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Words Apart

In Tractate Nedarim, the Talmud teaches us that what we say really, really matters

Dovid Bashevkin
January 24, 2023
Original images: Yulia Gadalina; Laura Ockel
Original images: Yulia Gadalina; Laura Ockel
Original images: Yulia Gadalina; Laura Ockel
Original images: Yulia Gadalina; Laura Ockel

We have become careless with our words. Not just in small ways, like literally using the word literally incorrectly, or using very real mental health terminology to describe a bad day—“the restaurant was awful, I’m so depressed”—but in big ways, too. Our common language, the way we describe and ascribe meaning to our lives, is beginning to fray. Hang out in enough WhatsApp groups and you’ll even see warring political parties claiming wins, or moral one-upmanship, for the same exact event. With the right spin, the right language, anyone can be right and everyone is left wrong. And that is why Tractate Nedarim was such a welcome fantastical Talmudic journey at exactly this moment. Nedarim, normally translated as “vows,” is not really about vows or promises in the sense we think about them now, but rather it is about the transformative power of language, about how the words we use have the power to impact and alter our reality. And it is that awesome imaginative transformative power of language that shapes and misshapes the world we live in today. Literally.

So what is a neder, or in its plural form, what are nedarim? A neder is a verbal declaration that allows someone to prohibit an object upon themselves. Imagine a loaf of bread. To everyone else it is just that—an ordinary delicious bastion of carbs. But make a neder—“this loaf of bread should be to me like a sacrifice in the Temple”—and suddenly the bread is transformed. The person who made the neder is prohibited from eating that loaf as if it were a consecrated sacrifice on the altar of the Temple in Jerusalem. A neder can transform a friend into a foe. Make a neder not to interact or derive benefit from someone and there is now a religious prohibition from interacting with them. Normally, such serious prohibitions only emerge from explicit Torah prohibitions. Only God can prohibit pork. But nedarim bestow these godlike transformative powers to everyone. Nedarim allow us to reshape our world.

Language in Tractate Nedarim is not descriptive: It is transformative. Objects, relationships, even religious obligations, can be reimagined through the linguistic power of the neder. This is an important departure from how we normally understand language. Early scholars of language such as St. Augustine thought language was just about corresponding objects to the words they represent. Point to a bird, say “bird.” Language creates a correspondence between word and object. Later scholars, such as Wittgenstein, thought of language as more of a game—we learn language through playful and creative usage. According to this theory, language may not correspond at all to any actual reality but the meaning of words is a product of how we use them. Tractate Nedarim subverts our notion of language. Instead of words corresponding to reality, words have the power to reshape reality. A loaf of bread becomes a sacrifice.

If our words can indeed reshape reality, there’s a possibility that with our words we each build our own isolated worlds. “One who makes a neder,” the Talmud explains, “is as if he built a prohibited altar and offered their own sacrifice upon it.” It’s a telling analogy about the power of language. Once the Temple was built, private altars became prohibited. When a neder prohibits an object, as the 16th-century rabbi known as the Maharal explains, we are leaving the cohesive linguistic world of the Temple and fashioning private languages and commitments for ourselves. Language, like the Temple, unified the people. When language is used to fashion private realities, everyone is left making sacrifices on their own personal altar.

It’s a reality we know all too well. “We are disoriented,” writes Jonathan Haidt on the effects of social media, “unable to speak the same language or recognize the same truth.” Instead, he writes, “We are cut off from one another and from the past.” Nowadays, everyone has their own altar online. Once we stop sharing a language together, we no longer share the same reality.

Yuval Harari, in his magisterial though sometimes cynical book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, places the transformative power of language at the heart of human history. Other animals may communicate, but humanity’s language is different. “All other animals,” he explains, “use their communication system only to describe reality.” Monkeys point to food, gazelles signal an approaching predator, birds look for a suitable climate. Humans alone transform reality with their language. We tell stories about our reality that reshape reality. Countries, currency, even religious life do not correspond to physical differences in the realia of the world we inhabit. And this has been the secret of humanity’s survival. As Harari explains:

We can cooperate flexibly with countless numbers of strangers, because we alone, of all the animals on the planet, can create and believe fictions, fictional stories. And as long as everybody believes in the same fiction, everybody obeys and follows the same rules, the same norms, the same values.

A fictional story isn’t necessarily wrong, or even untrue. It is simply a reminder that language has the power to ascribe meaning, to sanctify, and reframe the physical world even when everything tangibly remains the same. This is the power of a neder. To you it’s a loaf of bread, to me it’s a sacrifice. To you it’s 8,500 square miles in the Middle East, to me it’s my ancestral homeland. To you it’s a human being, to me it’s my spouse.

In the closing chapter of the Book of Numbers, as the Jewish people stand on the outskirts of Israel, Moses gathers the leaders of the Jewish people and explains the laws of nedarim. “If someone pledges to God,” Moses tells them, “they shall not break this pledge—all that is articulated from your mouth must be carried out.” It’s a strange law to emphasize in this moment. Why introduce nedarim on the doorsteps of the conquest of the land of Israel? Because language, Moses understands, is how human beings build society.

Wittgenstein understood that as well. “Can only those hope who can talk?” the philosopher asked, acknowledging that the transformative power of language—reshaping reality, creating the true fictions that bind us together—may also hold the key to our future. “Only those who have mastered the use of a language,” Wittgenstein continued, can see beyond the plan realia of the world—bananas, terrain, mountains, and climates—and instead reshape a world with countries, nationalities, sanctity, and all those unseen invisible concepts that elevate the human experience toward the divine. Language creates hope.

Even Jews who have never opened Tractate Nedarim are likely familiar with the notion of nedarim from the famous opening prayer of Yom Kippur: Kol Nidre. Yom Kippur seemingly begins with the annulment of vows. It’s a service that has garnered its own set of controversy—can Jews really be trusted, if on their holiest day they promptly gather to absolve themselves of their solemn promises? As I enter Yom Kippur and say the words of Kol Nidre, I think about the lessons of this tractate. If Nedarim isn’t so much about vows as it is about the transformative power of language, maybe Kol Nidre, too, isn’t so much annulling our promises but reflecting on the worlds we’ve constructed with our words. All those words that shape our worlds—I’m a loser, I’m no good, it’s gonna fail, it’ll never change, it’ll never get better. We begin Yom Kippur by annulling those ugly words of our past and hope for a future with new words and worlds. Kol Nidre—all those words that deplete, self-sabotage, create distance—we ask, we plead: Let’s find new words to reshape our world.

הדרן עלך מכסת נדרים והדרך עלן

Dovid Bashevkin is the Director of Education at NCSY and author of Sin·a·gogue: Sin and Failure in Jewish Thought. He is the founder of 18Forty, a media site exploring big Jewish questions. His Twitter feed is @DBashIdeas.