The following article is reprinted with permission from Kolel: The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning.
Parashat Mattot begins with a detailed presentation of the laws pertaining to vows and oaths. Next, Moses is instructed to "take revenge" against the Midianites, and there is a long report on Israel’s terrible battle against Midian. In the aftermath of the war, Moses reminds the soldiers about tumah–the laws of ritual impurity–and deals with the division of booty between the soldiers, community, and the Mishkan (Tabernacle). Next, Moses is approached by the tribes of Reuven and Gad, asking to be apportioned some land on the east side of the Jordan River. At first, Moses is annoyed by this request, but he then relents as long as they agree to continue to fight with the rest of Israel to conquer the land of Israel.
If a man makes a vow to the Eternal or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips (Numbers 30:3).
This seems pretty straightforward: If you make a promise, you must keep it. However, the text uses two very different terms here to make its point. Neder, translated as "vow," is generally used to represent a promise to do something ("I vow to give $1000 to tzedakah"). Shevu’ah, on the other hand, is generally translated as "oath," implying a promise to abstain from doing something ("I swear to stop smoking"). In each case, as soon as it is uttered, the promise is considered binding. A man must carry through what ever he states. And the text does refer to men here.
The passage continues to discuss what happens when a woman makes a vow or an oath. In that case, an unmarried woman’s father or a married woman’s husband can annul her vow if they object to it as soon as they hear about it. If they do not object, then it is binding as stated, just as with a man.
The Torah considers oaths and vows to be serious business. As our passage stipulates, this is especially true since an oath or vow is a pledge to God. As it states in Ecclesiastes 5:4, "It is better that you should not vow, than that you should vow and fail to fulfill." The Rabbis also took oaths as a matter of great concern. An entire tractate of the Talmud, called Nedarim, is devoted to the discussion of oaths and the implications of making oaths.
Vows are taken so seriously because in the Bible no provision is made for them to be absolved. In the passage above, which comprises the heart of the Torah’s teachings about vows, only vows made by a woman can be revoked. In that case, it is the father of an unmarried woman or the husband of a married woman who can annul the stated vow; the woman herself cannot. Therefore, anyone, male or female, who swears an oath or a vow must be fully prepared to go through with their pledge.
However, vows are not considered bad, just serious. We have many examples of approval of vows undertaken by Biblical characters, such as the vow of Jacob at Beth El (Genesis 31:13). Even the Brit itself–the Covenant between God and Israel–is considered a form of vow. The Torah does not even seem to consider that one would make a pledge to God and then default on it. This is especially true since vows are undertaken voluntarily; one is never obligated to make a vow or an oath.
However, by the time of the later Biblical books and certainly by the time of the rabbinic literature, there seems to have developed a problem with people defaulting on oaths. We see two new trends developing. First, people are discouraged from making any vows in general. Second, provisions are developed for the dissolution of certain vows that are made. There is, however, little agreement on these issues.
In the Talmud, (Tractate Hullin 2a) Rabbi Judah states, "better is he who vows and pays," while Rabbi Meir states, "better is he who does not vow at all." In the Midrash (Leviticus Rabbah 37:1), it states, "he who vows and pays receives the reward for both his vow and its fulfillment" while in another part of the Talmud (BT Tractate Nedarim 77b) Samuel (the Sage, not the Prophet) is recorded as saying, "even when one fulfills his vow he is called wicked." The Sages even went so far as to say that the punishment for taking a vow of any kind is that one’s children will die young (BT Shabbat 32b).
The rabbis performed elaborate legal gymnastics to provide for the absolution of vows, called hattarat nedarim, which means "release from vows." The results of these efforts include the Kol Nidrei chanted on Erev Yom Kippur and other formulas for the nullification of vows stated under coercion or distress. But, in the end they admitted, "the rules about the absolution of vows hover in the air and have nothing to support them" (Tractate Hagigah 1:8).
So we know that we should avoid vows if possible, but we still don’t know why. What is so bad about a vow? Well, Rashi, in his commentary on this passage, notes that the word for "break"–yakhel–is etymologically related to yekhallel–meaning to secularize or make ordinary. Expanding on this idea, the Gerer Rebbe, Yehudah Aryeh Leib, suggested that from this linguistic link we may infer that the power of the spoken word is holy.
To break a pledge is to take something that is sacred and make it secular, or even profane. We are to guard our words carefully, always being aware of their power. If we are to be holy, then we must keep our words holy. One way to do that, our tradition suggests, is to avoid making vows.
To swear is a serious sin, even if one intends to uphold what one has sworn. King Yannai had one thousand cities, and all were destroyed because their inhabitants continually swore, even on true things. This occurred because they mentioned God’s name for no reason. How much worse, then, is it when one swears falsely; he shall most certainly be punished!
But if a person makes a vow because he is afraid lest his evil inclination dissuade him from a righteous action, that is permitted. In fact, God ordered that one should make a vow in the case where a person went on an evil path, and a vow will rein him in, to ensure that he no longer returns to that way. As King David said: "I have sworn, and shall fulfill, to heed Your righteous judgments" (Psalm 199:106). We see from this that it is permissible to swear in order to fulfill the commandments. (Tze’enah Ur’enah)
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