Nedarim 5

The ban.

In 1656, the Portuguese Jewish community of Amsterdam published a ban of excommunication, known as a herem, against a 23-year-old man named Baruch ben Michael for “the abominable heresies which he practiced and taught and about his monstrous deeds.” The herem against young Baruch, better known as the philosopher Benedict Spinoza, is in theory still in effect. In 2021, the rabbi of the same Amsterdam Jewish community cited it in refusing to allow a team making a documentary about Spinoza to film in the community’s historic synagogue.

The concept of herem is found in the Hebrew Bible in two interrelated ways: as a description of something set aside for God and the use of the Temple priests (Leviticus 27:28), and in the Spinozan sense as a thing, place or person set aside for total destruction (see Joshua 6:17–18Judges 21:11). While in ancient Israelite society, this idea was often enacted through physical violence, by the time of the rabbis, it was in force only through social and economic exclusion.

On today’s daf, the rabbis are discussing herem in the context of the kinds of vows people may make. The Gemara cites a mishnah we’ll encounter later in Nedarim which teaches this: 

I am hereby to you herem, the one to whom the vow was said is prohibitedbut the one who made the vow is not.

According to the mishnah, if a person vows to their friend that they are herem, the person to whom they vow is forbidden to benefit from the vower, just as though they had been removed from circulation and dedicated to the Temple. The vower, however, is not required to treat their fellow as herem and can continue to derive benefit from them.

Or can they? 

The Gemara qualifies: 

Where he specifiedAnd you are not for me. 

This teaching follows the opinion of Shmuel, who we learned yesterday holds that vows are limited in scope only when those limits are stated specifically. According to Shmuel, without this specification, the vow of herem does go both ways — both the vower and the one to whom the vow is made are forbidden to each other.

Shmuel’s argument seems to turn on a very narrow question of how we interpret particular words used to vow. But if we follow his position, we see a really interesting take on what it means to declare someone (even yourself!) herem: In vowing that someone is herem to their fellow, the vower makes their fellow herem to them. Exclusion (even for reasons of the sacred) affects both parties. You might think that when declaring someone herem, the loss is entirely theirs. But in fact, it goes both ways. 

Spinoza’s herem had profound personal consequences for him; in a world where social safety nets were organized through religious communities, being outside this structure left him largely without support. But I would argue that it also harmed the Jewish community — and the world. After all, what kinds of Jewish insights might Spinoza have continued to offer if he had had more communal support? What new questions or ideas could he have offered the world? What moments of connection with others might have led him to come up with ideas that could have helped make our world a better place?

Recently, there have been increased calls to overturn the original herem against Spinoza. The Ma’amad, the organizing body of the Portuguese community in Amsterdam, actually overturned the rabbi’s decision and invited the documentarians to film on the synagogue’s premises. But interestingly, their decision did not engage explicitly with the question of Spinoza’s excommunication. It hung instead on the legal categorization of the historic synagogue as a cultural center, questions of jurisdiction, and academic freedom. But perhaps we can imagine that these modern leaders were also reading Shmuel on today’s daf. After all, if we apply Shmuel’s teachings to this case, we see that when we excommunicate Spinoza, we all lose.

Read all of Nedarim 5 on Sefaria.

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

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