The mishnah on yesterday’s daf taught us that non-Jews cannot take nazirite vows. It also taught us that free women and enslaved people can take a nazirite vow, even though both are subject to the authority of free adult men. However, there’s a key difference between the two: If a husband does not nullify his wife’s vow, he cannot then force her to violate it by force-feeding her grapes. But enslaved people can be forced to violate their nazirite vow. The mishnah on today’s daf adds to this distinction:
One can nullify the nazirite vows of his wife but he cannot nullify the nazirite vows of his slave. If he nullified his wife’s vow it is permanently nullified. If he nullified his slave’s vow, when he is emancipated he completes his naziriteship.
A free man cannot actually nullify an enslaved person’s nazirite vow. The enslaved person can be forced to violate their vow, but even if they could not fulfill the vow while enslaved, once they were achieved freedom, the enslaved person’s vow would kick right back in and they would be required, at that point, to complete it.
Today, the Gemara asks: Is this true of all the vows of an enslaved person? Can they be compelled to violate any of them? And do they all become active again once the person is freed?
To test the theory, the rabbis consider two vows that, practically speaking, have a similar consequence: a vow to become a nazirite and a vow not to eat grapes. Both would require the enslaved person to abstain from grapes, but in only one case can an enslaver force them to eat grapes. (And why would an enslaver force someone to eat grapes? Because, in this hypothetical example, not eating grapes would weaken the enslaved person and thereby reduce their ability to work.) The Gemara wants to know: Why can the enslaver force him to eat grapes in only one of these two situations (the nazirite vow)?
Rather, Abaye said: With regard to what is a master required to force (his slave to violate their vow)? Naziriteship. But he is not required to force him in vows and he is not required to force him in oaths.
What is the reason for this? As the verse states (about oaths) “Or if anyone swear clearly with his lips to do evil, or to do good” (Leviticus 5:4). Just as the “good” is a voluntary action, so too the “evil” is voluntary. This excludes a slave, whose oath or vow would cause evil to others, as it is not in his power.
By “required to force,” Abaye means that if an enslaver needs his enslaved nazirite to eat grapes so that he will not waste away (yes, it is a stretch, but the Gemara frequently concocts such scenarios to test the boundaries of the law); he has to force him. But if an enslaved person has taken some other kind of vow, including a regular vow not to eat grapes, he doesn’t need to force him to violate it because that vow because, by virtue of bringing financial harm to the enslaver by weakening the subject of the vow, it doesn’t actually take effect. So the enslaver just has to tell him to eat the grapes.
And why can’t a slave make a regular vow? Because, as the prooftext here explains, those who are enslaved do not have the full legal capacity to choose what to do and deal with the consequences on their own. And so this teaching insists that they are unable to effectively take vows or oaths. But they can effectively take a nazirite vow, even if they can be coerced into violating it.
Today we know that slavery is abhorrent. And to be honest, even in the ancient world, many people knew that slavery was immoral. Ancient authors who described the institution of slavery benevolently were largely slave owners, but I am confident that if we were able to ask the people who were enslaved, they would paint a very different picture. After all, even just in the Roman empire, we have extensive evidence that enslaved people in the Roman Empire who liberated themselves and were forcibly returned to their enslavers could be branded or compelled to wear a slave collar with a tag. The number of enslaved people who tried to liberate themselves nonetheless testifies to the horrors of slavery and what people were often willing to risk to achieve freedom.
The rabbis are not exceptional in the ancient world when it comes to slavery. And since the rabbis organized their whole world according to halakhah, it makes sense that they would also think halakhically about enslavement. But I wonder if discussions like today’s might also give us a little unexpected insight into the lives of enslaved people. Today’s daf suggests that some enslaved people may have sought to experience the heightened state of purity and connection with God embodied in being a nazirite. And whether or not those vows could be fulfilled during their period of enslavement, they were real, and would take effect when they could.
Read all of Nazir 62 on Sefaria.