Nedarim 74

Woe to you.

We’ve discussed husbands and fiances, so it probably shouldn’t be a complete surprise that today’s daf opens with a mishnah that presents three opinions about whether a yavam (a man whose married brother died childless and who is therefore obligated to marry his widowed sister-in-law) can nullify his yevama’s vows before their levirate marriage is consummated:

Rabbi Eliezer says: A yavam can nullify her vows. 

Rabbi Yehoshua says: If she is waiting for one yavam, he can nullify her vows, but not if she is waiting for two. 

Rabbi Akiva says: A yavam cannot nullify her vows, regardless of whether she is waiting for one yavam or for two or more.

Normally, having stated all opinions, the mishnah would stop. But today it contains a few more lines in which we get to see these three great sages hash out the argument. First Rabbi Eliezer, a disciple of the school of Shammai who held that the levirate bond was legally like marriage, defends his position that a yavam can always nullify his yevama’s vows:

Rabbi Eliezer said: Just as he nullifies the vows of a woman he acquired for himself (through betrothal), so too he nullifies vows for a woman acquired from Heaven (i.e. the yevama).

Rabbi Akiva said to him: No, if you say that a husband can nullify the vows of a woman he acquired for himself, over whom others have no authority, shall you also say that this is the case with regard to a woman acquired for him from Heaven, over whom others have authority? 

Rabbi Akiva points out that in the case of two or more potential yavams, however strong your view of levirate betrothal, we cannot say that she is truly married to both, since a woman cannot have two husbands. Therefore, no single one has enough authority to nullify her vows.

You might have noticed that while Rabbi Akiva’s statement hasn’t really addressed the case of a single yavam. Rabbi Yehoshua notices this too and points it out to him:

Rabbi Yehoshua said to him: Akiva, your statement applies in a situation with two yavams, but how do you reply to Rabbi Eliezer in the case of one yavam?

Rabbi Akiva said to him: A yevama is not the full-fledged wife of the yavam in the way that a betrothed woman is her husband’s full-fledged wife.

Rabbi Akiva answers by rejecting Rabbi Eliezer’s premise that a yevama is a full-fledged wife. Because she is not, in his view, a yavam may never nullify a yevama’s vows, no matter whether he is the only yavam or one of many. He may have held this view back earlier out of respect for his teachers, but when pressed by Rabbi Yehoshua he shares it and, in that moment, the student has outmaneuvered two of his teachers.

There are three versions of this story in talmudic literature, including a beraita brought by the Gemara on our page. Once again, we see that Rabbi Eliezer supports his own position, Rabbi Akiva rejects his logic, Rabbi Yehoshua points out that Rabbi Akiva’s argument has not decisively defended his own position, and Rabbi Akiva presents a new argument that carries the day. But this beraita appends one more statement with no parallel in our mishnah:

Ben Azzai responded with this language: Woe to you, ben Azzai, that you did not serve Rabbi Akiva. 

We can imagine that Ben Azzai, a contemporary of Akiva, was sitting on the side observing the interaction between Rabbi Yehoshua and his student, Akiva. Ben Azzai’s exclamation applauds the genius of his peer by lamenting that he hadn’t taken full advantage of opportunities to learn from him. A nice end to the story that praises Rabbi Akiva for his rabbinic prowess.

The third version of the debate appears in the Tosefta (Nedarim 6:5). Again, the structure of the story is the same, but now, Rabbis Yehoshua and Akiva are joined by Rabbi Eleazar ben Arach, a sage known for his brilliance and for having lost his gift of Torah, instead of Rabbi Eliezer (whose name is substantially similar in spelling). In this version, it’s Rabbi Yehoshua who chimes in at the end, saying:

Oh my, if only you (Akiva) had been around in the days of Rabbi Elazar ben Arach and responded in this manner!

In this version, the final exclamation comes from a teacher and not a peer and suggests that the interaction between Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Akiva took place at a different time from the initial exchange with Rabbi Elazar. In addition to acknowledging Rabbi Akiva’s gifts, it adds a touch of the sorrow that Rabbi Yehoshua feels for his colleague’s absence in the Beit Midrash. I would have loved to have seen Rabbi Elazar’s face had you been able to share this explanation directly with him, says Rabbi Yehoshua lamentingly to Rabbi Akiba. The exchange has added poignancy if one remembers that Rabbi Elazar ben Arach was a sage who tragically lost his Torah when he lived in isolation from other sages (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7.7.2). 

Twentieth century talmudist Rabbi Saul Liberman argues that the Tosefta’s version of the story, this last one, is the earliest and suggests that Rabbi Yehoshua is saying that Rabbi Akiva might have been able to change Rabbi Elazar’s mind. If it had come to pass that way, we might have inherited a different version of the mishnah, with only one opinion about the yavam’s ability to nullify vows — that of Rabbi Akiva.

Read all of Nedarim 74 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on January 7th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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