More than a millennium has passed since the act of vowing engendered significant religious obligations and consequences in the Jewish world. As early as the seventh century, Rav Yehudai Gaon, one of the prolific rabbinical scholars of the time, highlights the lapsed trend of vowing by declaring: "we do not study Nedarim [the talmudic tractate that deals with vows], nor do we know how to rule strictly or leniently in this area." In modern lingo, a vow has become a way to express emotions of anger, exasperation, annoyance, and aggravation, while often lacking sincerity. "I swear to God, if the Yankees don't win this game, I'm going to kill myself!" On the other hand, some people will only make a vow––especially in God's name––if they really mean it, or not make any declaration at all. When we look back at the tradition of making a neder (a vow) within the Hebrew Bible and within rabbinical literature, we find that vowing was a not only a common Jewish practice, but that Jews did it with a stringent binding force and severe legal consequence.
In addition to the dedication of an entire tractate in the Mishnah and the Talmud called נדרים on the legal implications of making vows, we find circumstances in other sections of the Talmud that also deal with making a neder. Parts oftractate Ketubot deal with vows that a husband might make against his wife. In these cases, a husband makes a neder prohibiting his wife from pleasures, property, intercourse, and rights in which she is granted in her ketubah (marriage contract). Such cases deal with a husband who abuses his wife through spitefully vowing away her pleasures and her legal rights. Because of this abuse, the rabbis demand that such marriages be dissolved unless the neder can somehow be annulled. The Mishnah supposes the following the scenarios:
הַמַּדִּיר אֶת אִשְׁתּוֹ מִלֵּהָנוֹת לוֹ, עַד שְׁלֹשִׁים יוֹם, יַעֲמִיד פַּרְנָס. יָתֵר מִכֵּן, יוֹצִיא וְיִתֵּן כְּתֻבָּה
If one pronounces a vow prohibiting his wife to derive benefit from him for up to thirty days, he must set up a steward to support her. If it is more than thirty days, he must divorce her and pay her ketubah (Ketubot 7:1). 1
הַמַּדִּיר אֶת אִשְׁתּוֹ שֶׁלֹּא תִטְעוֹם אֶחָד מִכָּל הַפֵּרוֹת, יוֹצִיא וְיִתֵּן כְּתֻבָּה
If a husband pronounces a vow on his wife to the effect that she should not taste any type of fruit, he must divorce her and pay the value of the ketubah (Ketubot 7:2). 2
הַמַּדִּיר אֶת אִשְׁתּוֹ שֶׁלֹּא תִתְקַשֵּׁט בְּאֶחָד מִכָּל הַמִּינִין, יוֹצִיא וְיִתֵּן כְּתֻבָּה
If one pronounces a vow on his wife that she should not adorn herself with jewelry or perfume, he must divorce her and pay the value of her ketubah (Ketubot 7:3).
הַמַּדִּיר אֶת אִשְׁתּוֹ שֶׁלֹּא תֵלֵךְ לְבֵית אָבִיהָ, בִּזְמַן שֶׁהוּא עִמָּהּ בָּעִיר, חֹדֶשׁ אֶחָד יְקַיֵּם. שְׁנַיִם, יוֹצִיא וְיִתֵּן כְּתֻבָּה. וּבִזְמַן שֶׁהוּא בְּעִיר אַחֶרֶת, רֶגֶל אֶחָד יְקַיֵּם. שְׁלֹשָׁה, יוֹצִיא וְיִתֵּן כְּתֻבָּה
If one pronounces a vow prohibiting his wife to go to her father's house when they are in in the same city, the vow is acceptable if made for up to one month. If it is made for two months, then he divorces her and pays the value stated in the ketubah.
If the father is in a different city, then a vow for the term of up to one festival is acceptable, but if the duration of the vow is for three festivals or more, then he must divorce her and pay the value of the Ketubah (Ketubot 7:4). 3
הַמַּדִּיר אֶת אִשְׁתּוֹ שֶׁלֹּא תֵלֵךְ לְבֵית הָאֵבֶל אוֹ לְבֵית הַמִּשְׁתֶּה, יוֹצִיא וְיִתֵּן כְּתֻבָּה, מִפְּנֵי שֶׁנּוֹעֵל בְּפָנֶיהָ
If one pronounces a vow prohibiting his wife to go to the house of mourning or to the house of feasting (a wedding), then he should divorce her [immediately] and pay the value of the ketubah. This is because by doing so, he locks the door in front of her [so to speak] (Ketubot 7:5).
הַמַּדִּיר אֶת אִשְׁתּוֹ מִתַּשְׁמִישׁ הַמִּטָּה בֵּית שַׁמַּאי אוֹמְרִים, שְׁתֵּי שַׁבָּתוֹת. בֵּית הִלֵּל אוֹמְרִים, שַׁבָּת אֶחָת
If one pronounces a vow prohibiting his wife from conjugal relations with him, the house of Shamai says that if the term of the vow was up to two weeks, he need not divorce her. The house of Hillel says that if the term was no longer than one week, then he need not divorce her (Ketubot 5:6).
These discussions on abusive vowing might not directly translate to the modern world in which vowing holds little bearing. Notwithstanding, we can draw out key values from the texts that offer us sound advice for fostering healthy marriages. It might seem difficult to abide by the legal code set out in tractate Ketubot, but we can abide by the spirit of the law.
Spousal abuse comes in many forms. While we are most apt to consider physical battery as a determining qualifier, abuse can be emotional and verbal. Abuse also need not be aggressive, but can manifest in passive aggressive forms. Today, abusing a loved one through vows may be a difficult concept to grasp. Jewish men no longer make prohibitory vows like the ones we see in the Mishnah. But we do find similar types of abuse in our time; and it is not just the husband who abuses his spouse. When an individual spitefully deprives his or her spouse of any type of physical, material, social, or familial pleasure, divorce may certainly be warranted. Love is about fostering these pleasures with each other, and not about depriving one another from them.
To understand the rabbinic legacy with which these texts leave us, we need only reword the rabbinic vows to become the promises that we make to each other. Vowing can enrich our covenantal relationships with each other and with God when we vow with intentionality and with love. No longer should we see vows in the light of prohibition or dedication, but rather with commitment to our partners. Reimagining the Mishnah for the modern Jew, our tradition might read:
When couples vow to enrich each others lives with the benefits of love; when they vow to commit to healthy intimacy with each other; when they vow to enjoy food together; when they vow to adorn each other with gifts; when they vow to love and support each other's families; when they vow to celebrate the joys in the lives of their friends and families together; and when they vow to join together to support their communities in times of mourning; then with the blessing of the the One who ordains love in the world, their marriage will know love, companionship, happiness, and tranquility.
1. The Mishnah goes onto cite the opinion of Rabbi Yehuda that: "ר' יהודה אומר: בישראל, יום אחד יקיים, שנים יוציא ויתן כתובה, ובכהן, שנים יקיים, שלשה יוציא ויתן כתובה. In the case of a regular Jew, if the duration of the vow was for only one day then he should keep her as his wife, but if it was for two days or more he must divorce her and pay the value of her ketubah. For a Kohen, if the term of the vow was for two days he should keep her, but if it was for three, then he must divorce her and pay the value of her ketubah
2. The Mishnah continues by citing the opinion of Rabbi Yossi that:"בעניות שלא נתן קצבה, ובעשירות שלשים יום. In the case of a poor women, he must divorce his wife only if he did not give a certain time limit for the duration of the vow; whereas in regard to wealthy women, the maximum term is thirty days." This is because a wealthy woman would be accustomed to adornment, and the vow would simply be to deprive her something she is used to. For a wife who is rich, this vow would be equivalent to a vow in which a husband makes in the first part of the Mishnah to prohibit her from deriving benefit from him. But if the couple is poor, then effect of the husband vow is different because the husband would not be able to afford adornment at all. In the case of a poor couple, the effect of the husband's vow would be similar to the case of tasting any type fruit in the second part of the Mishnah. That is to say that he is vowing to deny her a simple pleasure, an act of spousal cruelty.
3. The Mishnah further speculates that "טוען משום דבר אחר רשאי, if the husband claims that he pronounced the vow because of something else, then he is permitted to make this vow without the consequence of being forced to divorce her." The Gemara clarifies that the husband would forbid her to go to the house of mourning and feasting because of a legitimate claim that there are בני אדם פרוצין שמצויין שם, promiscuous men found there.