Talmud pages

Nedarim 30

The not-yet-born.

What is the difference between being born and not being born? This isn’t the set-up for some kind of dad joke, it’s the question at the heart of a mishnah on today’s daf. 

One who takes a vow (not to derive benefit) from those that are born is permitted those who will be born. From those who will be born — one is prohibited (also) from those that are born.

The Tanna Kamma, the anonymous first speaker in the mishnah, states that one who vows not to derive benefit from those that are born is permitted to derive benefit from those who will be born. But one who vows not to derive benefit from those that will be born is not permitted to derive benefit from those that are born. In other words, a vow about the former category does not apply to those in the latter category, but a vow about the latter category does apply to the former. 

And what are all these categories actually referring to? The category of “born” apparently doesn’t include fetuses — it seems to refer only to babies who have already been born. The Tanna Kamma distinguishes this category from “those who will be born,” which seems to include both fetuses and those already born. But Rabbi Meir disagrees:

Rabbi Meir permits even from those that are born.

According to Rabbi Meir, the categories of “born” and “will be born” are distinct — they don’t overlap at all. Vowing about either one does not prohibit the other. The rabbis then reframe Rabbi Meir’s view:

And the Rabbis say: He intended only one whose nature is to be born. 

The rabbis suggest Rabbi Meir wasn’t talking about those already born, but those for whom their nature is being born, which would seem to include both fetuses and those already born. But the Gemara is later going to suggest that the rabbis are only talking about mammals. If you are trying to deny yourself benefit from a creature that isn’t born but hatched, you have to use different language.

Seems like we have it all sorted out now. But along comes Rav Pappa to challenge this again, suggesting that the Hebrew word I’ve been translating as “will be born,” nolad, might not be a future tense verb at all. As Rav Pappa notes:

If that is so, “Your two sons who were born [noladim] to you in the land of Egypt” (Genesis 48:5), does it also mean those who will be born?

Rav Pappa cites a biblical verse referring to Jacob’s claim that Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Menashe, are his own. He uses the same word (but in the plural) to refer to the boys, except we know that Ephraim and Menashe have already been born. So in this case, it seems that here the word is actually a past tense verb, referring to someone already born. But the Gemara challenges that with another verse: 

However, if that is so, that which is written: “Behold, a son shall be born [nolad] to the house of David, Josiah by name” (I Kings 13:2). (Is the meaning) also that he is already (born)? But Manasseh had not yet come.

In this verse, an unnamed prophet tells the king Jeroboam that the line of David will have a son named Josiah, who was definitely not yet born. We know this because even his father, Manasseh, had not been born yet. So clearly, the word nolad can’t always refer to those who’ve already been born? So the Gemara concludes:

Rather, it means this and that, and with regard to vows, follow the language of humans. 

Language is unstable and words can mean different things in different contexts. Nolad can refer both to someone who has not yet been born and to someone who has. So when it comes to vows, we follow the colloquial conventions of our communities. Is an “unborn” really a “born”? Is one not-yet-born meant to be considered born or vice versa? Curiously for the rabbis, the answer doesn’t come from observing fetal physical development or from a discussion of whether fetuses have souls, but from “the language of human beings.” Words have meaning, and that meaning is contextual. 

Read all of Nedarim 30 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on November 24th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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