Parashat Mattot

Holy Words

The laws of vows and the rabbinic cautions against making them teach the holiness and power of the spoken word.

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Vows are taken so seriously because in the Bible no provision is made for them to be absolved. In the passage above, which comprises the heart of the Torah's teachings about vows, only vows made by a woman can be revoked. In that case, it is the father of an unmarried woman or the husband of a married woman who can annul the stated vow; the woman herself cannot. Therefore, anyone, male or female, who swears an oath or a vow must be fully prepared to go through with their pledge.

However, vows are not considered bad, just serious. We have many examples of approval of vows undertaken by Biblical characters, such as the vow of Jacob at Beth El (Genesis 31:13). Even the Brit itself--the Covenant between God and Israel--is considered a form of vow. The Torah does not even seem to consider that one would make a pledge to God and then default on it. This is especially true since vows are undertaken voluntarily; one is never obligated to make a vow or an oath.

However, by the time of the later Biblical books and certainly by the time of the rabbinic literature, there seems to have developed a problem with people defaulting on oaths. We see two new trends developing. First, people are discouraged from making any vows in general. Second, provisions are developed for the dissolution of certain vows that are made. There is, however, little agreement on these issues.

In the Talmud, (Tractate Hullin 2a) Rabbi Judah states, "better is he who vows and pays," while Rabbi Meir states, "better is he who does not vow at all." In the Midrash (Leviticus Rabbah 37:1), it states, "he who vows and pays receives the reward for both his vow and its fulfillment" while in another part of the Talmud (BT Tractate Nedarim 77b) Samuel (the Sage, not the Prophet) is recorded as saying, "even when one fulfills his vow he is called wicked." The Sages even went so far as to say that the punishment for taking a vow of any kind is that one's children will die young (BT Shabbat 32b).

The rabbis performed elaborate legal gymnastics to provide for the absolution of vows, called hattarat nedarim, which means "release from vows." The results of these efforts include the Kol Nidrei chanted on Erev Yom Kippur and other formulas for the nullification of vows stated under coercion or distress. But, in the end they admitted, "the rules about the absolution of vows hover in the air and have nothing to support them" (Tractate Hagigah 1:8).

So we know that we should avoid vows if possible, but we still don't know why. What is so bad about a vow? Well, Rashi, in his commentary on this passage, notes that the word for "break"--yakhel--is etymologically related to yekhallel--meaning to secularize or make ordinary. Expanding on this idea, the Gerer Rebbe, Yehudah Aryeh Leib, suggested that from this linguistic link we may infer that the power of the spoken word is holy.

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Rabbi Jordan D. Cohen

Jordan D. Cohen is the rabbi of Temple Anshe Sholom in Hamilton, Ontario. Previously, he worked as Associate Director of KOLEL - The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning in Toronto, Canada. Prior to his return to Canada, Rabbi Cohen served as Rabbi of the United Jewish Congregation of Hong Kong, and Associate Rabbi of the North Shore Temple Emanuel in Sydney, Australia.