As we know, the meaning of the word Nedarim is ‘vows’, and as the past few dapim of Massechet Nedarim have taught us, alongside the formal vow-making formulas, certain alternative expressions (כינויים) incorporating various translations of these key vow-making formulas may also be used to make a vow. For example, if one were to say, ‘the bread is קונם to me’ instead of ‘the bread is קרבן to me’, the vow is still valid.
However, in addition to כינויים, our Gemara also uses a further term, ידים – which is translated here as ‘handles’ for the reason being that while a handle is a part of an item and not the total item, it helps us lift up the total item. And what do we mean when we refer to ‘handles’ of vows? The answer is that this term refers to invoking only part of a vow-making formula from which the intention to make a particular vow can be inferred.
With this in mind, today’s daf (Nedarim 5b) records a debate between Abaye and Rava about the validity of inconclusive inferences (ידים שאין מוכיחות) i.e. if someone uses a ‘handle’ of a vow – from which their intention to make a vow can be inferred, yet the specificity of their vow is inconclusive, do we treat this as a valid or invalid vow? Here, Abaye says yes, and Rava says no.
As we may expect, our commentaries engage in much discussion about the respective rationales of these two great Talmudic scholars. However, at least on first glance, it would seem that the reason why Abaye considers an ‘inconclusive inference’ to be a valid vow is that he places greater weight on the subjective intention of the vow-maker, while Rava places greater weight on the more objective comprehension of the vow-hearer.
However, whichever way we understand this discussion, what is clear is that there are situations when we say something in a particular way that is understood better by some people than others, and though most of us don’t regularly make vows, many of us often use various expressive ‘handles’. Sometimes we do this deliberately because we only want certain people to truly understand what we are saying, while other times it occurs by accident. Still, through our study of Massechet Nedarim, I hope that it encourages us to consider how we speak, how we express ourselves, and to consider whether one of the reasons that we find ourselves being misunderstood is that while we think we are being clear, we are – in fact – just speaking using expressive handles.