We are taught at the end of today’s daf (Nedarim 76b) that Chiya the son of Rav would shoot an arrow when people would come and seek the annulment of their vows.
Clearly this seems like a strange thing to be doing while involved in the process of annulling vows. But as many of the commentaries explain, unlike those who demand that a sage find a פתח (literally ‘an opening’, but here it means a viable halachic entry-point in order to annul a vow – just like one tries to find an open door to enter a seemingly locked building), Chiya was of the opinion that in order to annul a vow someone merely needs to express regret (חרטה) – and a Sage can easily detect regret. Given this, the image of Chiya multitasking is to convey that he was of the view that annulling vows is something that can be done relatively easily.
Interestingly, a further dimension to this encounter is discovered when we note, as pointed out by the Aruch & the Shitah Mekubetzet, that Chiya was a teacher of archery. Consequently, the situation being described is where he was approached to annul a vow while engaged in his profession. According to this reading, rather than Chiya being less attentive than one would necessarily expect in order to show that annulling vows need not demand his full attention, what we learn from this is that he was available to questioners even while he was working.
However, a further approach to this encounter is offered by Rav Shlomo Mandel in his ‘Himunuta D’Shlomo’. There he quotes from the Belzer Rebbe who notes that Bereishit 48:22, which speaks of בְּחַרְבִּי וּבְקַשְׁתִּי – ‘with my sword and with my bow’, is translated by Onkelos to mean בִּצְלוֹתִי וּבְבָעוּתִי – ‘with my prayer and with my plea’. This is because, as the Belzer Rebbe explained, ‘prayer is a form of shooting arrows, and just like the act of shooting an arrow is dependent on how you pull the arrow back before shooting it – because once it is shot you cannot make any changes [to its speed or direction], similarly with prayer, the key thing [for meaningful prayer] is preparation for prayer, and the more that someone prepares themselves for prayer, the more it will strengthen the prayer that follows’.
With this in mind, R’ Mandel then suggests that this is what Chiya bar Rav was actually doing – meaning that he was engaged in his prayer preparations. And why did a questioner approach him during such a moment? Because they believed that while Chiya was immersed in spiritual reflection, he would be sensitized to the notion of personal and spiritual regret and would swiftly annul the vow.
Ultimately, whichever way we interpret this Gemara, what is clear is that there is much to learn from the smallest of details, and that when we learn a text containing such details, we should do our best to ask ‘why?’ and consider the various possibilities of what it may be teaching us.