Talmudic pages

Nedarim 61

What’s in a name?

Ancient Roman citizens had three names: the praenomen, the nomen and the cognomen. The praenomen was the name their parents gave them. The nomen was the name of their extended family (what today we might call their last name). And the cognomen was an additional name that gave further identifying information about an individual, either a nickname given to a single individual or a name passed down from generations. Thus Gaius Julius Caesar was a boy named Gaius, from the Julia family, and one of his ancestors was nicknamed Caesar (scholars debate the reason why).  

Of course, these conventions were only true for men. A woman’s praenomen was basically just her family name. Julius Caesar’s aunts and daughters were all named — wait for it — Julia. If there were more than one daughter, they often were given differentiators based on birth order. So Julia the First, Julia the Second, and Julia the Third might all be sitting at the table together with Aunt Julia the Older and Aunt Julia the Younger. Talk about a confusing dinner!

The rabbis of the Mishnah lived in the Roman Empire and interacted with Romans of all kinds in the markets and streets. In fact, they were themselves Roman citizens. Many Jews followed Roman naming conventions, and while we don’t know the names of many rabbis’ wives and daughters, it is fair to say that whether or not the rabbis used these naming conventions, they were likely aware of them. We get a hint of this on today’s daf.

The Gemara quotes a mishnah we’ve already seen in tractate Kiddushin (64b): 

One who has two groups of daughters from two women, and he said: “I betrothed my older daughter, but I do not know if (I meant) the older of the older; or the older of the younger; or the younger of the older, who is older than the older of the younger.” — all are prohibited apart from the younger of the younger. This is the statement of Rabbi Meir.

It’s possible that this mishnah is discussing a man who was attempting to betroth his daughter but was unhelpfully vague about it. It’s also possible that it’s discussing a man referring to his daughter using Roman naming conventions — and so would have had more than one who was “the older.” In either case, Rabbi Meir insists that any of the daughters who could realistically be referred to as “the older” are prohibited from being betrothed to anyone else without formally ending this quasi-betrothal. And to make things even more complicated, they might then have the status of a quasi-divorcee, which would limit who they can marry next.

Rabbi Yosei says: They are all permitted (to marry) apart from the older of the older.

Rabbi Yosei thinks that “the older” would only refer to the one who is actually the oldest — the first daughter of the first wife. All the other daughters are permitted to get betrothed to someone else with no complications. 

Today’s daf is most interested in this mishnah from Kiddushin as part of its discussion of whether Rabbi Meir or Rabbi Yosei think that a man can create a state of legal uncertainty for himself (or in this case, his daughter). But regardless of which of them thinks that this kind of legal uncertainty is possible, this case — and the realities of Roman naming conventions — are a good reminder that whether or not he can, he shouldn’t. In a world where lots of women might have the same name, be as specific as possible.

Read all of Nedarim 61 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on December 25th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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