The Prohibition of Bal Yachel
The Torah, (Bamidbar 30:3) describes the violation of a neder as a defilement of a halakhic declaration: “lo yachel devaro.” If the violation of a neder occurs through activity (i.e., a person “prohibited” an item through a neder and then actively drew benefit from the banned item), malkot are administered. Is the problem of bal yachel then, primarily a prohibition of defiling a previous commitment?
This question is pivoted on a famous debate surrounding a scenario in which there is difference between the author of the original neder and the active violator of the neder. If Reuven bans Shimon from benefit of his item and Shimon partakes, who violates bal yachel? The Rambam (Hilkhot Nedarim 10:12-13) claims that the author of the neder violates the prohibition and is even liable for malkot if he plays an active role in the transgression, such as feeding the second party. This confirms the notion that the issur consists of “defiled” declarations. As the author of the declaration, one is liable when that commitment is broken, even if it was not through his own primary action.
By contrast, many other Rishonim (cited by the Ran, Nedarim 15) claim that the second party is guilty, since that second party drew benefit from the prohibited item. Evidently, in their view, the violation of bal yachel is not primarily a defilement of a declaration, but rather defined as partaking of prohibited items. Although the Torah articulates the prohibition through a term that connotes violation of speech, the core of the prohibition consists of partaking of a “personally” banned item. A neder, in particular affects the halakhic status of the item, creating an "issur cheftza" (an item that is inherently prohibited); partaking of such an item violates bal yachel. Consequently, the partaker – and not the author of the declaration – is in violation.
This fundamental question regarding the nature of bal yachel affects multiple details surrounding the prohibition. Would bal yachel apply to a banned item that was not verbally prohibited? If bal yachel consists of violating a declaration, perhaps it should not apply in such a case. If, however, bal yachel entails partaking of a forbidden item, perhaps it should. A rare application of this question surrounds a nazir who verbally declares abstinence from wine. As stated in a different shiur, the nature of nezirut determines that one who makes such an oath is transformed into a complete nazir, who is prohibited not only from drinking wine, but also from contacting tuma and removing hair (at least according to the Rabbanan cited in the mishna, Nazir 3b). The Minchat Chinukh questions whether, in such a case, bal yachel would be violated through tuma contact or hair removal. Even though these are halakhically banned, they were not part of the original verbal declaration. This question spotlights the above stated query surrounding bal yachel. If bal yachel entails violation of a verbal declaration, perhaps the Minchat Chinukh is correct that items forbidden without direct formulation would not yield bal yachel violation.
What about a converse situation, in which violation of a declaration occurs without partaking of a banned item or experience? For example, if a person articulates a neder that he is incapable of fulfilling, has bal yachel been violated? Based upon a peculiar syntax in Nedarim 15, Tosafot (Shavuot 29a, s.v. ba-omer; Gittin 35a, s.v. ve-noderet) claim that this neder is in immediate violation of bal yachel; malkot is administered immediately. For example, if a person takes a neder not to sleep, he violates bal yachel and receives malkot. Then – ironically – he may immediately sleep without further bal yachel violation and without attempting to execute the impossible. Presumably, these positions view bal yachel as a violation of verbal declaration and not of partaking of a banned item or experience. If the latter were true, bal yachel would not be violated until the person actually slept. Since, however, bal yachel entails violation of asserted oaths, it may be instantly violated when stipulated about an impossibility. (This is the approach adopted by R. Elchanan Wasserman, Kovetz He'aros 18:2.)
A parallel case of a neder that does not obligate further adherence but may be in violation of bal yachel presents in an interesting position of the Rambam. The gemara in Nedarim (20b) delineates four “fraudulent” Nedarim that are not accompanied by corresponding intent. For example, a “neder ones” that was articulated to escape illegal persecution, was not taken earnestly and therefore does not mandate compliance. Similarly, a “neder zeruzin” was not taken with sincere intent; a potential guest, having been invited but sensitive not to overburden a host, takes a “flamboyant” neder that he won’t derive benefit from the potential host. Without corresponding intent, the neder is vacant and no compliance is necessary. Amazingly, however, the Rambam comments that although no compliance is demanded, bal yachel has been violated in these cases! This scenario is so peculiar that many claim that is only a Rabbinic violation of bal yachel. If the Rambam does intend a Biblical violation, this case would constitute an additional example of a non-binding neder in violation of bal yachel. This would strongly support the notion that bal yachel entails violation of a verbal declaration, as opposed to failure to comply with the neder's mandate. This neder has no halakhic validity no compliance is necessary and yet since the verbal declaration was immediately untrue, bal yachel has been perpetrated.
Interestingly, this logic would reflect consistency in the Rambam's position that bal yachel entails violation of a verbal oath. As discussed above, the Rambam maintains that the author of an oath violates bal yachel when the person described in the oath partakes of the forbidden item. The author is responsible for the violation of the declaration since it was his statement.
An additional manifestation of bal yachel's nature may be the question of hitztarfut, fusing two different nedarim into one bal yachel violation. A neder banning eating is only violated if a kezayit is consumed. That kezayit can be consumed from one singular neder-banned item, or alternatively may be assembled from particles of different neder-banned items. As the gemara in Shavuot (22a) asserts, “shnei konamot mitztarfin” – two different neder items can combine to produce one kezayit with malkut liability. Presumably, if bal yachel entailed violation of a verbal declaration, the kezayit would only constitute violation if it came from one item. Since different neder items were designated by different verbal oaths, each declaration is independent and self-contained; only a kezayit from each independent item would constitute verbal violation of the original declaration. By contrast, if bal yachel consists of partaking of prohibited items, a kezayit could be aggregated from multiple items, all of which are forbidden under the same rubric of a neder.