February 14, 2023

Nedarim 51

Within its discussion about the meanings of words used in vows, today’s daf (Nedarim 51b) addresses the question of the difference between someone who forbids themselves from a דג (‘dag’ – fish), and someone who forbids themselves from a דגה (‘dagah’ – another word for fish)?
The Gemara initially answers by claiming that the former is used with reference to larger fish, whereas the latter is used with reference to smaller fish. However, a challenge is then raised from Sefer Yonah (The Book of Jonah) as Yonah is consumed by a דג (see Yonah 2:1) which is then referred to as a דגה (see Yonah 2:2) which suggests is that these words are synonymous with one another.
However, the Gemara then answers this challenge by suggesting that Yonah was first swallowed by a larger דג, and was then spat out and swallowed by a smaller דגה, and only then was he spat out onto dry land. Simply put, there were two fish in the story of Yonah.
Explaining this, and the fact that the word דג suggests a male fish while the word דגה implies a female fish, Rashi writes (in his commentary on Yonah 2:1 and on the basis of various Midrashim) that: ‘[Yonah was first swallowed by] a male fish where he stood with room and did not think to pray. [Given this], the Holy One, Blessed be He, hinted to the fish which then spewed him out into the mouth of a female. [This fish] was full of embryos and it was more crowded there. And it was there where he prayed, as it is says: “[And Yonah prayed to God] from the belly of the fish (דגה)”’.
What is generally deduced from this Rashi is that the prompt for Yonah to pray in the second דגה fish was just one of space (i.e. ‘where he stood with room’ vs. ‘it was more crowded there’). From here we could conclude that it is often only when life feels challenging and when we feel that we are in a tight situation that prompts us to turn to God.
But while this is certainly true, I believe that there is a further point being made here by our Sages – through the reference to the דג and the דגה, and through how Yonah only turned to God while in the דגה – about how women are often more finely attuned than men to their spiritual needs, and how women have a stronger natural tendency to turn to God in prayer
Naturally, especially in terms of families, this is why the Jewish woman is the spiritual powerhouse of a family (nb. as Lori Palatnik of Momentum puts it, #itstartswithwomen). However, as Dr. Esti Bar’el explains in her fascinating (hebrew) essay on religious and spiritual heterogeneity in a marriage (as found in ‘Tzohar LeNissuin’), there are times when the religious and spiritual gap between couples can be a challenge. In fact, it is worthwhile mentioning that this is a topic which my spiritual coaching clients often wish to address with me.
Given this, both as Dr. Barel explains in her essay and as I often explain to my clients, it is important to acknowledge how we are blessed to have a rich rabbinic tradition which regularly alludes to this point and which has much to teach us on this topic (nb. for one good example, see Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer Ch. 9 which discusses the relationship between Devorah and Lapidot).
And, to my mind, the more we are cognizant of this concept, the better we can understand ourselves, our communities, and our relationships.
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