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?

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