Talmud

Nedarim 35

Who do the priests work for?

In a democratic election, voters basically hire and fire their representatives. Those representatives work for their constituents, who — at least in theory — set the terms of their employment. Though it sometimes doesn’t feel like it, our leaders work for us. 

But the rabbis of the Talmud didn’t live in a democracy. And they had different kinds of leaders. We’ve already read about rabbis rejected by their community, which certainly suggests that rabbis worked for their communities and students. 

But the Jewish community also had priests who served in hereditary leadership roles. So on today’s daf, the rabbis ask: 

Are these priests our agents or agents of Heaven? 

In other words, do they work for the Jewish community or for God? Of course, we might also ask: Since the priesthood is hereditary and you can’t actually be fired from it, does it even matter who they work for in theory? 

Turns out, it might. In keeping with the topic of our tractate, the Gemara wants to know what happens if one vows not to benefit from the labor of another. Since the main way people would have interacted with priests was at the Temple when they came to offer a sacrifice, this might prevent the priests from offering sacrifices on the vower’s behalf.

One prohibited by vow from deriving benefit from another. If you say that (priests) are our agents, don’t (they provide) benefit and (the vower’s offering is) prohibited? And if you say that they are agents of Heaven, it is permitted. 

According to the Gemara’s logic, if the priests work for humans, they cannot offer sacrifices on behalf of the vower because the vower is directly benefiting from their labor. But if the priests work for God, then they can still offer this man’s sacrifices because the benefit really accrues to God. 

So which is it? The Gemara turns to the mishnah on today’s daf to try to answer this question. The mishnah lists the various tasks that a person can still perform on behalf of someone who has vowed not to benefit from another’s labor. These include:

The bird nests of zavin (see Leviticus 15:13–15); the bird nests of zavot (see Leviticus 15:28–30); the bird nests of women after childbirth (see Leviticus 12:6–8); sin-offerings; and guilt-offerings.

The mishnah lists various types of sacrifices that can still be performed on behalf of the vower, so it sounds like that means that the priests really work for God. Not so fast! The Gemara points out that if the priests really work for God, then they should be able to perform all sacrifices for someone who vows not to benefit from them. But the mishnah only lists a very specific set of sacrifices. So maybe these are exceptions because of the nature of this kind of sacrifice, suggesting that the priests really work for human beings. 

The Gemara goes on to raise several possible proofs that the priests work for God, rejecting each in turn. In fact (spoiler alert), tomorrow we will see that the question remains unresolved. We are left not knowing exactly who priests work for. 

In some ways, the easiest solution would be to say that priests work for God. That way, priests could continue to offer the necessary sacrifices regardless of what people vow. But the Gemara demonstrates that the rabbis are not willing to offer this conclusion and move on. Certainly, part of their thinking involves close readings of the mishnah and other rabbinic traditions that read against thinking that the priests work only for God. 

But it’s also worth reflecting on the power of believing that the priests work for us. If our leaders work for us, even if their leadership is hereditary, then we are constantly in relationship with them and them with us. There is some degree of accountability. And if that means that a reckless vow leads someone to be unable to offer sacrifices, maybe that’s a fair price to pay. 

Read all of Nedarim 35 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on November 29th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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