A Constantinople (now Istanbul) rabbi around the year 1600 was left scratching his head over a particularly knotty halachic problem.

A local man was experiencing worsening marital woes over clashes between his wife and his mother. The conflict became so intense that the man proposed divorce, but wife refused to hear of it.

In the interim, the marriage broke down and he left the relationship.

After some time, he met another woman and they decided to get married. Given that this happened in a Sephardic community (where polygamy was never officially banned), he was allowed to remarry even if his wife refused to accept a get (religious divorce).

His new fiancée, however, was wary and insisted that he make every effort to persuade his first wife to accept a divorce. This he did by offering her a generous financial settlement, but the woman firmly refused. It was not about the money; she wanted her husband back.

Additionally the man took a vow that if he should ever be alone with his first wife, he would “assume the special Nazirite status of Samson, husband of Delilah, who ripped out the door of Gaza and whose eyes were gouged by the Philistines.”

In practical terms, this meant that he would never be allowed to cut his hair or drink wine for the rest of his life.

Satisfied, the second wife agreed, and the couple married.

Things Get Complicated

Sadly, the man’s second wife died, and his first wife asked him to return to her.

Eager to move on, he promised her financial support in exchange for a divorce, but this did not appease her. She begged him to return, explaining that she could no longer bear the disgrace of being separated from the love of her youth.

Still he resisted, and his wife turned more aggressive, threatening that if he did not return, she would report him to the authorities over certain fraudulent activities she knew about, that would cause him great financial harm.

Upon inquiry, the local rabbi and community leaders assessed the threat to be credible.

The local beth din summoned the man to appear. He told the court that he was actually experiencing a change of heart and wished to return to his first wife.

What deterred him from doing so, however, was the vow he had made to his (now deceased) second wife. Returning to his first wife would require him to be secluded with her, which would trigger his Nazirite obligation.

Ordinarily, the court can release a person from a vow that he or she has come to regret. But this man had undertaken a unique type of vow, which may not be annulled:

If someone said: “Behold I am a Nazirite like Samson,” he is a Nazirite forever … he is not permitted to have it absolved, for Samson’s Nazirite vow was binding forever.1

The court, led by Rabbi Meir Ibn Sanchi, a recognized scholar and outstanding poet, was inclined to be lenient but first sought the advice of the distinguished Chacham Bashi, the chief rabbi of the Ottoman Empire, Rabbi Eliyahu Ben Chaim, known by his acronym, “Raanach.”

The Raanach was famed for his humility, often questioning his own competence. This occasion was no exception. He questioned why his opinion was even needed, given that the local beth din had already looked into the matter. “Who am I,” he queried, “to determine if their analysis is right or wrong?”

A Common Problem

During this time period, it had become quite common for people to make this unusual oath. It seems that, for a time, it was all the rage. These situations gave the rabbis of the time many headaches, as the literature of the day attests.

One man banned himself from receiving any benefit from his father, on the pain of being a lifelong Nazirite.2

Another, who felt he was always a third wheel in every conversation, vowed to become a lifelong Nazirite if he would ever allow himself to be the third person at a meal outside his own home.3

Our situation is another example of the (over) use of the Nazarite vow.

Was It Even a Vow?

In a highly erudite response, Rabbi Eliyahu grappled with this challenging situation.4 “From the outset,” he wrote, “I would be inclined to disqualify this man’s original vow, as it appears to be invalid.”

He argued that at the time of his vow, he was legally married to her, and since there is a Biblical obligation for a man to fulfill his conjugal duties towards his wife,5 he therefore had no right to take a vow that would prevent him from keeping his marital obligations.

It is an established rule6 that if a vow contradicts Torah law, it is considered invalid. If this were indeed the case, there was nothing at all preventing him from returning to his first wife.

But Rabbi Eliyahu showed that this logic was entirely flawed.

Taking a vow that by secluding himself with her he would be obligated to be a Nazirite, didn’t actually do anything to prevent him from being secluded, he argued. “Let him both go back to her and keep his vow! The fact that he doesn’t like that outcome is not our problem.”

Moreover, the man had never forsworn being intimate with her, only being secluded with her. Thus, his vow was not in direct contradiction with his legal obligations.

He Could Have Never Known

Regardless, Rabbi Eliyahu found several reasons why the man was not obligated to be a Nazirite even if he were to return to his wife.

If a vow is taken based on a misunderstanding or under duress, it is treated as meaningless and does not require an annulment.7 Since there is no way this man could have possibly foreseen that his wife would issue such a threat, his vow was taken under a false assumption. “We may therefore safely say that such an unexpected and coercive situation is not what this man had in mind when he assumed his vow.”

Moreover, Rabbi Eliyahu asserted, this man never imagined he would ever be put in a position where he would be forced to make good on his vow. He had reasonably assumed that he would avoid it by keeping his distance from her. He had every intention of divorcing her or appeasing her. Had he thought for a moment that he would ever be compelled to seclude himself with her, he would never have made the Nazirite vow.

It Was Never for Him

Finally, Rabbi Eliyahu proposed, if a person takes a vow solely to benefit another, when the beneficiary no longer has an interest in the vow remaining, it ceases to have any hold. Had the second wife declared that she no longer objected to him being secluded with his first wife, the vow would automatically lapse. He based this on an ancient ruling8 that if a person vows not to have any benefit from another unless this individual accepts a gift he wishes to bestow, the vow can be dissolved should he wish it so. Why? The vow was intended to benefit him, and now what benefits him is to waive the requirement. Similarly here, since the vow was only taken to protect someone who has since died, there is no one seeking for it to be upheld. It therefore automatically falls by the wayside.

And so, the man was free to return to his first wife without compunction.