The Mishna (Nedarim 10:3) in today’s daf (Nedarim 71a) describes a scenario where a young woman, who we shall call Zahava, made a vow while halachically engaged to a man whom we shall call Yitzie (and where, it should be noted, the substance of Zahava’s vow made Yitzie and her father sufficiently uneasy that they wished to revoke her vow). Zahava was then divorced by Yitzie, and she then became betrothed to another man, whom we shall call Natan – all on the same day! (or, as the Mishna continues with a slightly different version, who was betrothed and divorced even a hundred further times on that day)!
In terms of the Gemara, the question which it seeks to address is the revocability of Zahava’s vow. However, what I would like to consider is what is going on here. Given this, I would like to offer a suggestion – based on the above-mentioned details – of what may have occurred.
This young woman (נערה) Zahava was halachically engaged to Yitzie – who had been selected as a husband for her by her family and with limited consultation with her. At this point Zahava didn’t really know whom she really wanted to marry, and she didn’t necessarily know what she wanted from a husband.
Zahava then met Yitzie and she quickly realised that he was not for her and that the life she was going to have with him was not the life she wished to have. At the same time, her family was busy planning her wedding to Yitzie.
As the wedding neared Zahava’s unease continued, but she also didn’t want to upset her parents and her community. Still, as a way to express her expectations and her boundaries, Zahava made a vow – which agitated both her father and her husband-to-be Yitzie.
Yitzie was planning to marry Zahava because this was what was expected of him, but he was certainly not interested in marrying someone assertive who would do such a thing as make a vow which negatively affected him. As a result, out of fear of her independence and of the marriage that they may have together, Yitzie divorced Zahava.
Zahava’s family didn’t know what to do. The dress had been made, the wedding had been planned, and the food had been paid for. And it was at this point where they had a choice: did they try and set up Zahava with another Yitzie-like guy, or did they ask Zahava if she is interested in marriage, and if so, to whom?
It is to this question that the two alternative outcomes of the Mishna point to: where they did so with another Yitzie-like guy, the same thing occurred – and this is what the Mishna refers to when speaking of ‘even a hundred further times’. However, where they spoke with Zahava who now had a better idea of who she wanted to marry, they listened to her, and asked her about people she knew, and this then led her to become betrothed to Natan.
Of course, there are many lessons we can learn from this reading of our Mishna, but overall, Zahava’s vow, whatever it related to, was a message to her husband-to-be and her family that whatever decisions are taken away from someone, this doesn’t take away their deep held wishes and expectations about the life they would like to live. At the same time, what we learn from the reference to a hundred further marriages is that if a parent makes a mistake once, they should think twice before making it again.