One of the many truly tragic stories in the Tanach is the case (Shoftim 11) of the daughter of the judge, Yiftach.
Yiftach rose from a difficult youth to become the leader of Israel. However, while he seemed to mean well, his lack of Torah scholarship was evident in what must surely go down as the most awful act of his life.
Before his final major military campaign recorded in Sefer Shoftim, the war against Amon, Yiftach promises Hashem that if he helps the campaign succeed, the first thing that exits the doors of his house to meet him on his triumphant return will be for Hashem, and he will offer it up as an עולה (burnt offering.)- וְהָיָה֙ לַֽיקֹוָ֔ק וְהַעֲלִיתִ֖הוּ עוֹלָֽה:
When he returns, his daughter comes out enthusiastically to greet him, and instead of enthusiastically embracing her, he tells her the awful news that his vow applies to her.
Despite her pleas, he is adamant that he is unable to go back on his vow, and after she is given 2 months of freedom in the mountains, we are told that he does what he had vowed to do to her.
There is much discussion amongst Chazal and the Rishonim as whether he actually killed her and offered her as a sacrifice, or whether he made her live a life of isolation and chastity, as well as regarding whether his vow was indeed binding or not.
After all, a vow to commit a transgression is generally invalid, and murder is certainly a transgression. In addition, a human being is not a valid “object” of a burnt offering, or any other sacrifice for that matter.
Furthermore, human sacrifice in general and child sacrifice specifically is condemned by the Torah.
It is also highly unlikely that Yiftach really considered the possibility that his daughter would be the one his vow would apply to (though it does seem strange that he did not do so, given its seemingly high probability), and this could make it an example of a halachically invalid type of commitment known as אסמכתא.
Chazal (Taanis 4) severely criticize Yiftach for not going to Pinchas to have his vow annulled, and Pinchas for not reaching out to him to do so.
Ironically, however, the implication of this is that at least according to this view, the vow was indeed valid.
One possible reason for this “vow” to be invalid might be related to the sugya of ברירה , which dominates our daf, and can also be found in many other places in the Shas.
The Mishna on 36a tells us that a person who is not sure which direction he will need to walk more than 2000 amos in on Shabbos, may place 2 “conditional” eruvin at the end of each side of his shabbos domain and stipulate the conditions under which each one will be valid.
For example, if he suspects that a Torah scholar is coming to visit and he wishes to walk more than 2000 amos to greet him, but is not sure from which direction he will come, he may stipulate that “ if he comes from the east, the eruv in the east will be valid, if he comes from the west, the eruv in the west will be valid, if one comes from each direction, I can choose which way to go, and if one does not come at all, neither eruv is valid and my shabbos zone remains as is.”
Rabbi Yehuda agrees with the above but stipulates that if a Torah scholar comes from both sides and one is his Rabbi, the eruv in the direction from which his Rabbi is coming is valid. If they are both his Rabbis, Rabbi Yehuda agrees that he may choose which one to greet.
The Gemara understands that this is an example of a קנין (transaction) or חלות (status change) that is dependent on a future event, known as ברירה.
Unlike a regular conditional transaction which is dependant on a future event happening or not, this is a transaction where the uncertainty is not based on a future event taking place, but on the object to which this future event takes place.
In our case, the eruv food on which the legal mechanism of Eruv Techumim will fall is not determined at the time of the setting up of the eruv, or even at the time of its activation, during twilight of Erev Shabbos, but later on, retroactively, based on which direction the scholar comes from.
Although Rabbi Yehuda appears to agree with the Tana Kama that such a legal status change is valid, the Gemara notes that in other places, he clearly holds that such a mechanism does not work – a legal status change can not be applied to an item which is undetermined at the time of the status change.
Another example brought in the Gemara , from a Mishna, is the case of someone who buys wine from a כותי , also known as Samaritans.
These were the settlers with whom the Assyrians replaced the exiled 10 tribes of Israel in the Northern kingdom of Israel, who took on belief in Hashem after a plague of lions.
Their status as Jews was debated amongst Chazal, and at the time of this case, or according to the sages quoted here, were considered Jewish.
However, they were apparently not trusted when it came to separating tithes, and one who bought wine from them needed to separate them before drinking the wine.
The quoted Mishna discussed a case where the person wishes to drink the wine, but has not got sufficient vessels into which to pour the various tithes, and suggests a method whereby he may drink the wine already before these tithes are physically separated.
Unlike solid products, where it might be feasible to simply set aside a certain area of the basket full as tithes, liquids are by definition mixed together, and this not possible.
Yet Rabbi Meir expresses the view that one may make a conditional declarations, saying that whatever part of the mixture he will separate for each tithe in the correct amount will be considered retroactively to have been separated from now already.
After this, he may drink the wine, obviously leaving enough for the seperation.
In contrast, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yossi, and Rabbi forbid this.
The Gemara understands this debate to be about whether there is ברירה or not, in other words whether one may affect a conditional status change on parts of the wine before the specific part of the liquid mixture that this status change is to be applied to has been determined.
In order to reconcile Rabbi Yehuda with his view regarding Eruvin that there is ברירה, Ulah reads the Mishna in a way that Rabbi Yehuda agrees with Rabbi Meir’s permissive opinion!
There is also a suggestion on 37b that we rely on ברירה in rabbinical matters but not in biblical ones.
Coming back to the case of Yiftach, putting aside all the other issues that we raised, this seems at face value to be a typical case of ברירה.
Yiftach essentially effected a status change, from חולין (unsanctified) to הקדש (sanctified) on whichever חפצא (item) would later emerge first from his home to greet him.
This “item” later tragically turned out to be his daughter, but at the time of the vow, was not yet determined.
If this is true, it seems strange that I have struggled to find primary sources that link his conundrum to such a famous dispute.
Perhaps the difference lies in when the actual status change is to be affected.
In typical cases of ברירה , the status change is to be applied retroactively from the time of the condition.
If that was not the case, the eruv would not be valid at the critical time of twilight, and the wine would still be טבל (untithed produce) at the time when he drinks it!
Perhaps the debate around ברירה is limited to whether a status change can fall retroactively at the time the condition is made.
However, in a case where this is not the intention, maybe such a conditional pledge could be valid?
It seems clear from the story that Yiftach never intended for the first “item” to leave his house to be sanctified retroactively, or even to be automatically sanctified from the time of emerging from the house.
Otherwise, he would not have been able to give her 2 months of freedom!
It appears more likely that his was simply a vow that he would later apply a status change to whatever item left his house first.
As such, there is no need to apply ברירה in order to make the status change valid.
He would simply be bound by his initial vow to LATER bring about that status change by declaring that “item” הקדש .
Seeing as the status change itself is not based on anything he said at the time when the item was undetermined, but on his later keeping his vow and sanctifying the item AFTER it had been determined, there is no issue of ברירה at all.
In order to test this theory, a thorough study of all the different sugyas relating to ברירה is necessary, something we will hopefully have a chance to do as we progress through the daf yomi cycle!
These posts are intended to raise issues and stimulate further research and discussion on contemporary topics related to the daf. They are not intended as psak halacha.