There is an interesting debate between Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Chanina ben Gamliel as recorded in Mishna Kiddushin 3:4 and referenced on numerous occasions in Massechet Nedarim, whether מִכְּלָל לָאו אַתָּה שׁוֹמֵעַ הֵן – ‘from a negative statement you can infer a positive statement’, meaning that if someone says that they won’t do something, can we assume that they will do something else?
This debate originates from the question of whether all conditions need to be stated as explicitly as the condition of the children of Gad and Reuven (see Bemidbar 32:20-30) to whom Moshe said, “if you… arm yourselves for battle… [and help your brethren in the land of Israel]… then you may return [to the East side of the Jordan River]… but if you do not do this, you will have sinned [and you must remain in the Land of Israel”.
Given this double expression, Rabbi Meir rules that you cannot infer a positive statement from a negative statement. Instead, any requirement of someone must be stated explicitly. In contrast, Rabbi Chanina ben Gamliel says that notwithstanding the double language used in these verses, this does not mean that every condition must be expressed this way. Instead,מִכְּלָל לָאו אַתָּה שׁוֹמֵעַ הֵן – ‘from a negative statement you can infer a positive statement’, meaning that if, in this case, Moshe had simply said, “if you do not do this, you will have sinned [and you must remain in the Land of Israel”, it would have sufficed to convey the duty to the children of Gad and Reuven to help their brethren in the land of Israel.
Having explained all this we can now turn to our daf (Nedarim 13b) which considers the words of the Mishna (Nedarim 1:4) that if someone says לַקׇּרְבָּן לֹא אוֹכַל לָךְ – ‘LaKorban, I shall not eat that which is yours’ then, according to Rabbi Meir, this is a valid expression of a vow and the individual who said these words is thereby forbidden from eating the food of their fellow.
The question, however, is why? As previously mentioned, Rabbi Meir does not accept the principle of מִכְּלָל לָאו אַתָּה שׁוֹמֵעַ הֵן – ‘from a negative statement you can infer a positive statement’. Given this, how can we derive an active vow from words that simply state what someone won’t do? The answer, as offered by Rabbi Abba, is that the expression ‘LaKorban’, though on first glance ambiguous, is actually a positive expression, such that the phrase לַקׇּרְבָּן לֹא אוֹכַל לָךְ actually means, ‘it shall be for an offering (LaKorban), and therefore I will not eat that which is yours.’
Today, most of us don’t use words like לַקׇּרְבָּן in our day-to-day dialogue. However, we do often use ambiguous expressions which, though on face value could easily be understood to convey negative statements, are actually intended to be positive statements. For example, included in the various unique British terms of expressions is to say the word ‘No’ as if it means ‘Yes’ (eg. ‘No, I agree with you’).
Naturally this can be confusing since most of us likely subscribe to Rabbi Meir’s view that we do not derive a positive statement from a negative statement. However, as we see in the case of our Mishna, sometimes what appears to be a negative statement is, in actual fact, a positive one.
Overall, what this comes to teach us is that in addition to listening to the words people use, we must also actively consider the intent of those words. The problem is that while this is an incredibly difficult endeavour when talking to people in person, it is nigh impossible on social media threads when you cannot hear the tone of the person whom you may not personally know when they use words that may mean something different to them than to you.
And this is why we must all show generosity of spirit and judge people favourably, because while לַקׇּרְבָּן may be heard one way, it may mean something different.