On yesterday’s daf, the opening mishnah of Tractate Nedarim began by teaching that if someone used a synonym for the word “vow” in a declaration, their statement is still a vow. It then went on to give examples of intimations of vows — statements where someone merely suggested they were making a vow without being specific that they were doing so, or even describing the specific nature of their vow. The mishnah rules that such statements are legally binding as well.
The Gemara is puzzled by this: Shouldn’t the mishnah have first stated that intimations of vows are also binding before giving specific examples of such statements? The Gemara answers that the mishnah is incomplete and should be read in this way:
All substitutes of vows are like vows, and intimations of vows are like vows.
Adding the latter phrase to the text accounts for the introduction of the latter examples into the mishnah. But still, the Gemara isn’t satisfied. If substitute language is mentioned first and intimations second, why are intimations discussed first? This seems out of order.
The Gemara responds to its own objection, attributing the apparent anomaly to the general style of the Mishnah:
That with which it concludes is the one that it explains first.
In other words, when a mishnah addresses two topics, A and then B, its style is to discuss topic B before topic A. To substantiate this point, the Gemara brings a number of examples in which this is indeed the case.
The only problem is, there are plenty of examples in which the Mishnah does the opposite, which the Gemara also proceeds to cite. Which brings us to today’s daf, where the Gemara declares:
The (Mishnah is) not particular. Sometimes it explains first that with which it began, and sometimes it explains first that with which it finished.
An overarching theme of Nedarim is that words matter. And while this is true in so many ways, it’s also true that, like the Mishnah, people are not always consistent about the way they speak. As I read today’s daf, I began to wonder if the editors of the Talmud were sending a particular message to us by placing this discussion here at the beginning of Nedarim.
As we read on, we’ll see how rabbinic law holds people accountable for the verbal commitments they make. And we’ll see how the rabbis are laser focused on the particular form and language that a person uses when making a pledge to do something (or refrain from doing it). We’ll also see how using clear language and a proscribed formula makes things easier for those who make vows and for those who are impacted by them.
But it’s equally true that sometimes people are not so careful with their words. And while the Talmud doesn’t sanction the reckless use of language, I can’t help but read today’s discussion as a cautionary tale against being too harsh with people who utilize less than ideal constructions when making verbal pledges. If we can acknowledge that the Mishnah is not always exacting with its use of language, shouldn’t we allow for the same in others?
Read all of Nedarim 3 on Sefaria.