Is it permissible to make a vow about the status of your property when confronting thieves who enter your home in order to steal your property?
This is the question addressed by Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel in the Mishna (Nedarim 3:4) found in today’s daf (Nedarim 28a), and while both conclude by saying ‘yes’, they disagree about the circumstances that would allow for such a vow.
According to Beit Shammai, one should not take the initiative by offering to make a vow, but if this is something that a thief demands you to do, you may make such a vow. In contrast, Beit Hillel rules that it is permitted to offer to make a vow even before any request is made for you to do so.
As you may know, different theories have been suggested by various scholars to explain the philosophical underpinnings of the 316 disagreements that exist between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel. And according to Rav Yosef Rozen (1858-1936), as explained by R’ Dovber Schwartz in his book titled ‘The Rogachover Gaon’, these disagreements relate ‘to their differing perspectives on the degree to which spiritual versus tangible elements of reality should be referenced in determining halakhah’.
Understood this way, Beit Shammai – though fully recognizing that one may, if necessary, make a vow to protect your property from a thief – looks at this situation through the lens of the spiritual As such, he rules that since making an unnecessary vow is ‘not good for the soul’, one should only do so if compelled to do so.
In contrast, Beit Hillel – though fully aware of the various rules relating to vow-making – evaluates the situation from the tangible reality of the presence of a thief standing in one’s home, with that reality therefore automatically justifying any vow being made even before a request is made of you to make one.
To be clear, an erroneous interpretation of what I have said would be that Beit Shammai thinks in terms of the spiritual while Beit Hillel thinks in terms of the tangible. This is because both schools were clearly incredibly sensitive to both considerations. Instead, when presented with a clash of values, it would seem that they disagreed on the hierarchies of those values.
Unfortunately, too many people misunderstand this crucial point, and when they discuss halachic disagreements, they pay too little attention to the respective philosophies of the poskim which inform their decision-making. Alternatively, if they do address this point, they present each opinion as being in opposition to each other. However, in almost every case, halachic decisors broadly agree on the relevant values relating to any given discussion, but they disagree on the hierarchies of those values (nb. to read a fascinating article which highlights this point, see Amir Mashiach’s ‘The Individual vs. Society in Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach’s Halakhic Rulings’ – bit.ly/2ZHlKcV).
However, there is an important corollary to this discussion. This is because, with a handful of exceptions, we rule in accordance with Beit Hillel. Yet as I have posited, it would seem that Beit Shammai is more sensitive to actions that are ‘not good for the soul’. But how is this so?
The short answer is that there may be things which are better for the soul in theory but are not best in practice, and in contrast to contemplation and meditation, halacha is about providing practical solutions to what are often complex problems – thereby requiring that decisions be taken about which values should be prioritized in any given time. It is an incredibly delicate balance, requiring an abundance of both wisdom and insight. Yet when the right balance is struck, and when a halachic outcome is reached that has carefully shown consideration to these matters, the outcome is simply exquisite.