Water Works (Nedarim 80)

I came home from work yesterday to find that there was no water in my apartment – first only a faint trickle came out of the faucets, and then nothing at all. I called Gichon, the water company, and learned that the previous tenant in my apartment had not paid one of his bills, and thus my water had been turned off. When I asked why I had not been warned in advance, the clerk told me that they don’t warn people who don’t pay, and that I would have to come to their offices tomorrow morning at 9am to set matters straight.

When I arrived at the Gichon offices on Derech Chevron this morning, there was a long line of people in front of me waiting to be seen. I tried to keep my distance, since I hadn’t showered and I was sure I smelled dreadful. While waiting my turn, I took out my Gemara and began learning today’s daf. The Mishnah begins:

“A husband may revoke a wife’s vows if they relate to matters of self-affliction….If she vows, ‘I will not wash.'”

In other words, a husband is permitted to revoke any vows his wife makes that cause her to suffer. If she vows that she won’t wash for a day, for instance, her husband can revoke the vow so that she can bathe (and he doesn’t have to smell her). But when we get to the Gemara, the rabbis are not so sure that not washing really constitutes self-affliction. As Rabbi Yossi says, “Disgustingness for one day does not constitute disgustingness.” (Nivul d’chad yoma – la shma nivul). Or does it? To determine the answer to this question, the rabbis draw from the laws of Yom Kippur, on which we are forbidden to wash (as well as to eat, drink, have sexual relations, and anoint ourselves with oil). The discussion unfolds as follows:

“And did the rabbis say with regard to washing that it involves self-affliction when one does not wash? They challenge: Even though all (the five activities mentioned above) are forbidden (on Yom Kippur), a punishment of excommunication is given only for eating and drinking and doing work. And if you should say that her not washing constitutes self-affliction, then one who washes on Yom Kippur should also get excommunicated. “

Anyone who violates the Torah’s command to afflict oneself on Yom Kippur is deserving of excommunication. The rabbis are suggesting that since washing is not a Yom Kippur prohibition deserving of excommunication, it cannot constitute a form of self-affliction. Hence a husband should not be allowed to revoke this type of vow.

I am feeling a bit sweaty and gross as I read through this argument, and I’m grateful that it’s finally my turn in line. I approach the counter and explain to the uniformed water company official whose nametag says Maayan that my water has been turned off. She asks for my address, and looks me up in her system. Then she asks to see my rental contract, which I thankfully thought to bring with me. While she examines these documents, my Gemara is resting in my lap, and I glance down occasionally. I decide that learning in this place is not all that inappropriate, given the connection between water and Torah. As we learn in Taanit: “Why is Torah analogized to water? As it is written ‘Lo, all who thirst should go to water’ (Isaiah 55: 1) to teach you that just as water flows from high places to low places, so too, Torah can only stay with one who is humble in spirit.” (Taanit 6a). Torah is also compared to water in the very sugya that I am learning about washing, where we are told: “Be careful in the presence of dirt, and large groups, and be careful to teach Torah to poor people, as it is taught ‘Water will drip from their boughs (dalyav –also their impoverished ones).’ But not all the images are so positive: “The waters are not stopped except because of the forsaking of Torah” (Taanit 7b), we are taught, and so I keep learning.

Maayan looks up at me after reviewing all my documents. “OK, we will turn on your water within seventy-two hours.” I look back at her horrified, forgetting to be humble in spirit. “Seventy-two hours?? That’s crazy! How do I shower until then? How do I brush my teeth? Or cook? I can’t get by for three more days without water!” I wonder which of the many sources I should quote to her, and finally decide upon Shmuel’s claim: “Uncleanliness of the head leads to blindness; uncleanliness of clothing leads to dementia; uncleanliness of the body leads to boils and sores.” Does Gichon really want to be responsible for all this self-affliction? “Can’t you turn it on sooner?” I plead.

Maayan smiles apologetically as she returns my documents to me. “Ein davar ka-zeh,” she says, which literally means “there is no such thing.” This is one of my least favorite Hebrew expressions, because what it really means is, “I don’t care enough about your plight to make any more efforts on your behalf.” I sigh. As I walk out of the building with sunken shoulders, I console myself with Rabbi Yossi’s final claim. He insists that not only does not bathing not constitute self-affliction, but it also does not constitute “matters between him and her,” the other category of a wife’s vows that her husband can revoke. According to Rabbi Yossi, a woman’s abstention from bathing will not make her husband find her repugnant. “We have never found a fox that dies from the dirt of his own hole,” he remarks somewhat crassly. I tell myself that hopefully no one will die because my armpits stink to high heavens.

That evening, I come home from work with a few bottles of water from the market around the corner. But to my astonishment, when I walk in to the kitchen there is water trickling out of the faucet, which I had neglected to fully close. “Eyn davar ka-zeh,” I tell myself – it can’t possibly be! And yet it is. I jump in the shower, rejoicing in my good fortune. When I get out, I have a quick glance at tomorrow’s daf, which seems to be about a woman who vows not to wear make-up and not to have sex. Stay tuned!

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