Talmudic pages

Taanit 4

Human sacrifice?!

Vows — promises made in God’s name — are taken very seriously in Jewish tradition. Indeed, the third commandment, not taking the Lord’s name in vain, was probably originally meant as an injunction not to break vows made invoking the God of Israel. 

But sometimes our vows are poorly considered — which can create serious problems. The Gemara today discusses a number of people who made unreasonable vows, and offers the paradigmatic case of Jephthah the Gileadite

Jephthah’s story is found in the biblical Book of Judges where he is found leading the Israelites into battle against the Ammonites. On his way, Jephthah makes a dangerous vow: Then whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me shall surely be the Lord’s when I return in peace … and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.” (Judges 11:31)

You can guess what happens next: When he returns victorious from battle, Jephthah’s beloved daughter, his only child, runs out to greet him. A man of his word, Jephthah: “did with her according to his vow which he had vowed.” (Judges 11:39) In a tragic tale that would be perfectly at home on Shakespeare’s stage, Jephthah actually sacrifices his daughter to God.

No one can read this story and not be horrified — the Gemara included. However, the first critique offered by the rabbis is not necessarily the one we might expect. Initially, the rabbis are less concerned with Jephthah’s murder of his only child than they are with his lack of specificity in formulating the original vow because, after all, “it might even have been an impure animal” that emerged from the door, and that would have been unfit to be sacrificed to God!

Of course, the rabbis are just getting warmed up, because the biggest problem is not that Jephthah made this vow in a sloppy way, but that he followed through and actually worshipped God through human sacrifice. (God, as we know from elsewhere in the Bible, abhors human sacrifice — and also murder.) The Gemara next offers two biblical verses from Jeremiah which show just how wrong this was: 

And this is what the prophet said to the Jewish people: “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of the daughter of my people not recovered?” (Jeremiah 8:22). 

The rabbis read the verse from Jeremiah to suggest that one’s daughter can be saved using remedies. The medieval commentator Rashi explains: Jephthah could have annulled his vow formally in front of the high priest and thereby saved his daughter.

Here is the second verse:

“And they have also built the high places of the Ba’al, to burn their sons in the fire for burnt offerings to Ba’al, which I did not command, and I did not speak, nor did it come into My heart.” (Jeremiah 19:5)

Here, Jeremiah is calling out the Israelites for practicing human sacrifice as their neighbors did, even though God had never asked for it and did not want it. This too puts Jephthah’s actions in a terrible light. Even if he thought God wanted him to follow through with his vow, he should have known that God despises human sacrifice.

In this second verse from Jeremiah, God uses three different verbs to reject human sacrifice. The Gemara reads each verb as referring to a different instance of human sacrifice in the Bible: 

“Which I did not command” — this is referring to the son of Mesha, king of Moab…

“And I did not speak” — this is referring to Jephthah.

“Nor did it come into my heart” — this is referring to Isaac, son of Abraham.

Jephthah, it is clear, erred in more than one way. Not only did he formulate his vow in a terrible way, but he also did not annul it when he saw where that formulation led. Even though God chooses to give Jephthah the military victory, the judge is a poster child for bad vowing all the way around. Today’s daf criticizes people who make unreasonable vows, and notes that God sometimes chooses to answer them unreasonably. Be careful what you wish for because you just might get it. And even if your daughter does come out to greet you, remember that vows can always be annulled! 

Read all of Taanit 4 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on November 16th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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