Tuesday, 25 August 2015

goodbye mesechet nedarim

Nedarim - Vows

This has been a very odd section of Talmud and Jewish law. Basically it is the details of how to restrict oneself from what would otherwise be permitted. Many of the cases involve the breakdown of relationships where one person is blocking out another. I've been calling it 'The Little Book of Broigus.' Some of the examples seem absurd and cruel. And yet instead of finding a way for the relationships to be repaired, these are the structures that enable shunning and separation. One particular example discussed is a son vowing that his father can't benefit from him. And then he is getting married and wants his dad there. The talmud discusses how the father can be at the wedding, while upholding the original vow. Or two people who have vowed that they can't benefit from each other, and then they go on a journey together. But only one brought food.... and so begin the daft games about 'leaving it on a stone for the other to pick up casually'... It's fairly funny and absurd that begs lots of questions: what happened to make them shun each other in the first place? Why are they going on a journey together? And what is it doing as part of Jewish law? And if the rabbis don't like people making vows (they repeatedly say it is akin to idolatry, and are reluctant to publicly teach the details of the laws of vows), why are there so many rabbis making quite extreme vows? And why is it in this part of the Talmud - Seder Nashim?

and then it stops being quite so funny.

The mechanics of vows and cancelling vows are discussed in this bit of the talmud because men can nullify their women's words. The wives and daughters are under the Master Of The House. And while they are under his jurisdiction, their vows are for him to uphold or cancel as he sees fit. They have little autonomy in relationships, what happens to their bodies, and to control what they do and make. A repeated statement throughout this mesechet is that women don't take vows seriously because they know that there is always a man around to cancel their words. So why take women's words seriously when the women themselves don't?

This mesechet ends with various cases where the women think they have slept with their husbands, but their husbands deny it. So it turns out that they've had non-consensual sex with a stranger. And in each case the ruling is that they aren't believed, and suspected of "casting eyes on another man" and making up the rape story so that their husbands will divorce them (they are married to priests, who cannot stay married to their wives if their wives have been "defiled"). The last case is of a male adulterer, while hiding from the husband, sees that a snake has eaten some food that the husband is about to eat. He comes out of hiding to warn the husband, but the husband now has a dilemma. Has this man, who has saved his life, just slept with his wife, or not? The talmud gives the adulterer the benefit of the doubt. If he had slept with the wife, then why save the husband's life..... The man in hiding is not treated with suspicion, like the raped wives, but his words are believed.

Vows and oaths are part of a system that take words seriously. When the spoken word has the power to create what is forbidden and permitted, define reality and give the speaker control on who and when they interact with others. Of course women don't have the last word to do just that. Goodbye mesechet nedarim. I thought you were a welcome break from the misogyny in Seder Nashim. I spoke too soon.

I chose to use the shape of the talmud pages to set the composition of these drawings. the text blocks rendered in a neutral watercolour wash (paynes grey, one of my favourite grey colours) And the drawings in fine black ink pen. In order to fit both sides of the daf on the page, I had to re-orientate the drawings to be in landscape not portrait as per the other talmud drawings. This also resulted often in a drawing in two halves. Echoing the gesture of "I am separating myself from THAT" which is inherent within the discussions on vows.

nedarim 91

when are women's words believed?

- why bother nullifying her vows and cancelling her words if she is not to be trusted to know what, and who, has happened to her body.

nedarim 90

dissolving the vows

and splitting the marriage.

nedarim 89

the women who are in no man's jurisdiction,
and the one who plans to leave and grow her hair.

nedarim 88

the independent daughters who, despite being part of his house, have their own space and whose fathers can give to them. and just them. not their husbands.

nedarim 87

mistaking one's wife's and daughter's vows,
and grief for the loss of one's parent instead of child.

but the blind aren't accountable for their fatal mistakes.

nedarim 86

comparing the productive field with a woman and her work is problematic, for all sorts of reasons.

but none of them are because she is her own person and not a piece of property.

nedarim 85

her hands might belong to her. but the work of her hands belongs to the husband, her master.

not the Master of the World.

nedarim 84

some food is gathered inside, and the poor need to go and ask for their food.

and other charity food is left on the threshing floor, or in the field. lying about, scattered or ready to be taken by anyone who needs to help themselves.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

nedarim 83

the female nazirite cannot assume anyone will eulogise, mourn or bury her if she distances herself from their dead.

but a woman who has vowed not to get benefit from other people can rely on charity.

- or perhaps she could provide for herself after the divorce?

Friday, 14 August 2015

nedarim 82

the wife who vows never to sleep with another Jew, ever ever again.
the husband can simply cancel the bit of the vow that applies to him.

but not the bit that affects any future relationship she may have after their (inevitable) divorce.

If your wife is not just saying, but making a vow, never to benefit from any Jew, then the husband really ought to take it personally and not just cancel out her vow as it applies to him and carry on sleeping with her. The discussion about this also states that he doesn't cancel the vow with respect to any relationships she has after divorce. So even after she has left the relationship that caused her to swear off sex with Jews, she is not completely free.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

nedarim 81

rabbis' sons are notorious for treating the torah and the community like dirt.

and dirty clothes can drive one to madness.

this page asks a great question, often asked in jewish communities. why are rabbis' sons such jerks? (actually, the question is why Torah scholars are born to paupers and not to Torah scholars) the answer is that rabbis' sons are arrogant, and take advantage of their father's status in the community and don't respect the Torah. Also on this page is the discussion about the importance of laundry, because dirty clothes can cause madness. 

nedarim 80

dirty clothes and cosmetics, and bathing in dirty water.

but why would she choose to make herself disgusting?

a debate on whether or not abstaining from bathing is considered affliction. and if it isn't, then how can her husband nullify her vow to not bathe, or adorn herself. if she vows to bathe in dirty water, or be adorned with dirt.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

nedarim 79

the husband who won't cancel her vows of affliction, just to annoy her.

may well end up with them getting divorced. and then it is up to her new husband to free her, and her future husbands, from making vows that will harm her.

continuing yesterday's discussion of the husband who doesn't cancel his wife's vow just to annoy her. This page discusses that vows of affliction, eg she refuses to wash, he can cancel and that will stand even if they then get divorced. 

nedarim 78

her heard her words.

but he's not cancelling them. just to annoy her.

this page discusses if a husband hears his wife making a vow, and decides not to cancel the vow within a day, just to annoy her, he has 10 days to do so. Elsewhere it states that wives make vows knowing that their husbands can just cancel their resolve if they so wish. Which I imagine would be equally annoying.

nedarim 77

for thinking and examining the evidence, one needs to sit down.

but making a decision and cancelling the vow - that can be done standing, at night and alone.

nedarim 76

waiting until the end of the day.

or 24 hours in which to cancel her words.

nedarim 75

nullifying the words before they are uttered.

comparing it to swallowing and immersing
or sewing seeds.

nedarim 74

the widow's words aren't silenced by her husband anymore.

but that doesn't mean she owns them. the brotherly competition on who can cancel the widow's words.

nedarim 73

the man who cannot hear his wife's words to cancel them.

and the women who empower each other not to say anything.

Since a husband has to hear his wife's vows to cancel them, a deaf man cannot do this. Also discussed is a husband cannot cancel two wives' vows at the same time. This is compared to not having two women go through the sotah process at the same time. Because the women will show solidarity to each other and empowered by each other's presence they won't confess to their sexual indiscretions.

nedarim 72

her father disowns her words after leaving his house.
and her husband disowns her words before she enters his space.

nedarim 71

it doesn't matter how many other broken attachments there were, it is her father, the primal bond, and the last fiance who can control her words.

nedarim 70

when she's little, the father - the older one - dominates her.

but when she's grown and older herself, her words belong to her husband. the younger one.

nedarim 69

caught up in the tug of war between the father and the husband. one can free her words, one can make her words stick.

they have to work together.

nedarim 68

ultimately, she will always be her father's daughter until she is somebody's wife. (but not until then)

if a betrothed bride's husband dies, then she 'returns' to her father's house, in that he alone can cancel her vows. She only leaves his jurisdiction when she actually gets married and leaves his house to enter her husband's jurisdiction.

nedarim 67

between her father's house and her husband's, the betrothed bride has nothing to say of her own that they can't take away.

the vows of a betrothed bride can be cancelled by her father and husband together.

nedarim 66

not every bride is tall, white, and thin.
but that doesn't mean she's not beautiful. or not good enough for him.
without the aid of the 'helpful' beauty rabbi, who never tell the groom that he is too ugly and demanding to deserve this woman.

various stories of men refusing to marry not beautiful brides. or husbands treating their wives badly. The definition of beauty is tall, thin and white.... unlike the short, fat-lipped, full-bellied, dark, big ears, nose, etc women that are described here. R. Yishmael is identified as the go-to rabbi to beautify the women, to find and enhance their redeeming features. even if it is only her fitting name.... it is frustrating to read the disrespectful treatment of the women who don't conform to the accepted beauty norms. And no challenge to the men who make these demands....... so happy that society has moved on so much since these times.....

nedarim 65

dead snakes and dogs who allow one to enter a house.

and the live rabbit who made the elders sit on the floor in mourning.

Vowing not to enter a house because of a snake or dog inside. Later in the page there is a story of King Zedikah who saw Nebuchanezzer eat a live rabbit. Zedikiah had to swear an oath not to tell anyone. When Nebuchanezzer's oppression got tougher, he told the members of the Sanhedrin. Nebuchanezzer was furious as vows can only be cancelled in the presence of the one who initiated it. The Sanhedrin admitted their error and began mourning that became the destruction of the Temple.

nedarim 64

a child may bring shame to their parents.

but without the child. they have nothing.

allowing to cancel a vow if it brings shame to the parents' honour. later in the page it discusses Moshe being able to return to Egypt after swearing he wouldn't return because those who saw him kill the Egyptian are now dead. However this discussion identifies them as Datan and Avirum and they are alive. The Talmud justifies describing them as dead as they have lost their status. It continues to call other living people as dead - the poor, the lepers, the blind and the childless.

nedarim 63

the first rain....

.... the second....

..........the third....

but by Pesach the wine should flow

vowing not to benefit from wine until the rain comes. determining when is normal for the different rains to come. And if vow not to taste wine until pesach, means until pesach begins not ends. how else to have 4 cups of wine.

nedarim 62

a scholar shouldn't use his crown to gain honours and privileges in this world.

except for taking the first portion and not paying taxes.

The Talmudic rabbis warn against using their Torah knowledge, their learning should be done for it's own sake and not become something that is a means to a living, honours etc. Their's is a special work, and unlike other workers, these rabbis rule that Torah scholars are exempt from all sorts of taxes.

nedarim 61

summer is the time of ripe fruit and sharp knives.

if vow not to benefit from something until the end of summer. debate about what that means and when does summer end. one suggestion is when the fruit picking is over and the knives are put away.

nedarim 60

measuring time until the end of the cycle that has begun and one is observing.


to be at the centre of one's own cycle.

if take a vow not to benefit from something until the end of the day; is that until sunset or 24 hours from making the vow? is time something objective that we observe or something that we construct and create for ourselves?

nedarim 59

onions that beget onions.

but tithes are only taken from what is gathered. not scattered or planted.

nedarim 58

the forbidden produce that can be gathered and redeemed.

and the forbidden produce that is forever lost and cannot be consumed.

nedarim 57

the man who prevents his wife from visiting her family, or refuses to benefit from her work.
- how deeply sewn are the seeds of resentment sown? (-growing produce from banned produce)

nedarim 56

what house isn't a house,
the house that doesn't rest on the ground.

and what bed is not a bed?
and the bed on which one cannot sleep.

nedarim 55

crops of the field and groud
and the people who are like the wilderness, or valley and grow in Torah.
and the mountainous arrogant ones, who don't grow anything.

nedarim 54

birds after bloodletting makes the heart fly,


fish can be good for the sore eyes.

nedarim 53

what is honey? or oil?  or vinegar?

from a date? or from the comb?
depends on where you live.

nedarim 52

locking away grapes or the lips that taste grapes - will or won't have wine.

nedarim 51

the one with the fancy hair has decided he has had enough of his wife's crude family, because despite the fancy party, their humour is too raw.

nedarim 50

pearls in the dirt and the egg that reveals the inner truth.
because sometimes Torah is contained in ugly bodies and beauty is not found in the perfect ones.

nedarim 49

the red-faced man who preferred to stay at home, away from the world. wrapped in his wife's cloak.
the one she wore to go outside the house. away from him.

nedarim 48

keeping a vow is more important than making peace between father and son.


makes the quarrelsome fighting northerners give up their property.

nedarim 47

shunning someone even after death and trying to marry a woman with fruit at the beginning of life.

nedarim 46

excluded from one's own courtyard because it can be divided.

nedarim 45

it takes three to make something ownerless and then it can be claimed.

nedarim 44

once one has declared the field ownerless, still have a responsibility to those who genuinely own nothing. if not to the tax authorities.