In order for a neder to take effect, the individual who is taking the vow must have true intent, and a vow that is uttered without meaning does not obligate the person who made it. Nevertheless, a person cannot simply claim that he did not mean what he said; we always work with the assumption that what a person said is what he meant. Still, the Sages of the Talmud teach that there are some instances where it is clear to all that the person making the neder did not really mean to obligate himself, and in such cases the person is not obligated to keep his word – his vow notwithstanding.
The third perek of Massekhet Nedarim opens with a discussion of such cases, which are defined by the Mishna as including four separate types:
- nidrei ziruzin – vows made to encourage someone to agree with him (vows of exhortation)
- nidrei havai – vows of exaggeration
- nidrei shegagot – vows that are unintentional
- nidrei onasin – vows that will remain unfulfilled for reasons that are out of the individual’s control
Our Gemara brings the opinion of Rav Yehuda quoting Rav Ashi, who requires that a person who made one of these types of nedarim to approach a hakham and ask that he be released from his vow. Shmuel strongly objects to that suggestion, arguing that the Mishna clearly presents these vows as being permitted by the Sages, so it is impossible that they require she’elat hakham – the permission of a rabbi.
Some of the commentaries explain Rav Yehuda’s position as requiring a pro forma visit to a rabbi to arrange for the vow to be annulled, but in this case the rabbi will not have to make inquiries in order to find a way to permit the neder, since the circumstances themselves indicate that the neder does not stand. Others explain that on a biblical level there is no need to end the neder, but Rav Yehuda believes that there is a rabbinic requirement to do so. The Ritva argues that even Rav Yehuda only required this of amei ha’aretz – unlearned people – who we want to discourage from taking vows lightly.