February 14, 2023

Nedarim 44

Have you ever sent an email which you then wanted to take back before it was received? Nowadays, Gmail has a setting called ‘Undo Send’ which allows you to do so – but only within 30 seconds of sending the email. What this means is that while we may regret sending a message, our ability to pull back what we’ve sent out so that it is as if it was never sent is limited to a very small window of time.
Of course, we may wonder why this isn’t possible for all communications no matter how long ago they were sent. However, as Rebecca Tucker explains*, ‘there is something perilous about the impulse to eliminate regretful behaviour, because regret — when processed slowly and carefully — can be extremely productive.’
I mention this in light of today’s daf (Nedarim 44a) which speaks of someone who declared their field ownerless (הפקר). Now, it is possible that they did this for a good reason. Alternatively, it is possible, as our daf suggests, that they may have done so as a form of halachic loophole to avoid certain agricultural obligations.
Either way, as the Rambam summarises the halacha as found in our daf: ‘when a person declares their field ownerless and no one else acquires it, then during the first three days they may retract. After these three days, they may not retract unless they come first and acquire it’ (Hilchot Nedarim 2:17). What this means is that if, within 3 days of declaring one’s field ownerless, one regrets doing so (or, as mentioned, if simply was never truly serious in declaring it ownerless), then one may do so and – like the ’undo send’ feature – it is as if these words had never been said.
Clearly, this 3-day period seems more generous than we are given when revoking emails. However, while this may be true, there is a risk in using this form of recall, and this is because it is predicated on the fact that ‘no one else acquires it’. Simply put, declaring your field ownerless is a form of a gamble.
But if this recall works up to 3 days, why doesn’t it work for longer? For example, why is it that if no one has claimed the field after a week, I can’t revoke my declaration and, instead, I must then ‘come first and acquire it’ – as if my relationship with this field is no different to any other person?
The answer, I believe, goes back to what Rebecca Tucker wrote which highlights how society can only function when we take our words sufficiently seriously with the knowledge that they can’t always be retroactively ‘unsent’, and that sometimes the only way we truly learn is from the mistakes that we make.
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