Vows and Oaths
The act of speaking an oath or a vow aloud gives it binding force in traditional Jewish law.
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.
The rabbis further ruled that vows can be nullified by a sage. The procedure is for the sage to ask the man who made the vow whether he would have made it had he known that circumstances would arise which would have prevented him from keeping the vow. An instance given is of a man who placed a ban on wine but at a later date wished to take wine with the guests at his son’s wedding. If the sage ascertains that had the man known that the vow would cause him this embarrassment he would not have made it, the vow is then treated as one made in error or unwittingly and the sage can declare it to be null and void.