Nedarim 7

World’s shortest ostracism.

On today’s daf, among other discussions, we learn two things from Rav. First, if someone ostracizes another in person, they must also reverse the decree of ostracism in person. Second, if someone hears another utter God’s name in vain, they are required to immediately ostracize them. Moreover, in the second case, Rav teaches, the person who overhears God’s name said in vain is automatically ostracized themselves if they do not take action to ostracize the one who made this mistake. This stringency is likely because taking God’s name in vain is a danger to the entire community. In places where it is commonly done, Rav observes, poverty is also common.

These two points, that ostracism should be revoked in the physical presence of the person who has been ostracized, and that hearing someone take God’s name in vain requires ostracization, are then explored in the following story:

Rabbi Abba said: I was standing before Rav Huna, and he heard a certain woman utter God’s name in vain. He ostracized her and immediately dissolved the ostracism in front of her.

Learn from this three things: Learn from this that a person who hears God’s name mentioned must ostracize the one who uttered it; learn from this that one who ostracizes another in their presence must dissolve it in their presence; and learn from this that there is no required time between ostracizing and dissolving the ostracism.

Rabbi Abba follows both of Rav’s rules to the letter: He ostracizes the woman who utters God’s name in vain, and he also revokes that decree of ostracism in her presence. What’s surprising is that the period of ostracism is vanishingly short. He has upheld the letter of Rav’s law, but what purpose is really served by an ostracism of just a few seconds?

In our era, when unpleasant communication can feel terribly fraught, and it can be hard to communicate disapproval, Rav Huna’s actions can encourage us to look for creative ways to find a middle ground between strongly declaring our disapproval and completely writing off another individual. Rav Huna understands the import of uttering God’s name in vain, an offense that cannot be ignored. In this context, talmudic commentators cite Korach and the sin of the Golden Calf, two paradigmatic stories of contradicting God’s word and bringing God’s authority into question. It’s a big deal.

However, Rav Huna also recognizes the dignity of the person standing in front of him, the opportunity for repentance, the need to keep the community open for people, even those who flout central communal rules. His act of ostracism tells us how strongly he disapproves of the woman’s misstep, but his immediate dissolution tells us equally that he doesn’t need to prolong the punishment, creating a scene that will likely lead to significant inconvenience and embarrassment. 

We might also take this story as a reminder of the importance of face-to-face confrontation. This kind of interaction signals more dignity and respect than a remote declaration. And finally, reconciliation is also part of this encounter: One must express disagreement in person, but then one should also reconcile in person. 

In pluralistic communities, we are sometimes taught not to criticize one another’s point of view or actions, that vigorous disagreement hurts the community and is incompatible with accepting everyone. But what then happens when another person’s statements or actions cut against a core ideal or value of ours? Should we cut them off from the otherwise pluralistic community altogether? Rav Huna offers a middle path between blanket acceptance and virulent dismissal, reminding us that with care and perhaps some creativity, we can express our opinion — even quite strongly — while still valuing and respecting the person with whom we disagree.

Read all of Nedarim 7 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on November 1st, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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