Nedarim 36

Something for nothing.

In a 2018 op-ed, Sarah Rudolph highlighted the challenge confronting Jewish educators who are sometimes compelled to work for unsustainable wages — or less. After being offered a job with a salary that barely covered her expenses, her potential employer suggested that she take the position on effectively as a volunteer. She declined. 

“While some educators do seem to have been born with infinite neatly packaged lectures in their pockets, most of us need to prepare, which means hours upon hours spent on often difficult work,” she wrote. “For another thing, this is my profession, not a hobby, and my sense of professional dignity, as well as my finances, insist that it be treated as such.”

Today’s daf addresses the issue of differences in professional compensation, if a bit obliquely. Back at the start of this chapter, we came across this phrase, hamuddar hana’a mehaveiro, which translates as “one for whom benefit from another is forbidden by vow.” This phrase isn’t the clearest, and there are a variety of situations to which it could apply, but the short version is this: one person (called the muddar) is forbidden by a vow from benefiting from another, including borrowing their goods or even setting foot on their property. 

Fast forward to the mishnah that undergirds today’s daf, which teaches that if a muddar is barred from benefiting from someone or their property, they’re also not permitted to learn Bible from them. But they can learn other things, including midrash, Jewish law and aggadot, the non-legalistic materials found throughout the Talmud. The muddar’s children may also learn Bible from them. 

Understandably, the rabbis are a little unclear on why teaching Bible is specifically prohibited, while other sacred subjects are not:

What is the reason that he may not teach him Bible? Because the teacher benefits? Teaching Midrash also benefits him.

Shmuel said: (The mishnah is referring) to a place where one takes payment for Bible and one does not take payment for Midrash. 

The Gemara assumes here that the mishnah is referring to a situation where teachers were typically paid for teaching Bible, but not for Midrash. As a result, teaching someone Bible without payment confers an uncompensated benefit, and if that benefit isn’t permitted, the vow has been broken. But what if the muddar does compensate the teacher? Even then, writes the Rid in the 13th century, there’s a benefit being provided. The financial exchange doesn’t negate that. Teaching Bible benefits the learner, and doing so, regardless of compensation, is problematic if you’ve vowed not to benefit from the person teaching.

Our daf doesn’t focus on the larger question of whether it’s ever appropriate for some teachers to be paid and others to provide their services for free. But clearly, what remains true today was also true in talmudic times: some teachers were paid and others were not. Both Rudolph and our daf encourage us to consider whether it’s acceptable to expect certain teachers to eschew payment and what the broader impact might be if we do. 

Read all of Nedarim 36 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on November 30th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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