Nedarim 31

Science and Health

On today’s daf, we encounter a mishnah that teaches the following:

One who takes a vow that deriving benefit from those who rest on Shabbat is forbidden, is prohibited from deriving benefit from Jews and Samaritans … 

One takes a vow that deriving benefit from those who ascend to Jerusalem is forbidden, is prohibited from deriving benefit from Jews, but is permitted to benefit from Samaritans.

In this first case, both Jews and Samaritans are identified as Sabbath observers. In the second, Jews are identified as ascending to Jerusalem to celebrate pilgrimage festivals but Samaritans are not. To understand what’s going on, it’s helpful to know something about the Samaritans.

The ancient Samaritans were a group of people who lived in northern Israel after the Assyrian exile in the 8th century BCE. Some scholars believe that they descended from Israelites of the Northern Kingdom who were not exiled (i.e. they were part of the lost ten tribes), others think that they were people brought by the Assyrians to repopulate the land who adopted local religious practices.

The Samaritans follow their own version of the Torah, which varies only slightly from the Jewish version, and so their religious practice in antiquity had much in common with that of the rest of the Jewish community. Our mishnah counts Samaritans as Shabbat observers, but not Temple worshippers because, for the Samaritans, Mount Gerizim, in the region once occupied by the northern kingdom of Israel, was the central place of worship.

The Samaritans did not adopt the rabbinic tradition, so while the rabbis of the Talmud acknowledged that they had some things in common,  they viewed them as distinct and separate from the Jewish people. The inclusion of the Samaritans in the first vow raises a question for the Gemara

If we say that the one who took the vow intended to render forbidden deriving benefit from those who uphold Shabbat, why mention specifically that he is prohibited from deriving benefit from Samaritans. Shouldn’t benefit from any gentile who is a Shabbat observer also be prohibited? 

If one were to make such a vow, asks the Gemara, why wouldn’t it exclude anyone who observes Shabbat, including a gentile who decides, for reasons of their own, to do so? Wouldn’t that be truer to the language of the vow?

In response, the Gemara suggests that we read the mishnah as if it were referring to those who are commanded to observe Shabbat, which includes both Jews and Samaritans, but not gentiles. This resolves the problem with the first case, but creates one for the second. If Samaritans are treated like Jews with regard to Shabbat, shouldn’t they also be with regard to their obligation to worship at the Temple in Jerusalem? And if so, why does the mishnah put them into a different category in this case? 

Abaye helps resolve this dilemma by explaining:

The mishnah is teaching about those who are commanded and actually perform a mitzvah.

In the first case, Samaritans are commanded to observe Shabbat and do so. But although Samaritans might be obligated to go to Jerusalem (according to Jewish interpretation of scripture, of course), they simply don’t. So, for the sake of vows, they are not included in a statement about those who ascend to Jerusalem.

This harmonizes the two lines in the mishnah and ends our discussion. Which would be all well and good except that mishnah actually has a third case in between them that I didn’t show you above:

One who takes a vow that prohibits deriving benefit from those who eat garlic on Shabbat night is prohibited from deriving benefit from a Jew, and he is also prohibited from benefiting from Samaritans.

Apparently Jews and Samaritans have long enjoyed garlic as part of their Shabbat meal (see also Shabbat 11b). As delicious as garlic is, eating it is not a mitzvah. So Abaye’s solution — that the vow applies to both Jews and Samaritans because they are both obligated — doesn’t apply in this case. Further exploration is needed to explain why such a vow would apply to both groups under these circumstances and/or how this case is in line with the logic of the rest of the mishnah. But the Gemara does not raise or consider these potential problems. It seems incomplete.

It’s not uncommon for the Gemara to spend less time discussing a mishnah that appears near the end of a chapter. To the degree that the Gemara is a record of the discussions about the mishnah in the amoraic academies, this suggests that more intense conversations held about material that came at the beginning of a chapter. The rabbis, like so many of us, may have run low on steam as they approached the end. 

To some degree, this also applies more broadly to our current tractate, Nedarim, where many of the talmudic discussions have been a bit less polished than those of other tractates. This too suggests that Nedarim was studied less frequently. It may be frustrating that we are lacking a more complete version of Nedarim, but it’s also interesting to see the talmudic text as a work in progress. And it leads us to wonder: How many other talmudic texts that we have encountered would have also developed further, given different circumstances?

Read all of Nedarim 31 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on November 25th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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