Talmud pages

Nedarim 73

Deaf communication.

Yesterday, the Talmud raised the possibility of a man nullifying his wife’s vows even without hearing them. Today, the rabbis take this idea to the next step.

Rami bar Hama asks: A man who cannot hear, what is the halakhah with regard to nullifying vows for his wife? 

Perhaps, if a man does not need to hear his wife’s vow to nullify it, then a man who is incapable of hearing also can nullify his wife’s vow? The Gemara tries to answer this question. 

If you say that a (hearing) husband can nullify without hearing, (perhaps) it is because he is capable of hearing. But a man who is not capable of hearing, this is (an application of the principle derived from the statement) of Rabbi Zeira. As Rabbi Zeira said: For any amount of flour suitable for mingling (with oil), mingling is not indispensable for it. But for any not suitable for mingling, mingling is indispensable for it. 

The Gemara draws an analogy from Rabbi Zeira’s ruling on the question of flour offerings in the Temple, which consisted of flour mixed with oil. We’re going to spend a whole tractate discussing flour offerings (stay tuned for Menachot), so for today it’s enough to know that Rabbi Zeira ruled that as long as one has the right amount of all the ingredients, whether or not one uses them all (at least after the fact) doesn’t really matter. But if one doesn’t have the right amount of ingredients, then the flour offering is not fit. 

The Gemara uses Rabbi Zeira’s teaching to suggest that if a man can hear, then he may be able to annul his wife’s vow without actually hearing it. But a if a man can’t hear at all, he is unable to annul his wife’s vows. 

But of course, people and flour offerings are not the same thing. So the Gemara raises another possibility:

Or perhaps “and her husband hears it” (Numbers 30:8) does not mean that hearing is indispensable.

Perhaps hearing just means communication, writ broadly? In his fascinating Show of Hands: A Natural History of Sign Language, anthropologist David F. Armstrong writes that, as early as the fifth century BCE, the Greek philosopher Plato describes people with hearing loss as making “signs with the hands and head and the rest of the body” in order to communicate. Indeed, “public speaking in ancient Rome was almost always accompanied by conventionalized visible gesture” — after all, in the days before microphones, you had to do something to reach the people at the back of the amphitheater. (20-1) Sign language wasn’t just for the hard of hearing.

If we know that people were using sign language to speak in public forums, then it stands to reason that people — whether or not they could hear— understood it. But is this kind of communication included under the biblical umbrella of “hearing”?

Rava said: Come and hear: And her husband hears it (shom’o) — this excludes the wife of a man who cannot hear. 

Rava’s teaching, which is accepted by the Gemara as a whole, hones in on the literal meaning of “hear” and insists that only those men who can hear can annul their wives’ vows. The rabbis insist that the word “hears” in Numbers refers specifically to a process where sound enters the ear canal, activating all kinds of internal processes.

We have seen many instances where the rabbis read a biblical phrase literally, but we have also seen numerous places where they read such a phrase metaphorically, expansively, imaginatively. Here the Gemara chooses to read “hear” literally; but I am left wondering what the Talmud’s discussion here might look like if the rabbis made a different choice. What might the halakhot of vowing (among other areas of rabbinic law that assume hearing) look like if the rabbis chose to read the word “hear” as including the many ways that people communicate with each?

Read all of Nedarim 723on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on January 6th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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