Talmud pages

Nedarim 43

Gifting culture.

One of the first courses I took in graduate school was called “Theory and Methods in the Study of Religion.” A course common across religious studies programs, the version I took had us reading a lot of 19th and early 20th century texts which have become “classics” in the field. One of those texts was the French sociologist Marcel Mauss’ 1925 essay “The Gift,” an analysis of gifting cultures which notes that they require one to give, receive and repay. Giving gifts creates expectations of reciprocity and are an important form of social connection and cohesion. To put it another way, Mauss argued that a community that gifts together, stays together. And while that may seem obvious today, it was considered a groundbreaking argument in 1925. 

But in a mishnah on today’s daf, we see a much older version of this adage. The mishnah explores the consequences of someone vowing not to derive benefit from someone else, but then not having enough food to eat. What can the person who is the object of such a vow do? 

He goes to the shopkeeper and saysSo-and-so vowed that benefit from me is forbidden and I do not know what I will do. The shopkeeper gives, and then comes and takes from that one.

In a world that recognizes the importance of supporting each other (and the importance of honoring one’s vow!), the object of the vow and the shopkeeper work together to turn a benefit into a gift. The object of the vow hints that the shopkeeper should give the vower food. But the shopkeeper also needs to make money, so the hint implies that the object of the vow will pay for the food after it is given. The vower gets food from the object of his vow without violating his vow. Gifting allows the community to stay together and stay fed, even when things get tough (or when you’ve made things unnecessarily tough through a vow). 

The mishnah’s solution allows the vow to be circumvented because the shopkeeper acts as a middleman. But what if there is no shopkeeper around?  

If there is no other with them, he places the food on a rock or on a fence and says: These are hereby rendered ownerless and available to anyone who wants. Then that person takes and eats.

Here the solution of a gift doesn’t work. Instead, the mishnah suggests that the owner must relinquish their claim to the food so that it becomes ownerless, at which point the vower can pick it up and eat. But just when we think we’ve solved the problem: 

Rabbi Yosei prohibits.

Rabbi Yosei objects to this solution and The Talmud explains his reasoning: 

He holds ownerless is like a gift. Just as a gift is not complete until the item comes from the possession of one who gives into the possession of one who receives, so too ownerless until it comes into the possession of one who acquires.

Rabbi Yosei thinks there is no such thing as making an object ownerless. An object is always owned — it remains owned by the original owner until someone else claims it. For Rabbi Yosei, objects must change hands directly. As Mauss would note 1700 years later, human connectedness is the point. 

Read all of Nedarim 43 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on December 7th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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