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Nedarim 23

Impotent ultimatums.

As we learned from The Brady Bunch, blended families can be fun and full of shenanigans (and maybe even a catchy theme song), but they can also be very complicated. We get an example of one possible complication on today’s daf, where we read about a disagreement between Abaye and his wife over her daughter.  

Assuming Abaye had only one wife, we’ve actually met her before. On Ketubot 65a, we learn that her name was Homa and she was beautiful and adored by Abaye, who gave her enormous glasses of wine because she liked to drink, even though he didn’t drink alcohol. Homa had buried two husbands before marrying Abaye (and would eventually outlive him too), and she came to their marriage with children from at least one of her previous marriages. It’s one of those children who becomes the subject of a dispute on today’s daf. 

Homa’s daughter had reached the age of getting betrothed and her mother and stepfather were responsible for finding her a husband. 

Abaye said: (She should get married) to my relative.

His wife said to her relative. 

He said: Benefit from me should be forbidden to you if you defy my will and marry her to your relative. 

She went and defied his will and married her daughter to her relative.

If Abaye had been the father, he would have had ultimate authority to decide who Homa’s daughter married. But Homa and her late husband’s family have a greater claim in this case, meaning Abaye had less leverage over the situation. So Abaye makes a conditional vow — an ultimatum, essentially — that if his stepdaughter is married to someone from Homa’s extended family, Homa will be unable to benefit from Abaye and his property. However, his vow does not stop Homa, who marries her daughter off to her relative anyway.

Abaye’s vow now takes effect. But Abaye didn’t actually want his vow to take effect — after all, it seems he genuinely loved his wife and wanted her to be able to benefit from him and his household. Plus, it punished him as well, since it would make it very hard for Abaye’s wife to share his house or food or care for him back. So Abaye does what we’ve seen many times already in this tractate: He tries to have his vow annulled.

Abaye came before Rav Yosef, who said to him: If you had known that she would defy your will and marry her to her relative, would you have made the vow?

He said: No.

And Rav Yosef dissolved for him.

There’s a lot to unpack here. Abaye essentially told his wife to do what he wanted or she would be unable to live with him or benefit from him. That’s a cruel amount of pressure to put on a spouse over something that isn’t causing immediate danger. And yet, Abaye made his conditional vow performatively, not expecting his wife to defy him and with no expectation that he might be obligated to fulfill it. 

How could a sage known for a loving and respectful marriage have made such a vow? Does the fact that he didn’t think it would go into effect heighten or undercut the amount of pressure Abaye thought he was putting on his wife? Did she know he would never act on the vow, or did she take a risk in order to marry her daughter to her preferred partner? 

The Gemara doesn’t answer any of these questions, and leaves us with much to think about. But it does remind us that vows have meaning, whether or not you intend them to. Better not to issue an empty ultimatum at all. After all, you might just have to follow through on it.

Read all of Nedarim 23 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on November 17th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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