Matot (Individual & Community)
.For more teachings on this week’s Torah portion, see the archive to this blog for June 20 2006, July 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010.
“All that comes out of your mouth you shall fulfill”
This week’s parashah incorporates a number of diverse subjects, including the entry into the Land and its future inheritance by the tribes (e.g., the issue of the tribes of Gad and Reuven). The very first section, however, deals with vows and oaths. The opening verse (after the title) contains the general principle “When a man makes a vow to the Lord, or swears an oath to prohibit something upon himself, all that he says he shall do” (Num 30:3). The bulk of this section deals with the exceptions to this rule—namely, that if a woman makes an oath while under the aegis of either her father or her husband, he has the right to abrogate her vow, provided he does so “on the day that he hears it.” Why this should be so, what it says about the relations between man and woman, etc., is a subject unto itself, which we have dealt with in the past. (Another troubling question I noticed this week relates to the apparent repetition of vv. 7–9 in vv. 11–14—but that too is a separate discussion.) I will mention briefly a provision that mitigates somewhat what many would call the sexism of this passage: the Rabbis infer from a certain turn of phrase here that the right of abrogation only applies to those vows by a woman which somehow impinge upon her husband’s or father’s interest—e.g., by requiring him to spend extra money or go to special trouble to, say, provide her with food or raiment as a direct result of her vow.
I wish to relate here to another, broader question: What are vows all about? What is the significance of the rule that one must fulfill one’s vow? Wikipedia describes an oath as “a statement of fact or promise made by calling upon something or someone that the oath maker considers sacred, usually God, as a witness to the binding nature of the promise or the truth of the statement. To swear is to take an oath, to make a solemn vow… The essence of a divine oath is an invocation of divine agency to be a guarantor of the oath taker's own honesty and integrity in the matter under question. By implication, this invokes divine displeasure if the oath taker fails in their sworn duties. It therefore implies greater care than usual in the act of the performance of one's duty, such as in testimony to the facts of the matter in a court of law.” For our purposes, a vow or oath is an articulation, an embodiment in words, of an autonomous decision made by a person, to which there is added a certain religious dimension.
I would add an important difference between the two in terms of halakhah: whereas an oath (shevu’ah) involves the invoking of God’s name, a vow, or neder, is a solemn promise, but one whose sanction is built-in, so to speak: one takes upon oneself a certain penalty—usually the obligation to bring a sacrifice or other gift to the Temple if he fails to fulfill his word (konam…).
I have written elsewhere (e.g., last year before Shavuot: see HY XII: Bamidbar and Shavuot) about the heteronomous nature of the Torah: “Greater is one who is commanded and does [i.e., the mitzvah] than one who is not commanded and does.” In this view, the Torah is essentially seen as a set of external laws imposed upon the human being from without, by the supreme authority of the Creator. What role is played, in this context, by man’s autonomous will, by decisions undertaken voluntarily? Vows and oaths are essentially the embodiment of a particular person’s autonomous will. As such, they are in one sense inferior to the universal, categorical obligations of the Torah, in an ethos focused upon submission to the will of God; on the other hand, the Torah values such decisions, at least to the extent of obligating the individual to fulfill his vows or oaths once he has undertaken them. A person must honor his own word, must take whatever he has committed himself to do, seriously; this is an important moral principle, relating to the inner integrity of the person within himself. (Interestingly, Sefer ha-Hinukh, in his treatment of this mitzvah, §§406-407, defines it as “not to alter which he have committed ourselves to do within our souls, even without an oath.”)
Thus, I may decide not to eat meat, or not to drink wine, or perhaps not to speak with a particular person who has insulted me or angered me; or I may decide to perform some positive act: to make a pilgrimage to such-and-such a place; to engage in a particular form of Torah study every day—perhaps a chapter of Tanakh or of Mishnah, a page of Talmud, a section of Shulhan Arukh (or to undertake a clearly defined project of secular studies); or to give a specific sum to a certain charity—a common ploy in fund-raising, where people are called upon to make “pledges,” as in the Yizkor appeals in many synagogues. Once I embody these decisions in a neder, I am obligated to fulfill it like any other mitzvah of the Torah. There is even a discussion in the Talmud as to whether there is a specific time limit within which a person must fulfill his vow, e.g., to bring an offering to the Temple, after which he violates the commandment in this chapter. It should be mentioned that there can also be a fixed “package” of prohibitions which a person may vow to observe; such is the nature of the Nazirite vow, about which the Sages expressed no small ambivalence, as they did regarding vows generally.
Interestingly, a person cannot take a vow “to study Torah” or “to give tzedakah,” or to daven or to keep Shabbat, because these things are mitzvot, acts which one is already obligated to do—“sworn to do so from Mount Sinai.” A vow must relate to something which one was not heretofore obligated to do. This last point is significant, as with the proliferation of Jews who are sometimes called ba’alei teshuvah—that is, those who have decided to adopt a more Jewishly pious or observant way of life for themselves—such decisions are often seen as a kind of vow—and it is not so.
There is a certain ambivalence about vows in the Jewish tradition. The halakhah respects them, insists on them being taken seriously—but it also expresses reservations. Thus, Kohelet says: “When you make a vow to God, do not delay to pay it… that which you have vowed you shall pay. But it is better not to vow, than to vow and not to pay” (Eccles 5:3-4). There is also a mechanism for releasing a person from vows—one goes to a sage, who sits as a court with two other people, who asks the one vowing if he has taken into consideration all the possible ramifications of his vow; inevitably, he has not (for no human being can foresee all that life may bring), and this functions as a petah, a valid halakhic “opening” to nullify the vow. If you would have thought of thus-and-such a scenario, you would never have viewed in the first place! Moreover: we begin Yom Kippur with Kol Nidrei, a public, communal nullification of all future vows; in many congregations a general nullification of vows is recited before Rosh Hashana. As if to say: specifically before the days of solemnity, when we pass in judgment before the Divine throne, it is better that a person be unencumbered by vows.
Perhaps this is the reason why Judaism does not have marriage vows. In Christianity, marriage is constituted through an exchange of vows, promising mutual help, caring and fidelity, the priest or minister functioning only as a kind of witness and guarantor to this solemn oath. In Judaism, marriage is seen rather differently (as a kinyan, in which the man takes the woman under his aegis, a view that many find problematic; see on this my essay, “Jewish Marriage—Time to Restructure?” in HY IX: Ki Teitze–Supplement = Ki Teitzei (Mitzvot). In any event, perhaps the absence of marriage vows relates to a general reluctance to take vows or oaths.
For the same reason, religious Jews do not use the term “I swear” before giving testimony in court or upon assuming public office, but simply “declare” their commitment to tell the truth, or to fulfill their duties faithfully. (Interestingly, in the IDF swearing-in ceremony at the end of basic training, the new recruits swear loyalty to the State, to the Army, and to the chain of command with the words ani nishba’ [“I swear”]—but religious soldiers are allowed to say instead ani matzhir [“I affirm”].)
To return to our central issue: the tension around vows seems to involve two basic issues: First, the tension between the emphasis in vows upon the individual’s will, the sense of his creating his own set of norms, a kind of private code, as against the objective standard of the Torah, the heritage of all Israel, a common societal teaching. This is especially so, as vows can often be trivial or capricious, even motivated by negative emotions: e.g., I hate this guy so I’ll take a vow that I won’t talk to him for a month! Second, in the case of oaths, there is the issue of invoking God’s Name: should one be unable for one reason or another to fulfill one’s vow or oath (which, I reiterate, is essentially a superfluous act to begin with), then God’s Name will be desecrated and will have been used in vain.
A further, more textually- and halakhically-focused discussion of Torat ha-Melekh will follow soon.