Talmud

Nedarim 25

Unintentional vows.

“If you two don’t stop fighting, I swear I’m going to stop this car and make you walk!”

As the parent of two children and a carpool duty veteran, I admit to having uttered such threats in the past, albeit without following through (at least on the second part). On today’s daf, we learn the term for such promises: nidrei sh’gagot, or unintentional vows. 

A mishnah on today’s daf asks:

What are examples of vows that are unintentional? One who vows: “This loaf is forbidden to me if I ate or if I drank,” — and then he remembers that he ate or drank. Or, one who vows: “This loaf is forbidden for me if I will eat or if I will drink,” — and he then forgets and eats or drinks.

In our mishnah’s example, a person says that a particular loaf of bread is off limits if he ate or drank, but then remembers that he has in fact eaten, or he forgets he made the vow and eats later. In both cases, the vow is nullified since, as Tosafot says, it lacks agreement of the “heart and mouth” — that is, what was spoken was not what was intended. 

The Gemara follows this up by broadening the ruling: 

Just as unintentional vows are dissolved, so too unintentional oaths are dissolved. 

Adding another category to this ruling, Maimonides explains why oaths that are clearly exaggerations and not meant literally — like in the carpool case — don’t take effect: 

“One is not liable for oaths involving exaggerations or unintentional oaths. What is meant by oaths involving exaggerations? A person saw vast armies and tall walls and he took an oath that ‘I saw the armies of King So-and-So and they are as vast as those who left Egypt,’ ‘I saw the wall of this-and-this city and it was as high as the heavens,’ or the like. He is exempt, because he did not resolve within his heart that this was the measure of the subject in question, no more and no less. His intent was only to describe the height of the wall or the multitude of the people.” (Mishneh Torah, Oaths 3:5)

Because the intention of the vow to make them walk is a way of getting the kids to stop arguing and not really designed to endanger them, such a threat would, according to the Gemara, be nullified. There is, however, a case in the Torah when a vow proved deadly for a child. 

The Book of Judges tells the tragic story of Jephthah, a military general who goes to war against the Ammonites. To secure victory, Jephthah makes a vow to God: 

“If you deliver the Ammonites into my hands, then whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me on my safe return from the Ammonites shall be the Lord’s and shall be offered by me as a burnt offering.” (Judges 11:31-32)

Jephthah and his troops are ultimately successful in defeating the Ammonites. The tragedy is in what happens next: 

When Jephthah arrived at his home in Mizpah, there was his daughter coming out to meet him, with timbrel and dance! She was an only child; he had no other son or daughter. On seeing her, he rent his clothes and said, “Alas, daughter! You have brought me low … For I have uttered a vow to the Lord and I cannot retract.” (Judges 11:34–35)

In the end, like the conclusion of a horrific Greek tragedy, Jephthah sacrifices his daughter to God — a God that we know, from many other places in the Hebrew Bible, abhors human sacrifice. Multiple commentators attempt to show that Jephthah’s daughter was exiled rather than murdered. The plain meaning of the text, though, is that his unintentional vow was carried out, with gruesome consequences. Why, if Jephthah clearly intended to sacrifice an animal and not his own child, did he (with his daughter’s encouragement, no less) fulfill this vow? 

The entire Book of Judges, which is replete with shockingly violent and tragic stories, is well summed up by its final verse which states: “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did as he pleased.” By contrast, by the time of the Talmud, the rabbis had enacted reams of legislation for the Jews, including the automatic nullification of unintentional vows. Whether they had the story of Jephthah’s daughter in mind or not, such a ruling comes to protect those of us who unwittingly swear something we don’t mean literally.  

Read all of Nedarim 25 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on November 19th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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