I’ve always been interested in exploring the human stories which have served as springboards for the development of halacha. And similarly, I believe that it is crucial that a Rabbi understands the context and background of the people who seek their halachic guidance. With this in mind, I’d like to examine an episode recorded in today’s daf (Nedarim 23a) involving Abaye, Homa (his wife), and her daughter. However, to understand the sensitivities involved in this episode, some background information is necessary.
Abaye was orphaned at an early age: his father died before he was born, and his mother died while giving birth to him (see Kiddushin 31b). Consequently, he was raised by his uncle Rabbah [bar Nahmeni] along with a foster mother whose name is sadly not known but whose wisdom he often quoted and whom he regularly referred to as ‘mother’ (see Shabbat 134a).
In terms of his wife Homa, who was renowned for her beauty (see Ketubot 65a), she was the daughter of R’ Yitzchak the son of Rav Yehuda who, it should be noted, married at a later age in life because his father didn’t want to make the mistake of marrying him to someone with a flawed lineage (see Kiddushin 71b). Moreover, before marrying Abaye, Homa had been married twice before (to Rehava of Pumbedita, and to Yitzchak the son of Rabbah bar Hana, both of whom died – see Yevamot 64b). And most significantly for the purpose of this story, Homa had a daughter from one of these marriages.
Having explained all this we can now turn to our Gemara which informs us that, when Homa’s daughter reached the age of marriage, Abaye and Homa strongly disagreed about whom she should marry. According to Abaye, he was of the opinion that it would be best for her to marry one of his relatives, whereas according to Homa, she believed that it would be best for her to marry one of her distant relatives. Feeling frustrated by the possibility of his step-daughter marrying someone who he didn’t think was right for her, Abaye made a vow to Homa: “Benefit from me should be forbidden to you if you do this and marry her to your relative!”. Nevertheless, this is exactly what Homa did.
Significantly, the Gemara proceeds to relate the conversation between Abaye and Rav Yosef about whether this vow is valid – with R’ Yosef concluding that it is not. However, the very fact that Abaye made this vow in the first place is shocking! Surely Homa has every right to make any decision she wishes about her daughter, and surely the invocation of such a vow is simply wrong!
To answer this question, while in no way endorsing how Abaye made this vow, I do want us to look a little deeper at the dynamics of this relationship. Firstly, being a step-parent can be very hard because it is not always clear where the boundaries are between step-parent and step-child. Secondly, Abaye was fortunate to have been raised by a foster parent who he considered to be like a mother – and so I suspect that he was trying to be as protective to his step-daughter as his ‘mother’ was to him. And thirdly, it is possible that Homa’s background, which placed such an emphasis on lineage, was not to Abaye’s liking, and that he felt that his wife was following this approach by wishing to marry her daughter to one of her distant relatives – while Abaye wished that his step-daughter marry someone based on their own merits.
It would be easy to read this section of Gemara as providing just another example of when a vow is and is not valid. However, I think that for Rav Yosef to really understand Abaye and give him halachic counsel, he needed to understand what was really going on and why Abaye said this vow in the first place – which is what I suspect Abaye told him (presuming Rav Yosef didn’t already know all this).
In conclusion, there is so much more to this story than meets the eye, and it affirms how important it is for a Rabbi to make the time to understand the context and background of the people who turn to them for spiritual and halachic counsel – which is precisely what I endeavour to do as #theVirtualRabbi!