Not To Treat Oaths Lightly

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Matot

Double parsha all over the world this week, so two brief mitzvot. For Matot, we have Rambam’s Prohibition 157, based on Bamidbar 30;3, lo yachel devaro, he shall not break his word. The verse is discussing a neder, a vow, meaning the “word” a Jew may not break does not have to be formalized with any kind of swearing.

Rather, the Jew might say: should happen, this fruit will be prohibited to me. Or without a condition, benefit from this person or item is prohibited to me like a sacrifice. It is then a neder, and not keeping it violates this prohibition.

Not to Violate One’s Neder Word

Minchat Chinukh 407 points out a debate among rishonim that might seem semantic but I think gets at the nature of vows. Some held that the declaration “I am making this prohibited to myself with a vow” is the essential form of a vow, just that the Torah gave the option of using a simile, of saying “like a sacrifice.” Should one choose to invoke the simile, it must be a davar ha-nadur, the item to which the person attaches this new neder must be one whose prohibition is created by a human commitment, like a sacrifice, rather than by God, such as pig.

Other rishonim understood hatfasa, declaring this item to have the prohibition of some other item, to be the way to create a neder. [In that version, I think, nedarim are a sort of extension of the ability to dedicate items to the Temple service. Just as the Torah allowed for human-manufactured prohibitions there, the Torah here tells us we can do the same in other areas]. Still, this side agrees a vow can be created with the words “I make this prohibited with a vow,” because of an idea called yad, expressions close enough to an idea being referenced count as that itself. Here, the statement doesn’t create the neder, it makes it clear enough the person wants to make a neder for it to also have the desired effect.

Vows and Sacrifices, Not General Commitments

Sifrei holds a Jew might transgress this prohibition along with Devarim 23;22’s bal te-acher, a warning against tardy fulfillment of a vow. Rambam takes Sifrei to teach us our rule applies to promises to bring a sacrifice as well as to regular vows. (Ramban does not comment here, but in Obligation 94, the obligation to fulfill what we promise, Rambam again groups the promise of sacrifices with others, such as to give charity. There, Ramban disagrees, says they should count separately; because this is a double parsha, I’m only doing this prohibition, not that obligation. Sefer HaChinukh 407 calls our attention to that Ramban, says Ramban thought this prohibition, too, should be split into two).

Rambam’s first words about the mitzvah speak of not going against our word generally, even if we did not swear to it. Perhaps to clarify, Sefer HaChinukh names the mitzvah “not to break our word in nedarim,” and his description of the mitzvah says that in anything other than konamot, like a promise to a friend or a commitment to act a certain way, this prohibition is not in play.

He makes sure to write “although it is ugly, and only those of lesser souls would do so.” Not everything bad is covered by a specific Torah prohibition. Besides, he throws in, the Torah’s adjuration to stay from matters of falsehood, Shemot 23;7, covers this, too.

The Nullification of Vows

Our verse is also the source for an idea I suspect most of us know from its ritualistic version around Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur. Chagiga 10a noticed the verse says he cannot break his word, implying someone else could, either a court of three ordinary Jews or a single expert (derived in Nedarim 78a from the beginning of our parsha, where Moshe addresses roshei ha-matot, the heads of the tribes, outstanding people have special powers in this area). The court or expert shows the person s/he did not understand the vow s/he was making, uprooting it.

This idea works for any kind of sanctified commitment, dedicating an item to the Temple service, a promise to give charity, as long as it has not already been given, it is a sort of promise/vow, amenable to she’elat chakham, asking of a court or Torah scholar. For teruma or challa, it works beyond that.

[I was once asked to sit in when a Torah scholar allowed a woman to retract her designation of challa, of some bread to theoretically go to a kohen, although today we just burn it. It was the second time a Torah scholar I am pretty sure qualifies to have released the vow on his own asked me to be part of a three-member“court.” While a yachid mumcheh can release vows on his own, the practice is not to, just grab two other randoms and make a court of it. At least they thought I was no worse than “ordinary…”]

The Age of Majority

Minchat Chinukh points out two unusual aspects of nedarim in terms of the age of the person taking a vow. Where adulthood comes at age twelve for a girl, thirteen for a boy, for vows it starts a year earlier, a status known as mufla samukh le-ish, as long as the child/adult understands to Whom vows are a commitment. Raavad thinks this might be a rabbinic enactment.

Tosafot think full adulthood for vows, as for other areas of halakha, comes with the advent of physical signs of puberty, and mufla will have been a year before that. Minchat Chinukh is sure Rambam thought age also worked, a twelve/ thirteen year old’s vow took effect regardless of physical development, even if the now-adult does not yet understand Who oversees vows.

The Right Kind Only, Please

Arukh HaShulchan Yoreh De’ah 203;1 wonders about tradition’s conflicting indications about this mitzvah. He points out how the Torah allows what it usually prohibits. If a Jew says, “I legislate a new mitzvah, that I may not apricots for the next thirty days,” s/he violates bal tosif, adding to the Torah. Same Jew, same idea, stated as a neder? It’s fine, even a mitzvah or two.

Paragraphs four and five raise a starker problem, the contrast between the Torah’s allowing the practice and the Gemara’s general distaste for it. Yerushalmi Nedarim at the beginning of chapter nine rhetorically asks, what God prohibited wasn’t enough, you had to add more?

A Mishnah on Nedarim 9a says the formula “like the vows of evildoers” creates a vow, because only evildoers enter into vows, and 22a says one who fulfills a vow when there was a way for a court to nullify it sins in doing so. There, too, the Gemara characterizes taking a vow as like building a bama, an illegitimate altar outside the Temple, and fulfilling the vow is similar to offering a sacrifice on said altar, the person in both cases thinking s/he is serving God well with this alternate worship.

But then why allow for vows at all? In paragraph five, Arukh HaShulchan gives us the other side, vows can help a person shape his/her character the right way, help Jews stay away from wrong actions for which they have a particular weakness [I once knew someone who would eat meat to stop themselves from gorging on dairy snacks; while that felt like a misuse of the system, Arukh HaShulchan is suggesting vows can do that to help us avoid sin. His examples include excessive meat consumption and/or drunkenness.

Vows: a possible help in shaping our best selves, with a prohibition against breaking them, unless released by a Torah scholar or court.

About Gidon Rothstein

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