Hanging in the Air

Numbers 30.

2. And Moses spoke to the chiefs of the tribes concerning the people of Israel, saying, This is the thing which the Lord has commanded.

3. If a man vows a vow to the Lord, or swears an oath to bind his soul with a bond; he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.

Jewish tradition has consistently emphasized the importance of language and the creative/destructive potential it contains. After all, it is God’s speech which created the world! (Genesis 1)We all know from our personal experiences when the right word made a significant impact and the wrong word spoken or written hurt us badly. It should therefore not surprise us that the Torah commands when you take a vow you must fulfill it. Language and speech are very serious matters and are not to be dismissed easily.

It is therefore all the more striking that the rabbis create a category where vows can be easily dismissed, even to the point of describing the releasing of vows as “hanging in the air” with no scriptural basis to justify or support this conclusion. A somewhat dissenting voice agrees that vows can be released, but is done with some scriptural support. In an almost hyper literal reading of the verse “he shall not break his word,” he shall not break it but others may break it for him and release him from his vow!

Why allow this departure from the plain meaning of the Torah?  Why enable people to break their word?

On the one hand, this might be a great act of compassion.  We often make claims for ourselves in the heat of the moment that are nigh impossible to fulfill. As important as language and speech are, we can easily go overboard and so the rabbis give us an out.

I think there is a deeper message here as well.  “He shall not break his word,” he shall not break it but others may break it for him and release him from his vow” The “others” are critical players here in helping a person release their vows.  I do not live in isolation. An impetuous act affects many more than myself. Whatever I think I impose upon myself is not really the case. It touches others as well, family, friends or the community at large. Perhaps this hyper literal reading of the Torah is exposing the moral flaw of taking a vow upon myself because “myself” is really an artificial construct. I only exist with others, in some form of community. Any vow I take is never only about me.

Posted on July 19, 2012

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