“Vows and Oaths”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Parashiot Matot and Masei are the last two parashiot of the book of Bamidbar–Numbers. The focus of these two final parashiot shifts from Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness to the settlement in the land of Israel. In preparation for the peoples’ entry into the land of Israel, the Torah presents the rules and regulations regarding oaths and vows that underscore the holiness of the Promised Land, and the new, elevated lifestyle that the people will experience there.

Moses speaks to the heads of the tribes of the Children of Israel and says to them, Numbers 30:3, אִישׁ כִּי יִדֹּר נֶדֶר לַהשׁם אוֹ הִשָּׁבַע שְׁבֻעָה לֶאְסֹר אִסָּר עַל נַפְשׁוֹ, לֹא יַחֵל דְּבָרוֹ, כְּכָל הַיֹּצֵא מִפִּיו יַעֲשֶׂה , If a man takes a vow to the L-rd or swears an oath to establish a prohibition upon himself, he shall not desecrate his word, according to whatever comes from his mouth shall he do.

Rabbi Chaim Dov Rabinowitz in his Da’at Sofrim, explains the juxtaposition between parashat Matot and the previous parasha, Pinchas, which lists the daily, Shabbat and holiday sacrifices that were brought in the Tabernacle/Temple. He explains that since many offerings in the Temple were brought to fulfill vows and oaths that people had made, it is necessary to emphasize how careful one must be with words that are uttered from one’s mouth. These rules and regulations are particularly directed to the heads of the people, the princes and the tribal leaders, so that they could teach them to the people of Israel.

Rabbi Rabinowitz points out that vows enable mere mortals to spiritually elevate G-d’s creations and make them holy. Therefore, invoking vows and oaths must be done with extreme care. Because vows are often motivated by a desire to do something extraordinary, those who make the vows may not be able to fulfill them. Consequently, the leaders of Israel must teach the people about the proper use of vows as well as the ability to nullify them.

Rabbi Abraham Chill in his wonderful work, The Mitzvot, the Commandments and Their Rationale, underscores that the human being, who is blessed with superior intelligence, must recognize the importance of not making statements indiscreetly or rashly. This, of course, applies to all human speech, but especially to vows and oaths.

Citing the Mishna Nedarim 3:1, Rabbi Chill notes that there are certain vows that are uttered that are automatically invalid: 1. נִדְרֵי זֵרוּזִיןNidrei Zairuzim, oaths, often made to spur business, that are uttered for the purpose of convenience, but are never meant seriously. 2. נִדְרֵי הֲבַאיNidrei Havai, exaggerated oaths, in which someone promises to do something on the condition that he beholds something unusual or impossible, such as if he sees a million people at once or encounters a flying camel. 3. נִדְרֵי שְׁגָגוֹתNidrei Shegagot, unintentional vows, in which a person mistakenly takes an oath based on something that he thought he had done, such as eat or drink, but he did not. 4. נִדְרֵי אֳנָסִיםNidrei Anasim, a person who takes a vow but is unable to fulfill the vow because of health reasons, or in the case of sudden, unexpected circumstances that require that person to leave the city.

There is a legal difference between what is known as a נֶדֶרNeder (vow) and a שְׁבוּעָהShevuah (oath). The person who makes a Neder, vows, “I will not drink this wine.” The person making a Shevuah says, “I swear not to drink wine.” In the instance of the Neder, the object is forbidden, while in the Shevuah the person is forbidden from engaging in that act.

The holy scriptures strongly advocate against taking vows. The Book of Ecclesiastes 5:4 advises, better not to vow, than to vow and not fulfill.

Judaism in general, and in the scriptures specifically, strongly underscores the sanctity of words. The opening words of the Torah already describe how important and powerful words are, as G-d creates the world through words. The Torah frequently commands one to distance oneself from falsehood, and repeatedly emphasizes against insulting the stranger, the convert or the physically disabled. Words are real and have the power to heal and hurt, to elevate and to denigrate.

The extraordinary power of speech is the Al-mighty’s unique gift to the human being, shared with no other creature. Only humans have the power to make things holy by words, by proclaiming them holy through vows and oaths.

The Chatam Sofer points out that the laws of vows and oaths are directed primarily to the heads of the tribes and the princes, because people in high public office are more frequently tempted to make promises that they cannot keep.

As a unique gift from G-d to humankind, the endowment of speech must be fiercely guarded and used correctly. It is perhaps the most powerful tool in the human repository to bring goodness and blessing to the world. It must be used with the utmost care and discretion.

May you be blessed.