On Nedarim 20, we learned that the rabbis automatically nullified four types of vows: vows of exhortation, vows of exaggeration, unintentional vows and “forced vows.” What on earth are forced vows? The mishnah on today’s daf explains:
If one’s friend took a vow with regard to him that he should eat with him, and he became sick, or his son became sick, or a river barred him, these are forced vows.
The mishnah explains forced vows with an example that is relatively low-stakes: A man vows that he will eat dinner with his friend and the friend is unable to attend due to forces beyond his control. The Gemara is next going to explore whether the mishnah’s rule still applies if the cases are higher stakes.
A certain man who deposited (his documents for) a favorable (ruling) in court and said: If I do not come within 30 days, these for a favorable verdict will be void. He was impeded and did not come.
In this case, someone stores evidence in his favor with the court and stipulates that they will be null and void if he doesn’t return within a set time period. What happens if he doesn’t return? Is this a circumstance outside his control and so we ignore his original statement? Or is this something that he could have anticipated, and so we take his original statement at its word?
According to Rav Huna, we hold the man to his vow and void the documents. But Rava disagrees.
He is a victim of circumstances beyond his control and (the halakhah is that) the Merciful One exempted a victim of circumstances beyond his control.
Rava says that even when the stakes are higher than a dinner invite, even when they will decide whether someone is proven guilty or innocent of something, if circumstances outside of someone’s control cause them to be unable to fulfill a vow, we void the original vow. As proof, Rava cites the Torah’s discussion of the consequences for sexual assault of an engaged woman: “But unto the damsel you shall do nothing; there is in the damsel no sin worthy of death.” (Deuteronomy 22:26) As Rava reads the verse, God explicitly tells the Israelites that if someone is acted upon against their will, through circumstances outside of their control, they are innocent of wrongdoing.
The transition from one topic to the next is shocking. We were just reading about the friendship politics around having dinner and now we’re talking about sexual assault and the death penalty. But the jump in topic is actually not as random as it appears. The mishnah’s word for a forced vow is onasin, the same Hebrew word used to describe sexual assault (ones). So linguistically, it makes sense within the context of rabbinic dialogue that they would learn one kind of being forced from another.
Of course, we know that there are degrees of “circumstances beyond our control” that are not actually comparable in their impact on people’s lives. But the Gemara, which is so invested in the idea that humans make choices and can choose to live righteously and halakhically, recognizes that, actually, we aren’t the only agents of our own lives. Sometimes things, even highly consequential things, happen to us whether or not we want them to do. And as Rava teaches, in such cases, God insists that someone forced has no liability for what they were forced to do.
Read all of Nedarim 27 on Sefaria.