by R. Gil Student
I. Aliyah in Response to Crisis
We learn from Ya’akov that the common response to danger, to plead with God, is proper. People promise to become better if they or their loved ones survive the crisis. They genuinely grow in religious devotion. Sometimes this growth lasts and sometimes it disappears as life returns to normal. If this religious growth is temporary, does it have any value? To answer that, we can look to a major debate about the laws of vows.
The Bible (Ecc. 5:5) says “It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay.” The Gemara (Chullin 2a) says that the best is not to vow at all. You can avoid even the possibility of failing to fulfill a neder by not taking a vow at all. Tosafos (Chullin 2b, s.v. aval) point out that Ya’akov, when leaving his parents’ home for a distant place, took a neder in order to secure divine protection: “And Ya’akov vowed a vow, saying, If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and clothing to wear so that I return to my father’s house in peace…” (Gen. 28:20-21). The midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 70:1) generalizes from this action that it is a mitzvah to take a neder. Tosafos explain that while it is normally improper to make a neder, a time of distress is different. The proper response to a crisis, a mitzvah, is to take a vow of religious behavior.
Today, we see a surprising number of people making aliyah, moving to Israel, during a time of war. They are profoundly moved by the tragic attacks and the subsequent war to rise to a new level of connection to God and the Jewish people. This is not a new phenomenon. We see in Renaissance times that people would vow to make aliyah in response to crisis. The question then arose whether, after the crisis passed, they have to fulfill their vows.
II. Undoing a Vow
Rav Yehudah Mintz (15th cen., Italy) was asked by someone who vowed during a time of crisis to make aliyah but afterwards regretted the neder. Rav Mintz permitted the neder based on what he observed from his teachers. However, he subsequently sent the question to his cousin and his mechutan, Rav Moshe (Maharam) Mintz of Poland and Rav Yosef Kolon (Maharik) of Italy, respectively.
Maharam Mintz (Responsa, no. 79) agrees with the permission while Maharik (New Responsa, no. 6) disagrees (Rav Yehudah Mintz’s question is in the recent edition of his responsa, no. 18, and Maharik’s new volume of responsa, no. 5). On this issue, the two Rabbi Mintz cousins seem to be in the minority, although their reasoning is fascinating. Maharam Mintz’s responsum is one of the main sources from which we know that Rav Yehudah Ha-Chasid (13th cen., Germany) said that it is dangerous to permit a neder taken during a time of distress. Maharam Mintz sees from this that there is no technical prohibition in permitting such a neder. It just falls under a mystical danger, like many other proclamations by R. Yehudah Ha-Chasid. Maharam Mintz says that just like those other warnings of R. Yehudah Ha-Chasid, they are not binding, especially for people who are not concerned with them. He uses the language of the Gemara (Pesachim 109b) about the danger of drinking an even number of cups, which apparently invokes demons, that those who are not concerned with the danger do not have to worry about this. Similarly, Maharam Mintz says that those who are not concerned with the danger of permitting a neder taken during a time of distress need not worry. Rav Moshe Sofer (Responsa Chasam Sofer, Even Ha-Ezer 1:116) and Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggeros Moshe, Even Ha-Ezer 1:4) use the same approach regarding marrying a spouse with the same name as your parent. Those who are not concerned with the danger do not have to worry.
Maharik says that the custom is not to permit a neder made during a time of distress. He explains this custom based on the rule that you can only permit a neder regarding someone else in his presence (Nedarim 65b). The subject of the neder must consent to its dissolution. A neder made in a time of distress is a promise to God. It is as if you are making a deal with God to save you or your loved one in exchange for this religious stringency. While, of course, everything is in the presence of God, you cannot permit such a neder without divine consent. Absent a bas kol, we do not have divine consent to permit such a neder. Maharik’s contemporary, Rav Yisrael (Mahari) Bruna (15th cen., Germany; Responsa, no. 77) agrees with Maharik that a neder made in a time of distress cannot be permitted. Another contemporary of theirs, Rav Binyamin Ze’ev (15th cen., Greece; Responsa, no. 266), follows the same approach but allows a rabbi to permit such a neder when there is a mitzvah need. Significantly, Rav Moshe Isserles (Rema, 16th cen., Poland; Gloss to Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 228:45; Responsa, no. 103) rules like Rav Binyamin Ze’ev.
III. Is This a Vow?
Rav Yehudah Mintz’s grandson-in-law and successor, Rav Meir Katzenellenbogen (Maharam Padua, 16th cen., Italy; Responsa, no. 72), agrees that the general practice is not to permit a neder made during a crisis. However, he suggests that perhaps a neder to make aliyah is not binding at all. After all, a neder is about an object while a shevu’ah is about an action. You can take a neder that all the fruits in the world are forbidden to you if you do not make aliyah. But a neder that you will make aliyah is actually a shevu’ah, which does not apply to mitzvos. Therefore, suggests Maharam Padua, perhaps the neder is null and void. However, because he seems to be a minority in making such an argument, he defers to others but he is willing to permit a neder made during a time of distress if the individual is incapable of fulfilling it due to issues beyond his control.
Maharam Padua’s contemporary, Rav Levi Ibn Chaviv (Ralbach, 16th cen., Israel; Responsa, no. 3), also raises Maharam Padua’s point that technically this is not a neder. He quotes the Rosh and Ran who say that since it is common for people to make a neder with the language of a shevu’ah, we should be strict for them so they take nedarim seriously (see also Shakh, Yoreh De’ah 206:2). On the main question, Ralbach distinguishes between someone who during a crisis makes an explicit deal that if God saves him or a loved one, then he will fulfill this neder. In such a case, a person would be mocking God by going back on his word. But if he made the neder without any condition, just during a time of distress, then it is treated like any other neder that can be permitted.
The consensus and normative practice requires someone to hold to his commitments made during a time of crisis. Maharam Mintz says something surprising but powerful. Even if you do not fulfill your end of the bargain, assuming you do so with rabbinic permission, the very fact that you turn to God in your time of distress is itself a sign of religious growth. In times of need, we find strength in our faith. Indeed, everyone may agree that the very act of making the promise is the point and the fulfillment is merely a detail. The only debate is whether you may later undo that vow, with rabbinic permission.