The term na’arah (plural na’arot) usually refers to single young women who have not yet reached the age of legal majority. Today’s mishnah lists nine na’arot whose vows cannot be nullified. But as we will see, the term clearly refers to women of different ages in this mishnah. Here are the first seven:
There are nine young women whose vows are upheld: (1) a grown woman who is an orphan; (2) a young woman (who took a vow) and then reached her majority and she is an orphan; (3) a young woman who had not yet reached her majority and was an orphan; (4) a grown woman whose father died; (5) a young woman who came of age (who vowed and then) her father died; (6) a young woman who had not reached her majority (when she made her vow) and her father died (before she reached the age of majority and so she is still a minor); (7) a young woman (who made a vow) and her father died, and after her father died she reached her majority.
These seven types of women have all lost their fathers; without a father or a husband to annul their vows, their vows stand — regardless of their age when they made their vow, or the age at which they lost their fathers. And if you’re having trouble tracking the differences, don’t worry — the Gemara is going to simplify it soon. But before that, let’s finish our list of the nine na’arot. And, thank God, the last two categories in this mishnah also offer us examples of women who got to keep their vows and their fathers!
(8) a grown woman and her father is alive; (9) a young woman who took a vow and reached the age of majority and her father is alive.
So actually, regardless of whether her father is alive, an unmarried adult woman’s vows cannot be annulled.
Young girls with fathers can have their vows annulled by their fathers, young orphan girls cannot, and adult women – regardless of whether their fathers are alive — cannot either. Then why list all these different extremely specific scenarios? It turns out that the rabbis of the Gemara don’t actually think we need to get this specific. They offer a much simpler way of saying the same thing:
But the rabbis say three young women whose vows are upheld: A grown woman, and an orphan, and an orphan in her father’s lifetime.
For the rabbis, an orphan is a girl whose father has died (but whose mother — who can’t annul her vows — could still be alive). So then what is an orphan in her father’s lifetime? It’s a technical rabbinic expression which refers to a girl who is a minor who was married and then widowed or divorced all before she reaches the age of majority. In this case, even though she no longer has a husband and she is still a minor, she does not revert back to her father’s authority. While statistically, many girls would have been orphans, the case of the “orphan in her father’s lifetime” was less likely.
What about the grown woman? This term is used by the rabbis to describe a grown woman who has never been married. But how common would it have actually been for a Jewish woman to even be unmarried after she reached the age of majority? Many of us imagine women in the ancient world moving from their father’s household straight to their husband’s household sometime around puberty.
As my students are always surprised to learn, the historical evidence does not support this image. Historians now think that across the Roman Empire women got married in their late teens and early twenties. To be clear, this data point is an average; it’s certainly possible that different groups tended to get married at different ages. But assuming that the Jews who wrote the Mishnah and lived in the Roman Empire were themselves in conversation with wider practices, it is likely that many Jewish women did in fact get married in their late teens, years after they became a legal adult within a Jewish context — with all the rights and responsibilities that that status entailed.
We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about all the ways that fathers and husbands can annul the vows of their daughters and wives. But as the Talmud has reminded us yesterday and today, a huge number of women would have been halakhically able to make vows without the risk of nullification. From those who never married, to those who married and divorced or married and were widowed, to those who married, divorced and remarried all in the same day — many women could (and perhaps did!) vow freely.
Read all of Nedarim 89 on Sefaria.