Talmud

Nedarim 65

Oaths and consequences.

On yesterday’s daf, we learned that one can only dissolve a vow about a particular person in their presence. Today we get a fascinating story that highlights the importance of this teaching. 

The story is set in the years just before the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the First Temple in Jerusalem. The Kingdom of Judah was already a vassal state of Babylon and Nebuchadnezzar had appointed a Davidic descendent, Zedekiah, to rule it. But II Chronicles 36 tells us that Zedekiah did not do what was pleasing to God, and ignored the teachings of the prophet Jeremiah. Not only that, but he also rebelled against the king. 

The rabbis of the Talmud ask the obvious question: Whatwashis rebellion?

Here’s where things get extra weird.

Zedekiah found Nebuchadnezzar eating a live rabbit. He [Nebuchadnezzar] said to him: Take an oath to me that you will not reveal my (behavior) and this matter will not emerge. He took an oath.

Eating a live rabbit? What is the Talmud talking about? 

The Book of Daniel recounts that God punished Nebuchadnezzar for his arrogance in thinking that his military and political successes are his own — not God’s. Daniel tells Nebuchadnezzar that for seven years, “You will be driven away from people and have your habitation with the beasts of the field. You will be fed grass like cattle, and be drenched with the dew of heaven; seven seasons will pass over you until you come to know that the Most High is sovereign over the realm of human beings, and He gives it to whom He wishes” (Daniel 4:22).

And indeed, according to the text, Nebuchadnezzar experiences a seven-year period in which he becomes animal-like, isolated and behaving wildly. 

Today’s daf doesn’t explicitly quote the Book of Daniel, but it seems that the rabbis have this story in the back of their minds. Like a wild animal, Nebuchadnezzar tears into a live rabbit. But when Zedekiah sees him, Nebuchadnezzar goes into damage control mode, making the vassal king vow to keep his shocking behavior a secret. But keeping the secret was just too hard for Zedekiah. 

Later, Zedekiah was physically suffering. He requested (dissolution) of his oath, and he said (what he witnessed)

Nebuchadnezzar heard that he was being ridiculed.

After hearing that Zedekiah had apparently broken his vow and described Nebuchadnezzar’s shocking behavior, the king summons Zedekiah and the rabbinic court.

He said to them: Did you see what Zedekiah has done? Did he not take an oath in the name of Heaven: That I will not reveal? They said to him: He requested (dissolution) of the oath. He [Nebuchadnezzar] said to them: In the presence (of the person) or even not in his presence? They said to him: in his presence. He said to them: And you, what did you do? What is the reason you did not say this to Zedekiah?

When the Sanhedrin declares that Zedekiah’s oath had been dissolved, enabling him to describe what he had seen, Nebuchadnezzar calls the Sanhedrin out for wrongly dissolving a vow about Nebuchadnezzar without including Nebuchadnezzar in the process. 

The story concludes with this:

Immediately (the Sanhedrin fulfilled the verse): “They sit upon the ground, and keep silence, the elders of the daughter of Zion” (Lamentations 2:10). 

The Book of Lamentations describes the reactions of Israel notto nuances of vowing and oaths, but to the destruction of the Temple — by Nebuchadnezzar. By ending with this quote, the Talmud seems to be suggesting that perhaps it was the Sanhedrin’s very error around Zedekiah’s vow that led Nebuchadnezzar to ultimately destroy the Temple. 

Dissolving an oath about someone without including that person in the process is not just halakhically incorrect, but apparently it can have tragic consequences. 

Read all of Nedarim 65 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on December 29th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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