Talmudic pages

Nedarim 91

Poisoned cress.

Today our tractate wraps up with a discussion of the following mishnah:

Initially the sages would say that three women are automatically divorced and receive their ketubah: (1) the wife who says to her husband, “I am defiled to you,” (2) the wife who says “Heaven is between me and you,” and (3) the wife who vows “I am removed from the Jews.”

The first woman is a survivor of sexual assault, which renders her, though blameless, no longer permissible to her husband (if he is a priest, as the Gemara will explain). The second, the Gemara clarifies, is a woman whose husband “does not shoot like an arrow” — that is, he’s impotent. And the third — the one who has vowed to be removed from all Jews, including her mate — is the reason this mishnah is tacked on to this tractate on vows.

Because this law unintentionally gave clever women the power to initiate divorce and still keep their ketubahs, the mishnah continues, it was changed: The assaulted wife was required to bring proof that the sex was not consensual; the woman whose husband was impotent could request but not compel a divorce; and the husband of the woman who vowed to separate herself from the Jews was encouraged to annul the portion of the vow that applied to him so that not only was divorce no longer required, in the event of divorce she would be unable to remarry within the Jewish community.

Since we are in Tractate Nedarim, we might expect the Gemara’s discussion to center on the last case that pertains to vows. (Also, in my view, it is the most interesting legal adjustment because it weaponizes her attempt to leave the marriage with her ketubah.) But in fact, the Gemara is focused on the first two cases, eventually wending its way into a series of scenarios in which a woman has had sex outside her marriage but we are not certain whether it was consensual — or, indeed, if it even happened at all. The last and most cinematic of the hypothetical scenarios is this:

An adulterer entered the house of a married woman. When her husband came home, the adulterer went and sat behind the door. There was some cress lying there in the house, and the adulterer saw a snake taste it. The master of the house wanted to eat from the cress and the adulterer said to him, “Do not eat from the cress! A snake has tasted it.”

It’s a made-to-order movie scene with the following legal question attached: Can the husband infer that the (naked?) man behind the door is in fact an adulterer? The omniscient narrator has told us he is. And why else would he be skulking behind the door? But according to Rava, his presence is not adequate proof:

Rava said: His wife is permitted to him (i.e. she didn’t commit adultery), for had he (the man behind the door) committed a transgression, it would have been preferable for him that the husband should eat the cress and die, as it is written: For they have committed adultery and blood is on their hands. (Ezekiel 23:45)

An adulterer, says Rava, would welcome the death of his lover’s husband. Therefore, we can conclude that this man is innocent.

The Gemara suggests that this conclusion is obvious and wonders why Rava even needed to tell us. Why might we suppose the man who just jumped out to save the husband’s life is also cuckolding him? The last lines of our tractate explain:

Rava’s ruling is necessary, lest you say that he did commit a transgression with her, and he spoke to the husband because it is preferable for him that the husband should not die. This is in order that the man’s wife should be to him as it says in the verse: Stolen waters are sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant. (Proverbs 9:17)

We might have supposed that the man’s decision to save the husband’s life proveshis guilt, because it is only while the husband continues to live that the adulterous relationship stays illicit and hot. That is why we need Rava’s teaching that by saving the husband, the man proves his innocence. 

Before we turn the page, let’s once more consider that verse from Proverbs: Stolen waters are sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant. In this tractate we have mostly been dealing with vows that are the inverse: People vowing to deny themselves things that they would normally want. But this verse reminds us that forbidden things are also thrilling, perhaps yet another reason the rabbis were concerned that vows not get out of hand. 

Read all of Nedarim 91 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on January 24th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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