Parashat Matot / Pledges Made and Broken

It is in the nature of vows that they are created at extreme moments in aperson’s life, and that their goal is to preserve a unique emotional experience.

'Moses Ordering the Slaughter of the Midianites,' by Claes Corneliszoon Moeyaert.
Wikimedia Commons

Parashat Matot (Numbers 30:2 – 32:42) opens with the laws governing vows: “When a man voweth a vow unto the Lord, or sweareth an oath to bind his soul with a bond, he shall not break his word; he shall do according to all that proceedeth out of his mouth” (Num. 30:3). In interpreting “lo yahel devaro” (“he shall not break his word”), Rashi focuses on the root of yakhel (yod-het-lamed), meaning “break,” which is linked both to halel, “desecrate,” and hol, “profane,” saying: “He should not desecrate his word, he should not render his words profane.”

A vow is a combination of spoken words that has the legal power to create new borders and fences in the real world. An individualized power that the law grants a person, enabling him to widen, in accordance with his wishes, the justice system to which his are bound.

It is in the nature of vows that they are created at extreme moments in a person’s life, and that their goal is to preserve a unique emotional experience. On the one hand, such moments can be part of a lofty religious experience that brings a person to voluntarily assume a commitment the Torah does not impose upon him. On the other, these can be moments of extreme anger, when one person is so enraged by another that he vows never to derive any benefit from that person – and thus imposes upon himself a prohibition on having anything to do with him.

The laws governing vows that appear in this week’s reading have an additional significance that is not given expression in the biblical text, but rather in the oral Torah. They also subsume laws dealing with annulment of vows (hatarat nedarim). If a person wishes to retract a vow and restore the original limitations imposed on him, he must appear before a religious court and specify the nature of what he has pledged to undertake. The court must then find an exit – a way out that will allow it to retroactively annul the vow.

Unlike the laws governing interpersonal relations, ritual purity/impurity and incest, or those relating to observance of the Sabbath and holidays, the laws governing annulment of vows are described in the Mishna as not being unsupported by any biblical text: “The annulment of vows just floats in the air and there is no text [in the Bible] that supports it” (Mishna, Tractate Hagigah, 1:8). The laws relating to invalidating a vow have no “anchor” in the Bible’s harsh terrain, and float about, as if created ex nihilo.

In their discussions of this subject in both the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds, the sages traditionally base themselves on the Torah: Whenever a religious directive is introduced without any clear reference to a biblical source, they retroactively find such a source to validate it. In contrast with the Mishnah’s description of the annulment of a vow as something that “just floats in the air,” the sages commenting on the above passage strive to discover a biblical verse to support the process.

Many suggestions are made in the Talmud as to which verse is suited to this, but the most fitting passage is found in an alternative but precise interpretation by the sage Samuel that refers to this week’s reading: “Samuel said: Had I been there [during the debate between the rabbis that is cited in the Talmud], I would have told them that my interpretation is preferable to theirs, as it is written, ‘he shall not break his word’: The person who utters the vow is not permitted to annul his own vow but others can do so” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Hagigah, p. 10a). In the same source, Rabba Rava supports Samuel’s interpretation: “Rabba said, ‘All the verses proposed as support [for the annulment of a vow] can be refuted, except for the verse that was proposed by Samuel and which cannot be refuted.’”

In Samuel’s view, both the biblical texts related to vows and the laws that govern their annulment reflect the inner drama experienced by a person who makes a pledge and then regrets what he has done. A person makes a vow because of his emotional state at a particular time. However, at a later stage, he may realize there is something amiss about the pledge he undertook in an effort to preserve that state: He may discover that the vow is actually detrimental to his interests, like a kind of auto-immune disease. If so, he will want to retroactively abrogate the vow, even though the Torah states, “he shall not break his word.”

A person cannot cancel an obligation he personally has undertaken. According to Samuel, the inability to retract a decision is characteristic of a vow’s individualistic, non-establishment praxis; however, it is precisely that characteristic that enables the possibility of assisting a person who makes a vow and subsequently regrets it. This person is essentially an inmate who has built the prison in which he is now incarcerated; he cannot free himself from that prison and thus he requires help from an institution that can do that, in this case, a rabbinical court. The court finds the “exit door” for the individual that allows for the formal legal annulment of his vow.

One of the tactics used by rabbinical courts in this context regards a vow not to use the property of someone else, as described in the following Talmudic passage: “Rabbi Meir says: The rabbinical judges offer him [the person who made a vow and then regrets it] an opening based on the Torah’s verses. They ask him: ‘If you had realized that you have sinned against, “Thou shalt not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge” (Leviticus 19:18), “Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thy heart” (Lev. 19:17), “thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (19:18) and “that thy brother may live with thee” (25:36) – and that through your vow, you were condemning the object of your vow to a life of poverty, denying him the possibility of a livelihood – would you have made that vow? If the answer is no, you are absolved of your vow’” (Mishna, Tractate Nedarim, 9:4).

The moment a person pledges not to derive benefit from anything belonging to another person, his words turn into a binding reality. However, suggests Samuel, there is a way out for a person who makes a vow that he now regrets: The rabbinical court “juxtaposes” his motivation and what is written in the Torah. It addresses the individual thusly: “There are certain commandments that are specifically set forth in the Torah – the prohibition against seeking vengeance and holding a grudge, and against hating your fellow Jew; the commandment to love your neighbor and also to ensure the economic wellbeing of your fellow Jew if he is unable to sustain himself financially. Had you known that by making your vow, you were violating these commandments, would you have still made it?” If the individual who is addressed replies in the negative, his vow is immediately annulled.

If one chooses to analyze the making and abrogation of vows in Freudian terms, the original pledge that is undertaken at a unique moment of high emotional excitement expresses a person’s id, while the Torah’s texts relating to commandments and prohibitions serve as a superego that instructs a person about what is good and what is right. The id and superego “appear” before the rabbinical court, which serves as a kind of artificial ego; a confrontation ensues between the two sides and eventually a compromise is reached.

The Torah states, “he shall not break his word”: The vow-maker cannot personally create the confrontation between what he has pledged and the Torah; the intensity of the inner drama entailed in making and seeking to retract a vow does not leave a “clean space” for such a process.

For that reason, the sages established the rabbinical court as an external reflection of the inner world of the person making the vow. It provides the venue, on one hand, for the processing of his initial motivations and intuitions, and, on the other, acts as a textual superego, which extends its hand to him and which can free him of the trap he set for himself.