Comparing Vows and Oaths in Judaism

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

Vows and Oaths are both considered weighty matters in Jewish thought. Breaking either is explicitly forbidden by the Bible in Numbers 30:3: “If a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips.” The prohibition on swearing falsely is one of the Ten Commandments. And an entire tractate of the Talmud, Nedarim, deals with the laws of vows. 

The difference between an oath and a vow is somewhat technical. Vows refer to an object — a person prohibits something to themselves (wine or sex, for example) or vows to do something. The vow refers to the thing. An oath refers to the person — a person swears an oath to perform an action or swears that something is true. The oath pertains to the person.

The violation of both vows and oaths is considered a serious infraction in Jewish thought. While there are examples in the Bible of individuals making vows, by the rabbinic period the practice was deeply frowned upon. The Talmud states that the punishment for breaking a vow is the death of one’s children. The Shulchan Aruch explicitly warns people not to regularly make vows, and states that someone who does — even if they fulfill the vow — is called wicked and a sinner.  Many observant Jews have the practice of saying b’li neder (“without a vow”) whenever they promise to do something to make explicit that they are not making a vow. 

Given the seriousness of oaths and vows, and the fact that Jews during some periods of history were compelled to make declarations of fealty to other religions, the rabbis developed formulas for the dissolution of vows. The best-known of these are performed in advance of the High Holidays. 

Prior to Rosh Hashanah, some Jews have the custom of performing a ritual known as hatarat nedarim (literally “the nullification of vows.”). The ritual, intended to release people from any statements that might be perceived as promises, is performed in the presence of three people who act as a kind of religious tribunal. It is part of the larger process of introspection and repentance leading up to the Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. 

On the night of Yom Kippur, another nullification of vows is recited in form of the Kol Nidre, the opening prayer of the holiday and often considered one of its emotional high points. Kol Nidre literally means “all vows” and is a legalistic formula that is believed to have developed in medieval times when Jews were forced to convert to other faiths on pain of death. As with all infractions for which forgiveness is sought on Yom Kippur, Kol Nidre absolves individuals only of vows made to God — not to those made to one another. For sins against other people, forgiveness must be sought from those affected.

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