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I am trying to understand the opinion of Rabbi Meir in the Mishna, Nedarim 9:3-4. If you are already familiar with Masekhet Nedarim, you can skip to the fourth paragraph of my question. If not, the following two paragraphs constitute an introduction to this issue:

The first of those two mishnayot concerns the nolad. This is a situation that was not present at the time the person made a vow, the presence of which would have caused him not to make it, but one which later becomes manifest. According to Rabbi Eliezer in Nedarim 9:2, we can annul a vow on the basis of a nolad. In one of the examples that he gives, if a person were to vow never to enter a particular building, and if that building were later to be made into a synagogue, the fact that he would not have made the vow had he known that it were going to become a synagogue means that (according to Rabbi Eliezer) the vow can be retroactively annulled. The sages disagree, since the building was not actually a synagogue at the time of the vow.

In mishna 9:3, Rabbi Meir declares that there are some things that are like a nolad without actually being a nolad at all. In the examples that he brings, it appears that the reason they are not really noladim lies in the fact that the one making the vow stipulates a reason explicitly; what makes them look like noladim is the fact that the reason later becomes untrue. By stipulating the reason, it is as though he is placing a condition on the vow, and since the condition is no longer existent the vow is invalid. For example, if he declares that he will not marry a certain woman because her father is wicked, and her father subsequently dies, Rabbi Meir permits his marrying the woman since his phrasing of the vow made the reason look like a condition that needed to be met for the vow to be in effect.

The phraseology of mishna 9:3 is such that it would suggest that Rabbi Meir agrees with the sages: one cannot annul a vow if the reason for its annulment is a [true] nolad. Where he disagrees with them here (if indeed he does; there are different girsaot) is in suggesting that this particular situation is permissible because it's not really a nolad; it merely looks like one.

Once we have established that Rabbi Meir agrees that one cannot retroactively annul a vow because of a nolad, how do we explain Nedarim 9:4? In this mishna, Rabbi Meir permits one to retroactively annul a vow that concerns a person's relationship with another Jew, by asking whether or not they would have made the vow if they had known that this other person might become poor and be unable to support himself without access to the vower's wealth. The wording is שמא יעני ואין אתה יכול לפרנסו; "perhaps he will become poor and you will be unable to support him". The man's response (אלו הייתי יודע שהוא כן לא הייתי נודר; "had I known that he [could become] this, I would not have vowed") is very similar to the wording used by Rabbi Eliezer in mishna 2 (אלו הייתי יודע שהוא נעשה בית הכנסת לא הייתי נודר; "had I known that it could become a synagogue, I would not have made the vow").

How is it possible to understand Rabbi Meir's opinion in Nedarim 9:4 as not concerning the annulment of a vow on the basis of a nolad (in this case, that the man might become poor)? And if it is impossible to do so, how is it possible to understand Rabbi Meir's opinion in Nedarim 9:3 as permitting such a thing?

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The phraseology in Mishna 3 seems to indicate that the Chachamim agree with Rebbi Meir and not the other way around. It could be that Rebbi Meir holds of being matir a neder with nolad, and that the chachamim disagree, but they agree with him in being matir a neder in a case where it is "כנולד". Thoughts? – Adam Simon May 3 '13 at 9:29
There are different girsaot. My version (Kehati) has them disagreeing, but Kehati does bring others in which they agree. – Shimon bM May 3 '13 at 10:47
This is a really well-asked question. Thank you for explaining the issue so well, and also for giving people already familiar with the background clear navigation past it! – Monica Cellio May 3 '13 at 15:49
I'm going to have to get up and get some actual books :) – Adam Simon May 3 '13 at 18:20
The girsa in the Vilna Shas has the Chachamim disagreeing with Rebbi Meir. But I don't think it is relevant. See my answer. – Adam Simon May 3 '13 at 18:29
up vote 1 down vote accepted

It seems that the dispute between the sages and Rebbi Eliezer is not surrounding whether one can be release from a vow based on nolad, but rather surrounds the specific cases listed in the Mishna, which occur infrequently (see Ran 64b).

The sages would allow the release of a vow based on nolad so long as the case was one which occurs frequently, but will not allow the release of a vow based on a case of nolad which occurs infrequently, whereas Rabbi Meir would allow the release in an infrequent case.

So to answer your question, when the Mishna says "nolad" it is lav davka (not being precise) and in actuality the sages, Rebbi Meir and Rebbi Eliezer all agree that you can release a vow based on nolad. The dispute in the Mishna is only regarding an infrequent case.

It is also worth noting the distinction between "opening" a vow (ie. a sages makes a declaration that the person is released from his oath) and annulling the vow (ie. in a case of an oath made in error where it is as if there was no vow to begin with and it becomes void automatically without coming before a sage).

According to some Rishonim (notably Rambam) it would seems that in Nedarim 9:3 Rebbi Meir claims that there are some cases which resemble nolad but are in fact cases of oaths made in error and therefore would be annulled automatically, whereas in Nedarim 9:4 Rebbi Meir says that we can "open" (ie. a sage could release the vow based on the follow, but not that it happens automatically) a vow that concerns a person's relationship with another Jew, by asking whether or not they would have made the vow if they had known that this other person might become poor and be unable to support himself without access to the vower's wealth.

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Thank you, Adam! That distinction between annulling and "opening" is precisely what I needed. – Shimon bM May 4 '13 at 2:48

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