A popular classroom poster reads: “Punctuation saves lives!” This is followed by supporting examples: “Let’s eat kids,” versus, “Let’s eat, kids.” But did you know that punctuation can also solve talmudic conundrums?
On today’s daf, we learn in a mishnah:
If a husband said, “I am hereby a nazirite and you,” and his wife said, “amen,” he can nullify her vow and his remains intact.
A man has made a binding statement conferring naziriteship on himself and, by dint of her acceptance, his wife. While both obligations emerge from the same utterance, the mishnah treats them as separate commitments. If she agrees to become a nazirite and he decides to nullify it, his own vow remains operative. In other words, the two vows are independent.
In response to this teaching, the Gemara cites a beraita from the Tosefta (3:4), which leads to a different conclusion:
If he said “I am hereby a nazirite and you,” and she said, “amen,” they are both bound by their vows. And if she did not answer amen, they are both permitted (i.e., they do not become nazirites), because he made his vow dependent on her vow.
If the woman does not accept her naziriteship, the beraita teaches that not only does she not become a nazirite, but neither does her husband. The implication of this rule is that the vows are not independent. And not only that, in the case where she does say “amen,” i.e the case from the mishnah, both she and her husband become nazirites, and the husband cannot nullify his wife’s vow.
So are these two vows inextricably linked or not? How can we resolve this apparent contradiction between the mishnah and the beraita? Abaye suggests that though they appear to be talking about the same scenario, in fact they are talking about different cases, and we can see that if we punctuate them correctly:
The beraita is referring to a case where he said to her in a single clause: “I am hereby a nazirite and you,” as he makes his vow dependent on her vow. Consequently, if she is not a nazirite, his vow is also canceled.
And the mishnah is referring to a case where he asked her: “I am hereby a nazirite. And you?” Therefore he may nullify hers and his is intact.
In other words, according to Abaye, if the husband tells his wife that they are becoming nazirites, as he does in the beraita, their vows are linked — so if she rejects the invitation, his vow is also void. But if he declares his naziriteship and asks her to join him, as he does in the mishnah, the link between the two vows is not established, so he can nullify her vow without impacting his. The insertion of one question mark solves the apparent contradiction.
The mishnah and the beraita have identical words, and punctuation marks are absent from ancient texts, including handwritten manuscripts and the traditional printed editions of the Talmud. This meant Abaye was free to interpret the punctuation. In this case, his clever suggestion solves a problem.
Later talmudic commentators often help us make sense of the Talmud by letting us know when they think a particular statement should be accentuated with an exclamation point, read as a question, or both (my favorite, the interrobang: !?). But the addition of punctuation to the actual text of the Talmud is a late-20th-century innovation. And, as Abaye shows us, those choices can have a significant impact on the overall meaning of the text.
Read all of Nazir 22 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 14th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.