Talmud

Nedarim 85

Rabbi Yohanan ben Nuri the optimist..

The mishnah on today’s daf begins by considering the case of a woman who vows not to work for the men in her life:

If a woman said (to her husband): “I vow not to produce anything for my father,” or, “for your father,” or, “for my brother,” or, “for your brother,” — her husband cannot nullify such vows.

Why can’t he nullify these vows? Because, as we learned at the beginning of this chapter, they are not matters of self-affliction and they don’t affect her immediate relationship with her husband. But what if she vows not to work for husband?

If she said: “I vow not to produce anything for you (my husband),” — her husband need not nullify.

As we learned in Tractate Ketubot, a married woman is obligated to hand over a certain amount of what she produces to her husband. Therefore, since what she produces does not actually belong to her, but her husband, she cannot take a vow to render it forbidden to him. There is no need to nullify the vow because the vow never took effect.

But Rabbi Akiva notes that in some cases the vow might actually take effect:

Rabbi Akiva says: He should nevertheless nullify the vow, as perhaps she will exceed the required amount of work and do more for him than is fitting for him to receive.

Rabbi Akiva reminds us that a woman’s obligation to her husband is not bottomless. Therefore, her vow applies to any work that exceeds the minimum. According to Rabbi Akiva, then, it is best for her husband to nullify the vow, so that she will not accidentally transgress it by doing too much work. 

Rabbi Yohanan ben Nuri agrees that the husband should nullify this vow, but for a different reason:

Rabbi Yohanan ben Nuri says: He should nullify the vow because perhaps he will one day divorce her, at which point the vow will take effect and she will then be forbidden to him forever. 

Rabbi Yohanan ben Nuri thinks that the vow would not take effect so long as she is married. But should he divorce her in the future, her vow would then take effect because she no longer has spousal obligations toward him. Further, if he ever wanted to remarry her, she would be prohibited from him because her vow not to work for him would prevent her from fulfilling her obligations as his wife.

It is Rabbi Yohanan ben Nuri whose opinion ends up being codified as halakhah. A husband should annul his wife’s vow that attempts to prevent him from benefiting from her labor, on the off chance that he will divorce her and then one day wish to remarry her. 

The premise of the mishnah takes a depressing view of this couple’s relationship. She is presumably so angry with her spouse that she rashly vows he can never benefit from her work ever again — even though she (presumably) knows that the vow is, for the most part, ineffective. And yet, Rabbi Yohanan ben Nuri’s interpretation of the halakhah gives us a glimmer of hope for this couple. Perhaps they are so at loggerheads divorce is on the horizon, but there may come a time that they will nonetheless choose to come back together and remarry. And when they do, says Rabbi Yohanan ben Nuri, no ancient vow of anger should stand in their way.

Read all of Nedarim 85 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on January 18th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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