February 28, 2023

Nedarim 77

As we know, a major focus of Massechet Nedarim is language. Yet as we also know, language can be both explicit and implicit, and rather than just referring to what is being communicated through words, it can also refer to what we communicate through gestures and body language.
To explain, let us consider two examples found in today’s daf (Nedarim 77b). We are taught in a Beraita that if someone’s wife made a vow to which her husband said in response יָפֶה עָשִׂית – ‘you did well!’, or אֵין כְּמוֹתֵךְ – ‘there is no one like you!’, then he has confirmed her vow. Interestingly, neither of these phrases make specific reference to her vow. Nevertheless, if said by a husband in response to his wife’s vow, these phrases are understood to be equivalent to him explicitly saying, ‘I hereby confirm your vow’. What this tells us is that when we respond to the ideas or actions of others with personally supportive words, then our words can be interpreted to be affirmations of those ideas and those actions – whether or not that was our intention.
Then, later on, we are taught in a further Beraita that a Sage can revoke someone’s vow ‘in his heart’ (בְּלִבּוֹ) – meaning, without expressing the revocation out loud – while (as our commentaries explain), at the same time giving the person who made a vow the very item that they vowed to be forbidden to them. In so doing, this gesture of physical transferral is understood to mean that the vow is no longer valid. What this suggests is that how we respond, even with our gestures, to the words of others can communicate something very significant.
Taken together, it is quite possible for us to say things to others like יָפֶה עָשִׂית – ‘you did well!’, or אֵין כְּמוֹתֵךְ – ‘there is no one like you!’ that communicate to the receiver more than we necessarily intended, and similarly, even when we give something to someone, it is possible that we may be saying more than we are necessarily aware of.
Of course, while most of us spend years formally learning the reading, writing and speaking of language in school, few of us receive a concrete education relating to the interpretation of implicit language, human gestures, and body language. At the same time, so much of what we say isn’t verbal, and many misunderstandings arise from the differing interpretation of such expressions and gestures.
Precisely because much of this relates to interpretation, there is no easy way to solve this issue. Still, we learn from our daf that language – in all its forms – matters, and that we should be as aware and as intentional as possible not only with what we explicitly say, but also with what we implicitly say both through words, gestures and through our body language.
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