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Reprinted with permission from the entry “Vows” in Louis Jacobs, The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.
The basic text regarding the taking of vows is: “When a man voweth a vow unto the Lord, or sweareth an oath to bind his soul with a bond, he shall not break his word; he shall do according to all that proceedeth out of his mouth” (Numbers 30:3). In the traditional understanding of this verse, the reference is to a vow or an oath to refrain from some enjoyment as a sacrifice to God. (The term “oath” is also used to refer to oaths taken in a court of law, but both vows and oaths in this text denote only personal declarations of a religious nature.)
According to the Rabbis, the vow refers to the object, the oath to the person. For instance, a man may place a ban on wine for a given period, perhaps as a means of controlling his drinking habits that seem to be getting out of control. This ban on the object, the wine, is said to constitute a vow. If, on the other hand, he swears that he will not drink wine, this constitutes an oath. In both instances for the man to break his word is a religious rather than an ethical offense. The idea behind it all is that the man has given to God his word, which he must not break. It is only a verbal declaration that constitutes a vow. A vow “taken in the heart,” as the Rabbis call it, a mental resolve, has no binding force.
The talmudic rabbis are divided on whether the taking of vows and oaths in desirable; some of them see no harm in the practice, others frown on it even when the promise is in a good cause, a promise to give to charity for example. The general tendency is to frown in principle on vow-taking but to leave room for a personal decision as to whether the circumstances demand it. For instance, if a man promises to study a portion of Torah in order not to surrender to indolence in his studies this, while not ideal, would be tolerated and perhaps even advocated. A whole tractate of the Talmud, tractate Nedarim, is devoted to the subject of vows.
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