Having previously been taught that vows can be made through invoking formal vow-making formulas as well as certain alternative expressions (כינויים), today’s daf (Nedarim 10a) records an apparent disagreement between Rav Yochanan and Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish about the origins of these halachically approved כינויים (alternative expressions).
According to Rav Yochanan, these כינויים are לשון אומות הן (literally, ‘words from the other nations’) meaning that these are foreign-language terms of the formal vow-making formulas, whereas Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish explains that these כינויים were לשון שבדו להם חכמים להיות נודר בו, meaning that they are terms that were adopted by our Sages to enable people to have a broader range of terms to make vows.
Admittedly, this debate is an interesting one. However, what is not necessarily clear from our Gemara is what prompts these two sages to debate this point.
Addressing this question, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner (1801-1854) – otherwise known as the ‘Izbitzer’ – suggests that amidst this discussion is a window on the individual spiritual perspectives of these two great scholars.
For Rav Yochanan, whom the Izbitzer describes as being someone who was very boundaried and wholly righteous, the purpose of vow-making is to be more boundaried. Given this, the reason why Rav Yochanan asserts that כינויים are foreign-language terms (לשון אומות הן) in order to make the point that if someone was sufficiently boundaried, they would not have needed to make a vow in the first place.
In contrast, Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish was a ba’al teshuvah, and according to his view (which the Izbitzer understands as complementing rather than disagreeing with the view of Rav Yochanan), the Sages, though recognizing the foreign origins of these terms, adopted them for use in vow-making. And in so doing, they communicated how even words with foreign origins or that may reflect foreign values can be transformed into sacred terms.