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[page xi] Nedarim, 'Vows' is generally regarded as the third Tractate of Nashim, 'Women',1 though the order of the Tractates is not uniform in all editions. The first nine chapters have no particular connection with women, yet the tractate is included in this Order on account of the last two chapters, which treat of the husband's power to annul the vows of his wife and the father's power to annul those of his daughter. According to Maimonides in the Introduction to his commentary on the Mishnah, this Tractate immediately follows Kethuboth because once a woman has entered under the huppah (bridal canopy) and the provisions of the ketkubah (marriage settlement) are operative, her husband has the right to annul her vows.
The making of vows would appear to have been a frequent practice in ancient life. People voluntarily denied themselves permitted pleasures, though the Rabbis frowned upon unnecessary asceticism, holding it a sin to abstain from legitimate enjoyment. Again, to express anger or resentment, vows were made whereby one forbade himself to benefit from the object of his displeasure, or forbade the latter to benefit from him. It may be remarked in this connection that the Rabbis disapproved of the whole practice of vowing, so much so that one might rightly speak of the vows of the wicked, but not of the vows of the righteous (Mishnah, 9a). And in making vows of abstinence people, as a rule, did not say, 'I vow that So-and-so shall be forbidden to me,' for a definite technique of vowing had in course of time been evolved. Generally speaking, they related their vow to the Temple Service, as the religious centre of their lives, and would declare, 'Let So-and-so be to me as a korban, sacrifice,' which meant that it was to be prohibited. Yet there was a tendency to avoid the actual use of the word korban, and similar sounding substitutes were employed instead. The first two chapters deal with this technique of vowing: [page xii]which formulas were valid (chapter 1) and which were not (chapter 2).
The third chapter treats of vows which for certain reasons were not recognised as vows at all, but merely as rhetorical means of emphasizing one's determination, such as vows taken in business transactions to enhance or depress the value of merchandise. An excursus at the end of the chapter gives definitions of the persons to be understood by particular terms, as when e.g., one vows not to benefit from land-dwellers, seafarers, the children of Noah, the seed of Abraham, etc. In this connection a definition of 'circumcised' is given, and this is made the opportunity for a digression on the vital importance of circumcision in Judaism. These definitions may be regarded as a fitting introduction to the subject-matter of chapter 4 which is to define the scope of vows, such as the extent to which one is forbidden when he is under a vow not to eat aught of his neighbour. and when he is under a vow not to benefit from his neighbour.
Chapter 5 deals with partners in property who subject one another to vows, and how their partnership rights are thereby affected. It is characteristic of the high place kindliness and pity hold in Judaism that the chapter proceeds to discuss how one who may not confer benefit upon his neighbour as a result of a vow may nevertheless help him in distress. Some of the expedients permitted may appear to be and are in fact mere evasions; but they correspond to the finer instincts of the true ethical values of religion.
Chapters 6 and 7 contain a further series of definitions. But whereas the excursus at the end of chapter 3 treats of definitions of persons, we have here definitions of common terms used in vowing, e.g., what is understood when one vows to abstain from boiled food, food prepared in a pot, roast, milk, various fruits, vegetables, house, etc. In the following chapter time-definitions form the main subject: what is meant by day, month, year, etc., when one sets these as limits to his vow, and how they are affected by the intercalation of the month or the year.
The frequency and possibly light-hearted spirit with which vows were made, only to be regretted latcr in calmer moments, made [page xiii] it necessary to provide for their remission, when this was desired. Nevertheless, absolution could not be granted at one's mere request, but some grounds for regret had to be found. For it was presumed that had these grounds been present to the mind of the vower at the time, he would have refrained from vowing. This presumption sufficed to render it a vow made in error and thereby warrant its nullification. The ninth chapter deals with the grounds upon which absolution may be granted.
As has already been stated, it is to the 10th and 11th chapters that this Tractate owes its inclusion in the present Order. The former deals with the persons who can annul a woman's vows, viz., her father and her husband, and under what conditions. Finally the last chapter discusses which vows a husband can annul. It may be observed that though a woman's vows were thus subject to annulment by her father or husband (in the latter case only where they affected him), neither had the power to impose vows upon her, such as was recognised in some ancient non-Jewish legal systems.
The text, particularly in the halachic portion, is in some disorder, far more so than is the case of other Tractates of the Talmud. A great number of readings differing from those of the cur. edd. are preserved in the standard commentaries of Rashi, Ran, Ashen and Tosafoth. These variants are not merely linguistic, but in many cases materially affect the thread of the discussion. Naturally, interpretation is affected too, and the necessary changes consequent upon the changes in the text have been indicated in the notes.
There is very little Aggada in this Tractate. The most noteworthy passages and Aggadic sayings are those dealing with the great importance of circumcision; the emphasis that learning must be free; the enumeration of the things created before the Creation of the world; the importance of sick visiting; the story of R. Akiba's rise from a poor shepherd to a great teacher in Israel, bound up, in true romantic fashion, with a tender love-story; the warning against selfish motives in study — 'he who makes use of the crown of the law is uprooted from the world'; and the exhortation: 'Take heed of the sons of the poor, for from them cometh Torah' — a democratic assertion fitting for a cultural and religious system [page xiv] which always strives to assess a man's worth not by his material wealth and possessions but by the higher standard of piety and knowledge.
The Indices of this Tractate have been compiled by Judah J. Slotki, M. A.
PREFATORY NOTE BY THE EDITOR
The Editor desires to state that the translation of the several Tractates, and the notes thereon, are the work of the individual contributors and that he has not attempted to secure general uniformity in style or mode of rendering. He has, nevertheless, revised and supplemented, at his own discretion, their interpretation and elucidation of the original text, and has himself added the notes in square brackets containing alternative explanations and matter of historical and geographical interest.