On a number of occasions in Massechet Nedarim (14a, 21b & in today’s daf 60a), we encounter the phrase שאלה לחכם – literally, ‘a question to a Sage’ – which refers to a situation when someone approaches a Sage to annul their vow. However, at least on first glance, this phrase seems mismatched with its meaning. This is because a question is something for which there could be a variety of answers or outcomes, whereas the phrase שאלה לחכם, at least as it is used in Massechet Nedarim, refers to a situation where someone approaches a Sage with a very clear expectation of a singular answer and outcome – namely that they should annul their vow.
Admittedly, the phrase שאלה לחכם is not exclusively used in Rabbinic literature in relation to the annulling of vows (התרת נדרים). Still, at least in terms of the Talmud, the phrase שאלה לחכם is only found in Massechet Nedarim, and as such, its natural association is with the annulment of vows. Given this, why do we use a phrase about ‘asking a question’ where the questioner already has a clear idea of what the answer should be?
To solve this puzzle we need to understand what happens when someone approaches a Rabbi or Sage with a halachic query, because the first question that the Rabbi or Sage must ask when presented with a question (as taught to me by Dayan Lopian zt’l) is: ‘Is this even a question?’. This is due to the fact that, in many instances, what people think to be a halachic question doesn’t, in fact, even register as a formal halachic question as no halachic problem has necessarily occurred.
Of course, even when this occurs, the answerer must not be dismissive of the person even if they think that they can easily dismiss their query. Still, at least from a formal basis, ‘Is this even a question?’ is an important first question that must be asked, because no solution will be needed if no halachic problem has arisen.
Having explained this, we can now understand the phrase שאלה לחכם which, while it may be understood as referring to the question asked of a Sage to annul a vow, actually refers to asking a Sage whether a vow has even been made which demands annulment, and only once this has been clarified, then asking them to annul the vow.
Ultimately, even more than knowing how to solve a halachic query, a Rabbi/Sage needs to identify if there is a halachic query to be solved (or, in some cases, they need to identify the query which is different to the one the questioner is asking about). And achieving this requires much knowledge, a questioning mind, good communication skills, lateral thinking, and meaningful shimush (training alongside a more experienced posek).