Torah Portion of the Week: Promises, Promises

Parashat Matot.

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

Parashat Matot (Numbers 30:2-36:13) opens with a law relating to vows, in particular those taken by women. The law itself opens with a basic principle: “When a man voweth a vow unto the Lord, or sweareth an oath to bind his soul with a bond, he shall not desecrate his word; he shall do according to all that proceedeth out of his mouth” (Num. 30:3). When someone vows or swears to do or not do something, he must honor his commitment. This requirement is expressed in a positive commandment – “he shall do according to all that proceedeth out of his mouth” – which is preceded by a prohibition – “he shall not desecrate his word.”

Desecration constitutes improper treatment of something sacred – whether a person, a special time, a place, an object or one’s word – that is defined, distinguished by and related to God. Since a vow is always made “unto the Lord,” it is not profane speech that can be revoked when necessary or when not desired. Vows acquire sanctified status; their violation is sacrilege and a sin irrespective of their specific content. If one pledges to God that he will play baseball every Thursday, failure to do so is sacrilegious.

In contrast to the basic principle of the law as introduced at the beginning of this week’s portion, according to which one must fulfill one’s commitments, the text primarily addresses situations in which vows should not be honored. Apparently, “When a man voweth a vow” can be understood in two ways: In principle and formally, it applies to everyone, but practically it applies only to men.

When it comes to women, however, the situation is more complicated, because this stricture, which reflects the norms in antiquity, assumes that a woman is dependent from both the financial and religious standpoints. There is a built-in tension between her commitment to God, a commitment embodied in the possibility of taking vows and in undertaking the obligation to fulfill them, and her commitment toward a significant man – her father or husband. The property she promises to donate to the Temple, for example, is not really hers, and it turns out that she does not have complete control over her actions.

To go by the cases of widows or divorcees, the biblical text does not imply that women have faulty judgment. Those individuals are independent women – “even everything wherewith she hath bound her soul, shall stand against her” (Num. 30:10). In contrast, both single and married women, who are financially dependent, though they are permitted to take vows, must have those vows approved, at least tacitly, by the man protecting them. If a woman’s father or husband, upon hearing her pledge, does not react, “then all her vows shall stand, and every bond wherewith she hath bound her soul shall stand” (Num. 30:5). If the father or husband disapproves of the vow, however, he can prevent the woman from fulfilling it: “But if her father disallow her in the day that he heareth, none of her vows, or of her bonds wherewith she hath bound her soul, shall stand” (Num. 30:6).

The text does not make do with defining the woman’s legal status, and adds: “the Lord will forgive her, because her father disallowed her” (Num. 30:6). For what sin does God have to forgive her? After all, she has made a pledge, as she is permitted to do in accordance with the law on vows, and now, she is prevented from fulfilling it, also in accordance with the same law. So, what is there to be forgiven for?

To clarify this, let us consider another situation referred to in connection with this law: when a father or husband nullifies a woman’s vow, but does so belatedly. In such cases, the text specifies: “But if he shall make them null and void after that he hath heard them, then he shall bear her iniquity” (Num. 30:16). In the wake of my teacher Baruch J. Schwartz’s explanation of the biblical concept of bearing iniquity, a concept likening sin to a burden borne on the sinner’s shoulders, I propose interpreting the situation thusly: If the woman’s father or husband acts improperly, he must bear her sin – as if he himself sinned – instead of being forgiven by God.

Let us return to the issue of the nature of the sin that may be attributed to the woman – a sin for which God sometimes forgives her and which he sometimes imposes on the man. The Talmud offers a creative explanation: The woman intended to break her vow but, in the meantime, the man canceled it without her knowledge – in other words, she meant to sin but in effect did not. For having intended to sin, she requires forgiveness. Yet the text offers no such explanation, and the sages’ need to invent one proves that there is a legal-moral problem underlying the law in question.

The only answer possible is to say that, at the simplest level, the woman’s sin constitutes a desecration of her vow. Granted, the law does not allow her to keep her word and in effect forces her to break it; she is blameless. Thus, the Almighty promises in advance that he will forgive her: She does not ask for forgiveness, does not pray and does not bring a sacrificial offering in atonement. Perhaps she does not even know God forgives her. Nonetheless, she must be forgiven because she has desecrated something sacred and must be cleansed of her sin.

This may be a rather technical concept of sin and a rather narrow concept of forgiveness, but this approach is typical of texts that biblical scholars have identified as having been created by priestly groups. This kind of forgiveness is like the forgiveness you ask for if you arrive late for an important meeting through no fault of your own and because of something you did not anticipate. Nobody blames you or holds a grudge against you; nonetheless, you apologize and all present forgive you. Moreover, they forgive you precisely because you are blameless.

One of those present who awaited your arrival might even say, “No need to apologize.” According to this approach, if you came late on purpose or because of negligence, you would certainly have been expected to apologize. However, according to the Priestly Code, if you are to blame for your late arrival, you do not deserve forgiveness. Precisely when the person is not at fault, forgiveness is granted. Nonetheless, forgiveness is required, because sinning is not just an event on a chronological axis that can be completely forgotten, but is rather a stain and a heavy burden on the sinner’s shoulders – a burden that must be removed.