Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.

What kind of Jew makes vows to God? You might think that it would be an especially devout and God-fearing person; vows, after all, are promises to go above and beyond the already demanding laws of Judaism, to make a personal sacrifice in the name of God. For instance, one might vow to God not to eat certain food, or drink wine, or do business with a certain person. But the treatment of vows in Tractate Nedarim, the section of the Talmud devoted to the subject, leaves no doubt that the rabbis did not think vowing made you a better Jew. On the contrary. In Nedarim 9b, Rabbi Meir quotes a line from Ecclesiastes, “Better that you should not vow, than that you should vow and not pay,” and takes it a step further: “Better than both this and that is one who does not take a vow at all.”

A little earlier, in Nedarim 9a, the rabbis make a similar point when they speak of “the vows of the wicked.” Strange as it might seem, to vow something “like the vows of the wicked” is a valid formula, since it is taken for granted that wicked people regularly take vows. On the other hand, a man who vows something “like the vows of the virtuous, he has not said anything”: that is, to swear “like the virtuous” is a meaningless phrase, since the virtuous don’t take vows at all. Paradoxically, to vow is to associate oneself with evil, not good. Why, then, don’t the rabbis simply ban vowing altogether?

The answer seems to be that here, as often happens in the Talmud, the value system of the rabbis in the post-Temple period is in conflict with the values of the Bible, written centuries earlier in a very different Jewish society. There is no way of denying that the Bible allows for vowing—indeed, as we saw last week, the Bible warns that anyone who takes a vow must perform it. The rabbis cannot simply annul the biblical text. But they can, and do, weave a series of regulations around the practice of vowing, to make it more difficult and therefore rarer. (We saw something similar in Tractate Yevamot, where the rabbis more or less reversed the Bible’s views on levirate marriage. In the Bible, chalitza, the ceremony that releases a man from the obligation to marry his dead brother’s widow, is seen as a barely tolerable evasion of responsibility; in the Talmud, it is declared to be actually preferable to going through with the marriage.)

Why do the rabbis look so disapprovingly on vows? The reason is that a vow is what the Talmud calls “a stumbling-block”: It is placing an unnecessary obstacle in your own way, setting yourself up for failure. What if something happens to prevent you from fulfilling your vow? Then you have committed a wholly gratuitous sin. For this reason, the rabbis say, Hillel himself would never promise in advance to sacrifice a particular animal as a burnt-offering in the Temple. Rather, he would bring an unconsecrated animal to the Temple courtyard, consecrate it, and immediately slaughter it. That way, there was no chance for some mishap to prevent him from fulfilling his promise.

Similarly, Rabbi Shimon HaTzaddik, “the righteous,” would never “eat the guilt-offering of a ritually impure nazirite.” Naziriteship was a particular kind of vow, by which a man or woman bound themselves not to drink wine or cut their hair for a certain period of time. Ritual purity was another requirement, so that if a nazirite came into contact with a corpse, he had to bring a guilt-offering as atonement and start his period of naziriteship over again. Rabbi Shimon was saying that he would not facilitate this kind of sacrifice, because he feared that the nazirite would start to resent his prolonged constraint and would violate it, thereby committing a sin. Again, vowing is seen less as a sign of piety than as a kind of hubris. That is why, again according to Shimon, “the early generations of the pious”—and in the Talmud, the past is always seen as more pious than the present—“did not volunteer naziriteship in order that they not be called sinners.”

In Nedarim 10a, the rabbis go even further. Not only is naziriteship a temptation to sin by breaking one’s vows, but even someone who keeps the terms of his vow is considered a sinner. “A nazirite is a sinner,” the Gemara says without qualification. The reason, according to Rabbi Elazar HaKappar (“the distinguished”), is that depriving oneself of wine is a form of self-inflicted suffering, and all such suffering is sinful: “One who causes himself suffering by refraining from everything is all the more to be considered a sinner. From here it can be derived that whoever fasts unnecessarily is called a sinner.” Earlier, in Tractate Ketubot, we saw that a married man who vows to refrain from sex is considered a sinner against his wife; now, it appears that all forms of asceticism are sinful. The contrast between Judaism and Christianity, which has always honored vows of celibacy and poverty, could not be clearer.

In his whole life, Rabbi Shimon HaTzaddik says, there was only one time he agreed to eat the sacrifice of a nazirite. This was a man who “had beautiful eyes and was good looking, and the fringes of his hair were arranged in curls. I said to him: My son, what did you see that made you decide to destroy this beautiful hair of yours?” (At the completion of his term, a nazirite must cut off all his hair.) The man replied with a story that echoes, perhaps consciously, the Greek myth of Narcissus: “I was a shepherd for my father in my city, and I went to draw water from the spring, and I looked at my reflection in the water and my evil inclination quickly overcame me and sought to expel me from the world.”

Later commentators, the Koren Talmud explains, debated exactly what the man meant by this. Was he tempted by his good looks to become a seducer of women, or of men? Did he fall in love with his own reflection? Or was he simply guilty of excessive pride? In any case, he quickly rebuked himself. “I said to myself: Wicked one! Why do you pride yourself in a world that is not yours, in someone who will eventually be food for worms and maggots?” To eliminate the temptation, he decided to become a nazirite and do away with his splendid hair. In the eyes of Rabbi Shimon, this motive justified the vow: “My son, may there be more who take vows of naziriteship like you among the Jewish people.” Apparently vows can be virtuous, as long as they are taken for good moral reasons and not out of spiritual pride or rash impulse.

Much of this week’s reading dealt, once again, with the particular form a vow should take. In Nedarim 10a, the mishna gives a list of words that are variants on the correct Hebrew words—konam instead of korban for “sacrifice,” nazik instead of nazir for “nazirite”—but that are still legally valid for vowing. The Gemara debates where exactly these words come from: Did the Tannaim invent them to be used as sacred euphemisms, or were they borrowed from other languages? (Or, as seems most likely, are they mispronunciations by people who were not native Hebrew speakers?) And is the mishna’s list meant to be exhaustive, or are “substitutes for the substitutes” also allowed? Here Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagree: Shammai holds that other versions of the variant words are allowed, while Hillel disqualifies them.

In the course of the discussion, two rules of vowing are made clear. One is that a vow must relate to a physical object, not an abstraction or an activity. Thus a vow to refrain from speaking or sleeping is legally meaningless, since these are not concrete objects. To make them valid, a person would have to vow “my mouth will not touch food” or “my eyes will not close in sleep,” thus referring them to something tangible. Another rule is that a vow must take the form of a comparison with a sacred prohibited object: You cannot say, “I will not eat this loaf of bread,” but “this loaf of bread will be to me like a consecrated lamb.”

In Nedarim 13a, the Gemara gives a list of such sacred objects that can be used in vowing: enclosures, altars, firewood—all from the Temple—or the Sanctuary or Jerusalem itself. Vows that do not follow this formula are invalid, as are vows to do something that is plainly impossible. For instance, the rabbis say, a person can vow not to sleep for a night, but if he vows not to sleep for three nights, he is flogged for taking an oath in vain and released from what appears to be an unkeepable promise. This example suggests another reason why the rabbis distrusted vows—they tend to be hyperbolic, excessive. A well-thought out and justified vow, like the one by the man with good hair, was clearly a rare exception.

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