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Wednesday, September 14, 2016

How Dangerous are Oaths? — BT Gittin 35a — #53

It once happened during a period of famine that a certain man deposited a golden dinar with a widow and she placed it in a flour jug. [Subsequently] she baked it into a loaf of bread and gave [the bread] to a poor man. Several days later, the owner of the dinar returned and said to her, “Give me my dinar.” She said to him, “May one of that woman’s [i.e., my] children be poisoned if I have derived any benefit from your dinar.” They reported that it was no more than a few days before one of her children died. When the Sages heard of this matter, they said, “If such [happens to] one who has sworn truthfully, how much more so to one who swears falsely!” [But] why was she punished? Because she gained the place of the dinar. How, then, [could they claim she was] “one who has sworn truthfully”? [She is] like one who has sworn truthfully.

Backing up to get the bigger picture: A ketubah protects a woman from penury in the case her marriage ends by death or divorce. It is a lien on her husband’s estate. What happens if another claimant to the estate asserts that her husband paid her part or all of the ketubah prior his death or divorce?

The mishnah preceding and inspiring the Gemara discussion that recounts the incident above tells us that originally the widow would swear in the court that her deceased husband had not prepaid the ketubah prior to his death. Some years later, the courts stopped permitting women to swear an oath, and as a result many widows could not collect their due—an injustice that undermined the very purpose of having a ketubah. Therefore, Rabban Gamliel the Elder decreed that widows could make a vow (not quite the same as swearing an oath) in order to collect the value of their ketubot. The incident recounted in our passage (the source of which is unclear: some say was related by Rav Kahana and others say was recounted by Rav Yehudah in the name of Rav) concerns a woman who makes a statement that the Rabbis understand to be an oath with disastrous consequences, even though her oath was completely truthful as far as she knew. The purpose of the story is to illustrate the danger of making oaths, thereby justifying the mishnah’s assertion that the Rabbis stopped allowing women to make oaths in court.
This story is an excellent example of a recurrent problem in religious (as well as philosophic and ethical) traditions: Every religious claim has tentacles, implications that often become entangled with logic, morality, and other religious beliefs.

A widow accepts responsibility to take care of the man’s dinar (a gold coin) and hides it in a place that no one is likely to find it: her flour bin. Inadvertently, when she scoops up some flour to make bread, the dinar finds its way into the dough and is baked into the bread, which she gives away to a poor person. When the man comes to collect the dinar he deposited with her, she cannot find it and therefore truthfully swears an oath that she did not steal it. Her oath is, “May one of my children die if I benefited from your dinar.” Several days later, one of her children dies. The Sages who hear this story are convinced that the woman did not steal the dinar, and swore the oath thinking that the dinar was lost, and fully believing that she did not benefit from it in any way. Yet they presume the death resulted from the hand of heaven, the consequence of her oath. Accordingly, they respond that if the consequences of one who truthfully swore an oath are so dire, imagine what happens to one who knowingly swore a falsified oath. 

The Gemara objects: This makes no sense! If the widow misplaced the dinar and, to the best of  her knowledge, did not benefit from it, why would God punish her so harshly? In response to this legitimate challenge, the Gemara ties itself in knots to maintain the connection between the child’s death and the woman’s oath: the claim is made that she did, in fact, benefit, even if unknowingly, by retaining the volume of flour equal to the volume that the dinar displaced. If that is the case, the Gemara contends, then the claim that she made the vow truthfully is incorrect, yet as far as she could ascertain, it was truthful. The Gemara responds that the Rabbis only meant that she is like one who swears an oath truthfully in that she believed that she had not benefited from the dinar.

This story raises a host of thorny questions and exposes numerous moral and theological problems, which I will touch on below.


  1. For the Rabbis, the story illustrates the danger of swearing oaths. Do you think the story is effective? Why or why not?
  2. Did the widow truly gain the small amount of flour displaced by the dinar, given that she didn’t sell the bread but gave it away to a poor person?
  3. How do you respond to the Rabbis’ tacit claim that God would punish a person who
    is fundamentally honest and decent, but who loses track of a coin she is asked to guard, by ending the life of her child? What kind of God does that? Why do you think the Rabbis are willing to assert that the widow’s child’s death was the result of her actions? What is your reaction to the cartoon at the right?

1 comment:

  1. very thought provoking discussion; it is risky to ascribe human responses and explanations to HaShem, though it is very unsatisfying to have no explanation for such seemingly cause/effect experiences such as in the story of the widow and her child dying after her oath. we tend to avoid saying or doing anything that might ''jinx'' us, even though we 'know better'. if the lesson is to teach us responsibility for our commitments and to realize that we may not know the whole story, then it certainly teaches that in a very strong way. personally I think it over does the warning, making people fear HaShem in a wrong way. Did the widow 'gain': she gained the blessing of doing a good deed; sadly the lesson seems to be that "no good deed goes unpunished".
    The cartoon tells me to be wary of any depiction of HaShem that is overly harsh or sweet.