Narrative passages in the Talmud often leave much to the imagination of the reader. The following anecdote from today’s daf is no exception:
Once there was a person who said to his wife, “You are forbidden to benefit from me until you have given Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Shimon your cooked food to taste.”
What inspired this specific vow? We don’t know. The traditional commentaries are silent, suggesting either that it’s obvious what’s going on or that these details have no bearing on why the Gemara tells the story.
We do know that a vow like this, which prevents the husband from fulfilling his obligations in the marriage contract, can lead to the court stepping in and forcing him to divorce her. So the stakes are high for them both.
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, a 20th century commentator, suggests that the husband is dissatisfied with his wife’s cooking and his intention is to have these rabbis taste for themselves to know what slop he has to eat. This still leaves me scratching my head. OK, so the man doesn’t like his wife’s cooking. How is preventing her from benefiting from him until two rabbis have tasted her subpar food going to solve his problem? If anything, this interpretation figures the husband as an irrational and moderately spiteful actor.
So what happened next? The woman brings her food to the two rabbis:
Rabbi Yehuda tasted the food. He made a kal v’chomer (a fortiori) inference: If in order to make peace between a man and his wife, the Torah (i.e God) said, “My name, that is written in sanctity, shall be blotted out in the cursing waters” in a case of uncertainty, then I, all the more so, should do the same.
Rabbi Yehuda’s logic is based upon the ritual of the sotah, a woman who has been accused of adultery by her husband. Part of the (archaic) procedure for determining her guilt or innocence entails scraping a passage of writing, including God’s name, into a vessel of water which the woman then drinks.
If, concludes Rabbi Yehuda, God allows the divine name to be literally blotted out on the chance that doing so might restore the relationship between a married couple, then all the more so should he, Rabbi Yehuda, humble himself and eat from the food that this woman has brought in order to release her from her husband’s vow. In other words, if he experiences some personal humiliation for getting caught up in the shenanigans brought about by the husband’s vow, it’s worth it for the sake of restoring shalom bayit (peace in the household). And so he tastes the food.
Rabbi Shimon, on the other hand, said:
Let all the children of the widow die, and Shimon will not budge from his place. And furthermore, I refuse to taste the food so that they should not become used to taking vows.
Even if the husband were to die, leaving the family destitute which, in turn, would cause the death of their children, says Rabbi Shimon, I will not be drawn into this dispute and taste the food. While his language is cruel, and perhaps overstated, his motivation is made clear by what follows. Rabbi Shimon is concerned with upholding the sanctity of vows. If he allows himself to be brought into this marital dispute by means of an ill-considered angry vow, what’s to discourage this couple from taking more vows at the drop of a hat? Helping this woman out of her jam, Rabbi Shimon fears, will contribute to a communal laxity around vows with the devastating result that people will take vows constantly to antagonize and manipulate one another and, worse, end up sinning needlessly when they do not fulfill them.
So what actually provoked this vow? We still don’t know. But, suggests the Gemara, that’s not the point. What matters is what we should do about it. Do we follow Rabbi Shimon and refuse to get involved so that people will take vows more seriously? Or should we step in like Rabbi Yehuda in an effort to restore peace to their home?
I know what I would do, do you?
Read all of Nedarim 66 on Sefaria.