February 14, 2023

Nedarim 61

Within its discussion about ambiguous vows, today’s daf (Nedarim 61a-b) posits that the debate between Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yossi in the previous Mishna (Nedarim 8:2, see Nedarim 60a) is based on the fact that Rabbi Meir is of the opinion that לָא מְעַיֵּיל אִינִישׁ נַפְשֵׁיהּ לִסְפֵיקָא – ‘a person does not intentionally place themselves into a state of uncertainty’, whereas Rabbi Yossi is of the opinion that מְעַיֵּיל אִינִישׁ נַפְשֵׁיהּ לִסְפֵיקָא – ‘a person does [occasionally] place themselves in a position of uncertainty’.
Admittedly, when first reading this debate, Rabbi Yossi’s opinion seems hard to make sense of because why would someone intentionally place themselves in a position of uncertainty?
However, such a reading misunderstands our relationship with uncertainty, and this is because some forms of uncertainty are actually appealing. As Professor Dan Ariely explains, ‘uncertainty about low-probability rewards can make us work harder’.
Specifically, Ariely describes an experiment where, ‘participants were asked to drink six cups of water in two minutes. Half of the participants were told they would receive a certain reward ($2) if they achieved the goal, while the other half were told that if they succeeded, they’d receive either $1 or $2, to be determined by a coin toss after they’d finished. Interestingly, more participants in the second group managed to drink all six cups than in the first, suggesting that the uncertain reward was particularly motivating.’
But I would go even further than Ariely and say that uncertainty about high-risk situations can also make us work harder – with my proof being relationships, and life itself.
Unfortunately, we are living in an age that seeks certainty at the risk of celebrating the risks of possibilities. As you may know, I am fascinated by the Shehecheyanu bracha, and some years ago I read a rabbinic opinion stating that Shehecheyanu shouldn’t be said at a wedding given the uncertainty of how the relationship will develop. Fortunately, this opinion was sharply critiqued by another rabbinic authority who explained that the entire human endeavour demands a recognition that nothing is certain, and that we must work to achieve the successes we wish for. In fact, just last week I purchased a volume summarizing a range of rulings of Rabbi Shmuel HaLevi Wosner wherein it was recorded that he was of the opinion that perhaps we should not recite the Shehecheyanu bracha on the birth of a child given the uncertainties of what life they may lead. Personally, I find this sort of reasoning incomprehensible, not only in terms of its understanding of the bracha, but also in terms of the notion that we only recite blessings on moments of certainty (nb. I treat this topic in my book that I am writing on the subject).
True, we don’t necessarily pursue risks or uncertainty. Nevertheless, the human condition involves risks and uncertainties – with life itself being the greatest risk that God took – and continues to take – on humanity.
So whether you understand our Mishna like Rabbi Meir or Rabbi Yossi, at the end of the day, a person does place themselves in a position of uncertainty – because being human automatically involves risks and uncertainties, namely the risk that God takes on each of us.
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