The Threshold of Understanding
Rebbi said, “An extra measure of ‘bina’ was given to her.”
series of mishnayot in our perek teach halachot in order of the ascending age of a person. The mishna on our daf informs us how to determine whether a young person has the required maturity for a neder to be binding (A neder is a vow that forbids something to the person making the vow.) In determining the validity of a neder it is of primary importance to determine whether the person understands the meaning of the vow and to Whom the vow is being made.
What is the minimum age requirement for a neder?
At first thought we might be inclined to guess the minimum age to be bar/bat mitzvah — the age when a minor becomes an adult. At this age we presume the person to have reached not only physical maturity, but also cognitive maturity. However, our Sages teach us otherwise. The section in the Torah about nedarim states, “When a person makes a vow to
In our mishna we see the onset of “the season of vows” begins for a girl at the age of 11 years, and for a boy at age 12. When a vow is made by a girl between ages 11-12 or by a boy from 12-13, we check to see if the vower has the understanding required for the vow to be valid. However, once the girl becomes 12 or the boy 13, the vows are de facto valid.
The gemara cites a beraita to point out that our mishna, which teaches an earlier age for the vows of a girl than for a boy, is the teaching of Rebbie, but is the mirror opposite of Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar’s view. Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar teaches that a boy can make a valid vow beginning at age 11, and a girl can do so only a year later, at age 12. Tosefot offers proofs that the halacha is according to Rebbie (see the commentary of the Rashash, who ponders theproofs, since our case is “a stam (unnamed) mishna followed by a dispute in a beraita, in which case the rule is that the halacha is in accordance with what is taught in the stam mishna.”)
The Rambam offers a fascinating reason as explanation for the younger age of maturity for a woman. In his work call Peirush Hamishnayot he writes: “The age for a woman is earlier since women, in most cases, have a shorter lifespan than men.” These words call out, “Explain me!” What is the connection between maturity and life expectancy, and what would we say nowadays when women outlive men in general (perhaps due to a dramatic increase in medical advances related to pregnancy and childbirth)?
I once heard the following answer to these questions, which is based in part on an idea from Rabbeinu Asher. According to the Rambam, she was given the necessary bina at an earlier age, just as she physically matures at an earlier age, in order to “compensate” for her shorter lifespan. The idea of “extra bina” is that she has more bina than a man her age. In addition, although life expectancies may change with time, there is a teaching that during the era known as “2,000 years of Torah,” the parameters of Torah halacha were fixed, and later changes in the natural world — such as average lifetimes — do not affect the established halacha.
There is another aspect of the “extra bina” given to women as it relates to a beracha said by many women daily, “Baruch Ata Hashem… she’ashani kir’tzono,” a blessing to Hashem “Who made me according to His will.” I heard from Rav Moshe Shapiro zatzal that the wording of this beracha is in reference to the unique challenge, opportunity and blessing that a woman has as the only gender able to bring new life into this world (at least in the meantime). He pointed out that, since the stages of childbearing and childbirth are prone to be uncomfortable, painful and dangerous, it would be quite “sad” and not “Hashem-like” for a woman to not have an intrinsic desire to have children. It would literally be torture, physically and emotionally. Therefore, Hashem made Woman in a way that her will is aligned with His will, desiring to have children.
- Nidah 45b