Rava praised Rav Sechorah to Rav Nachman as a great man. [Rav Nachman] said to [Rava], “When he comes to you, bring him to me.” [Rav Sechorah] had made a vow he wanted to annul. He came before Rav Nachman [to be released from his vow]. [Rav Nachman] said to him, “Did you make the vow knowing this [i.e., a particular fact]?” [Rav Sechorah] said, “Yes,” “Knowing this?” “Yes,” several times. Rav Nachman became angry. He said to [Rav Sechorah], “Go away!” Rav Sechorah left and made an opening for himself: “Rabbi said: What is the virtuous path that a person should follow? That which honors oneself and brings honor from others. (Pirkei Avot 2:1) And now that Rav Nachman has become angry, knowing this, I would not have made the vow.”—And he [found the basis for an “opening”] to annul it for himself.
In TMT #37, we considered a passage from the tractate about vows concerning several cases in which people were absolved of their vows because conditions changed and they came to regret having made them. Generally speaking, this is shaky ground for absolving someone of a vow since anyone requesting annulment certainly regrets having made the vow, and only hindsight (never foresight) is 20/20. No wonder the Rabbis adjure us never to avoid making vows! But reality being what it is, people are quick to utter rash statements, often formulated as vows, without due consideration. The Rabbis are therefore caught between a rock and a hard place: It serves no social or religious purpose to hold people to foolish and counterproductive vows. Yet on the other hand, releasing them automatically renders all vows meaningless and has implications for other obligatory or promissory statements a person might make.
Keeping our word and trusting others to keep theirs are important for everything from casual social relationships to far more complex relationships, and vows are serious utterances that should be treated as such. Therefore, the Rabbis search for a petach (“openings”), meaning grounds upon which to annul the vow. They often ask, “Did you know…?” to determine if grounds can be found to annul a vow on the basis of an after-the-fact event that would have been a game-changer.
Our passage contains an anecdote about Rav Sechorah, who seeks the help of Rav Nachman to annul a vow he has made. In preparation, Rava tells recommends him to Rav Nachman, saying that Rav Sechorah is a great man. This seems a strange and unnecessary detail to add.
There are two grounds upon which Rav Nachman can make an petach (“opening”) for Rav Sechorah: (1) Ta’ut (“mistake”)—If Rav Sechorah never intended to make the vow and uttered it by mistake, or if he made the vow without intending to do so; (2) Charatah (“regret, unsettled mind”)—If Rav Sechorah made his vow impetuously, or in a state of anger. If Rav Nachman can ascertain that at least one of these conditions applies, he can convene a bet din (court of three) and retroactively annul Rav Sechorah’s vow. Rav Nachman attempts to find an “opening” on which to annul Rav Sechorah’s vow. He cites a fact or event that occurred as a result of the vow that, had Rav Sechorah known or foreseen, he would not have made the vow. Rav Nachman asks, “When you made the vow, did you know this?” Rav Sechorah does not say, “No,” as we would expect (and as Rav Nachman hopes). He says, “Yes.” Rav Nachman asks several more questions, each designed to elicit grounds for annulment, and each question, Rav Sechorah honestly responds that he knew or had considered what Rav Nachman proposes. Rav Nachman grows annoyed. In fact, he becomes angry and sends Rav Sechorah away. If Rav Sechorah is as great as Rava claims, how could he have made a vow so foolishly and now expect Rav Nachman to find an opening to annul it?
Rav Nachman’s inability to find an “opening” ironically provides Rav Sechorah with the opening he needs. Talmud explains by recounts Rav Sechorah’s reasoning to himself: R. Yehudah ha-Nasi taught us in Pirkei Avot 2:1 that the virtuous path in life is one in which a person does what is honorable and earns the honor of others. Causing Rav Nachman to become angry with me concerning the vow I made was certainly not an outcome I foresaw or desired, and had I known that this would result, I would not have made the vow. Rav Sechorah has found an opening for himself: He did not realize that the attempt to annul his vow would provoke Rav Nachman’s anger; had he known, he would not have made the vow, which he now deeply regrets. He has found the “opening” upon which Rav Nachman now annuls his vow for him.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
- The Bible does not permit the annulment of vows (with the exception of the authority of a husband or father to annul a woman’s vow on the day it is made; see Numbers 30:4-16). Consider the consequences in the case of Jephthah (Judges 11:30-40), the general who leads Israel in war against the Ammonites, vowing that if he returns victorious he will sacrifice the first thing he sees upon returning home; his daughter, coming out to greet him, is the first thing he sees. In formulating a way to retroactively annul vows, have the Rabbis undermined or repaired the Bible?
- Throughout Jewish thought and literature, the theme of the power of words arises again and again. Torah begins on this note: God created the universe through speech. A neder (vow) can only be made concerning an object that one declares forbidden to him/herself. Can you imagine a rash vow that would create havoc in a person’s life and in the life his/her family and friends?
- Why do you think the Talmud makes mention of Rava’s praise of Rav Sechorah to Rav Nachman? Would this have influenced Rav Nachman’s expectations of Rav Sechorah and hence his reaction to what Rav Sechorah tells him? How does our view of Rav Sechorah as a “great man” work to legitimize the opening he finds for Rav Nachman to annul his vow?