QUESTION: Rebbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish disagree about the definition of Kinuyim. Rebbi Yochanan maintains that Kinuyim are words that mean "Neder" in foreign languages. Reish Lakish maintains that Kinuyim are words the Chachamim invented to use for making Nedarim.
The Mishnayos in Sotah list all of the Halachos which must be fulfilled with Lashon ha'Kodesh (Hebrew) and which are invalid with any other language. Nedarim and Shevu'os are not included in the list because no verse in the Torah says that they take effect only in Lashon ha'Kodesh. Since any language may be used for making a Neder, why does the Mishnah here mention that these three specific Kinuyim ("Konam, Konach, Konas") may be used? According to Rebbi Yochanan, the Mishnah should say simply that a Neder may be made in any foreign language!
Moreover, since Reish Lakish must agree that a Neder may be made in a foreign language, there seems to be no argument between Rebbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish with regard to the Halachah; they disagree only about the source for the words mentioned in the Mishnah. Both agree that the word "Konam," or any word that means "Neder" in any language, may be used to make a Neder. Why, then, does the RAN (beginning of 10b) find it necessary to state that the Halachah follows the view of Rebbi Yochanan, who says that Kinuyim are words in foreign languages, if there is no practical difference between Rebbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish?
(According to the Rishonim who explain that according to Reish Lakish, a Neder made with a Kinuy is a Neder mid'Rabanan and not a Neder mid'Oraisa (see RABEINU YECHIEL cited by Tosfos, 3a), the obvious practical difference between Rebbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish is whether the Neder takes effect mid'Oraisa or only mid'Rabanan. However, the Ran himself (2a) explains that even according to Reish Lakish, a Neder made with a Kinuy is a Neder mid'Oraisa, because "a language invented by the Chachamim is no less than any foreign language." Why, then, does the Ran rule like Rebbi Yochanan if there is no practical difference?)
(a) The RAN (2a, in the name of RABEINU YEHUDAH B'REBBI CHASDA'I) explains that even according to Rebbi Yochanan, the words "Konam" and "Konach" are not formal words in any foreign language. Rather, they are colloquialized versions of words taken from Hebrew, which evolved when various nations adopted Hebrew words to express the concept of Neder, but they mispronounced those words and said "Konam" or "Konach" instead of "Korban." Since those words are not an actual part of a foreign language, perhaps they should not work to create a Neder -- they are neither authentic words in a foreign language nor the original Hebrew words. Rebbi Yochanan teaches that once the foreigners adopted these words, even though they mispronounce them they are acceptable expressions for making a Neder in a foreign language. This is why the Mishnah mentions only these words (which sound similar to the original Hebrew version) according to Rebbi Yochanan.
It is possible that Reish Lakish argues with Rebbi Yochanan and does not consider distorted pronunciations of borrowed words to be valid phrases for a Neder. Rather, he says that these are words created by the Chachamim.
This explains why the Ran rules like Rebbi Yochanan. Only Rebbi Yochanan maintains that a word taken from Hebrew and corrupted by the foreign nations is valid for a Neder, but not Reish Lakish.
(b) The RAMBAM (Hilchos Nedarim 1:16), who rules like Rebbi Yochanan, explains that Kinuyim are words used by unsophisticated people who mispronounce the words of their own language. He rules that although the Neder they make is meaningless to someone who speaks the language properly, if -- in their particular region and time period -- the mispronunciation is understood, it creates a valid Neder. (According to the Rambam, when Rebbi Yochanan says that Kinuyim are "Lashon Umos," he means that they are the "language of unsophisticated people" and not that they are "foreign languages." The Kinuyim mentioned in the Mishnah are actually Hebrew words spoken by Hebrew speakers who do not speak the language well.)
According to the Rambam, it is possible that Reish Lakish disagrees and maintains that a mispronounced term is not considered speech, even in a place where such a mispronounced word is understood. The Rambam rules like Rebbi Yochanan that such a word does create a Neder.
(c) TOSFOS (2a) explains that according to Rebbi Yochanan, the Mishnah singles out these particular Kinuyim because, normally, words in a foreign language may be used to make a Neder only when the person who makes the Neder understands that language. The words listed in the Mishnah, however, may be used to create a Neder even when the person who utters them does not know what they mean (as long as he understands that he is making a Neder with these words; Tosfos Yeshanim 10b). Why, though, should these words be different from words of any other language? (RASHBA and SHITAH MEKUBETZES; see KEREN ORAH and TOSFOS YOM TOV here and in the beginning of Nazir.)
Some explain that Tosfos rules that Lashon ha'Kodesh differs from other languages in that Lashon ha'Kodesh is a language inherently -- the words themselves have intrinsic meaning beyond the objects they represent, and it is not simply a language by consensus like every other language. Hence, when a person utters words in Lashon ha'Kodesh, they have meaning and significance even if he does not understand them. In contrast, words of foreign languages have meaning only when the speaker understands them. The Kinuyim listed in the Mishnah are so similar to Lashon ha'Kodesh that they clearly were adopted by other nations from Lashon ha'Kodesh, as the Ran says, and therefore they retain the inherent power of words of Lashon ha'Kodesh.
However, this assumption -- that a term which has been altered from its original form in Lashon ha'Kodesh still retains the unique status of Lashon ha'Kodesh -- is questionable. Moreover, Tosfos makes no mention of how Lashon ha'Kodesh is different from other languages in this regard.
It appears instead that Tosfos intends to say, like the TOSFOS YESHANIM (10b), that words of any language which is spoken locally can create a Neder even if the person who speaks it does not understand what the word means (as long as he understands that he is making a Neder). The words listed in the Mishnah are spoken in Eretz Yisrael in areas where those languages are spoken, and therefore they may be used to make a Neder even if the person using them does not understand them. Words of other languages, which are not spoken locally, must be understood in order to make a Neder.
This is the opinion of the RITVA (2a). (See also TOSFOS to Bava Basra 164b, DH Hina.)
According to these Rishonim, it is possible that Reish Lakish maintains that even in a place where the language is spoken, the Neder takes effect only if the person speaking understands the language. Rebbi Yochanan, on the other hand, maintains that the Neder takes effect even when the person does not understand the language, as long as it is commonly spoken in that place. Both Reish Lakish and Rebbi Yochanan agree, however, that a language which is not spoken locally is still a valid language for making a Neder as long as the speaker understands what he is saying. The SHITAH MEKUBETZES in the name of the RE'EM also makes this point.
The RITVA also differentiates between a language spoken locally and one not spoken locally. However, he writes that a language not spoken locally cannot be used as a Neder at all; he does not say that it may be used if the speaker understands it. According to the Ritva, the practical difference between Reish Lakish and Rebbi Yochanan is that according to Reish Lakish, the Kinuyim mentioned in the Mishnah may be used even where they are not spoken locally, since the Chachamim established that they may be used.
Based on the Ritva, the BI'UR HALACHAH (OC 62) rules that both conditions are necessary when one makes a Neder in a foreign language: words in a foreign language are effective for Nedarim only in the place where that language is spoken locally, and only for a person who understands what he is saying. Other Rishonim, however, apparently maintain that either condition suffices -- either that the speaker understands what he is saying, or that he is in a place where that language is spoken locally.
It is possible that the Ritva does not argue with the other Rishonim, and he agrees that a language not spoken locally is effective when the speaker understands what he is saying. When the Ritva says that Rebbi Yochanan maintains that Kinuyim are effective only in a place where they are spoken locally, he refers to a situation in which the speaker does not understand what he is saying. The reason he discusses such a situation -- where the speaker does not understand the words -- is that Rebbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish would not argue about a case in which the person does understand the words; they would both agree that Kinuyim may be used even in a place where that language is not spoken. The argument between Rebbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish is only in a case in which a person uses these words in a place where the language is not commonly spoken (it is a secondary language in that place) and he does not understand what they mean.