Today’s daf (Nedarim 79a-b) discusses the ways in which behaviours within the category of עִנּוּי נֶפֶשׁ (self-affliction) can affect our relationships. In fact, it is precisely because such behaviours can have such a negative impact that our Sages grant a license for a husband to revoke vows that his wife makes relating to עִנּוּי נֶפֶשׁ (self-affliction). But what kind of behaviours are we talking about?
The first opinion in the Mishna (Nedarim 11:1) understands עִנּוּי נֶפֶשׁ as self-deprival of activities that are part of one’s personal care relating to personal hygiene and physical appearance – and whose cessation could be personally unhealthy or socially damaging such as not bathing or looking dishevelled.
Rabbi Yossi disagrees and considers עִנּוּי נֶפֶשׁ to be self-deprival of certain foods such as a particular type of fruit that the individual may wish to eat, or to use an example given by Rambam (Nedarim 12:5), the decision to deprive oneself from eating honey. Here too, this kind of self-deprival is understood as running the risk of being physically damaging or perhaps of creating socially awkward situations.
Admittedly, some may read this Mishna and understand it to be about control. But there is another way to read the Mishna with a focus on love and concern, with the message of the Mishna being that we should do what we can to help others who have adopted practices that are not healthy and that may even be dangerous for them.
Unlike the revoking vows which requires just a few words, the efforts required to help others – either directly, or by finding the experts who know how to help those others – from self-harming is a long process. Still, what we can draw from today’s Mishna is that if someone we love is living in a way that falls within the category of עִנּוּי נֶפֶשׁ, we should do whatever we can to help.