Simcha Feuerman
Psychology, Torah and the Daf Yomi

Pledging During a Crisis Nedarim 80 Psychology of the Daf Yomi

Our Gemara on Amud Beis discusses a concept that we have seen many times throughout Nedarim, namely, that vows are generally considered actions of the non-righteous. They are more often, impulsive, angry acts that do not represent the person’s spiritual standing or ability to consistently follow the demands of the extra extension. This is why there is a phrase נדרי רשעים the oaths of the wicked, because generally speaking, they are not constructive acts of piety.

One exception to this rule is during a situation of duress. Tosafos (Chulin 2b) learns from Yaakov’s and Yonah’s actions, both of whom made pledges in situations of danger and distress. In such a case, it is different. I would say, presumably, because one needs merit immediately. By making a vow, one is showing intention to follow through, and thus obtains the merit as if he had already done it. (Later I saw Ha’amek She’eylah 23:1 who says this precise sevara.) This is codified in Shulkhan Arukh (YD 203:5).

Interestingly, the language of Shulkhan Arukh is that it is permitted to make vows in a crisis. And Tosafos in Chulin seems to lean in that direction as well. However, Piske Tosafos states that it is a Mitzvah to make vows and pledges in a crisis. 

On a simple level we can say ideally it could be a Mitzvah –  if you have the wherewithal to fulfill it. But since it is easy, somehow, to become sidetracked or distracted, it can end up backfiring. Indeed, there is a Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 37) about Yaakov that indicates even in his situation that was partially endorsed, it still did not end well:

Though Yaakov’s prayer was that he be spared from idolatry, slander, sexual immorality, and murder, in the end, all of those unfortunate events occurred to him or his children, because he delayed in fulfilling his promise. Thus, his children committed murder in regard to the city of Shechem, they pillaged idolatrous materials and thus had possession of them. And Dina was a victim of sexual immorality. Yosef committed slander, and was the victim of slander. Furthermore, his own wife died, Rachel, which is one of the punishments that befall those who tarry in fulfilling their promises.

The bottom line is, though we might be permitted to make vows during a crisis, the interest payments are penalties are heavy if we don’t pay them up as soon as possible.

Nedarim 81 The Clothes Make the Man

Our Gemara on Amud Aleph mentions various illnesses that befall a person who does not keep parts of his body or his clothes clean. Some of it seems to be psychological in origin, that is that it induces a sense of disorder, and possibly even mental illness.

It is common sense to assume that one’s mode of dress influences their attitude, for better or for worse. What does the research say about this?

We have the general psychological and cognitive principle known as priming. Priming is when there is a particular mindset induced either by visual, auditory, or spoken stimuli, that predisposes one along a particular mode of thought, or feeling. For example, in Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow” he explains:

If you have recently seen or heard the word EAT, you are temporarily more likely to complete the word fragment SO_P as SOUP than as SOAP. 

Priming is not restricted to concepts and words. You cannot know this from conscious experience, of course, but you must accept the alien idea that your actions and your emotions can be primed by events of which you are not even aware. In an experiment that became an instant classic, the psychologist John Bargh and his collaborators asked students at New York University — most aged eighteen to twenty-two — to assemble four-word sentences from a set of five words (for example, ‘finds he it yellow instantly’). For one group of students, half the scrambled sentences contained words associated with the elderly, such as Florida, forgetful, bald, gray, or wrinkle. When they had completed that task, the young participants were sent out to do another experiment in an office down the hall. That short walk was what the experiment was about. The researchers unobtrusively measured the time it took people to get from one end of the corridor to the other. As Bargh had predicted, the young people who had fashioned a sentence from words with an elderly theme walked down the hallway significantly more slowly than the others.

Reciprocal links are common in the associative network. For example, being amused tends to make you smile, and smiling tends to make you feel amused. Go ahead and take a pencil, and hold it between your teeth for a few seconds with the eraser pointing to your right and the point to your left. You were probably unaware that this action forced your face into a smile. College students were asked to rate the humor of cartoons from Gary Larson’s The Far Side while holding a pencil in their mouth. Those who were ‘smiling’ (without any awareness of doing so) found the cartoons funnier than did those who were ‘frowning.’ 

But aside from this general concept of priming, which seems to have been proven, there is another experiment, specifically around mode of dress conducted by researchers Adam and Galinsky (Journal of Experimental Social Psychology Volume 48, Issue 4, July 2012, Pages 918-925) discover the following effect:

By asking participants to wear a lab coat described as a doctor’s coat, it increased sustained attention compared to wearing a lab coat described as a painter’s coat. Furthermore, compared to simply seeing or even identifying with a lab coat described as a doctor’s coat. Thus, their research suggests a basic principle of, what they call, enclothed cognition—it depends on both the symbolic meaning and the physical experience of wearing the clothes.

We are in a society where hierarchy and authority is watered down, and old standards of dignity and dress are replaced by valuing comfort and casualness. I do think such sensitivities have their place because we can’t push children (or adults) to do something that is to the extreme of their cultural context, as it will just make them resentful. Nevertheless, we should be mindful that certain standards of dress do influence a sense of dignity, self, and pride.

About the Author
Rabbi, Psychotherapist with 30 years experience specializing in high conflict couples and families.
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