Vort from the Rav: Matos

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Numbers 30:3

אִישׁ כִּי יִדֹּר נֶדֶר להֹ’ אוֹ הִשָּׁבַע שְׁבֻעָה
If a man makes a vow to the Lord or makes an oath

On the verse and He breathed into his nostrils the soul of life (Gen. 2:7), Nachmanides comments, This verse alludes to the greatness of the soul…This corresponds to the saying of the Rabbis in the Sifri: “Vows [nedarim] are like swearing ‘by the life of the King’;oaths [shevuos] are like swearing ‘by the King Himself.’”Incongruously, while explaining the metaphysical concept of man’s soul, Nachmanides introduces the legal concepts of neder and shevuah.

To understand this passage, one must distinguish between the two. The essence of the dichotomy rests on understanding the precise halachic basis through which a person can prohibit his own use of, or benefit from, an object whose use would otherwise be permissible.

Neder is a formulation that applies to the object being prohibited, an issur cheftza. The typical formula for a neder is, for example: “This chair shall be prohibited to me just as a sacrifice.” The halachic mechanism that renders a neder effective rests on man’s ability to link the object he wishes to prohibit upon himself with an object that already carries a powerful ban on its use—a sacrifice.

A sacrifice is dedicated entirely to God, with man restricted from gaining any benefit from it until
the sacrifice is offered. This linkage is known in halachic parlance as hatfasah. For this reason, when introducing the laws of nedarim in this verse, the Torah uses the term Neder LaShem, similar to the formula for setting aside a sacrifice (Korban LaShem)
In contrast to neder, shevuah involves what is known as an issur gavra, a prohibition that is
dependent on the person himself. A person has the power to prohibit an action upon himself, the formulation’s emphasis being not on an object becoming prohibited, but on a prohibited action.
The formula of shevuah can be, for example: “I will not go, I will not speak, I will not read, I will not give…” A shevuah requires no hatfasah, no association with an already prohibited object in order
to become effective. This issur gavra specifically associated with shevuah is derived from the phrase
makes an oath to impose a prohibition upon himself.

Now we can begin to understand Nachmanides’ enigmatic statement. Vows are like swearing by the life of the King. The “life of the King” refers to God’s revelation through creation. Nedarim take effect through man prohibiting upon himself any object that God has created. Since man has no right to prohibit any item in God’s creation on his own, it can be done only through the mechanism of hatfasah, linkage of the object to something already proscribed. By contrast, oaths are like swearing by the King Himself. Since man is created in God’s image, he has the ability through the shevuah formulation to act as an agent of God and accept prohibitions without hatfasah. Man has permission to accept upon himself such prohibitions “by the King Himself,” via man’s own tzelem Elokim, without any hatfasah mechanism. For this reason, halachah mandates that the shevuah formula must contain God’s name (Shevuot 38b). When a Jew swears, he does so on the name of God, in whose image he
was created.
(Derashot Harav, pp. 66-68; Mipeninei Harav, p. 404)

About Arnold Lustiger

Dr. Arnold Lustiger is a research scientist and has edited multiple volumes of the Rav's Torah, including the recently published Chumash Mesoras HaRav.

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