As we learned at the beginning of Nedarim’s tenth chapter, a woman’s vows may be canceled by her father or her husband, or both of them together if she is engaged but still living at home. Today, the Gemara cites a beraita that examines specific language that a man might use to either uphold or cancel the vow.
One who says to his wife: “Any vows which you will vow, I do not want you to vow,” or who says, “This is not a vow,” — has not said anything.
If he says, “You have done well,” or, “There is no one like you,” or, “If you had not taken a vow, I, myself, would have taken a vow to obligate you,” — his words stand.
First, the beraita gives examples of statements that do not constitute proper revocation. These include a general statement to the effect of, “I don’t want you to make any vows,” or a dismissive one: “What you’ve said isn’t a vow.” The husband may not want his wife to make a vow, or he may not take her words seriously, but statements indicating as much don’t make her vow any less effective. In these instances, he has said nothing of legal substance.
By contrast, general statements of affirmation and support can be used to uphold a woman’s vow. These statements include both general approval (“You’ve done well” and “There’s no one like you”) and specific validation (“If you hadn’t made that vow, I would have done so on your behalf”). In these cases, the husband’s words do, in fact, ratify his wife’s vow.
Why are these kinds of general statements unable to cancel a vow but are capable of ratifying it?
According to Rabbi Nissim of Gerona (the Ran, who is the main commentator on our tractate), in the first set of statements, the husband’s desire to revoke the vow isn’t enough; he must nullify his wife’s vow with explicit language of cancellation because, as the Ran puts it, revocation made in one’s heart is not effective. But though an implied revocation is not effective, an implied confirmation is, since all the husband is doing is affirming what already exists.
Writing centuries later, Maimonides agrees (Mishneh Torah, Vows 13:3): “How does one express his acceptance of a vow? He says to her: ‘I uphold your vow,’ ‘It was good that you vowed,’ ‘There is no one like you,’ ‘Had you not taken the vow, I would have administered it to you,’ or any analogous statement that implies that he is happy with this vow.”
I think there is something else going on here as well. We’ve already learned in this chapter that the seriousness of a vow lends itself to confirmation rather than cancelation. Here, the Talmud understands something more about what it takes to maintain a respectful marital relationship. Statements of general dismissal of vows can come off as dismissive of the wife herself. But statements of general approval give the opposite impression. In what I think is both a subversive and poignant message, the Gemara gives efficacy to the spouse who praises his wife and not to the one who dismisses her.
Read all of Nedarim 77 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on January 10th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.