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15.07.2015 12:21    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: scriptures  torah  shabbat  parshat  matot  masei  

Vows: For Worshipping the Lord or Hurting One’s Fellow?

From Scriptures to Mishnah

Chapter 30 of Numbers deals with annulling vows taken by a daughter in her father’s house or a woman in her husband’s house and raises the question of the status of women in general and their status in Jewish sources in particular.[1] Here we shall examine the matter in a broader context, looking at the place of vows in Scripture,[2] and how the laws on vows were shaped later, in the Mishnah.

In Scriptures, vows are seen in a positive light, beginning with Jacob’s vow at Bethel (Gen. 28:20-22), vows of sacrifice (Lev. 7:16, 22:18, 21, 23, and 23:38), and especially Leviticus 27, the last chapter of the book, which deals entirely with religious resolutions that a person undertakes to give of his possessions to the Tabernacle, above and beyond the normative obligations mentioned in earlier chapters.

From the passage on appraisal and consecration at the end of Leviticus, which follows all the passages on commandments concluded by the passage of blessings and curses, we learn that a person may set himself apart and aspire to reach higher zeniths in worshipping the Lord, beyond those commandments incumbent on everyone. The obligations that he thus undertakes are not considered a forbidden addition to the body of commandments, but rather commandments of substance: “These are the commandments that the Lord gave Moses for the Israelite people on Mount Sinai” (Lev. 27:34). Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch commented on this verse as follows:

These are the commandments… These words are repeated here to conclude the book of “the Teachings of the Priests”, to include this chapter of dedicating and valuing things for the purposes of the Sanctuary too, within the compass of G-d’s Torah, after a similar—but not the same—declaration was made at the end of the previous chapter v. 46, looking back on all the other laws of this book. Even if the contents of this chapter on nidrei ha-kodesh, on vows to dedicate things to the Temple, as being left entirely to the free will of the people, and just on that account not part of the real object of the “bond between G-d and us”, as the Torah is designated at the end of the previous chapter, (see v. 1), nevertheless they are no less commandments given to Moses on Mount Sinai for Israel. Vows of dedication are not demanded, but if made, they come under the laws of G-d no less than any of all our other activities in life.[3]

Indeed, from the passage in the book of Numbers on the vows of the nazirite, the plain sense of the text suggests a similarity between the nazirite and the High Priest: both are forbidden to contaminate themselves through contact with the dead, even as regards relations permitted to other priests; the nazirite “shall remain consecrated…since his consecration [Heb. nezer] unto G‑d is upon his head” (Num. 6:5-7) and the priests “shall be holy to their G-d” (Lev. 21:6), “for upon him is the distinction [Heb. nezer] of the anointing oil of his G-d” (Lev. 21:12).[4] We learn thereby that any Jew can reach the heights of holiness of the High Priest.

Vows for the most part are presented in Scripture as promises given in a moment of hardship, such as Jacob’s vow when fleeing from his brother Esau, the Israelites’ vow in the battle against the King of Arad (Num. 21:2), Hannah’s vow when she was barren (I Sam. 1:11), the vow of the sailors on the boat that was about to sink (Jonah 1:16), and the vows of people about to die, in Psalms 117 and elsewhere.

Hints that vows might be problematic and undesirable are found in Deuteronomy (23:22-24) and Ecclesiastes (5:3-5). The reservation about vows has to do with the difficulties in keeping them. The story of Jephthah (Jud. 11:30-31) shows that the formulation of a vow can also be problematic. The words of Jeremiah imply that just as people made vows to worship the Lord, so too they were involved in pagan worship, so that vows were not solely directed at worshipping the Lord (Jer. 44:25). The passage on invalidating vows taken by a daughter or wife, in the book of Numbers, might hint at another difficulty: vows might have an adverse effect on the dynamics of family relationships. Fleischman notes several areas where vows taken by a daughter or wife might cause trouble: vows whose economic cost is beyond the family’s means, vows that prevent the wife from devoting herself to her family duties, or vows that might hurt the spousal relationship.[5]

Thus the scriptural passage on vows can serve as the key to understanding how the mishnaic approach to vows emerged. Anyone who studies Tractate Nedarim cannot help but receive the impression that the authors of the Mishnah took exception to vows, seeing them as undesirable and seeking to curtail their use.

The Mishnah presents a large number of vows that smell of controversy and violence. We present some examples.[6]

For example, a person might vow not to receive another person as his guest or be the guest of that person:

If a person says [to his fellow]: Korban [that which I might eat of yours],” [or] “Burnt-offering,” [or] “Meal-offering” [or] “Sin-offering,” [or] “Thanksgiving offering” [or] “Peace-offering” [that which I might eat of yours,]” he is forbidden [from eating anything of his fellow’s].[7] (Nedarim 1.4)

[If a person says: Konam] that I do not benefit from Israelites.” (Nedarim 3.11)

There is no difference between one who is under a vow not to benefit from his friend and one who is under a vow forbidding him to eat of the food of his friend, only in regard to trespassing [his property] and the use of tools not used in the preparation of food. If one is under a vow not to eat of his friend’s food, he [the friend] may not lend him a sifter, sieve, mill-stone or oven, but he may lend him a shirt, ring, cloak and earrings. But anything which is not used in the preparation of food, where it is usual [for such items] to be rented out would be forbidden [to lend, since he thereby saves money which could be used to purchase food]. (Nedarim 4.1)

If one who is under a vow not to benefit from a friend went to visit him [while he was sick, in a locality where it was customary to pay a person to sit with the sick], he stands, but may not sit. And [if] he [was a doctor] may [treat him to] cure him of his illness [this being a mitzvah] but may not treat his possessions [though he may advise him which medications to give his animal]. He may bathe with him in a large pool but not in a small one [since by causing the water to rise to a greater height the mudar (=the one prohibited by vow from benefit) benefits]. He may sleep in a bed with him. (Nedarim 4.4)

Sometimes vows hurt the fine balance of relations that the Torah sought to establish by means of the commandments, for example, as concerns deriving benefit from that which grows during the sabbatical year (Nedarim 4.5):

One who is under a vow not to benefit from a friend [which was imposed] before the seventh year may not enter his field, nor may he take from the overhanging fruit [even during shemittah since one may prohibit something that is in his possession presently even if in the future it leaves his possession (Tosfot Yom Tov)]. But if it was imposed on the seventh year, he may not enter his field [to eat of its fruit, lest he remain there for other reasons and thus come to benefit from the land itself which does not become hefker during shemittah] but he may eat [fruit] of the overhanging branches [which is hefker]. If a vow was imposed regarding food; if imposed before the seventh year, he may enter his field but he may not eat of its fruit. But if [it was imposed] on the seventh year, he may enter his field and eat of its fruit. (Nedarim 4.5)

Sometimes vows hampered the abilities of those who needed assistance from another person’s property:

One who is under a vow not to benefit from a friend may neither lend to, nor borrow from him, nor may he advance him, or receive from him a loan. He may neither sell to him nor buy from him. (Nedarim 4.6)

One who is under a vow not to confer benefit to a friend and he [his friend] has nothing to eat; he [the madir—the one who made the vow not to confer benefit] may go to the store and say: So-and-so is forbidden by vow to benefit from me and I don’t know what to do! The shopkeeper may then supply him and take payment from the madir. (Nedarim 4.7)

The Mishnah relates to the case of persons who takes a vow in the wake of a dispute between neighbors or business partners (Nedarim 5.1):

If partners [having a joint courtyard entrance into their homes] each made a vow not to benefit from each other [and the courtyard does not have the minimum area mandated by halakhah in order to be divided], they may not enter their joint courtyard. Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov says: [Even where there is not sufficient area to divide, they may enter, since in retrospect we view it through the principle of bereirah and thus each] enters into his own. And both are prohibited to set a millstone or an oven or to raise fowl. If [only one of them] was forbidden to benefit from the other, he may not enter the courtyard.

The Mishnah describes cases where a person vowed that his members of his family be prohibited benefit from his property. In other words, vows were used as a means of aggravating family quarrels. One mishnah even indicates that a special arrangement had to be made so that a father would not be prevented from participating in his son’s wedding feast on account of a vow (Nedarim 5.6):

It once happened in Bet Horon that one’s father was forbidden to benefit from him. Now he [the son] was marrying off his son and wanted his father to participate]. He said to his friend: May the courtyard and the banquet be a gift to you, on the condition that my father come and feast with us at the banquet. Thereupon he said if it is truly mine then let it all be consecrated for Heaven! He said to him: But I did not give it to you so that you consecrate it to Heaven. He responded: You gave it to me so that you and your father may eat and drink together and become reconciled with one another while the sin of breaking the vow should be on his [i.e., my] head.

Other mishnahs indicate that husbands attempted to get at their wives by means of vows:

Vows not to have intercourse with one’s wife (Nedarim 2.1): “If a person says to his wife: Konam [I am prohibited by oath] if I cohabit with you,’ he is liable for [the injunction] ‘He shall not violate his word’ (Numbers 30:3).”

Vows not to derive benefit from the work of her hands (Nedarim 7.7-8): “If one says to his wife: Konam be the work of your hands upon me;…[or] Konam that which you make I will not eat until Pesah; or that which you will produce I will not wear until Pesah…

Vows threatening one’s wife lest she go to her father’s house without her husband’s permission (Nedarim 7.9): Konam be any benefit you have from me until Passover if you go to your father’s house until the Festival [i.e. Sukkot].

The Mishnah tells of a man who vowed that his wife should not benefit from him, intending thereby to exempt himself of responsibility to pay her the money due her upon divorce (her ketubah; Nedarim 9.5):

And it once actually happened that a man vowed not to benefit from his wife [i.e., vowed to divorce her], and her ketubah was in the amount of four hundred dinar. He came before Rabbi Akiva and he obligated him to pay in full. He said to him: Rebbe, my father left eight hundred dinar. My brother took four hundred and I took four hundred. Is it not enough that she take two hundred and I two hundred? Rabbi Akiva replied: Even if you must sell the hair on your head you must pay for her entire ketubah.

In the end the man regretted having made his vow, Rabbi Akiva released him from it, and the divorce did not go through.

The Mishnah tells of men who attempted to get out of unwanted marriage proposals by vowing not to benefit from the woman with whom they were supposed to be married:

If one says: Konam that I won’t marry so and so, because her father is wicked. (Nedarim 7.3)

[If one vows:] Konam that I won’t marry that ugly woman…And it once happened that one vowed not to benefit from his sister’s daughter and she was taken into Rabbi Ishmael’s house and made beautiful. Rabbi Ishmael said to him: My son, did you vow not to benefit from this one! He replied: No! Rabbi Ishmael then permitted [them to marry]. (Nedarim 7.10)

The Mishnah tells of a vow made by a father regarding his father-in-law (Nedarim 11.8):

If one vowed not to benefit from his father-in-law and he [the father-in-law] wants to give money to his daughter, he says to her: This money is given to you as a gift on condition that your husband has no rights over it and is to be [used exclusively] for that which you yourself negotiate.[8]

In the wake of family disputes a woman might vow not to benefit from her family members (Nedarim 11.11):

If she says: Konam that I won’t benefit from my father, or your father, if I prepare anything for you, or: Konam that I won’t benefit from you, if I prepare anything for my father, or your father…

The Mishnah reflects the Rabbis’ distress that vows should be thus abused (Nedarim 9.4):

Rabbi Meir also said: An opening (to release a person from his vow) is given from that which is written in the Torah, and we say to him: Had you known that you were transgressing: Do not take revenge nor bear a grudge, and: Do not hate your brother in your heart, and: You must love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:17-18) and: [Help] your brother live with you (ibid. 25:36), or had you known that he may become poor and [due to your vow] you would be prohibited from helping him [would you have vowed]? If he says: Had I known that this is so [at the time], I would not have vowed, he is absolved.

Rabbi Yaakov Nagan[9] emphasizes that vows ceasing to be a vehicle for attaining greater sanctity in the worship of the Lord is tied to the destruction of the Temple and the cessation of sacrifice. Be that as it may, the process that emerges as we move from the Bible on to the Mishnah attests, in my view, primarily to the human ability to abuse the vehicles of mitzvah, taking powerful tools for creating holiness and profaning them with great wickedness. In this context, we can fully understand the overwhelming reservations of the rabbis of the Talmud regarding vows (Nedarim 22a):

Rabbi Nathan said: One who vows is as though he built a high place [= a place for pagan worship], and he who fulfils it is as though he sacrificed thereon…Rabbi Samuel said: Even when one fulfils his vow he is called wicked.

Translated by Rachel Rowen

* Written in memory of my father-in-law, Rabbi Yisrael Raviv, who passed away on the 28th of Adar, 5775 (2015).

Dr. Rivka Raviv teaches at Orot Israel College and the Midrasha at Bar Ilan University.

[1] As in the articles by Y. Fleischman (Bar Ilan University’s Parashat Hashavua Study Center, Parashat Mattoth, 2010, and G. Barzilai (Bar Ilan University’s Parashat Hashavua Study Center, Parashat Mattoth, 2004).

[2] The placement in the book of Numbers of the passage on annulling vows made by a daughter or wife can be viewed as prefacing the story of the Reubenites and Gadites asking to receive their allotment of land in Transjordan. The principle that ties the latter with the former is presented at the outset: “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” (Num. 30:3); for in the story of the Reubenites and Gadites, it says, “Carry out what has passed your lips” (Num. 32:24).

[3] The Pentateuch, Translation and Commentary by Samson Raphael Hirsch, Judaica Press, New York, 1971, p. 841. Emphasis author’s.

[4] The prophet Amos compares the nazirite to a prophet: “And I raised up prophets from among your sons, and nazirites from among your young men” (Amos 2:11). Nahmanides’ interpretation of the passage on nazirites (Num. 6:14) implies a positive attitude, paralleling his approach towards asceticism and abstaining from luxuries (Lev. 19:2).

[5] See Y. Fleischman, “Why were fathers permitted to annul their daughters’ vows,” Bar Ilan University’s Parashat Hashavua Study Center, Parashat Behar, 2010.

[6] The quotes from the Mishnah in the text that follows have been taken largely from, with minor corrections and emendations.

[7] Maimonides’ commentary on the Mishnah (Nedarim 1.4): “Also in this regard his intention is that if he said to him: Korban if I eat from that which is yours, Olah (=burnt offering) if I eat from that which is yours, etc., then he is forbidden to eat anything in his house.”

[8] Recall the story of Kalba Savua who, by his unfortunate vow, hurt his daughter and his son-in-law for many years (Ketubbot 62b; Avot de-Rabbi Nathan, addition to Version A, chapter 8).

[9] Yaakov Nagan, “Nidrei Resha`im—Masekhet Nedarim, Perek Alef, Mishnah Alef, on the website of Yeshivat Otniel.

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