On the evening that Yom Kippur begins, synagogues around the world are packed with congregants who have come to hear Kol Nidre, a haunting prayer customarily recited just before the sun sets, in the last few moments before Yom Kippur begins. Three scrolls are held up before the congregation, representing a beit din (Jewish court), as the hazzan (prayer leader) recites: “With the consent of the Almighty, and consent of this congregation, in a convocation of the yeshiva (usually translated as “court”) above, and a convocation of the yeshiva below, we hereby grant permission to pray with sinners.” This is followed by the dramatic threefold chanting of Kol Nidre, a prayer that proactively annuls any vows made in the coming year. It is, for many Jews, a liturgical highlight of the year. And yet few know what it is really about.
What is a neder, a vow, anyway? No, it’s not a declaration of everlasting love at a wedding — at least not in the Jewish context. For the rabbis, a vow is an intentional verbal declaration made about an object, forbidding it either from consumption, or from use for benefit, for oneself or for others. Often, this is done in conjunction with declaring an object consecrated to the Temple, which is why this item is now out of bounds. Once made, a vow has the force of halakhah, in fact the more powerful force of d’oraita (Torah rather than rabbinic) law.
Because they are largely unfamiliar to many modern Jews, it can be difficult to imagine how nedarim — and the closely-related institution of shevu’ot, oaths — were part of the ancient landscape. Jews in antiquity may have taken vows for a number of reasons. They may have been expressions of piety or gratitude, perhaps in the wake of overcoming difficult or dangerous situations. They may also have been thought to have a protective function — making a promise to God in order to protect oneself or someone one loved. Or to elicit divine favor. (Think of Hannah in 1 Samuel 1:11, praying for a child.) Or they may simply have been an ancient Jewish hack for spiritual self-improvement.
Most Jews don’t make vows of this sort anymore, which is not a coincidence. As we will learn in this tractate, the rabbis discouraged vow-making in general, perhaps because these verbally created, person-specific obligations were easily forgotten and therefore opened the door to accidental transgression. In other words, they could function more as stumbling blocks than spiritual aids.
Tractate Nedarim assumes readers have a basic familiarity with these vows and discusses various legal complications and conundrums that arise from them. Questions that we’ll consider include which verbal formulations constitute a vow and which do not; reasons various vows might not take effect (including vows made about objects that are not subject to vows, or vows made without proper wholehearted intention); how vows made about a person extend to the objects that person owns; the timeline of vowing; and the processes for annulment and dissolution of vows, which can be performed by a judge or, in the case of a woman’s vows, her father or husband (which is why this tractate is placed in Seder Nashim, the order of the Talmud dealing with women).
Let’s jump into the opening mishnah:
All substitutes (for the language of) vows are like vows. (Likewise,) dedications are like dedications, oaths are like oaths, and nazirite vows are like nazirite vows.
The mishnah states that there is no single word required to make a vow. A synonym for vow is also acceptable. This is likewise true of any verbal declaration that is a cousin to a vow: a dedication, oath or nazirite vow. The mishnah continues:
One who says to another: “I am avowed from you” or “I am separated from you” or “I am distanced from you” (and then adds) “that which I eat of yours” or “that which I taste of yours” — it is forbidden.
This seems to be another example of how vows can be formulated using a variety of verbs (avowed, separated, distanced) instead of the precise noun (“I make a vow …”). The Gemara understands this to mean that the intimation of a vow, in addition to a properly formulated vow, can also have legal force.
There’s a lot of fine print on all of this — which is why this tractate will occupy us for the next three months. Because of the arcane nature of the material, and because the subject matter is less familiar, and because it has more textual problems than some other tractates of the Talmud (suggesting it was less popular even in antiquity), Nedarim is considered one of the more difficult talmudic tractates. So we will roll up our sleeves and tackle it together!
Let’s return to the one place in Jewish life today where Jews consistently encounter the language of vows. Contrary to the popular belief that Kol Nidre was conceived originally as a hedge against forced conversion in the high Middle Ages (annulling any future declaration of faith to Christianity or Islam made under duress), there is good evidence it is older — dating to the geonic period.
It may simply derive from a strong discomfort, found even in the Torah itself, with vow-making. Deuteronomy 23:22–23 states: “When you make a vow to the Lord your God, do not put off fulfilling it, for the Lord your God will require it of you, and you will have incurred guilt; whereas you incur no guilt if you refrain from vowing.” Safer, the Torah seems to suggest, not to make vows at all. And what better way to start Yom Kippur, the holiday for wiping out past sins, than with a hedge against future ones?
Vowing may all too easily lead to sin. But the study of vows? That can only be good for us, right?
Read all of Nedarim 2 on Sefaria.