Vows and Oaths

The act of speaking an oath or a vow aloud gives it binding force in traditional Jewish law.

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The Kol Nidre formula [recited before the evening service at the beginning of Yom Kippur each year] is a means of nullifying unwitting vows. Some pious Jews, when making any promise, declare that they do it b’li neder, “without a vow,” that is, they are declaring that they do not wish the promise to have the status of a vow, to break which is a serious offense. In some synagogues it is still the custom for a man called to the reading of the Torah to promise to give a gift to the synagogue or to charity in return for the honor paid to him. The formula for this, recited by the Reader, is: “Bless A son of B because he has vowed to donate sum X.” The Hebrew for “because he has vowed” is ba‘avur she-nadar, and this kind of promise is called in Yiddish shnoderren or, in English-Yiddish, “shnoderring.” In many congregations the wording is altered to “because he offers a voluntary gift,” so as to avoid the actual taking of a vow.

The sources also speak of vows made out of spite and enmity, for instance, where A takes a vow that he will not enjoy any benefit from anything that belongs to B or where A bans his property against B’s enjoyment of it. This kind of vow is treated as more unworthy than any other for obvious reasons.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.