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Nedarim 83

Are husbands people?

A mishnah on today’s daf teaches: 

(If a married woman vowed: The property) of people is konam that I will not benefit from it, (her husband) cannot nullify it and she may benefit from gleanings, forgotten sheaves, and produce of the corners.

The mishnah teaches that if a woman vows that she will not benefit from the property of other people, her husband cannot nullify the vow. The woman can still benefit from the agricultural support system that the Torah commands farmers to set up. 

The rabbis of the Gemara interrogate one specific part of this law: Who exactly is included in the woman’s vow not to benefit from “people”? Now, the Hebrew word that the mishnah uses for people is briyot, which literally means “creations” and usually refers to humankind. So we might expect that this vow includes literally all humans.

But not so fast, because the Gemara just isn’t sure whether or not people includes her husband. Indeed, it offers two opposing answers. 

Apparently, (she) can be sustained from him, so by inference a husband is not included in “people.” 

Perhaps the husband cannot annul his wife’s vow because it doesn’t actually affect her health and their relationship. The woman can continue to eat from his property because husbands don’t count as “people.” Or alternatively: 

(She) may benefit from gleanings, forgotten (sheaves), and corners, but she may not eat from her husband. Apparently, a husband is included in “people.”

Perhaps the husband cannot annul his wife’s vow because even though he is included in the vow, it doesn’t actually affect her health and their relationship because the woman can continue to sustain herself from the agricultural charity of others. 

Next, named rabbis take specific sides in this debate. Ulla and Rav Nahman insist that husbands are not considered “people” for the purpose of their wife’s vow, while Rava argues that, in fact, husbands are “people.” 

Part of what underlies this dispute is a debate over how the mishnah’s two clauses relate to each other. Is the husband’s inability to annul the vow and the wife’s capacity to be sustained from the agricultural food bank separate clauses? Is he barred from annulling the vow (because she can continue to benefit from him), and she can also choose to use the agricultural food bank? Or perhaps they are causally related — he cannot annul the vow because she can continue to benefit from the agricultural food bank.  

But there is also a broader question at stake: Are spouses considered fully “other people,” or does marriage in some way blur the boundaries between individuals in ways that complicate women’s vows? Is a married couple one legal and ritual unit, or are they two individuals legally and ritually bound together? This simple turn of phrase in a vow opens up enormous questions about how the rabbis understand the very nature of marriage.

The debate continues on to tomorrow’s daf, where it never quite gets resolved. The Gemara leaves us still asking the question of whether husbands are considered people for the purpose of a woman’s vow. Only in the medieval period does Maimonides give us a firm answer — no, they aren’t.

Read all of Nedarim 83 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on January 16th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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