On the penultimate page of Tractate Nedarim, we encounter a puzzling anecdote:
A certain man vowed that all benefit from the world would be forbidden to him if he married a woman before learning halakhah. He would run up a ladder and rope but was not able to learn.
Once, says the Gemara, there was a man so dedicated to learning Jewish law, he vowed to deny himself all benefit from the world if he married before mastering it. Alas, he did not have a head for halakhah. He studied hard — so hard that it was as if he climbed up and down a rope ladder all day — but was not able to successfully learn the material.
This sounds tragic on all counts, but there is no automatic violation of the vow. The man keeps studying, keeps failing to master the material, and remains unmarried. That is, until a rabbi intervenes:
Rav Aha bar Rav Huna came and misled him so he married a woman.
Rav Aha bar Rav Huna tricks this poor man into believing that his vow will not go into effect if he marries and so he gets hitched.
Why would Rav Aha intentionally deceive the man into activating a vow that will deny him all benefit from the world? Isn’t it better for the man to live an unmarried life than to marry and be unable to benefit from the world? While the former deviates from the rabbinic norm to marry and have a family, the latter is a path to death by starvation!
As soon as the man marries, his vow is activated and he is, in fact, unable to benefit from the world, which includes wearing clothes, so …
Rav Aha bar Rav Huna then smeared him with clay.
Holding the man to his vow (the one he previously convinced him would not be activated by marriage), Rav Aha now provides clay to take the place of clothing. “Wearing” clay, which comes from the world, is not considered to be a benefit. Whether this is a small kindness to provide protection for a person who can no longer wear clothes or a public humiliation for a person who was deceived into taking on the consequences of a vow, Rav Aha’s actions appear difficult to defend. But at least the man’s suffering is about to end, because:
Rav Aha then brought him before Rav Hisda to dissolve his vow.
Once the man has married, been stripped of his clothes and covered with mud, Rav Aha immediately brings him to have his vow dissolved. And now we finally get an explanation for this strange sequence of events.
Rava said: Who is wise enough to act in this manner, if not Rav Aha bar Rav Huna, who is a great man? As he holds that just as the rabbis and Rabbi Natan disagree with regard to nullification, whether it is possible to nullify a vow that has yet to take effect, so too, they disagree with regard to a request made to a halakhic authority to dissolve a vow, whether it is possible to request dissolution of such a vow.
As Rava explains, the rabbis do not agree about whether a vow can be dissolved, or even if one can request that a vow be dissolved, until its conditions are activated. And this provides us with the motivation behind Rav Aha’s actions: The man has made a vow which prevents him from getting married because he is unable to master halakhah. Rav Aha wants to relieve him of the enormous burden of this vow, but in order to do so, the vow must be activated. So he tricks the man into marrying and then, once the vow has been activated, immediately brings him to have it canceled.
What appeared to be an act of cruelty turned out to be an act of kindness — one that shows us just how far the rabbis will go to unencumber a person from a vow that they shouldn’t have taken in the first place.
Read all of Nedarim 90 on Sefaria.