Rabbi Eliezer further said: They may broach (dissolution) by asking about a new situation, but the rabbis prohibit it.
Rabbi Eliezer teaches that a vow might be dissolvable if the situation that gave rise to it has changed. In the Gemara, Rav Hisda offers proof for this position. According to Rav Hisda, when Moses killed an Egyptian and then fled for his life, he vowed that he would never return to Egypt. But then God commands Moses to return, in spite of his vow, because: “For all the men are dead that sought your life” (Exodus 4:19).
The Talmud then explains the proof:
Death is a new circumstance. From here they may broach (dissolution) by asking about a new situation.
The Talmud explains that the men who had sought to kill Moses are now dead; the circumstances have changed. Since Moses’ vow was likely meant to save his life and the threat was now gone, the vow could be annulled. But if the verse is so clear, then why would the rabbis have disagreed with Rabbi Eliezer? According to the Talmud, the rabbis read the word “dead” in the biblical verse metaphorically, not literally.
They are none other than Dathan and Abiram. Rather, Reish Lakish said: (The verse means that) they lost their property.
The rabbis don’t think that the men referred to in Exodus 4:19 were those who wanted to kill Moses, but Dathan and Abiram, descendants of Reuben who participated in the rebellion against Moses’ leadership. From other biblical texts, we know that they were still alive at this point. Reish Lakish explains that the verse isn’t saying they were actually dead, only that they lost their property. As a result, this verse can’t prove that changed circumstances — like death — allow vows to be annulled.
This metaphorical interpretation of the word “dead” leads the Talmud to quote one of my least favorite rabbinic teachings:
And it was taught: Four are considered as if they were dead: A pauper, and a leper, and a blind person, and one who has no children. A pauper, as it is written: “For all the men are dead” (Exodus 4:19).
A leper, as it is written: “Let her not, I pray, be as one dead” (Numbers 12:12).
And a blind person, as it is written: “He has made me to dwell in dark places, as those that have been long dead” (Lamentations 3:6).
And one who has no children, as it is written: “Give me children, or else I am dead” (Genesis 30:1).
The rabbis identify four biblical verses where death is used as a metaphor — for poverty, leprosy, blindness, and childlessness — and conclude that a person who experiences one of these states is legally considered dead.
The last two examples are presented as first-person descriptions. In Lamentations, someone who survived the trauma of the Temple’s destruction parallels their own blindness with a death-state. In Genesis, the matriarch Rachel, who desperately wants children, puts a name to her emotional experience. I think we have to take seriously how people describe their own experiences and give name to their pain. But the rabbis extrapolate from these two cases to all individuals who are blind or have no children in a way that imposes a status on those who might experience these states very differently.
This imposition is clearer in the first two cases, in which people who are not poor or leprous describe someone who is as dead — without any suggestion of how the people themselves feel about their experiences. We’ve already discussed the verse from Exodus; the verse from Numbers is what Aaron says about Miriam, who had been stricken with leprosy.
Most people who live below the poverty line, experience illness, have no children or are blind absolutely see themselves as alive. To my mind, imposing the status of dead on such people disempowers them and is just mean, even if there are biblical verses that can be read that way (though as we see in the Talmud’s original discussion, these verses don’t have to be read that way at all).
This is one of my least favorite rabbinic teachings. But in my reaction to it, it reminds me of the importance of listening to people’s own descriptions of themselves and recognizing the specificity and individuality of their experiences — regardless of what that means for someone else’s ability to annul their vow.
Read all of Nedarim 64 on Sefaria.