How do we interpret the intention of someone who commits to bringing a sacrifice, but isn’t clear about his plans?
The Mishnah on today’s daf (=page) offers answers to that question, as well as to the question of how to deal with someone who says that he made a commitment to bring a specific sacrifice, but now does not remember what he said at that time. In this second case, the Mishnah tries to work out how to be sure that all possibilities are covered; in the first case, the Mishnah tries to work out how we understand what the person most likely meant.
Thus, if a person said, “I accept upon myself to bring a burnt-offering,” the Tanna Kamma (=first) rules that he should bring a lamb, which is the least expensive burnt-offering that can be brought from an animal; Rabbi Elazar ben Azariahrules that he can bring a sacrifice from fowl, as well. The Gemara explains that there is really no argument between these tanna’im – in the Tanna Kamma’s community, standard use of the term “burnt-offering” referred only to an animal sacrifice, while where Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah lived, the term was used for sacrifices from birds, as well.
While Rashi understands that the ruling of the Tanna Kamma is based on the principle that a standard statement is always understood to mean the smallest of that category, the Rambam disagrees. According to the Rambam, a standard statement should always be interpreted to mean the largest of that category. Some explain that the case in our Mishnah must be understood as referring to a place where everyone referred to a lamb when using the terminology of a simple burnt-offering. Others point to a Tosefta that appears to argue with the ruling in the Mishnah; they suggest that the Rambam must have chosen to rule like the Tosefta rather than the Mishnah. Finally, some suggest that although the basic law is like the Mishnah, the Tosefta is referring to someone who wants to fulfill a higher level obligation.