Nedarim, Chapter Eleven, Mishnah Twelve
One of the thorniest problems in halakhah is that a woman may not initiate divorce. If a woman is stuck in a bad marriage and wants to be divorced, it is difficult, if not impossible, for her to force her husband to divorce her and still receive her ketubah. We should however note that in talmudic times it was not impossible for a woman to force her husband to divorce her if she was willing to forego her ketubah. Unfortunately, today, even this is difficult.
Our mishnah contains fascinating testimony regarding attempts that women made to force their husbands to divorce them. Originally, these attempts were effective, for the sages believed the womans claims. However, when they began to suspect these women of lying so that they could marry others, they changed the laws such that these claims would not be an effective means by which a woman could force her husband to give her a divorce and her ketubah.
1) At first they would say that three women must be divorced and receive their ketubah:
a) She who says: I am defiled to you;
b) Heaven is between me and you;
c) I have been removed from the Jews.
2) But subsequently they changed the ruling to prevent her from setting her eye on another and spoiling herself to her husband:
a) She who said, I am defiled unto youmust bring proof.
b) Heaven is between me and youthey [shall appease them] by a request.
c) I have been removed from the Jews he [the husband] must annul his portion, and she may have relations with him, and she shall be removed from other Jews.
Section one: The mishnah mentions three claims that used to work in forcing a husband to divorce his wife.
1) I am defiled to you. The Talmud explains that this claim is made by a priests wife who says that she has been raped. As we have learned, a priest may not stay married to his wife if she has had sexual intercourse with someone prohibited to her, even if the intercourse was against her consent.
2) Heaven is between me and you. Some commentators interpret this to be a veiled reference to the husbands inability to perform the sexual act. She is saying, as distant as the heaven is from the earth, that is how distant you and I are from each other in sexual matters.
3) I have been removed from the Jews. This refers to a vow she made not to receive sexual benefit from Jews, which includes her husband. She may have made the vow because sexual intercourse is not pleasurable for her.
The sages believed these statements because they assumed that a woman would not make such things up.
Section two: When the sages saw that women were lying and using these claims to leave their husbands because they wanted to marry someone else, they came up with other solutions to these problems. These solutions did not allow the woman to force her husband to divorce her and pay her ketubah.
1) If she says that she has been raped, she must bring proof. Until she does so, she is not believed and she is not prohibited to her husband, nor is he forced to divorce her.
2) If she complains that her husband cannot function sexually, the sages should try to bring them together with words of reconciliation. This may have been the rabbinic equivalent of going to a sex therapist.
3) If she says that she made a vow not to have sex with Jews, the husband may annul that part of the vow that prohibits her from having sex specifically with him, and she will be prohibited from having sex with other Jews, even should she be subsequently divorced.
Congratulations! We have finished Nedarim.
It is a tradition at this point to thank God for helping us to finish learning the tractate and to commit ourselves to going back and relearning it, so that we may not forget it and so that its lessons will stay with us for all of our lives.
Despite the fact that some of these mishnayoth may have been slightly obscure, we should remember what an important role vows played in the religious life of Jews in the mishnaic and talmudic periods. Vows were a way of turning everyday matters into issues of greater significance, from matters between human beings and other human beings, to matter between human beings and God. Learning the laws of vows, and especially how to get out of vows, shows us how humans can make mistakes, get out of them, and yet retain their ultimate covenant with God. Congratulations on making it through this difficult tractate. May you have the strength and time to keep on learning more Mishnah! Tomorrow we begin Nazir.