“Swearing in G-d’s name”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

It’s rather fascinating to see how one single, seemingly simple verse can be interpreted so differently by our commentators.

In Parashat Eikev, Deuteronomy 10:20, we read: “Et Hashem Eh’lo’keh’cha tee’rah, oh’toh tah’ah’voad, oo’voh teed’bahk, oo’vish’moh tee’sha’vay’ah,” You shall fear the Lord your G-d, you shall serve Him, you shall cleave to Him, and in His name you shall swear. The Torah tells us that we owe praise to G-d because of the great and awesome things that G-d has done for His people and that we ourselves witnessed. After all, our ancestors went down to Egypt with only 70 souls, and now G-d has made us abundant like the stars of the heavens.

There is an ancient tradition in Judaism that our Torah contains 613 mitzvot (commandments)–248 positive commandments, and 365 negative commandments. However, the actual commandments are not specifically identified in the Torah. The origin of the concept of 613 commandments is discussed in the Talmud. Tractate Makot 23b cites the biblical verse from Deuteronomy 33:4 which states that Moses commanded us the Torah as an inheritance for the community of Jacob. The Hebrew word “Torah” is equal in its numerical value to 611. Thus the verse states that Moses commanded us the “Torah“–611 commandments. There were however two mitzvot, the first and second commandments of the Ten Commandments, that were spoken by G-d directly to the people. Together with the 611, the total number of mitzvot equals 613.

Although not all the sages unanimously agree on the 613 count, the opinion of Rabbi Simlai in the Talmud concerning 613 has become so accepted that it is virtually impossible to dispute. Over the centuries it has become rather popular for rabbis to list and attempt to elucidate the 613 commandments. One of the earliest compilers was R’ Saadiah Gaon (Saadiah ben Joseph, 882-942, great Babylonian leader, scholar and philosopher) who authored Sefer Hamitzvot–the Book of Commandments. The great Maimonides (the Rambam, 1135-1204, Jewish philosopher, codifier and physician) also wrote a volume entitled Sefer Hamitzvot. In order to determine whether or not a verse was to be included as one of the 613 mitzvot he devised a list of 14 rules. Nachmanides (Ramban, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spanish Torah commentator) wrote a critical commentary on Mainmonides’ list of commandments. He disagrees with several mitzvot that are found on Maimonides’ list and substitutes other mitzvot that he believes should be included.

One of the most famous compilations of the 613 mitzvot is Sefer Ha’Chinuch, the Book of Education, a classic work from 13th century Spain on the 613 commandments, their rationale and their regulations. It generally follows Maimonides’ compilation, but also tries to explain the philosophical reasoning behind the mitzvot. It is thought to be the work of Rabbi Aron HaLevi of Barcelona, but its true author is unknown. A later compilation of the mitzvot was authored by Rabbi Isaac of Corbeil (Isaac ben Joseph, c.1220-c.1280, French rabbi and Tosafist), known as Sefer Hamitzvot Hakatan, The Small Book of Commandments. It is written in the form of a poem, divided into seven sections, one to be reviewed each day of the week

In his Book of Mitzvot, Maimonides states conclusively that a Jew, when swearing, must do so in the name of G-d. One who fails to swear in the name of G-d, has transgressed the mitzvah recorded in Deuteronomy 10:20, “by His name shall you swear.” Nachmanides disagrees strongly, saying that this verse is not meant to be regarded as a positive commandment. After all, it’s preferable never to take an oath–the third commandment states explicitly not to bear the name of the Lord in vain! Although the statement in Deuteronomy 10:20 is formulated in the positive, Nachmanides sees it as an implied negative commandment and maintains that in case one must swear, it is forbidden to do so in the name of anyone or anything, except in G-d’s name.

The author of Sefer Hachinuch weighs in on the famous dispute between Maimonides and Nachmanides regarding the mitzvah of swearing in G-d’s name. He explains that according to Maimonides it is the duty for everyone to use G-d’s name when taking an oath, because this adds importance and sanctity to G-d’s words and becomes a virtual declaration of faith. According to Nachmanides since using G-d’s name in vain should be avoided whenever possible, it can only be optional. After all, there are only very few people who have achieved the supreme degree of piety necessary to invoke G-d’s name with proper reverence and sanctification.

Apparently, in the middle ages, when invoking the name of G-d became very frequent, concern that oath taking would become frivolous became a reality. It was feared that as a result, the name of G-d would be disrespected. The Ravad (R’ Avraham ben David of Provence, c.1120-c.1197, one of the leading Torah scholars of the twelfth century) mentions that a takanah, a special decree, was issued by the Gaonim, the post-Talmudic scholars, whereby the practice of swearing in G-d’s name before a Beth Din, a court of law, was abolished, and another form of oath was substituted.

On the other hand, pronouncing an oath may be viewed as a very noble action when done to reinforce one’s commitment to G-d. Despite the concern about using G-d’s name in vain, it was permitted, and even considered commendable, to take an oath that would serve as a motivation in the performance of a mitzvah. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) maintains that those who are truly G-d fearing and serve G-d faithfully, have the right to swear, for their piety will assure that they will do so truthfully.

Ultimately, it is a person’s inner reverence for G-d that serves as the true decisive factor.

May you be blessed.