between sanctity that is born and sanctity that is chosen?  What about the firstborn of a kosher animal versus the firstborn of a non-kosher animal?  And does liquid help us to understand what might be a difficulty?  How might we understand something that is impure that can cause other things to be impure?  

And, by the way, this giving of the firstborn is a tricky game.  We learn in a note that a sheep is given in place of a firstborn male donkey.  If this redemption does not happen, the donkey's neck is broken. What is the lesson in this?  That if G-d does not get the pleasure of the kill, no one gets the benefit of the donkey's life? 

Okay, I think it's my mood.

We learn in another note that there is such a thing as a permanent nazirite.  Such a person may cut his/her hair no more than once each year if it is too heavy for him/her.  S/he must also bring three animals as offerings before returning to be a nazirite.

The rabbis then argue more pointedly about ritual purity with regard to animals, insects and liquids.  This is followed by a description of how one might become a nazirite by making a conditional promise.  The rabbis seem to be helping each other understand the parameters of nazirut through their discussion.  What are the details how a nazirite deals with hair that is heavy?  How would this or other uncertainties affect one's ability to bring offerings?  And if a person vows to be a nazirite like Samson, well, that is impossible - Samson's status was decreed.  One cannot use a vow to create a status equivalent to that of Samson.

The rabbis end our daf with a continuation of their argument.  Do we treat conditional vows regarding nazirut with leniency?  Can vows of nazirut be conditional at all?  The rabbis seem to hold different views on these topics.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Nedarim 18: Grey Areas

Today's daf focuses on my one of my favourite parts of the Talmud: the grey.  The in-between, the undefined.  Not black and not white.  So much of the Talmud is an attempt to create and define clear lines designating the differences between this and that.  But what of those things that live in the grey?  And what of those of us who strive to live in the grey?

When a vow or an oath is unclear, are we stringent and demand that that promise be kept?  Or are we lenient, allowing for error?  The rabbis examine this question in a number of ways. One of those involves an animal called a koy.  It is unclear what a koy is, exactly.  It seems to be considered part wild and part domesticated animal.  However, whatever it is, it is 'grey'.  And so if a person makes a vow regarding all of their wild/domesticated animals, what is done about the koy?

The rabbis even created genders to capture (literally?) the reality of different bodies.  If it exists, it was intended by G-d and thus it is our job to understand, to classify, and to create boundaries around it. But the rabbis were brilliant.  They must have known at a very deep level that they could not classify everything and everyone.  There would always be grey.

The study of vows and oaths and other promises is not particularly engaging.  It is repetitive and logical and, to me, boring.  But the introduction of this confusion is meaningful to me. 

Nedarim 17: Doubling Up

Can we make two oaths, shavuot, at the same time?  Can we make two vows, nedarim, at the same time?

The rabbis agree that two oaths cannot be made concurrently.  However, vows seems to be more complicated. In the case of nazirut, vowing to become a nazirite, the rabbis suggest that two such vows might extend the nazirite's commitment.  The minimum time to be a nazirite is 30 days.  If a person makes this vow twice, s/he has promised at least two 30-day stints as a nazirite.

There are other circumstances where the rabbis allow a vow to be taken twice, as well.  An example would be when a person forbids him/herself from eating a fruit twice, and then eat that fruit.  The person is then liable to two consecutive punishments.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Nedarim 15: Vowing to Abstain from Sexual Intercourse with one's Husband or Wife

When a person makes a vow that goes against Torah law, it cannot be observed.  Further, one should be punished for "profaning his word" as described in Numbers (30:3).  Today's daf considers a number of situations where a complex, conditional vow is taken.  When are those cases considered to be vows; where one might be flogged for the transgression?  

If a vow is conditional on timing - "I will not benefit from this food tomorrow if I close my eyes today", and person taking the vow eats the bread on the same day the vow is made, has he transgressed?  He has not transgressed the vow, but he has profaned his word.  If a man vows that his wife will not benefit from him if she visits her father's home before Pesach, does she get flogged for breaking that vow and visiting within the time limit given?  

Most interesting are the examples that involve couples who make vows affecting their sexual relationships.  But husbands and wives have different obligations regarding marital relations.  If a husband vows that he will not have intercourse with his wife, the court will order him to reverse his vow, for she has the right to undiminished food, clothing and conjugal rights (Exodus 21:10).  But if he vows not to derive pleasure from the intercourse, his vow can be upheld.  And because that wording allows the vow to be upheld, the rabbis allow even other wording, including the  otherwise meaningless "vow to not have intercourse with my wife" to represent this second meaning.  Thus a husband is allowed to stop having intercourse with his wife.

What if a wife vows that she will not have intercourse with her husband?  Again, the court will order her to continue marital relations as she is obligated to conjugal rights (Exodus 21:10).  However, if she vows that the pleasure she derives from intercourse is prohibited to her, the court will uphold her vow.  She is assumed to find pleasure in intercourse and "one may not feed a person that which is forbidden to them."

It seems that a woman who had access to rabbinic texts would be able to avoid intercourse with her husband if she were to find him distasteful. Because of the assumption that women find pleasure through sexual intercourse, regardless of their relationships or level of connectedness with their husbands, women could claim that they wished to deny themselves that pleasure in the form of a vow.

Did women want children so desperately that men were under the impression that women were interested in sexual intercourse with their husbands at every permitted opportunity?  Or did women enjoy intercourse in a different way in antiquity than today?  Or, most likely, were women's sexual desire not within the realm of the rabbis' expertise?  Again I wonder whether intercourse was practiced simply toward procreation or if it included more varied activities that might provide women with more of the pleasure that the rabbis describe.

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Nedarim 14: Torah Law, Rabbinic Law, Vows and Torah Scrolls

If we make a vow contrary to something that is permitted or forbidden according to Torah law, then it is as if we have said nothing.  Well, at least that is the case if we are Torah scholars.  But if we are ignoramuses - like almost everyone today as we are not experts in Torah law - then such vows must be dissolved by a halachic authority.  Similarly, if we make a vow that upsets rabbinic law, the rabbis want us to dissolve that law by speaking with a halachic authority.  The rabbis provide a number of examples of these circumstances.

One of their examples involves a vow that compares an object to a Torah scroll.  To better understand why the vow might or might not go into effect, the rabbis wonder about the scroll itself.  Was the person's vow regarding the scroll itself or the words/verses within the scroll? Was the scroll on the ground at the time and thus not written in?  If a person were making a vow regarding the words inside of the scroll, then their vow would go into effect.  This is because verses from the Torah invoke G-d's name.  A blank scroll, however, is meaningless.

Our daf ends with a new Mishna.  It teaches that if a person vows something impossible, the vow does not go into effect.  For example, one should not say, "sleeping is for me as if an offering, konam".  Likewise, one cannot vow to abstain from speaking, walking, or engaging in sexual intercourse with his [sic] wife. This is because "He should not profane his word" (Number 30:3).    

The Gemara begins with an analysis of stating that sleeping is konam.   What if one limits their vow to only one day?  Would the knowledge that sleep will come tomorrow change one's thinking or one's practice?

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Nedarim 12: Keeping our Vows

I found today's daf to be more confusing than most - well, most of our more recent dapim. It seems that an intricate knowledge of the legal concepts is almost required.  

Steinsalstz's commentary suggests that today's daf is part of our larger understanding of stating vows. There is a principle that defines how vows must be stated.  In part, the practice of one's vow must be compared with something else - this object is forbidden to me like a sacrifice, or like Jerusalem, etc.

Along with comparisons, people can make vows that use phrasing of "like the time that".  For example, I will fast like the time that my father died.  The rabbis follow one example of vow regarding "fasting like the day my father died".  Did this vow mean that the 'mourner' would fast every year on that date?  Or only on the years that the actual date of death fell on a Sunday, the day of the week that the father died?

The rabbis note that people did fast to mark yartzheits, but that this act was sometimes a vow and sometimes simply a minhag, a custom.  People followed that minhag in many communities with more rigour than other minor fast days.  The rabbis speak of the tension between Biblical halacha and minhag.  Today we continue to understand the importance of observing halacha - with its own, more severe consequences - and observing minhagim, with similarly stringent social costs attached to non-adherence.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Nedarim 11: Translation and Literary Analysis

Our daf begins with the Gemara that analyzes yesterday's Mishna.  Yesterday we learned a complex new Mishna regarding food.  A condition was placed upon food to determine whether or not it might be forbidden.  That food might be called lachullin.  In the Gemara the rabbis first attempt to understand the meaning of the word lachullin.  They assume that the word is in fact two words: la, meaning not, and chullin, meaning not non-sacred, otherwise described as consecrated.  So the conditional term is something that is not consecrated, similar to an offering.

Who might have authored this Mishna?  Perhaps Rabbi Meir; perhaps Rabbi Yehuda.  The rabbis deconstruct the language and the possible meanings of the Mishna.  Rabbi Meir might have authored the text for a number of reasons, but there is a difficulty.  He does not believe that one can infer a negative statement from a positive statement.  There is a general principle that stating that rabbis do not contradict themselves.  Even over long periods of time, the rabbis are held to static philosophies, opinions, and perspectives.  

The Gemara shares complex reasoning about being forbidden or permitted to eat which food depending on one's understandings of the conditions placed upon that food.  

Today's daf was a great example of the complex literary analysis that is part of our ancient religious tradition.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Nedarim 10: Vowing What We Mean to Vow

A number of pious men, chasidim, were alive during the time of the second Temple.  They were called chasidim because they went beyond observance of halacha.  Tzadikim, righteous people, are those who follow halacha to the letter of the law.

A number of rabbis agree that nazirites are in fact sinners, as they are atoning for transgressions.  Further, they abstain from drinking wine, which is a positive mitzvah.  Other rabbis disagree, stating that nazirites are to be admired for they have chosen to deny themselves what we all take for granted. In addition, the mitzvah of becoming a nazirite overrides the mitzvah of drinking wine.  This debate reminds me of our societal judgement of those who attempt to better their lives through some sort of sacrifice.  There is incredible suspicion about motivation, intentions, and the former behaviours that led them to this place of atonement.

A new Mishna teaches us that substitute words for different vows are considered to be valid vows.

  • Konam: Offering (konam, konach, konas)
  • Cherem: Dedication (cherek, cherekh, cheref)
  • Nazir: Naziriteship (nazik, naziach, paziach)
  • Shevua: Oath (shevuta, shekuka, mohi)
But these the terms of other nations, suggest some of our rabbis.  Others disagree.   Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel wonder about using terms that are substitutes for those substitute terms.  The former argue that a substitute term for a substitute is valid and thus the vow holds.  Beit Hillel argue that such terms are not valid and thus the vow is not valid.  The rabbis continue to argue about which words might be thought of as valid substitute terms and which words cause the vow to mean nothing. 

Our daf ends with a new Mishna.  If a person claims that someone else's food is forbidden to him/her because it is not ritually pure, then that food is forbidden to him/her.  If a person states that someone else's food is like an offering or like any part of the Temple, Jerusalem, or another holy place or process, that food is considered to be like an offering.  But if a person says that someone's food should be considered to be Jerusalem, they have said nothing.

Monday, 1 June 2015

Nedarim 9: Nazirite vows, Offerings

A new Mishna teaches us more about the words that bind us to our promises.  We learn that if a person says that s/he accepts the obligations upon her/himself like the vows of the wicked, s/he has vowed to be a nazirite, to make an offering, or to take an oath.  If s/he says that s/he accepts the obligations upon her/himself like the vows of the virtuous, s/he has said nothing.  If s/he says that s/he accepts the obligations upon her/himself like their gifts, s/he has vowed to become a nazirite or to bring an offering.

The rabbis explain that virtuous people often did not make vows.  If a person were to forget a vow, s/he has transgressed.  Virtuous people do not wish to put themselves in that position.  Wicked people, however, are thought to make vows because they wish to atone for past sins or inappropriate behaviour.  Thus if a person says that they accept the sins of the virtuous, they are not obligated at all.

When it comes to the sins of the wicked, however, one has vowed to be a nazirite.  Are nazirites wicked?  Of course not, the rabbis tell us.  People who take on nazirite vows are indeed virtuous.  So why the connection to nazirites?  The rabbis aren't sure.  Perhaps this refers to stating that one will take on the vows of the wicked at the moment that a nazirite walks past.  

The rabbis consider differences between a gift offering and another offering - gift offerings must be specific; they are forgiven if lost.  The rabbis also note that these oaths do not contain the word "oath" and yet they are considered valid.  This means that the oaths referred to in our Mishna are valid intimations of oaths.

A voluntary offering can cause problems, for the offering could be damaged after it has been consecrated.  How can people be encouraged to bring voluntary offerings?  The rabbis suggest that people do as was done for burnt offerings in the time of Hillel the Elder.  Animals would not be consecrated until just before they were slaughtered. This leaves little room for procedural errors which would carry their own consequences.  

Rabbi Shimon HaTzadik tells the story of the one time that he ate the guilt-offering of a nazirite who was ritually impure.  This young man with beautiful eyes was very good looking and his fringe of hair showed curls.  The Rabbi asked him what he saw that would convince him to cut those curls.  The man explained that he was a shepherd and he saw his reflection while drawing water.  At that point his yetzer hara, evil inclination, overtook him.  Whatever that yetzer hara was telling him (to partake in forbidden sexual relations?  to be vain?  that he was too good looking to be a shepherd?), he believed that it would expel him from the world.  He chided himself and reminded himself that eventually he too would be eaten by maggots in his grave.  He swore that I would shave for the sake of Heaven.  Shimon HaTzadik rose and kissed him on the head, marvelling at the purity of the young man's vows.

If this nazirite's offering was impure because the nazirite came as a result of sin, argued Rabbi Mani, then all guilt-offerings are impure for they are the result of sin as well. The rabbis continue to discuss the details of the nazirite's vow, his/her offerings, and his/her state of purity.

A note teaches us that there are six sub-categories of guilt offerings:

  • robbery: an offering when one denies a debt, swears a false oath about the debt, and later admits to all offences
  • misuse of consecrated property: an offering that atones for that transgression
  • designated maidservant: an offering brought as atonement for sexual relations with a partially Jewish maidservant who is designated to marry a Hebrew slave
  • nazirite: an offering brought as part of the purification process of a nazirite who became ritually impure
  • leper: an offering brought as part of the purification process of a leper
  • uncertain : an offering brought as atonement where one is unsure whether s/he has committed a sin that would require the sacrifice of a sin-offering
Guilt offerings can only be eaten by priests and only on the same day/evening that it has been sacrificed.