Today, we start chapter 11, the final chapter of Tractate Nedarim. We continue the discussion of women’s vows that can be nullified by their fathers or husbands (or, in the case of a betrothed woman, both). Numbers 30:14 singles out a specific type of vow that husbands have the right to revoke:
Every vow and every sworn obligation of self-affliction may be upheld by her husband or annulled by her husband.
The Torah suggests that the man’s role in nullifying a woman’s vow is to protect her from herself. Today’s mishnah asks: What exactly are vows of self-affliction?
And these are the vows that he can nullify: Matters that involve affliction, for example: “If I bathe, or if I do not bathe,” or “If I adorn myself, or if I do not adorn myself.”
Rabbi Yosei said: Those are not vows of affliction. Rather, these are vows of affliction: For example, if she said, “The produce of the world is forbidden for me,” he can nullify the vow. If, however, she said, “The produce of this country is forbidden for me,” he may still bring her produce from another country. If she said, “The produce of this storekeeper is forbidden for me,” he cannot nullify her vow. But if he can obtain his sustenance only from him, he can nullify the vow. – this is the opinion of Rabbi Yosei.
The Tanna Kama, the first anonymous opinion of our mishnah, defines self-affliction as refraining from hygiene practices: bathing and cosmetics. Rabbi Yosei, on the other hand, does not seem to view refraining from bubble baths as true affliction. Rather, he views self-affliction as eschewing enough food so as to make it difficult or even impossible for her husband to procure sustenance for her.
In the context of Rabbi Yosei’s critique, it’s difficult to understand why refraining from bathing and cosmetics might be considered self-affliction. Maimonides, writing hundreds of years later, elucidates the issue: “These are matters that affect the marital relationship” (Mishneh Torah, Vows, 12:1)
The Shulchan Aruch, the standard medieval law code, further explains, “Such conduct could arouse a husband’s displeasure, for he will not be happy that his wife does not appear attractive.” (234:59) The same source considers the makeup issue to also be one of “personal aggravation” to the woman’s husband, and therefore one that could affect their relationship. Now it’s not an aesthetic issue, and not even necessarily a self-harm issue, but a relationship issue — so he’s given carte blanche to revoke any vow that she makes regarding cosmetics.
When it comes to her vow to give up food, Maimonides again explains the effect this has on her husband: “When a woman takes a vow not to eat figs from her native country, her husband may nullify her vow because this is a matter that affects the marriage relationship. For it is a major problem for him to undertake the difficulty of bringing her figs from another place.” (Mishneh Torah, Vows, 12:7)
A plain reading of the Torah might suggest the husband’s role in revoking the vow is to protect the woman from herself. But reading through the mishnah’s description of what constitutes self-affliction, Maimonides understands the vows as actually afflicting the husband — and therefore the relationship. Maimonides seems to understand that she made these vows in order to frustrate her husband — that she chose to stop bathing (I don’t think this really is about eye shadow) to push him away. But it doesn’t seem to me that we need to understand her as doing this intentionally. Either way, by revoking this type of vow, a husband may be indicating his desire for closeness, and attempting to force the issue.
It’s possible to read this law that a husband can revoke his wife’s self-afflicting vow as a simple case of a husband taking control over his wife’s decisions. But a closer look suggests that the rabbis may be saying something deeper about how a couple should communicate in order to achieve intimacy. Allowing a husband to dissolve his wife’s harmful vow might erode marital closeness, or it could be a step in the right direction. I’m rooting for this proverbial couple, whoever they were. I hope she got her figs.
Read all of Nedarim 79 on Sefaria.